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The Upside to Cutting Down

Category: Museum Magazine

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

Thirty percent of staff eliminated. Endowments evaporated overnight. Opening hours shortened. Operating budgets tightened. Over the past year U.S. museums have had to face a harsh new reality, one in which furloughs and frozen 401Ks often represent the best-case scenario. And these institutions were already lean: Cutting the fat, in museums’ case, usually means hacking off a hunk of the meat.

But while resources have dwindled, responsibilities have not. In the face of closures and cancellations, museums are still tasked with upholding their missions and preserving the visitor experience. They have thus had to get creative with what’s left and reprioritize what’s necessary to survive—temporary fixes that, in some cases, are leading to permanent changes.

Even the museums with the biggest names and heftiest bankrolls haven’t been spared. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), holder of one of the nation’s largest art collections, announced in February that it would reduce its staff size by one-fifth as part of an effort to carve $6 million out of its $34 million annual operating budget. Another shock rippled through the field in April when the Getty Museum reported a loss of more than 200 positions and nearly a quarter of its budget. And in June, the Metropolitan Museum of Art followed suit, revealing that its workforce had been pared down by about 14 percent—357 positions—since January.

As with most museums facing cuts, maintaining appearances for visitors’ sake has become these institutions’ top priority. “What we did in this reduction was keep the same profile of DIA as a major, universal, full-service museum,” says Director Graham Beal. “As far as the public is concerned, we look the same.” To accomplish this, DIA implemented its reductions in ways that “came as a surprise to some people,” Beal notes. There were almost no cuts made in security, maintenance and visitor services, for example. “That was a really big difference for us. Areas that in the past have been held as absolutely sacrosanct and regarded as the core of the museum—that still are, really; the curators and conservators—they were affected in ways that the public, the visitors, were not.”

Preserving the visitor experience also underlay the Met’s decision to eliminate staff versus, say, closing galleries. “The raison d’être of the museum,” spokesman Harold Holzer told Museum magazine, “is to provide enlightenment to the public at the highest levels of quality and access, and we take the mission particularly seriously in tough times, when inspiration is just what people need.”

While large, established museums may have more of a reputation to uphold, small museums are striving to fulfill their own pledges to the public. The Ella Sharp Museum of Art and History in Jackson, Mich., halved its staff in January—from 18 employees to nine—and sliced $400,000 out of its budget. “We’re down to just enough money, just enough blood in our veins, to keep us functioning,” observes Charles Aymond, the museum’s executive director since April.

Among the positions lost were the heads of development and merchandising; their duties have since been “thrown onto everybody,” says Aymond. But he maintains that the museum is managing to remain relatively seamless as far as the community is concerned, thanks to extra efforts by the remaining employees. They have taken a hands-on approach to ensure that museum functions go on as planned. For example, Aymond notes that two staffers cooked all the nosh for a dance at the Ella, as the museum is known locally, to mark the opening of its summer show on John James Audubon.

In some cases, though, museums have been forced to let the public glimpse their inner strain. The Walters Art Museum announced in a February press release that it was restructuring “to preserve its position as one of the preeminent museums in the nation and retain its long-term financial stability.” Along with layoffs, furloughs and a salary freeze, the museum was forced to cancel a major exhibition, for which it would have partnered with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Getty. The show would have been impressive, says Rob Mintz, associate curator of Asian art, but was simply too expensive to put on.

Not only are visitors affected by such a change in plans, but this kind of loss compounds the toll that layoffs and paycuts take on staff morale. Learning that the show would be taken off the roster was “a shock,” recalls Mintz. “We’d been living quite comfortably for several years, programming and projecting forward, expecting to be engaged in a wide diversity of different projects. . . . It was a real blow to realize that essentially our goals were being restrained.”

Mintz also had to cope with the museum’s decision to close the Hackerman House, which exhibits Asian art, to the public on weekdays. “It’s the entirety of the collection that I oversee. Initially, to put it bluntly, it really pissed me off to think that we’d have to close galleries that I invested time and energy in organizing and presenting,” he says. “Emotionally it’s really difficult, but it’s something I think I’ve just had to rationalize and come to understand as one of the costs of the economic downturn.”

In fact, Mintz says the money struggles have made him and his colleagues “more rational” all around. “It’s sort of a reality check. It calls upon us to ask, ‘Are we really fulfilling the goals we have set out for ourselves?’ If we can’t afford to do it, it doesn’t serve anybody.”

“Efficiency” has become a buzzword throughout museums, as staff are pressed to stretch each dollar—or not spend any at all. Budgets for non-essentials, such as business travel or printing and mailing, were among the first on many institutions’ chopping blocks. “My travel budget to Asia is extremely small now. It was a luxury I truly enjoyed, but now it’s something I have to work around,” Mintz says. Like many of his peers, he is employing cheaper ways to reach colleagues and visitors, connecting primarily by phone, e-mail or “any kind of tool whereby I don’t have to purchase plane tickets and hotel rooms.” A heightened focus on e-communication also benefits visitors who can no longer afford a trip to the brick-and-mortar museum. “We’ve put lot of effort into upgrading our online presence in terms of museum education and outreach to schools, to groups that may not have the money to come and see us,” Mintz explains.

Adam Lerner had to think efficiently from the get-go. He took the helm of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver in April, after the board had decided to chop the museum’s FY 2009 budget by 17 percent and eliminate five positions. The announcement was “painful” for the staff, Lerner says—as it must have been for a new director eager to start implementing new plans.

