Picture darkens for city’s museums

Queens Museum of Art

Queens Museum of Art

From Crain’s New York

Picture darkens for city’s museums

As a way to save money, the Queens Museum of Art will no longer provide visitors with exhibition brochures. The American Museum of Natural History has canceled its popular Friday night jazz concerts. And the Brooklyn Museum is planning more exhibits around its own collections.

“We’re all scrambling to come to terms with how to deal with the weakening financial situation in a way that inflicts the least short- and long-term damage to our institutions,” says Arnold Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum. “There really are no bright spots I can see at this time.”

Hit with steep cuts in public funding, as well as declines in earned income and corporate and foundation grants, museums throughout the city are slashing budgets, laying off staff and doing everything else they can to operate with dwindling resources. For New York culture hounds, that will mean their favorite museums will have fewer—and less ambitious—shows and special programs, as well as shorter hours.

Some organizations are still reviewing their budgets for places to trim, and arts executives say every one of the city’s 60 museums is being squeezed. Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest museum in the country, recently implemented a hiring freeze.

Museums have weathered other recessions. But this time, funding cutbacks, the collapsing financial markets’ impact on endowments and sponsorships, and an expected slump in tourism have raised the threat to unprecedented levels.

“You have institutions that would have previously been held harmless with this because of their endowments,” says Antonio Quesada, executive director of the Cultural Institutions Group. “They are being equally affected, because their endowments have lost 20% to 45% of their value.”

The American Museum of Natural History has lost a quarter of its $620 million endowment, or about $170 million, and $3.1 million in city funding. Additionally, a number of companies canceled holiday parties at the museum—some of those businesses no longer even exist.

The museum is working to cut its $170 million budget by 10% and is eliminating about 10% of its 1,000-person staff through buyouts, attrition and layoffs. It also curtailed its education employment program, which hired high school and college students as tour guides.

“We want to have as little disruption to the visitor experience as possible,” says Charles McLean, senior vice president for communications and marketing. “But looking forward, we don’t know where this economy is going.”

Ironically, many institutions had record visitors last summer and during the holiday season. Those increases didn’t produce enough income to offset the losses, however, and tourism is expected to wane as the global recession deepens.

Impact could be felt for years

“We had our highest attendance month ever in July,” says Dan Wempa, spokesman for the New York Hall of Science in Queens. But now, he says, “much of the audience is coming during the free hours.”

The Hall of Science plans to slash its $13 million budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, by at least 15%.

Museum executives say the fiscal crisis could affect the size, type and schedule of their shows—many of which are organized years in advance—for a long time.

For example, the Queens Museum’s current exhibit, Queens International 4, is a biennial that was supposed to open last year. But officials delayed the launch until Jan. 24 because of budget constraints.

“We could have done the $200,000 version or the $50,000 version,” says Tom Finkelpearl, director of the Queens Museum. “This show cost $60,000. The public doesn’t know what it’s not getting.”

Mr. Finkelpearl says that the museum will most likely be forced to cancel a number of popular education and senior programs next year.

So far this year, the Queens Museum, which had a $4.5 million budget in 2008, has lost $460,000 in city funding and has received bad news from a number of banking sponsors. It also recently learned that one of its important contributors had invested with Bernard Madoff.

Mr. Finkelpearl has cut four staffers and implemented a mandatory two-week furlough. He himself took a month off without pay. The losses have been heavy, but he says 2010 will be much worse.

“I went into a board meeting with my finance committee and a trustee said, ‘You’re not being pessimistic enough,’ ” Mr. Finkelpearl says. “Now, all the funding for next year’s exhibitions is drying up. [People] will see a big difference.”

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