Economics Fairs Museums Switzerland

Charity begins abroad—or does it?

In the midst of austerity, Europe’s museums look to new sources of philanthropy

The Tate Americas dinner in New York in May. © Casey Fatchett Photography, 2013

When the Tate stepped up its fundraising in the US in 2007, some noses were put out of joint in New York. Among the “unfair” incentives, the Tate offered invitations to meet the then British prime minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street (a group photo by Annie Leibovitz was another inducement). Since then, despite the recession, the Gulf Stream of Transatlantic fundraising has continued to flow. In May, during Frieze New York, the Tate held its latest fundraising party in Manhattan’s historic James A. Farley Post Office building, attended by art-friendly celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker. The event’s five co-chairs are power donors to the arts, ranging from New York-based Estrellita Brodsky to Christen Wilson from Dallas. The British institution raised more than $2m for contemporary art acquisitions from the Americas that night—without inducements such as face-time with the Camerons (S.J.P. volunteered instead)—and no one raised a Botoxed eyebrow.

Meanwhile, the Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota, and the head of Tate Modern, Chris Dercon, who are both in Basel this week, have £43m to raise to complete the £215m Herzog & de Meuron-designed wing of Tate Modern by 2016, against a backdrop of diminished government funding. In 2010/11, the Tate’s total grant-in-aid was £56m, but with the coalition government’s austerity drive, it dropped to around £45m by 2011/12—a 19% cut.

The Tate’s predicament is shared by many institutions across Europe. While billions have been spent on, or are in the pipeline for, building projects, public money to run institutions is being reduced.

Shrinking welfare state

András Szántó, a consultant and contributor to The Art Newspaper, will chair “Museums and Austerity”, an Art Basel Conversation, tomorrow. Due to speak is Agustín Pérez Rubio, now a New York-based independent curator and formerly the director of Musac (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Castilla y León), who resigned partly in protest at the draconian cuts imposed on the young Spanish institution. Melbourne-born Suzanne Cotter will talk about her experience leading Serralves, the museum of contemporary art in Porto, Portugal. Marina Fokidis, the founding director of the Kunsthalle Athena, which opened in 2010, will speak about coping with the chronic situation in Greece.

“The protracted global economic crisis and resulting austerity measures [are] threatening the traditional system of generous welfare state support of cultural institutions,” Szántó says. “What will happen to Europe’s museums in the wake of the great recession? How can museums articulate a case for continued public and private funding?” are two of the questions he will be asking. “It takes a director with a strong will to come to terms with a world in which there is no financial safety net,” he says.

The example of the Tate, Centre Pompidou, State Hermitage Museum and others that are successfully tapping into “Big Philanthropy” in the US is understandably tempting for smaller institutions to follow. “When all else fails and people have run out of ideas,” Szántó says, “everyone says, ‘Let’s set up an American friends organisation.’” But is this really an option for a municipal museum lacking brand appeal or a rich diaspora community?

Max Hollein, the director of Frankfurt’s Städel Museum and Schirn Kunsthalle, has applied lessons learned in the US to fundraising in Germany. But he thinks that winning friends and influencing rich Americans is a short-sighted strategy at best. “Just because US institutions are based on private support doesn’t mean a museum elsewhere will trigger anything,” he says. “Funding always comes from a local perspective; you might have foreigners on a board but the individual is interested in funding something locally, whether it’s in New York, London or Paris.”

It may also be tempting for a collection-rich, cash-strapped European institution to forge partnerships with museums far and wide. “We collaborate a lot,” says Hollein, but with institutions like the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain. “It’s a different decision with exhibitions in Asia. Then it is more about building long-term relationships.”

Serralves shares exhibition costs with the likes of the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. Suzanne Cotter, its director, says that one of the challenges for directors and curators is that a new set of cultural/political skills is needed to work in a expanding “transnational” framework. “None of us was trained in the UN,” she says.

