The recession is hitting museums hard from coast to coast, forcing directors to boost admission fees, cut budgets and staff, and put ambitious projects on hold. But in a twist on the bleak economic news, museums are actually reporting an increase in attendance.
"It's not the worst of times for museums, curiously enough,'' Michael Conforti, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors, says. “Although all nonprofits and profits are struggling, we do have a curious place in this reality.''
A snapshot of the economic fallout isn't pretty:
-- The Las Vegas Art Museum slashed 30 percent of its budget, then closed its doors in February although its board called the closure “a hibernation'' until the economy rebounds.
-- The Art Institute of Chicago's endowment dropped 25 percent; to keep up with costs, it boosted the price of admission 50 percent to $18, prompting city aldermen to threaten to shut down the museum's free city water.
-- The Detroit Institute of Arts cut 20 percent of its staff, and Baltimore's Walters Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum both canceled upcoming exhibitions.
The recession has hit so hard that two museums have even done the unthinkable: In New York City, the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts, facing a $2.5 million debt, sold two artworks from its collection to cover operating costs. And in Boston, Brandeis University has proposed selling pieces of its collection, if needed, to boost the school's falling endowment.
The outcry to those decisions was immediate and fierce, underscoring the widespread belief that museums can't operate like ordinary businesses because of their unique role as temporary stewards of the world's greatest works of art.
While few museums would dare to sell off their treasures, cost-cutting and restructuring has become the mantra for nearly all institutions, from the largest and richest such as the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles with a current endowment of $4.6 billion (from a high of $6 billion in 2008) to historic house museums such as The Stickley Museum in Morris Plains, N.J., with a half million dollar budget.
The Art Institute of Chicago ended upper management raises and lowered gallery temperatures; it is on tap to open a new $300 million “Modern Wing'' in May, paid almost exclusively with private donations made before the economy soured. While museum officials said the hike in admission fees was not directly related to the economy, some Chicago aldermen said an increase in fees during a recession was unwise. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced it will cut 250 positions by summer and close 15 museum stores across the country.
But overall, museums are humming with activity and continuing to present major exhibitions. For now, budget cuts averaging anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent are not significantly affecting exhibitions and programs.
“The public may not see this level of cuts as significantly as the staff do themselves,'' said Conforti, who is also director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., known as The Clark.
At the Met, board chairman James Houghton has affirmed the museum's commitment to “remain a vibrant cultural resource for the widest possible audience.'' Spokesman Harold Holzer said, “there's no thought of changing hours, closing galleries, aborting the schedule'' in the wake of the budget crisis.
Institutions are dusting off more works from their permanent collections to cut costs. At any given time, most museums display only 1 percent of those collections. The Brooklyn Museum, for example, just opened a major exhibition of Coptic and Pagan sculpture, drawn largely from its holdings. It is also doing more exhibitions that will travel to other museums.
One of them, “To Live Forever,'' draws on its very extensive and important Egyptian collection, and is traveling to 12 museums.
“We have a whole slew of these on the road,'' said director Arnold Lehman, adding that they produce revenue for the museum in fees from participating institutions. The museum declined to say how much.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York will hold a major exhibition in September on Claude Monet's water lilies series -- all from its own collection. It said it does not disclose exhibition budgets for collection shows or special loan exhibitions.
On a recent Friday afternoon, the parking lot at The Clark was full for a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition based largely on the museum's own collection. The museum said it is the best attended show in the last eight years. Conforti said the museum found that the public's response and reviews of the show were just as good as for temporary installations.
Visitors can still see blockbuster shows, too. In May, the Met will feature a retrospective on Francis Bacon and in June an exhibition on the ancient treasures of Afghanistan.
In October, Atlanta's High Museum of Art will present an exhibition that explores Leonardo da Vinci's influence on sculpture; a version of the show will travel to the Getty. The museum said it planned the exhibition before the meltdown, but that it typifies the kind of installation it always envisions being part of its yearly exhibition schedule. It is currently planning future shows that will include major exhibitions.
And even though museums such as the Brooklyn and Art Institute of Chicago recently raised admissions, directors at many other museums where admission is free vow to keep it that way, including at the Getty. The free Cincinnati Art Museum recently went a step further and stopped charging for special exhibitions.
“We wanted to be able to share those exhibitions with as many as possible, especially in these tough economic times,'' said Cincinnati Art Museum Director Aaron Betsky, who has had to reduce the museum's budget by 10 percent and lay off seven people.
Ironically, it's the museums with the big endowments such as the Getty, which has seen a 25 percent drop in its investment portfolio, that are experiencing the most economic pain since endowments can fund as much as 70 percent of operating budgets. Less endowment-dependent museums also face budgetary shortfalls but the scenario varies from institution to institution. Generally, though, they tend to fare better as their operating budgets are largely driven by attendance and earning income.
For now, most museums are not retrenching their public programs -- concerts, lectures, educational and family events, many of which are free. Perhaps emblematic of the times, the turnout has been much larger in recent months.
At the Brooklyn Museum's free First Saturday evening events, turnout grew from 7,000 to 10,000 over the winter months. Lehman said he believed the high cost of baby-sitting during these challenging economic times has played a factor. “Parents happily bring their children to the museum and keep them up late,'' he said.
To increase their visibility and engage audiences, museums are increasingly using creative marketing techniques that include social networking and blogging sites on the Internet. The Brooklyn, long known for its innovative and sometimes controversial exhibitions, recently introduced a new membership tier aimed at 20- and 30-year-olds, and upgraded its wireless connections so visitors could listen to audio tours on their cell phones.
Not everyone is able to jump on the technology bandwagon. For the Milwaukee Art Museum, the bad economy has meant delaying the purchase of iPods and a building upgrade for cell phone and Wi-Fi reception.
