Don’t kill the goose
We suggest the city looks for other sources of revenue, allowing cultural institutions to continue to do what we do best
By Malcolm Rogers. Comment, Issue 231, January 2012
Published online: 01 January 2012
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is one of the world’s great cultural institutions, whose impact on the quality of life of its city is immeasurable. But the generosity of spirit that built this great museum is being buffeted by a surprising entity—the City of Boston itself—which has put in motion a plan to drastically increase the “voluntary” contributions cultural institutions make through its payment in lieu of taxes (Pilot) programme (see p13). When civic leaders look to cultural organisations as a source of revenue, rather than as an invaluable resource for the communities they serve, it has dire implications nationwide.
Since the MFA opened its doors on 4 July 1876, it has been almost entirely privately funded. Unlike our peer museums—the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, which receive millions of dollars in financing from their cities—we are not funded by our municipality. Thankfully, Boston is a profoundly philanthropic city and the MFA has been supported in good times and difficult times by many committed individuals, foundations and corporations who understand the benefits of a world-class museum.
As a charitable organisation, the MFA is exempt by law from state and federal taxes. However, the programme developed by Boston’s Pilot task force circumvents this status by recommending payments for important city functions, such as the fire and police services. To the best of our knowledge the MFA is the only major art museum in the country that makes payments in lieu of taxes. We have participated in this revenue initiative since 1988 when the museum opened its parking garage. We contributed $55,000 in 2010/11. The proposed increases would raise our payments to $250,000 in 2011/12 and to $1,025,000 in four years. The new Pilot formula sets the payment at 25% of the estimated tax a cultural organisation would have paid if it were a taxable entity, less a 50% community service credit. In devising this plan the task force never sought the input of any of the city’s cultural institutions.
Since the museum’s founding, based on the principle of “enlightened enjoyment for all”, the MFA has made great works of art directly accessible to a wide variety of people. As a vibrant cultural and community resource, the MFA welcomes everyone—from residents of Boston’s neighbourhoods to visitors from around the globe. We provide countless educational opportunities that can literally change lives, especially for young people and families. Highlights include free museum admission for students from 67 Boston public schools, free community days, free Wednesday evenings, free admission for those aged 17 and under, subsidised admission for students from 19 city colleges and universities, paid internships for Boston teenagers, and passes to the museum available at Boston Public Library branches.
These quantifiable annual services and benefits, provided at no cost to the city, total approximately $2.1m. Non-quantifiable benefits include community arts programming for about 20,000 children and teachers, free workshops for educators, and partnerships with local hospitals that offer art-making activities for young patients.
The museum is also an economic driver in Boston. It is a major tourist destination for the region, further enhanced by our Art of the Americas Wing, which has drawn 1.5 million visitors since its debut in November 2010, and by the museum’s recently opened Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art.
Our exhibitions have provided a special incentive for people to visit Boston, as evidenced by the 372,000 who came to see “Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass”, in 2011. Many of these visitors shopped, dined, used public transport and stayed overnight in the city, reinforcing the museum’s key role in Boston’s economy.
In addition, the MFA is a fiduciary of the public trust. When donors make contributions to the museum it is with the understanding that we will manage their funds carefully and use them for their intended purposes. Despite our fundraising success, which supported the building of the Art of the Americas Wing, our budget is limited, especially in light of the economic downturn. The Pilot scheme will simply mean cuts in our outreach programmes and a reduction in jobs (40% of the museum’s workforce of 708—282 people—are residents of Boston).
While we are appreciative of Mayor Thomas Menino’s support of Boston’s cultural institutions through the years and mindful of the financial challenges he faces, we suggest the city looks for other sources of revenue, allowing cultural institutions to continue to do what we do best—serve the public. Implementation of the Pilot programme has the potential to impact museums nationwide. To preserve a quality of life that enriches the community we need to foster a culture in Boston and across America that invests in cultural institutions, rather than taxes them.
The writer is the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
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