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Museum Funding Crisis

Friday, June 7, 2002 at 4:01 PM

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The smoke at Ground Zero in New York has cleared since last Fall, but after-effects of the terrorist attacks continue to ripple through the country. An already shaky economy, exacerbated by the shock of September 11th, has prompted many corporations to cut back on underwriting support for non-profit institutions. For museums in Ohio and across the nation, this only aggravates a continuing struggle to stay afloat financially. 90.3 WCPN's David C. Barnett reports.

David C. Barnett: It appeared that Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum had finally gotten over the hump. Attendance and operating revenues were slowly climbing, when the announcement came last month that the Rock Hall was laying off a fifth of its full-time staff. The reason? A dramatic loss of corporate sponsorships. Few institutions can sustain a loss of three million dollars.

Dennis Barrie: Museum funding, especially for smaller organizations, is really difficult. Even the major established institutions, unless they are well-endowed, have a hard time figuring how they are going to do their operations.

DCB: Dennis Barrie was the original director of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After a year in that post, he left to become a national museum consultant. Barrie says that the root cause of fiscal frustration for many institutions is the lack of an “endowment” - a sum of money that sits in a bank, while the museum profits from the interest. Barrie recalls finances being a continual challenge when he was director of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center.

DB: In Cincinnati, the budget was always a yearly event. How you were going to make it happen? We had at that time, no endowment. Now, they have raised an endowment. But, most of the endowments that you see in the state are inadequate. The Cleveland Museum is one of the few that has significant endowment.

DCB: The Cleveland Museum of Art’s various trusts and endowments total nearly $670 million. Earnings from that considerable sum go to the acquisition of new art, the maintenance of a big educational program, and building upkeep.

Susan Jaros: This is a major challenge facing the Cleveland Museum of Art.

DCB: Susan Jaros is the Cleveland Museum’s Deputy Director of Development and External Affairs. And she notes that older institutions are saddled with the maintenance costs of aging facilities, like the CMA’s signature building which dates to 1916. Despite this, and despite plans to raise money for a major building upgrade, the Museum is among the few in Ohio maintaining a “free admission” policy.

SJ: September 11th has affected all of us, but I think it’s important to note that the Cleveland Museum of Art is free. We are committed that it always will be free, and I think if you look at the impact of September 11th on museums - and particularly in New York - you will see: where they really felt the pinch was in admission fees. And that was one sort of blessing-in-disguise for us, because we saw more people, our attendance actually rose, after that period of time. People seeking solace… and there wasn’t an economic deterrent to coming here.

DCB: Given the lean economic times, it might seem strange that a group of Clevelanders has created a new museum that will open in our nation’s capital, next month. The International Spy Museum will occupy a block of property in downtown Washington, not far from Pennsylvania Avenue.

Kathy Coakley: Here’s an “Enigma Machine” - it looks like a glorified adding machine…

DCB: Kathy Coakley shows off some of the artifacts due to be displayed in the International Spy Museum. She oversees Exhibition Development for the Malrite Company - the group that designed and developed the project under the guidance of president Dennis Barrie.

DB: I think this is an interesting time for museums. Even though attendance is down due to the circumstances of 9/11, generally museum attendance is up across the country. And we’re in a city that has tremendous museum attendance: Washington DC. And we’re looking at a project that has many revenue streams for its self-support.

DCB: Such as a big gift shop, two restaurants, and plans to rent the facility to outside groups for special events. Unlike the more famous museums in Washington, this newcomer will be run as a private business. It will also go against the grain by charging an admission fee of $11.00.

DB: There are a lot of free museums, but interestingly enough, they are and they aren’t free. As you start to study the Washington scene - and I’ve worked in some of those “free” museums - you pay a lot once you’re in there. Free museums have I-Maxes that you go to for $5-6… you have interactives that you pay $3-5 dollars in… I’m talking about the Smithsonian Museums. And that perception that all things in Washington are free is really not true.

DCB: The Cleveland Museum of Art has it’s gift shop and a fancy little food operation that attracts crowds on Wednesday and Friday nights, but Development Director Susan Jaros says that such operations have yet to be moneymakers.

SJ: There certainly is a trend in the museum world to try to reach out and provide amenities to the public - whether they are actually revenue-producing is another question - but museums in general have realized that it’s not simply about having a wonderful collection, we need to be a great museum in terms of offering amenities such as a restaurants and resting areas and communal places for the public. You are seeing a trend for museums trying to reach out and attract people to come, not only to come and look at the art, but to become part of the art museum community.

DCB: The initial revenue stream for the International Spy Museum came from Malrite founder Milton Maltz, who retired from a long career in broadcasting to start this new venture. He says if the concept of a privatized museum works it could lead to others.

Milton Maltz: This is the prototype. Will there be others? Perhaps. We have other ideas. But for now, this is the focus.

DCB: Meanwhile, non-profit museums across the country continue to focus on maintaining their balance on a precarious see-saw called the bottom line. In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN News.

Additional Information

* American Association of Museums
* Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
* Cleveland Museum of Art

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