Friday, March 20, 2009
The New York Times reports that New York museums throughout the boroughs have felt the economic pinch and have had to make various adjustments including cutting back programs and laying off workers. The article reports that while these are tough times for cultural institutions all around, they are particularly hard on those in New York City’s outer boroughs, which lack the foot traffic, tourism concentration, and cachet of Manhattan. Regardless, the arts organizations are making the adjustments necessary to keep their doors open and trying to maintain business as usual. As important anchors in their neighborhoods, cultural institutions hope they can count on the loyalty of locals, for whom a trip to the museum is fast becoming one of the few affordable activities. Because museums outside Manhattan tend not to be as dependent on tourists, their attendance shows less of a drop-off.
With corporate donations down, public funds cut and endowments depleted, the challenges facing the museums now are particularly formidable. “The real question for everybody is how to deal with the funding picture,” said Kate D. Levin, the city’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, adding that museums were facing challenges “not because they’re not in Manhattan.” Flushing Town Hall saw its city allocation, including City Council funds, reduced by 41%. Cuts from other city agencies forced the hall to eliminate after-school programs and elder services.
There are bright spots. Those organizations that already had building projects financed and under way, for example, have benefited from a decline in construction costs. The Queens Museum of Art had trouble generating contractor interest in its renovation project seven months ago, but the bid it reissued in December received a very different response. “They were knocking down our door,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the museum’s executive director. “Frankly, I don’t think we could have built the building if the economy didn’t go south.” The Queens Museum had raised the $48 million for its renovation before the recession hit. However, one of the main contributors had invested with Bernard L. Madoff, who is accused of running a Ponzi Scheme that hurt nonprofit institutions, as well as other investors. The Queens Museum is extending exhibitions in order to program fewer new ones, has eliminated 7 of its 40-member staff through layoffs and attrition and will decrease its annual operating budget by about $1 million.
If there is any important lesson to be learned from all this, arts groups say, it is in part the importance of building strong boards and diversifying financing sources. Flushing Town Hall, for example, gets 48% of its $1.2 million annual budget from the city. The Bronx Museum, which said its financing from city agencies was down about 60% between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2010, has always relied on public funding from a variety of government sources.