Museums pinched by recession cut hours, staff

Sun Jan 25, 2009 10:35am EST
 
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By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - American museums are feeling pinched by the financial crisis, with some closing and others cutting staff and hours even as the public clamors for the affordable entertainment that these institutions offer.

After splurging on new facilities, expanded staffs and blockbuster exhibitions that drew millions of new visitors, museums are now confronted by shrunken endowments, less-wealthy benefactors and cuts in government funding, experts say.

The roughly 17,500 museums receive 850 million visitors annually.

Many wealthy donors and foundations, hurt by the steep stock market downturn, are expected to focus more of their charity on organizations that serve basic human needs like food and shelter in lieu of cultural outlets, said consultant Melissa Berman of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

"We hear that, on average, foundation endowments are down 30 to 35 percent -- and then there are selected cases where the foundation trustees took way more risk and they're down even more," she said. "(And) foundations whose funds were invested in Bernie Madoff ... are just gone."

"I think it's a genuine crisis" in the museum world, said Stanley Katz of Princeton University, who monitors nonprofit organizations.

"These institutions have all expanded enormously over the last 30 years. From my point of view they've overexpanded," he added, citing the spread of new museum wings and curators to staff them that both carry permanent costs. "I think they're going to pay the price now because they always thought they were going to have more coming in than they did last year."

A survey of 40 major art museums by The Art Newspaper (www.theartnewspaper.com) in December revealed budget cuts ranging from 5 percent to 20 percent, with deeper cuts contemplated for 2010.   Continued...