KC art museums recover from recession’s sting - Kansas City, MO
KC art museums recover from recession’s sting
But KC art museums are financially cautious, whether scheduling shows or hiring staff.
By ALICE THORSON
The Kansas City Star
The recession took a toll on Kansas City’s art museums, prompting some to mount fewer shows and others to cut staff or refrain from hiring as their endowments, investments and earned income dropped.
But each story is different. Smaller institutions, like the Kemper and Nerman museums, felt the recession’s impact less acutely than the flagship institution of the local scene, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Three years ago, as the stock marked tanked, the Nelson saw its operating endowment drop by 30 percent. The museum’s earned income also felt the recession’s bite, forcing then-director Marc Wilson to cut staff.
Today’s brighter economic picture finds the Nelson and many other museums, locally and around the country, in much better shape.
“Leading U.S. museums are finally in recovery mode,” the Art Newspaper recently reported. Yet it found that the endowments of many museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago, were close but still shy of their pre-recession levels.
The Nelson is one of the happy exceptions.
The museum has “recouped what we lost and gained a little bit,” according to its chief operating officer, Karen Christiansen. The total endowment presently stands at almost $400 million.
“Some of that’s (because of strong returns on our) investments,” Christiansen said. She also credits museum donors who have kept current with their pledge agreements, a payment plan for large gifts.
“Some museums have heard from their donors that because of hard economic times they need to elongate their payment schedules,” she said. “We have not had that. Our donors are amazing in that way.”
Another boon to the Nelson’s financial health was last year’s big Monet show, which spiked earned income.
“Our attendance was close to 100,000, and when people come here they shop in the store, they eat and buy tickets,” Christiansen said. “We also did a lot of work on increasing our membership at that time.”
Julián Zugazagoita, the Nelson’s director and chief executive officer, is still in a wait-and-see mode.
“For our forecasting, we are on the one side more optimistic, and yet extremely cautious,” he said. “I think cautious is the word to use, because what we’ve seen in recent months is a lot of instability, whether it’s Europe or Asia. We live in such an interconnected global economy that everything has ramifications for financial investments and endowments as well as for donor outlooks.”
When he was hired in 2010, Zugazagoita was charged with building audiences and trying new things to connect the Nelson with the community. Funds from the Donald Hall Initiative, created in honor of Hall’s 31-year tenure on the museum’s board of trustees, have aided Zugazagoita in that effort — and also helped improve the museum’s bottom line.
“The Don Hall Initiative and the extra influx of funds were to very deliberately showcase a museum that could be more alive,” Zugazagoitia said.
Visitors to the museum’s big world’s fairs exhibit will experience the initiative’s effect. It was one of several sources of funds for the show’s interactive elements, which include an augmented reality station where people can examine objects in virtual 3-D.
“(The initiative) is almost like seed money,” Zugazagoitia said, “and we hope that the demonstration that the museum can be more alive will re-engage donors.”
What happens next will be determined by a plan funded by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant and expected to be completed by this fall.
The plan’s focus, Zugazagoitia said, is “how the museum can be a better player in people’s lives.”
Its impact will be felt in the museum’s decisions about programming and innovations, and where it will put resources with regard to staff.
Since Wilson’s staff cuts, the eliminated positions have not been refilled, Christiansen said, but the museum has added staff in marketing and communications and in information technology.
Elsewhere, the Nelson has largely fulfilled its staff needs with temporary hires, engaging people on one- or two-year contracts, often on a project basis, Christiansen said.
Going forward, she expects a mix of temporary and permanent hires.
“Using some temporary hires does make us more nimble,” she said. Ultimately the plan will determine what positions will be filled with permanent hires, based on its conclusions about “what the institution should look like.”
The Nelson derives roughly half of its income from its operating endowment. Not so the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, which receives a major portion of its support from Kemper foundations established by the museum’s founder, banker R. Crosby Kemper, and members of his family.
“The foundations did well during the recession,” museum spokeswoman Margaret Keough said, “and their support for the museum didn’t fluctuate.”
The Kemper was further insulated from the recession’s effects by an investment fund established with a seven-figure gift from the estate of Phoebe Mooney in 2008. The museum is using the fund’s cash earnings toward operating expenses, Keough said; it also derives earned income from its cafe, shop, catering and memberships. These revenues are all up by more than 20 percent since 2009; the investment fund has grown nearly 40 percent since 2009, Keough said.
Still, the number of exhibits has diminished since the Kemper’s high point of 15 shows in 2008. From 2009 to 2011, the museum averaged 11 shows per year; this year it will present a dozen.
The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College opened in October 2007, just as the economy began its precipitous slide.
“We were fortunate,” director Bruce Hartman said. “Being a department of the college rather than a stand-alone museum positioned us in an advantageous way throughout the recession. Our budget for exhibitions and programming was not affected.”
The museum did feel an economic pinch from a college hiring freeze that went into effect shortly after the museum opened. Unable to address the need for additional staff, Hartman downshifted his plan for 16 shows per year to 12 — three big shows on the first floor and nine small shows in the second-floor galleries.
“With our current staff, that’s all we can manage,” he said.
The lack of additional staff has left Hartman to handle many of the details of exhibitions and programming himself, cutting into the time he can spend fundraising and working to increase the museum’s $2 million endowment. That may change, now that the college has relaxed the hiring freeze to allow part-time hires.
A direct casualty of the recession was Hartman’s notable art-on-campus program, which has placed close to 400 works from the college’s collection in focus areas all over campus.
“Our budget for installing art on campus was eliminated a couple of years ago,” he said. As a result, the cost of framing and plastic vitrines for the focus areas shifted to the museum; the program is now proceeding in a slower fashion, he said.
Throughout the recession, Hartman said, Marti and Tony Oppenheimer’s support for art acquisitions for the museum continued unabated. Moreover, in 2009 (the heart of the recession), the museum received a $1 million gift for its endowment from the Barton P. and Mary D. Cohen Foundation.
Across the board, generous donors have played a role in helping area museums weather and emerge from the economic downturn.
Kansas City’s Grand Arts contemporary art space receives the majority of its money from founder Margaret Silva’s foundation.
As the recession began to take a toll on the foundation’s investments, she didn’t want to trim staff or benefits.
“We sat down and decided how we could keep ourselves from spending too much,” Silva said. “The solution the group came up with was to take on bigger projects, but fewer of them.
“It’s not just the money,” Silva said. “Taking on projects that are more challenging and time-consuming keeps us on top of our game.”
Last year’s massive “IOU/USA” cargo container installation in Memorial Hill Park, for instance, “was really challenging as far as scale and doing it out in the community,” Silva said. “That was a project that made us go out of our comfort zone.”
For the foreseeable future Grand Arts plans to stick with a schedule of fewer, bigger projects, Silva said, including a major one this fall with Berlin-based conceptual artist Sissel Tolaas.
“It’s very expansive as far as going out into the community and is requiring a lot of time and effort from our staff,” Silva said. “It’s all about smells and the smells of KC, and she’s collecting these smells. It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt.”