- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

NEW YORK | 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 canceled upcoming exhibitions.

The recession has hit so hard that the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts in New York City, 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 in response 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 have 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 for 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.

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 Mr. Conforti, who also is 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 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.

”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. 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 collection. The museum said it is the best-attended show in the past eight years. Mr. 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. In May, the Met will feature a retrospective on Francis Bacon, and in June, will present 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 economic meltdown, but that it typifies the kind of installation it always envisions being part of its yearly exhibition schedule. It is planning future shows that will include major exhibitions.

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.

AP reporters Carrie Antlfinger, Lisa Cornwell, Jay Lindsay, Lisa Orkin, Sophia Tareen and Betsy Taylor contributed to this report.

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