The Collective Stupidity: The Museum Bubble

By Peter Walsh

The Rose Art Museum -- Still on the Chopping Block

The Rose Art Museum -- Still on the Chopping Block

Almost overlooked in the wider, world financial crisis this spring is the precipitous decline, and perhaps impending fall, of the American art museum. All of a sudden, the money just isn’t there for them any more.

Veteran art journalist Jason Kaufman of The Art Newspaper, among others, reports on the damage.

The Getty Trust, which operates the two Getty Museums in the Los Angeles and provides support to museum-related research and other museums, lost $1.5 billion in the second half of last year and more since. The Trust, whose legendary endowment from oil billionaire J. Paul Getty made it the wealthiest art institution in the nation, says it will cut 25% from its 2010 budget.

Over on the east coast, the endowment of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has shrunk by more than a quarter, to less than $2.1 billion. Within four years, the museum anticipates annual deficits of $20-30 million.

Hefty operating deficits have become the rule at most American museums. To cope, staff layoffs as high as 20%, salary and budget cuts, exhibition cancellations, and/or large admission hikes have been announced at museums in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Minneapolis, Denver, San Diego, Indianapolis, and Baltimore, among other cities. More cuts are pending elsewhere.

Some institutions are paying the ultimate price by going out of business. Last February, the 59-year-old, recently rising Las Vegas Art Museum gave up its financial struggles and closed its doors. The venerable Wadsworth Atheneum of Hartford, one of the country’s oldest public art institutions, has been circling the drain for several years now. And Brandeis University, plagued by its own fiscal problems, is moving ahead with controversial plans to close its Rose Art Museum and then sell its outstanding collection of late 20th-century art at auction to help cover the school’s endowment losses. The Rose’s small staff will be laid off next month.

Kaufman reports that “several” of 63 museum directors surveyed by the American Association of Museums (AAM) are considering “closing their doors.” At the AAM Annual Meeting in Philadelphia last month, the Philadelphia Inquirerreported that “money” was “topic A, B. C. and D.”

The museums themselves are putting a brave face on things. But, the fact is, the financial models that have supported the American art museum have been shattered, perhaps even more thoroughly and finally, than those of the newspaper trade.

Unlike in Europe, where most major art museums are, in effect, a branch of the central government, supported primarily by national taxes, all but a handful of art museums in the United States rely on a patched-together system of financial “streams” to keep them afloat. These include (at the wealthier institutions) endowments, large gifts of art or cash from wealthy donors (many of them art collectors themselves), sponsorships from corporations, “earned income” from admissions fees, restaurants, museum shops, memberships, and sometimes real estate, government and foundation grants, tuition dollars for college and university art museums, and, in some places like New York and Chicago, subsidies from local property taxes through municipal parks departments.

The problem now is that all these streams have suddenly gone dry.

Facing a drop in retail sales, the Metropolitan has closed eight of its 23 branch museum stores and plans to close another seven. In Seattle, the Seattle Art Museum lost $5.8 million in annual rent and other income when Washington Mutual, tenant of eight floors of the museum’s tower, collapsed. J.P. Morgan, which acquired the failed bank, refused to honor the leases, though it has offered some financial assistance to “help bridge the gap” at the museum.

In the Windy City, an angry Chicago Park District recently cut a pending, hefty $6 admissions hike at the Art Institute of Chicago by a third. The rate increase, originally 50%, putting the fee among the nation’s highest, was apparently needed to support a large new wing that opened to the public this week.

And rich angels, long the salvation of art museums, are no longer necessarily hovering in the wings. Over at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Ruth and Carl Shapiro, major donors to museum projects and fund drives, including the expansion now under construction, lost much of their apparent wealth when Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was exposed. Their story is typical of many whose wealth built new galleries and endowed curatorships.

Similarly, other reliable supporters of art museums— universities and private foundations—have seen their own endowments shrink by 20-30% and their budgets turn red. In the climate of survival, supporting expensive campus museums, like the Rose at Brandeis, seem like a lower priority.

Finally, corporate sponsorships have been dropping everywhere as the companies themselves teeter on the brink.

Ironically, the economic trends of the last twenty years, which transferred vast amounts of wealth from the American middle class to the top 2% of its population, benefited the nation’s art museums. Many of the country’s new millionaires and billionaires, including Wal-Mart widow Alice Walton, took to collecting art, supporting local art museums, or (like Walton) building their own.

A conjunction of corporate and private money helped fund large museum expansions, which were often dubbed the “secular cathedrals” of the 21st century. Shiny new buildings and wings by famous architects opened to waves of publicity. Attendance surged and with it earned income at new shops and restaurants.

Now, with the sudden turn of the economy against them, many art museums find that their eyes were bigger than their shrinking budgets. All that new floor space came at a price they couldn’t afford. And, like any business, shops and restaurants can lose bundles of money as well as rake it in.

Though economic downturns can actually help individual artists and small, low-budget arts organizations, who benefit from dropping rents and falling prices, large, high-overhead institutions like art museums can certainly suffer.

Museums, in particular, like to portray themselves as “forever.” Most of us take them at their word. But museums have always been far more fragile and vulnerable to outside political and economic forces than they usually like to admit. Just ask Iraq.

The bottom line: there will almost certainly more art institutions cutting back or even folding altogether in the coming months, their professional staffs shrunken or pink slipped, their once public collections sometimes returned to private hands. Before we really notice it, a significant chunk of America’s cultural heritage may disappear.

As Joni Mitchell puts it, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.”

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