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Recession puts squeeze on museums

American museums are feeling pinched by the financial crisis, with some closing and others cutting staff and hours even as attendance is up.
Image: Chicago Museum of Science and Industry
Patrons make their way through the "Leonardo da Vinci: Man, Inventor, Genius" exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry in this photo taken May 18, 2006. American museums are feeling pinched by the financial crisis, with some closing and others cutting staff and hours even as the public clamors for affordable entertainment.John Gress / Reuters file
/ Source: Reuters

American museums are feeling pinched by the financial crisis, with some closing and others cutting staff and hours even as the public clamors for the affordable entertainment that these institutions offer.

After splurging on new facilities, expanded staffs and blockbuster exhibitions that drew millions of new visitors, museums are now confronted by shrunken endowments, less-wealthy benefactors and cuts in government funding, experts say.

The roughly 17,500 museums in the U.S. receive 850 million visitors annually.

Many wealthy donors and foundations, hurt by the steep stock market downturn, are expected to focus more of their charity on organizations that serve basic human needs like food and shelter in lieu of cultural outlets, said consultant Melissa Berman of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

"We hear that, on average, foundation endowments are down 30 to 35 percent — and then there are selected cases where the foundation trustees took way more risk and they're down even more," she said. "(And) foundations whose funds were invested in Bernie Madoff ... are just gone."

"I think it's a genuine crisis" in the museum world, said Stanley Katz of Princeton University, who monitors nonprofit organizations.

"These institutions have all expanded enormously over the last 30 years. From my point of view they've overexpanded," he added, citing the spread of new museum wings and curators to staff them that both carry permanent costs. "I think they're going to pay the price now because they always thought they were going to have more coming in than they did last year."

A survey of 40 major art museums by The Art Newspaper in December revealed budget cuts ranging from 5 percent to 20 percent, with deeper cuts contemplated for 2010.

Staff reductions and frozen salaries
Major museums have frozen recruitment and salaries, laid off receptionists and cafe staff, slowed acquisitions, and postponed or canceled expansion projects. Curatorial staff in charge of preserving and showcasing museum collections and overseeing exhibitions may also face layoffs — though that is likely to be a last resort.

The nine-person, full-time staff at the Tweed Museum of Art in Duluth, Minn., offered to cut their hours and salaries by 20 percent to save money, museum director Ken Bloom said.

"At least for the foreseeable future, the nature of what we do will be close to home. No programming with artists," he said, noting he canceled a summer photography show.

Elsewhere in the state, the Minnesota Museum of American Art and the Minnesota Center for Photography closed recently because of economic pressures.

Scores of small museums, as well as zoos, historic sites and public gardens are faced with shrunken museum and university endowments, and reduced private and local government aid.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles nearly had to close until billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad came to the rescue in 2008 with $30 million. The Detroit Institute of Arts, which has been running an annual deficit of at least $15 million, was confronted by "a looming crisis" that director Graham Beal said may force it to shrink in size. Even the well-funded Getty Trust that operates museums in southern California froze hiring and salaries.

"There may be more trimmed exhibitions. At certain places there may be shorter hours," said Michael Conforti, who leads the Association of Art Museum Directors and is the director of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. "From the public's perspective, they may not notice it as much as we might notice it."

But layoffs of curators and educators threaten permanent harm to the care of collections, Katz said.

Attendance is up
Meanwhile, the weak economy has boosted attendance at many museums, as people forgo traveling vacations and rediscover attractions near home.

"We've definitely noticed an uptick in attendance, as we did after 9/11. People want to connect with something stable" amid economic uncertainty, Conforti said.

"It's one of the balancing acts that museums are going through right now," said Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. "If you have increased attendance, that doesn't necessarily bring in a lot of revenue — 35 percent of museums are free and the average admission price is $6."

The cost of the average visitor is estimated at around $23, he noted.

The museum community condemns institutions that opt to sell pieces from their collections to shore up finances. The struggling National Academy Museum reignited a firestorm last month by selling two paintings to collectors for $15 million.

The New York museum was censored by Conforti's group, which dictates that proceeds from art sales can only go to purchase other artworks.

Bell's association more broadly says proceeds must be used to care for a museum's collection — but not to pay salaries or to repair the roof.

Museums that close may disseminate their collections, however. Bell urged major museums to do some "attic-cleaning" by selling some pieces gathering dust in storage so they can be viewed elsewhere — which could also raise needed funds.