Cameron Art Museum sculpts future

Ret Boney

WILMINGTON, N.C. — With its endowment battered by the market volatility of 2008 and 2009, and the checkbook of its primary funder temporarily closed by the recession, the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington is reshaping its future.

When the recession hit in 2008, the museum’s endowment lost almost a quarter of its value, attendance and membership slowed and contributed income virtually dried up, says Deborah Velders, director of the museum.

Yet, when asked about the organization’s current financial standing, she replies, “holding and optimistic about the future.”

With membership and attendance back on the rise, that sense of optimism may be well-placed.

The primary goal for the museum now, says Velders, is to create a more stable financial structure by building its endowment and diversifying its funding base.

“The greatest challenge to the museum remains its insufficient endowment and lack of any ongoing governmental support through tax revenues,” she says.

But While the museum in 2006 received a four-year, $400,000 grant from the city and a three-year, $150,000 grant from New Hanover County, it receives no operational support from local governments, and requests for funding last year were denied.

“Additionally, too great a dependence upon one foundation creates a precarious state for the museum’s future,” she says.

In the museum’s case, that one foundation is the Bruce Barclay Cameron Foundation, which over the years has contributed almost $14 million to the museum in cash, campaign donations and land.

In gratitude, the museum now bears the name of the late wife of the foundation’s founder and namesake.

Founded in 1962 as St. John’s Art Museum, a $12.5 million capital campaign and the donation of land spurred a move in 2002, when it was renamed the Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum.

And since 2005, the Cameron Foundation has provided between $325,000 and $900,000 a year in operating dollars to the museum, an “exceptional and unprecedented level of support,” says Velders.

That support has covered the bulk of the organization’s budget, which peaked at just over $2 million in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2009.

But in response to a drop in assets during the recession, the foundation suspended contributions to the museum in April 2010.

That drop dragged contributed income for the museum down to a budgeted $65,000 this fiscal year, compared to $720,443 last year and $976,832 in fiscal 2009.

To cover the budget gap created by the loss of foundation funding, the museum was forced to dip into its endowment and withdraw unrestricted dollars to cover operations.

“This was done by careful review by our board, with our auditors and attorney to ensure we were showing prudence and maintaining good stewardship of our funds,” says Velders.

And in lieu of its 2010 donation, the Cameron Foundation agreed to lift the restrictions on previously-donated amounts in the endowment so the museum could use the money to cover operating costs.

“However, and happily,” says Velders, she expects funding from the Cameron Foundation to resume in February, bringing contributed income for fiscal 2011 to an estimated $300,000.

To help close the gap further, the museum has negotiated with vendors for reduced fees and has initiated a study of ways to reduce energy and utility costs.

And to get the rest of the way to the fiscal 2011 budget of almost $1.6 million, Velders plans to rely on one of the strengths inherent to arts organizations and their supporters — creativity.

One supporter already has stepped up, mounting a $1,000 membership campaign that has raised $20,000 so far, while other supporters have increased their giving or membership levels.

And the museum itself is changing the way it operates.

In what Velders calls a “counter-intuitive” move, the museum is extending its hours of operation, expanding its educational offerings and rethinking how it uses its indoor and outdoor spaces.

“All of these efforts are toward maximizing our existing assets and rethinking the role of the art museum,” she says.

Her vision is of the museum as a “cultural gathering place first, in which is imbedded the functions of an art museum.”

“While the exhibition values and standards must remain high, the facility itself must also meet the needs of the community if it is to remain viable and attract sufficient financial support,” says Velders.

To make that happen, she is shifting the focus of the museum from a retail environment to an education and community-outreach environment.

That means creating more space in the building for education and outreach by moving the retail shop from its large space at the front of the museum to a smaller, but more visible spot beside the museum café.

The freed-up space now will be used for classrooms for art-history classes and art studios for adults.

“It’s a bit unorthodox,” she says. “But I believe it’s innovative and likely to succeed.”

She also will be exploring partnerships with other nonprofits or educational institutions that have complementary missions.

These are difficult times, Velders says, yet her belief in the arts never waned, not even during the darkest days of the market crash.

“As long as there is a need to create art, there will be a need for the stewardship and sharing of it,” she says. “The need for creative expression both precedes and supersedes market concerns.”

“We’re here,” she says of cultural organizations, “as stewards of an artistic heritage and vitality that is as important as the air we breathe.”

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