Up against the wall

By Matthew Robinson

The institutions charged with housing and protecting some of the nation’s treasures are in a fight to sustain themselves.

As demands for federal and state dollars grow, and as political priorities change, government funding for museums in the U.S. is falling, leaving private donors to fill the gap, experts say.

As a whole, the nation’s museums are resilient and holding up well in the face of financial challenges, says the American Association of Museums in its 2006 financial information survey.

Combined annual attendance at U.S. museums has been holding steady at more than 600 million, the study says, with an average of 34,000 per institution.

But government support is waning for the one in four museums that are nonprofits, dropping 15 percentage points over 15 years to about 13 percent of the average museum’s operating budget.

To find the private support to fill that widening gap, museums have been forced to aggressively pursue capital campaigns and building projects.

As a result, private support has doubled over the past 15 years, the study says.

At more than a third of operating income for the average museum, private giving now represents the largest-single revenue source for American museums, says Jason Hall of the association.

The growth in private giving has allowed museums to keep entrance fees affordable at an average of $6, the association’s report says, but that only covers a fraction of the $23 median cost of serving each visitor.

Despite the shift in funding sources and the challenges that remain, the number of museums running deficits has declined by nearly a third, and museum endowments are on the rise, the study says.

To lure new visitors and retain existing ones, building projects, along with the capital campaigns to fund them, are perpetually on deck, with half of museums surveyed by the association currently engaged in campaigns with a median goal of $10 million.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., the nation’s oldest continuously operating museum, launched its latest campaign in order to renovate and expand its 18th-century building.

The institution launched a 10-year, $194 million campaign in 1993 that helped it expand its operating budget to $22 million today from $3 million, says Jay Finney, the museum’s deputy director of marketing and communications.

“The amount was almost solely derived from individual solicitations to individuals,” he says. “[There was] no corporate, foundation or government money to speak of.”

The museum, at 250,000 square feet, now twice as big, is the second-largest in New England and of the nation’s 20 largest, says Finney.

“Everything changed after the reopening,” he says, citing a doubling in attendance, a 60 percent increase in membership and new-found international recognition.

The Peabody’s neighbor to the south, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is currently undergoing its own $500 million expansion plan, with $360 million raised to date.

“We are on the way to what we think is the largest goal for an arts institution outside of New York,” says Anne Cowie, the museum’s senior development officer and associate campaign director.

This effort is already almost three times the size of the 1992-98 campaign, which surpassed its $110 million goal, bringing in $130 million to boost the museum’s endowment and fund capital improvements.

The new campaign not only will fund the endowment, but also will cover operating expenses and finance additional display space, says Cowie.

The federal government is kicking in $6.2 million to expand access to the museum, but the rest of the funds raised so far have come from private donors.

“We’ve been…relying on our close family and friends,” Cowie says, referring to museum trustees and overseers, who contributed more than half the previous campaign funds, including more than 80 seven-figure gifts.

The museum also has expanded its outreach efforts to include the museum’s 83,000 member households through a campaign newsletter and a model and video display touting the expansion.

Cowie is confident that the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as other institutions will find the support they need.

In addition to financial gifts, Cowie says, the museum has received gifts of art, which he says are critical because nonprofit museums can’t afford to purchase significant works.

“The rising tide lifts all boats,” she says. “It is a very good time for private philanthropy and a lot of people are reaching a point in their lives when they are prepared and wanting to make significant gifts.”

At the Greensboro Children’s Museum, in Greensboro, N.C., the demand is just as big, even if attendance is not.

With space becoming tighter in its 32,000-square-foot building, the organization is in the planning phase of a campaign to finance renovation of existing exhibits and an expansion of its educational programming, says Suzan Metz, development director.

At the same time, the interactive museum is broadening its reach by target grandparents and working with contribute.com to expand its online-donation options.

It also launched a new newsletter geared to pre-K through third graders and distributed by the school system.

“It is a tool that gets directly into the hands of the children who have a great deal of influence on their parents,” says Metz, “and who have money of their own for spending on entertainment needs.”

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