Lerner’s solution: home in on what’s most important, and forget about what’s less so. From his previous job—founder and executive director of the Lab at Belmar, an experimental arts space in Lakewood, Colo.—Lerner brought to the MCA the popular Mixed Taste series: tag-team lectures on two unrelated topics, such as Jewish mysticism and hot sauce. The program is labor-intensive, and with an already strained staff, something else had to go. Lerner looked toward SmART Brunch Sundays, a family-oriented program that he says had been underutilized. To maximize on expenses and staff hours, the museum got rid of the brunches and instead introduced a family element to Mixed Taste.

“Now we have the Mixed Kids program, so while the adults are listening to a program on arctic ice-caps and absinthe, the kids are listening to a program on polar ice-caps and green fairies,” Lerner says. The combination seems to be working: The series has been selling out. “By eliminating a program and actually attaching it onto another program that we’ve decided to invest in, we focused more of our energy on what’s having an impact and wound up being more successful with our visitors.”

This approach has worked in marketing other MCA programs as well. “We used to say at the museum that ‘there’s always something new,’ and would list all of those things and try to invest in all of the different things that we’re doing. But because of the limited resources, we are now focusing on communicating to our visitors the one thing we think is most important at the time,” Lerner explains. And, he reports, visitors have responded well to the pared-down approach. “We realized it actually built more excitement around that one thing. Our audience, we’ve realized, has become really excited about whatever program that they understand we have prioritized.”

But how does a museum maintain the visitor experience when guests are turned away at the door? People had grown accustomed to being able to access the Bishop Museum in Honolulu 364 days a year (the exception: Christmas Day). In May, however, the museum was forced to close to the public on Tuesdays and to cease public hours at its Hawaii Maritime Center, along with reducing 19 staff positions and moving to a 36-hour workweek.

The break has actually benefited both visitors and the museum in the long run, maintains Timothy Johns, director and CEO, in that it has allowed staff to catch up on “a lot of the work on the exhibits and around the campus that would normally be hard to do because of the constant public presence.” Having a day off has been so useful, in fact, that he is considering making the change permanent. “I think probably, when we made the decision, the hope was that it was a temporary adjustment until we see a recovery in general economy … but now I think we would have to evaluate the benefits of that once we get there,” he explains.

In other ways, the Bishop is simply going along as planned. In August, it finished the restoration of Hawaiian Hall, the institution’s first major renovation project in a century. “We believe the financial challenges that we face at this point are temporary and we are in the business of perpetuity. We’re going to be telling these stories for a very long time,” Johns says. “It made more sense that we completed this renovation, knowing that in the end we will turn the corner on these economic challenges. . . . It didn’t make sense to make permanent decisions that would affect the long-term success of the museum and its mission.”

A similar philosophy is held at the Miami Art Museum, which revealed in April that it was reducing its operating costs by 10 percent, instituting one-week furloughs for full-time staff and scaling back its temporary exhibition schedule, among other cutbacks—but that it would continue with plans for its $220 million expansion. The museum expects to break ground in October.

Director Terence Riley calls the downturn an “ideal time” to proceed with such projects. “We’re really pushing hard to get going so we can take advantage of depressed or lowered construction costs,” he explains. “Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building—both were built during the Depression. I have to think that one of the reasons they were so beautifully done is because it was possible at that time to get really fantastic work [at discount rates]. I think there are opportunities now that will not exist five years from now.”

Strained resources have also opened doors between museums, some of which are turning to each other for help. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, which trimmed its staff size by 25 percent and its overall budget by 14 percent, had traditionally seen the neighboring San Diego Museum of Art as a threat, says director Hugh Davies. “It was a real competitive attitude, which I describe as crabs in a bucket. We were not complementing each other.” Now the institutions are working together—a partnership that began before the economic downturn, but that is proving more beneficial than anticipated. With the nearby Timken Museum of Art, the two museums are developing an exhibition, tentatively scheduled for the summer of 2012, drawing from all three institutions’ American art collections.

“There’s definitely strength in collaborating,” Davies says. He notes that the teamwork presents opportunities for joint fundraising, educational outreach and, especially, marketing. “Three museums all marketing the same exhibition is an exciting way to raise the profile of art museums in this city, in ways we couldn’t do otherwise. None of us have enough money to do a full marketing campaign on our own, but between us we do.”

Davies is also considering teaming up when it comes to such internal, administrative needs as healthcare expenses or ordering bulk supplies. He admits that these strategies come with extra complications. “It’s really a pain for my deputy director to deal with his counterparts at other institutions to try to work together on a health plan for our staff, but healthcare for 300 is much more affordable per capita than healthcare for 50,” he says. “It’s so much easier to go it on your own, but there’s nothing like a bad economy to force you to reconsider.”

While museums have largely been able to make do during the first year of the recession, not all of the adjustments are sustainable. As at most institutions, the newly shrunken staff of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is overworked, acknowledges Director Anne Hawley. And with no surplus of funds coming in the foreseeable future, the situation isn’t looking up.

“I think that all of us who have downsized are going to get through the first year on people’s goodwill, commitment and energy, but I think year two is when difficulties will set in. People will start burning out,” she says. “Some of the staff that I work with are so tired that when you ask them to brainstorm new ideas, they can’t go there.” Hawley is exploring ideas for countering burnout, such as giving employees extra time off or better using the services of volunteers.

But there’s no telling what will happen to museums if 2010 brings even shakier financial ground than 2009. So far at the Gardner, contributions have helped compensate for the nearly 30 percent drop in its endowment since 2008. “We were very worried that, because of the financial crisis, fundraising would be down, but so far it isn’t. People are staying with institutions that they love because they know it’s a bad time,” Hawley says. “But my colleagues are saying that next year could be worse when it sinks in how little there is to give away.”

The only option, she says, is to stay the new, more efficient, more innovative course. “You’ve got to remain true to your mission and you’ve got to be creative,” she says. “We all really have to stay focused on our collections.”

Joelle Seligson is the former associate editor of Museum and a New York-based freelance writer.

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