Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Money talk at conventions for museum professionals

When roughly 5,000 museum professionals from across the country descend on Philadelphia this week for two conventions, they will represent institutions that exhibit everything from Old Masters to old rocks.

When roughly 5,000 museum professionals from across the country descend on Philadelphia this week for two conventions, they will represent institutions that exhibit everything from Old Masters to old rocks.

But despite the multiplicity of interests and the range of institutional sizes and locations, there will be one thing on everyone's mind.


"That is topic A, B, C, and D," said Dewey Blanton, spokesman for the American Association of Museums, which holds its annual meeting at the Convention Center from Thursday through next Monday.

The same could be said for members of the Association of Children's Museums, which meets at the Sheraton Philadelphia City Center tomorrow through Thursday.

While museum attendance is largely steady - or even up - and tickets have not taken a heavy hit, contributed income is down almost everywhere. Corporations are just not in a giving mood these days. Public funding from states and municipalities is down across the country. And endowment investments have been uniformly walloped.

So museums, like other nonprofit groups, are in pain. Budgets have been frozen, staffs cut, and costs reduced wherever possible. At the same time, fiscal angst has forced a relentless rethinking of operations and programming. The isolated, high, and mighty temple of culture is out; the networking community partner is in.

Nancy Kolb, head of the Please Touch Museum at Memorial Hall, host of the children's museum convention, said that despite building recessionary pressures, the number of U.S. museums for young people continues to grow. Her museum's move into Memorial Hall in West Fairmount Park, she said, has produced attendance numbers well ahead of projections.

As of midday Wednesday, Kolb said, attendance at Please Touch totaled 392,191 since opening day in October. "We'll hit 400,000 this weekend. Our original projections for the full year were for 475,000. We're pretty sure we'll shoot through that next month. Do you know how gratifying that is for me?"

Nevertheless, Please Touch still has not sold its old building near Logan Circle on 21st Street - contributing a $22 million gap in the $88 million fund-raising campaign keyed to the move to Memorial Hall.

All over, the money problem nags, and one fund-raising gambit that continually tempts museums is selling off art and artifacts from collections. There have been an increasing number of such sales recently, particularly by strapped educational institutions that use their art collections to raise capital funds or to cover operating deficits and shore up endowments.

Philadelphia became sharply aware of that phenomenon when Thomas Jefferson University sold off its extraordinary collection of Thomas Eakins paintings in 2006 and 2007. Since then, a number of colleges have sold or tried to sell artwork, most notably Brandeis University, which announced in January that it would close its Rose Art Museum and sell the entire collection, valued at roughly $350 million.

The move, designed to cover an operating deficit and approved by university trustees, immediately set off an uproar. Since then, the university has softened public comment, but the Rose board of overseers issued a statement last week arguing that Brandeis was holding to its goal of sale and closure.

Rose overseer Meryl Rose, a relative of the museum founders, said in a statement Thursday that trustees "have been led astray by a disingenuous administration motivated to push an agenda that involves looting the school's culture to simply balance the books."

When the museum professionals arrive in Philadelphia, they will find plenty of talk about money. But when they visit the Academy of Natural Sciences - conventioneers will visit institutions all over the region - they will discover that life goes on even when a plan to sell off collections is dropped.

Several years ago, the academy planned to sell its mineral collection, including the historic Vaux collection, to subsidize its incomparable but underfunded library. When William Brown became president in early 2007, however, he stopped the planned sale.

The academy has survived. The library has survived.

"The library has less money than it would have had," said Brown, noting that the money would have been invested - at the sunny market peak before what has become a dark abyss. While the investment income might have been useful, he said, "many of the staff were very unhappy with the idea of selling things. That's not good for an institution."

Brown now says he believes the academy benefited from canceling the sale.

"I'm sure there are a number of donors who thought it was the right thing to do," he said. "It had an effect on giving. Underneath all that - what is a place like this good for if it can't preserve, in our case, collections of specimens and books? We are a protector of heritage."

By not selling holdings, museums are compelled to look at other ways of raising money or cutting costs. In the instance of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Brown took a 10 percent salary cut; other salaries have been reduced about 5 percent.

But the institution is also trolling for new revenue by attracting new audiences with wine-and-cheese evenings for single adults, a new photography gallery, an improved cafe.

Perhaps more significantly, Brown is rethinking what the academy actually does and with whom it works. As a result, he is exploring the possibility of collaborating with natural science museums worldwide on issues and projects related to DNA sequencing, wildlife forensic research, and services that might be provided to governments.

"That's an underdeveloped market," Brown said.

Art museums are pursuing similar paths. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, for instance, plans to connect with the Philadelphia School District and offer students workshops in portraiture, sculpture, art history, and other art-related subjects.

Fourteen sites in Germantown, formally linked in an organization called Historic Germantown Preserved, are putting together a new kind of programming that will offer area high school and college students job opportunities to learn the museum trade.

Collaboration is the name of the game. That has proved highly successful for the Allentown Art Museum and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, which have exchanged parts of their permanent collections.

Allentown is now showing "Monet to Matisse: French Masterworks From the Dixon Gallery and Gardens," featuring 30 paintings brought in from Tennessee. Dixon will mount an exhibit of 29 Allentown Old Master canvases, including works by Frans Hals, Tintoretto, and Canaletto.

Both museums waived fees. Audiences in their respective communities have the opportunity to see work that would otherwise be unavailable.

"It's now become a model of what a museum could do in a recession," said Gregory J. Perry, Allentown executive director. "For the cost of shipping the work, we each have a special exhibition. This kind of exhibition, for a museum our size, would otherwise be a stretch for us financially."

Kevin Sharpe, director of the Dixon Gallery, added that "it's as absolutely cost-effective as you could do."

In addition, both institutions are actively working with other cultural organizations in their area to broaden audiences. The Memphis Ballet has choreographed a performance inspired by a Dixon canvas and plans to enact it at the Dixon, in the galleries, and gardens. Allentown is tying a show of period movie costumes to productions of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at nearby DeSales University.

"We're looking at ways to reinvent all the things we do," Sharp said.

Philadelphians talk about their museum experience in a Glenn Holsten video made for AAM's conference here.EndText

Celebrate Museum Week

Museum Week, which runs from tomorrow through next Sunday, honors the presence of the 2009 American Association of Museum's conference in Philadelphia by offering discounts to the general public on admission, shopping, and other amenities at 55 attractions in the region.

Participants range from the grand (Winterthur, the National Constitution Center, the Battleship New Jersey) to the bucolic (Laurel Hill Cemetery, the Peter Wentz Farmstead, the John James Audubon Center) and from the specialized (the Simeon Foundation Automotive Museum, the American Helicopter Museum, the Fabric Institute and Museum) to the broadly inclusive (the Philadelphia Zoo, Longwood Gardens, the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

A complete list of participating institutions and their offerings is at