Museums USA

Troubles deepen for museums: layoffs, budget cuts and cancelled shows

No end in sight as pain continues for institutions across the country

NEW YORK.The financial crisis reached US museums in force during the first quarter of 2009. The storm clouds of the recession that had been gathering since last autumn unleashed a deluge of layoffs, budget reductions, salary cuts and cancelled exhibitions as museums across the country sought to rein in deficits and work out budgets for the coming year.

The portfolio of the wealthiest arts institution, the Getty Trust in Los Angeles, lost $1.5bn in the second half of 2008, falling to $4.5bn with additional losses since. The trust—which operates two museums and conservation, research and grant-making programmes—will cut 25% from its 2010 budget, reducing operations from $284m to $216m. President and chief executive James Wood says the cuts will affect staffing, programming and operations, and that “the Getty’s acquisitions budgets will be reduced substantially”.

The Metropolitan Museum’s endowment, which generated a third of the institution’s $220m budget last year, shrunk from $2.9bn to less than $2.1bn. The loss of income would yield deficits of “$20m to $30m in four years” if not corrected by expense reductions, says a spokesman. Major cuts have come from a restructuring of the flagging retail business. The museum has closed eight of its 23 stores nationwide—making 127 merchandising positions redundant—and plans to close another seven. The goal is $10m in staff reductions for the coming financial year, says a spokesman, adding that another 10% of the museum’s 2,500 employees will be let go before 1 July.

As a result of the banking crisis, the Seattle Art Museum has lost $5.8m in annual rental and related income from its tenant Washington Mutual. J.P. Morgan acquired the failed bank last autumn, but in February backed out of the lease on eight floors in the museum’s tower. J.P. Morgan provided a five-year $10m grant to help bridge the gap, which is heightened by a 27% drop in the endowment. “We need a tenant in there as soon as possible,” says a spokeswoman.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is hard hit, laying off 20% of its 301 employees and trying to cut $6m from its $34m budget for the coming year. The 56 full-time and seven part-time positions include six curatorial positions. “People are stunned,” director Graham Beal told local reporters.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art has cut 10% of its staff and 15% of its operating expenses, and slowed the pace for opening its Fairbanks Art and Nature Park. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, a project of Wal-Mart billionaire Alice Walton, has rescheduled its opening from 2010 to 2011. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is cutting as much as 15% from its 2010 budget, has delayed renovation of its Lacma West building. The Whitney Museum has cut 15% from its 2009 budget, but denies that the recession has affected plans for a new branch in the Meatpacking District of Manhattan’s West Side.

A number of museums have scaled back costly travelling exhibitions. Philadelphia is postponing “The Crown of Aragón: the Art of Barcelona, Mallorca, Valencia and Zaragoza”, slated for spring 2010; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has cancelled “Surreal Things” from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum; and the Walters Art Museum cancelled a 2010 exhibition of Jean-Léon Gérôme planned with Paris’s Musée d’Orsay and the Getty because it would have resulted in a net loss of $300,000, says director Gary Vikan.

The trustees of Brandeis University appear intent on selling works from the school’s Rose Art Museum to raise operating funds for the struggling university. The chief financial officer says funding is in place for two years, but the trustees have requested object files from the museum and insiders say they plan to sell through Christie’s. Rose director Michael Rush says 90% of the works have no donor restrictions. He and the rest of the museum staff are to be laid off in June.

There were significant layoffs at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, the High Museum in Atlanta, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the newly opened Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia.

The Philadelphia Art Museum has made 30 positions redundant (7% of its staff) and interim chief executive Gail Harrity was among the senior staff taking salary cuts of 5% to 10%. Directors at both the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Centre across town also agreed to salary cuts.

The Art Institute of Chicago, Philadelphia Art Museum and Brooklyn Art Museum have increased admission fees—with Chicago’s jumping 50% to $18.

Collaborations may be a way forward. Five of 63 museum directors surveyed by the American Association of Museums say they are considering mergers with other institutions or groups. (Their identities were not disclosed.) But several said they were considering closing. The national advocacy group Americans for the Arts estimates that around 10% of the 100,000 US non-profit arts organisations will close in the next few years. But while a number of regional performing arts groups have shut their doors, in the visual arts sector only the Las Vegas Art Museum and the tiny Minnesota Museum of American Art have closed.

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