PRINT March 2002


the plight of the museums

IN THE JITTERY, smoke-streaked weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center, attendance at New York’s major art museums plunged to roughly half that of the preceding autumn, then steadied, and, glacially, began to creep upward again. By mid-January, the numbers were back up to 80 or 90 percent. But it is not enough. The events of September 11 exacerbated a long-simmering recession, and at city museums, earned income has declined, funding is threatened, and untold millions in anticipated revenue have been stricken from the books. A grim mood of budgetary restraint and fiscal anxiety is everywhere evident, even as the national outlook seems to brighten.

At the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, admissions and revenue remained down by about half in November. With its modest endowment, the ever-expanding museum depends heavily on paid admissions, which account for nearly a quarter of the operating budget. Apparently sensing that a quick recovery was not at hand, the museum slashed eighty jobs on November 9, reducing its staff by roughly 20 percent and leaving many demoralized and apprehensive. Lisa Dennison, the Guggenheim’s chief curator and deputy director, is resolute. “We’re in a period of stabilization now,” she said. “I’m confident that we’ve risen to the occasion and gotten past the human dimension of it all, and I think we will emerge a stronger institution.”

In another budget-cutting move, the Guggenheim has delayed its exhibition schedule by a year. “Brazil: Body and Soul,” an elaborate undertaking that opened in late October, will remain on view months longer than was initially planned. “We really felt, given the enormity of what we constructed here, that it would be unfair to give short shrift to this show,” Dennison said, also acknowledging the cost-saving benefits. “Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle,” a long-anticipated exhibition of sculptures, photographs, and drawings from the artist’s five-part film project originally slated to premiere at the Guggenheim in March, will now open at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and travel to New York in February 2003. Barbara Gladstone, who represents Barney in New York, said of the concession, “It was a disappointment, but we’re going forth . . . The exhibit will definitely look its most organic at the Guggenheim, because of the nature of the space, which is very much what appeals to Matthew.” Portions of Cremaster 3, the final installment of Barney’s film series, were in fact filmed at the Guggenheim, where it will still have its premiere this spring.

The Whitney Museum of American Art has also seen its share of woe. Attendance there was down by almost 30 percent as late as December, and the lack of tourists, who are more likely to pay full admission and spend freely on merchandise and food, has been keenly felt. While slight compared to the Guggenheim’s, the Whitney's layoffs, announced at the end of November, still amounted to 6 percent. “We took our medicine,” said Whitney director Maxwell Anderson.

The Whitney also canceled an eagerly anticipated Eva Hesse survey, which was scheduled to arrive from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this spring. The decision to cancel the show was no doubt a torturous one; Elisabeth Sussman, the show’s curator, began the project before resigning from the Whitney in 1998. Contractual disputes between the organizers and the museum stretched over months, and the uncommonly high exhibition fee and presentation costs (much of the work is exceptionally perishable and difficult to display) finally tipped the balance.

“Basically it was a choice of canceling this exhibition or eliminating fifteen more jobs,” said Mary Haus, the Whitney’s spokeswoman. Also threatened is the Whitney’s influential and highly regarded Independent Study Program, which, thirty-three years after its founding, may be falling apart at the seams.

“We need to preserve the program, but we simply don’t have the money to run it,” said Haus. While an endowment covers half the costs, the museum is seeking partners to provide the additional $200,000 per year necessary to keep it up and running. The museum has already launched a new initiative: a two-year partnership with Columbia University that will encompass the curatorial segment of the program. An announcement regarding new partners for the studio practice and critical-studies elements is said to be imminent.

The Museum of Modern Art, which had already reduced its exhibition schedule in preparation for its temporary relocation to Queens, was arguably less vulnerable than other institutions during the chaotic autumn months. By December, attendance was more or less on course, though foreign visitation was down, and retail operations had suffered losses in the millions. MoMA has already raised $520 million for its $650 million, five-year midtown expansion, and support from the city, which will total $65 million, appears rock solid. “After September 11, every major philanthropy directed their giving to one or more of the relief funds. But I think . . . we’re going to return to a more normal pattern, though perhaps with less money in the system,” said Glenn D. Lowry, the museum’s director.

Harold Holzer, spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sounds somewhat less optimistic. “We’re talking about a budget gap that could be $20 million by June,” he said. “We have to figure out whether this is just an aberrant, terrible, tragic year or something systemic that we have to deal with in the future.” Michael Govan, director of the Dia Center for the Arts, shares his concern. “If you’re looking at the surface, yes, attendance appears to be getting back to normal, but underneath it all, people are worried about their long-term prospects. This situation will be with us for a while.”

Daniel B. Schneider is a New York-based writer.