Museums Brace for Lean Times

Museum directors across the country are bracing for the effects of an economic downturn that could change everything from the size and kinds of exhibitions a museum presents to the acquisitions it can afford and the merchandise it offers in its shops, the New York Times reports.

While it may be too soon to gauge the full extent of the slowdown, some of its effects are already being felt at museums across the country. In New York City, the lost support from bankrupt Lehman Brothers and other corporate sponsors of the arts has reduced funds available to cover some museums' day-to-day operating expenses, while at the same time museum directors are watching membership renewals anxiously and hoping that wealthy individuals will come through with year-end donations and gifts of art. Some organizations, including the Brooklyn Museum, are also scrambling to arrange financing for upcoming exhibitions in what is rapidly turning into one of the toughest fundraising environments in recent memory.

Although few in the field anticipated the recent fear-inducing slide in credit and equity markets, many have long been aware that an economic downturn was in the offing and have taken steps to deal with potential shortfalls, such as urging curators to focus on shows that draw from their permanent collections. Others, like New York's Museum of Modern Art, recently instituted temporary hiring freezes and cuts in their general operating budgets, while some museum gift shops that in good times offered expensive jewelry, china, or furniture are beginning to lower the price points of many items.

At the same time, not all corporate sponsors of the arts are cutting back on their support. Despite a 3 percent year-over-year dip in sales, Target continues to finance free admission days at more than seventy museums across the country, while UBS and Bank of America have said they will continue their support for museums in 2009. And some museum directors have even identified a silver lining to leaner times ahead, noting that museums offer good value for people looking to forget their worries.

"We know there's a storm at sea and we know it's going to hit land and it could get ugly," said Museum of Modern Art director Glenn D. Lowry. "But we don't know how hard it will be or when it's coming. So we are trying to make educated guesses...Caution is the word of the moment."

Carol Vogel. "Museums Fear Lean Days Ahead." New York Times 10/19/2008.