And the downturn has put some expansion plans on hold, including at the Cincinnati Art Museum and St. Louis Art Museum. Fundraising has slowed for a new home for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland; the museum has put the building plan on hold until there are signs of an economic rebound.
But for some, there's a silver lining to the recession. A drop in construction costs means that the Cleveland Institute of Art will be able to break ground in May on a $50.3 million expansion. And the Miami Art Museum plans a groundbreaking by the end of the year for a new home for its collection.
In New York, the Met is reopening its American Wing in May after a two-year construction and renovation and is continuing work on a suite of galleries on Islamic art and for its Costume Institute. Meanwhile, The Indianapolis Museum of Art is going forward with the creation of a conservation science laboratory for the care and treatment of works of art in its collection. However, its September opening of a 100-acre art and nature park was postponed even though most of the funding for it had been secured.
“Better not to rush into an opening date that would have required more of the staff,'' said director Max Anderson.
While endowments are shrinking, institutions report that private individual giving for annual fundraising is being largely maintained. And despite budgetary problems, directors say the overall museum experience hasn't changed.
“What is significant is that we're performing our mission in a very special way in light of what people need at this time -- stability and continuity,'' Conforti said.
Speaker Silver Rises With Budget: Analysis
The leaders of New York's Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, emerged from a closed-door negotiation in the governor's chamber last week and faced reporters.
“Senator, are there any deals?''
Silver answered. Smith, to whom the question was addressed, listened. Gov. David Paterson stayed in his office.
What had been quietly known for years was clear in a moment: Albany is Silvertown.
Silver was a different guy this budget session. For more than a decade as part of New York's notorious three-men-in-a-room negotiations, he was the guy who mostly shrugged and intoned cryptic musings to questions.
Inside the meetings where billions of taxpayer dollars are spent and groundbreaking public policy is hatched, though, Silver was the master negotiator who won not by oratory or pounding tables, but by sitting back and folding his arms. He'd wait for those expending all that energy to ask him what he needed to sign on. Even then, Silver was just as likely to not to answer, frustrating governors even more.
Now Republican Gov. George Pataki is gone. Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a combative Democratic rival, is gone. Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, Silver's contemporary and most successful adversary, is gone.
So Silver, in office 33 years and speaker for 15, faces rookies in Smith and Paterson.
“Clearly, the speaker dominated this budget process,'' said Robert B. Ward, deputy director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government research center. “When you had Speaker Silver and Sen. Bruno, you had two leaders with a lot of experience, a lot of internal political security, and a lot of influence. Obviously, that is not true with the new Senate majority.''
Silver's wins in the last two weeks include a budget that will increase spending 8.7 percent when Paterson sought large cuts.
Silver also led long-sought efforts to dismantle the Rockefeller-era drug laws to send more nonviolent drug dealers and users to treatment instead of prison. He restored much of Paterson's cuts to health care and education and to New York City.
“I also think that a lot of what happened in the budget reflects the fact that the advocacy dollars and power are lined up more strongly than ever with the agenda that primarily is the Assembly's,'' Ward said.
Paterson, a year in office, defended himself Monday, saying 75 percent of the budget approved last week was in his December budget proposal to the Legislature. But most state budgets are more than 90 percent of what a governor proposes.
Yet it would be wrong to accept the breathless commentaries these days about how Silver has just now emerged as the most powerful figure in Albany, or Lord of Albany as a newspaper editorial derisively referred to him. Silver has always been a force and perhaps Albany's most powerful single force, by far, through this decade.
“When I was minority leader, you had to fight for anything you may get from him,'' said John Faso, leader of the Assembly Republicans from 1998 to 2002. “As someone who has been there the longest, and one of the longest serving speakers in New York history, he has a wealth of knowledge and a bunch of IOUs that are out there.''
Silver's ability to wait out his adversaries won him historic funding gains for his progressive agenda during the later Pataki years, after Pataki was ushered into office to whip big-spending Albany. Silver beat back popular New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg once on a proposed stadium on Manhattan's West Side, and again on a traffic congestion pricing plan.
“He's extremely frustrating, but you always respected that he was a very skillful and in command,'' said David Catalfamo, Pataki's former communications director. “At the end of the day, you have to have a lot of respect for what he's accomplished and his political acumen, whether you agree with him or not.''
But besides Silver's considerable personal skills, Catalfamo said the speaker's time has come. Silver's long-term goal of providing health care to more people and other traditional Democratic planks comes as New York is becoming even more Democratic. He's also able to evolve as needed, such as turning his early adversarial relationship with Bruno into an alliance to override scores of Pataki's vetoes on spending.
“I think the speaker is the transcendent political figure in New York at the moment, and has been for a period of time,'' Catalfamo said.
And much of the time, Silver has had the same enviable team. Where Silver has widely respected and longtime staffers like Dean Fuleihan who has spent a lifetime as a top fiscal adviser to Albany's most powerful leaders, Paterson is on his third chief of staff just over a year in office.
“The speaker has always been powerful,'' said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “But his institutional and experience advantage has put him in the driver's seat in the way he wasn't in the past. In the past, the chief tactic was to be the guy who said, `No,' and the deals that had to be worked out had to come to him.
“This year, it seems to me, that he really was in charge of crafting the final deals,'' Horner said.
Is it good or bad for New York to have an inscrutable lawyer who represents 125,000 people in lower Manhattan calling many of the shots for 19 million New Yorkers from Montauk to Niagara Falls?
“It depends on how you view the policies,'' Horner said. “If you are a New Yorker most concerned about the availability of services, it's probably good from your perspective. If you are concerned about taxation rates, then you probably have a different view.''