Issue #158  3/15/2009
Congress Votes Some Additional Funds to Nea, But Is It Enough to Help Beleagered Art Museums and Non-Profits?

By Alex Novak

The U.S. Congress passed the Stimulus Bill after the House-Senate conference added some funding for the arts through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) back into the stimulus bill at its original levels ($50 million) "to fund arts projects and activities which preserve jobs in the non-profit arts sector threatened by declines in philanthropic and other support during the current economic downturn". President Obama signed it into law the following Tuesday in Denver, CO. This brings the total budget for the NEA to $145 million.

Despite the "victory", one noted art blogger, Tyler Green, put it in perspective: "How small is the NEA's $145 million annual appropriation? The National Gallery of Art and the Kennedy Center receive more federal dollars through the normal federal budgeting process than the NEA does. The NEA is supposed the be the primary arts protagonist for the American people, yet a single arts philanthropy, the J. Paul Getty Trust, spent 50% more than the NEA did in the Getty's most recently reported year. (Imagine if one charitable foundation spent more than the federal government does on environmental research. It would rightly be a national embarrassment.)

"The self-perpetuating NEA debate is a continuing admission of defeat by both progressives and cultural organizations. The right won: The NEA is timid and ancillary. Progressives have been cowed into failing to substantially supporting one of their most reliable constituent groups: Culture lovers and workers."

Green is quite correct, especially considering the magnitude of the effect that the economic crisis has had on art museums and art non-profits. Keep in mind that most museums are limited by their charters to a set percentage of their endowments that they can use for general operating funds. These instead of going up as they normally do, dropped precipitously. Here are just a few of the museums feeling the pinch, according to various recent news reports:

-- Faced with a decline in their operating budget and a shrinking endowment, the trustees of Brandeis University voted to close the Rose Art Museum and sell its collection to help shore up the university's finances. Although Brandeis's president has subsequently said the announcement was "misinterpreted", many in the community expect the program to be gutted by the university.

--The Getty, cited above, won't have that much to throw around this year, considering that its endowment dropped by roughly 25% in a mere six months. The institution had almost $6 billion at the end of its 2008 fiscal year on June 30, 2008, but the endowment has dropped to about $4.5 billion since then.

--The Indianapolis Museum of Art will cut its personnel by 10%, including the elimination of 15 full-time and six part-time positions; additionally, it said that 10 senior staff members including its director and chief executive would donate 3% of their salaries back to the museum. Other operating funds will also be sliced. The museum, which offers free general admission, has seen its endowment decline to $281 million from $382 million since the fall; it receives less than 1% of its budget from local and state government.

-- The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore laid off seven staff members and eliminated nine unfilled positions, and would also freeze salaries and most new hiring, as well as furlough staff. It also canceled a coming exhibition it had planned with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Additionally, the museum said it would close its Hackerman House annex on Mount Vernon Place on weekdays. During 2008, the museum said, its endowment declined by 27%, and it is facing reductions in city and state funding.

-- The Philadelphia Museum of Art will eliminate 30 positions through layoffs and attrition and cut the pay of its senior staff in an effort to reduce its operating budget by $1.7 million to $52 million. The museum is also contemplating raising its admission fees, though that would ultimately require the approval of the city.

--The High Museum of Art in Atlanta announced a 7% reduction of its staff, the elimination of five full-time and three part-time positions, and pay cuts for its remaining employees. The museum said the reductions and other cost-cutting efforts would save $1.4 million and reduce its operating budget to $23.7 million.

--The Detroit Institute of Arts said it would lay off about 20% of its staff, or 63 of its 301 employees, in an effort to cut $6 million from its $34 million annual budget. The layoffs would affect 56 full-time and seven part-time employees from across the museum's staff; the museum has already canceled planned exhibitions on the Baroque period and the artwork of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Jim Dine.

-- New York's Metropolitan decided to close 15 of its satellite shops around the country. The museum also imposed a hiring freeze and is curtailing staff travel and entertainment, as well as the use of temporary employees. It is also in the process of a museum-wide assessment of its expenses to see how it can further reduce costs. It more recently announced that it would lay off more than 25% of its merchandising staff, cutting 74 jobs in addition to 53 already made since last year. The Met also warned that it would probably have to cut its overall work force by this summer by 10%, which is about 250 full- or part-time jobs, including some in curatorial and other key departments. The museum's endowment, which provides about 30% of its annual operating revenue, has decreased nearly 28% since last summer to $2.1 billion from $2.9 billion. Membership and attendance is down too, in large part because of falling tourism.

-- New York's Guggenheim Museum has slashed 10% of its operating budget.

--The Denver Art Museum plans a 15% budget cut across the board.

-- MassMoCA in North Adams, MA is cutting operating funds by 8%, with some staff firings also planned.

-- The Austin Museum of Art shelved plans to build a new $23-million branch in downtown Austin after Houston-based developer Hines Interests withdrew its plans to purchase land from the museum. The land sale would have funded a new museum on the eastern half of a site on Guadalupe and Fourth streets, and Hines planned to build a 30-story office tower on the western half.

-- Following news that it is shelving renovation and expansion plans, the Cincinnati Art Museum has also had to lay off seven members of its staff, mainly positions involved in the multi-million-dollar capital fundraising campaign for the building project. Director Aaron Betsky says no department curators have been laid off and that the staff cuts will allow the museum to continue with its current operating and exhibitions schedule unchanged.

-- The Las Vegas Art Museum has joined the growing roster of cultural institutions that have suspended their operations in the face of a weakening economy. The museum, which since 1997 has operated from the city's Sahara West Library, lost its executive director, Libby Lumpkin, in December; she resigned when the museum's board said that its budget cuts would result in reduced salaries and possible layoffs.

What makes the art museums' and non-profits' situations even worse is that many top foundations which normally grant funds to the museums were nearly wiped out in the various stock swindles, such as the Madoff, Nicholson and Stanford funds. Even those that escaped relatively unscathed from the frauds, were still clobbered by the diving stock markets. The nonprofit group Americans for the Arts estimates 10,000 arts organizations could actually disappear in 2009.

The federal stimulus funds will go to the states and municipalities where the next battle will be fought. Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress inserted this exception to the states when they added the funds: "That matching requirements under section 5(e) of such Act shall be waived." That means the arts could still be cut at the state level in nearly half of what would normally be expected. Considering the economic condition of many states, this change was not unsurprising.

I appreciate all your help in letting your representatives know that the Arts have economic consequences and are important to us as citizens (of the world for those international members of this group). Please thank the ones that voted to add this back and remember to hold the others accountable at the next elections.

Please encourage your state and local legislators to properly fund the arts at that level.

If you want to continue this battle for recognition of museums and the arts, you should go here: http://www.speakupformuseums.org/index.htm , or join our revised group page on Facebook (Grassroots Action Group for Funding and Support of the Arts) at http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/group.php?gid=62275347852 . I will try to update this page and add state and local initiatives that will need your support. Non-profit arts groups that have action-oriented needs for support, please post these projects up on our wall, but also feel free to email me details at: info@iphotocentral.com . I could also use some very connected volunteers to join the group as officers and even administrators, so please let me know if you are interested.