It's hard to talk about museums these days without discussing the effect the recession is having on them. Funding of all kinds is being cut, and many museums are laying off staff, postponing exhibitions and looking for new ways to raise money.
When it was first founded in 1972, the Queens Museum of Art was funded entirely by the city. But today, the museum gets most of its money from corporate and private donors — and director Tom Finkelpearl says many donors have lost a lot of money in the stock market. Meanwhile, the hard-pressed city government has cut some $400,000 from the museum's budget.
The museum has already laid off about a tenth of its small staff and is now looking for additional ways to cut costs. Recently, it extended an exhibition of contemporary Taiwanese art rather than open a new show in the same gallery.
The Queens Museum is not alone in its distress; as the recession affects both public and private funding sources, the economic pains are being felt across the museum world — from the large institutions with sizable endowments and hefty ticket prices, to the small museums that scrape by on government funding.
"It's going to be a difficult time," warns Bruce Altshuler, head of New York University's museum studies program. "These operating costs ... can be decreased in certain ways, but there's a limit if you want to keep the doors open."
This funding crisis has led to some soul-searching about how far a museum may go to stay open. The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts committed what is considered a cardinal sin in the museum world when it sold, for $15 million, two paintings from its sizable permanent collection.
Museum director Carmine Branagan says the museum, which sits near the Guggenheim and the Met on Manhattan's Upper East Side, was in a "monumental crisis" at the time of the sale.
"There wasn't money to pay the guards," she explains. "There wasn't money to buy ink cartridges. I actually worked gratis for many months — they had absolutely no cash flow. All the budgets were frozen."
But Graham Beal, who directs the Detroit Institute of Arts, says that selling off art is akin to chipping away at the institution: "The institution is there to safeguard the art. The art is not there to support the institution."
Beal says that with art prices so high, museums facing a funding crisis are sometimes tempted to sell works. But, he says, they're usually able to find another solution.
"The National Academy, as I understand it, voted not to sell their building, which is a very nice location on 5th Avenue," says Beal. "The kind of money they could have got for that sort of building would provide an enormous endowment much more than a couple of paintings probably."
As a result of the sale, the National Academy was blacklisted by the Association of Art Museum Directors. That means other museums won't lend it works for special shows or cooperate with it in any way.
The move has dismayed Branagan, who says that while selling works may be a lamentable act, it's sometimes necessary to save an institution as a whole. She argues that the museum world needs to come up with a way to tell the difference.
"There are going to be a lot of institutions that are being brought to their knees by the current financial climate," she says. "Wouldn't it be better to try to understand when a financial crisis is really a financial crisis ... and really consider how a museum can right itself over time?"
If nothing else, the troubles at the National Academy Museum underscore just how much is at stake for museums right now. As funding sources dry up, museums will have to look for new ways to get by. The question is how far they should go to survive and whether they can do it without compromising the trust the public has placed in them.