The Centre Pompidou is actively seeking partners abroad—not just in the Gulf and Asia, but increasingly in South America, too. Alain Seban, the Paris institution’s chief executive and director, is confident that the Pompidou “can take better advantage of assets such as our brand, our collection and our expertise, and graft the need to generate more revenues onto a strategy aimed at building a truly global museum”. This is partly prompted by cuts. The Pompidou suffered a 5% cut in its public subsidy in 2011 and another cut of 2% this year. When Seban took charge of the institution in 2007, the government provided 75% of its funding. “If public subsidies keep dropping, the ratio might plummet below 50%,” he says.

Political interference

Such cuts, while serious, are nowhere near as deep as those made to the budget of Musac, which led Pérez Rubio to resign in protest. He saw the budget halved, from €4.7m when he took charge to €2.1m. What forced him to leave was political interference rather than economics, he says. “It was impossible. The system is sick. I had money to do an exhibition and no one to organise it. I could not pay for a young curator to be a co-ordinator. I told a politician that it’s not logical. He said: ‘Agustín, politics is not logical.’” Pérez Rubio criticises politicians of the Left and Right for not doing more to encourage private support. “There’s still a lot of money in Spain, but rich people will not give to culture as they do in America as an [indirect] way to pay tax.”

Meanwhile, in Greece, the eurozone country worst hit by the economic crisis, the situation is so bad that Marina Fokidis thinks the time is wrong for museums even to be asking the state for more help. “We don’t want the visual arts to take money from pensioners, when they can’t even buy their medicine. We want visual arts by the pensioners. Why not? It’s culture. By not taking money from the state, or by taking only a minimum, it’s a gesture of solidarity in a very severe time that will be remembered.” She finds it discouraging that some of Greece’s leading collectors, whose philanthropy is benefiting the likes of the New Museum in New York and the Tate and the Whitechapel Gallery in London, are not doing more for Greek institutions. “It’s a Greek idiosyncrasy. People with new and old money, they only like something when it comes from outside the country. It’s not part of the culture to support the local. At the same time, some of the collectors like to have a very hands-on curatorial approach. So institutions find themselves in a difficult situation,” she says.

Fokidis says that a popular coping strategy—heading to the nearest bar—inspired the Kunsthalle Athena’s first exhibition, “The Bar”. She explains: “We wanted to recreate the methodology of a bar. We thought, ‘We have to bring these people in.’ Lots of young people are allowed to be here and hang out. If you ask locals about the Kunsthalle Athena, they will tell you, ‘There is art and we love it, but it’s also our place.’”


“If you increase your fixed costs (buildings etc) and then you get squeezed financially, the pressure hits your variable costs. In the long term, everything is variable; in the very short term, everything is fixed. In the medium term, the stuff that gets squeezed is your programming and exhibition budget, research, investment in professional development—all the stuff that makes you interesting. The ability of museums to play a vital part in the life of communities is compromised.

“Another challenge is the unfortunate phenomenon of ‘winner takes all’. If you are in the premier league, then you are in a virtuous circle of brand, access, visitation, donations, acquisition and global opportunity—but if you’re not, you get into a vicious circle. And it’s difficult to break into the premier league. But necessity is also the mother of invention, and financial trauma is also a tremendous spur to new ways of doing things—collection sharing, animating permanent collections, new approaches to public engagement and more pedestrian but critical functions like security and art handling.

“Turning calamity into opportunity requires leadership, courage and conviction. I remember a museum director in a German local authority once saying: ‘You don’t understand; it’s not that I am not paid to lead, it’s that I am paid not to lead.’ If that is the prevailing mindset, the most likely outcome is genteel decline and decreasing relevance to the communities these institutions were created to serve.”

Adrian Ellis founded AEA Consulting, and is the former director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York

“Museums and Austerity”, part of Art Basel Conversations, takes place on Thursday 13 June (10am-11.30am)

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