March 04, 2010

Layoffs in Cincinnati underscore the darker side of the museum financial picture

Yesterday’s announcement of cuts at the Cincinnati Art Museum reminds us not to get cocky about an economic recovery any time soon. It also highlights the need for more rethinking and risk.

AAM’s new survey showing attendance increases at a majority of American museums in 2009, which I blogged about last week, also made no bones about the financial stress that many museums are (still) feeling: 41% reported moderate financial stress and more than a quarter (26%) pegged their stress as severe.

Count the Cincinnati Art Museum among the latter. According to a somber email sent to members yesterday by the museum’s director, Aaron Betsky, the museum has laid off four staff and eliminated another two positions through attrition. It will also reduce its exhibition slate, which presumably means cancelling some already-scheduled shows. Betsky doesn’t say which ones, nor which departments the layoffs took place in. (The staff was informed of all this on Friday.)

Unfortunately, this is a familiar story these days, although of course that won’t blunt the pain for the staff members who were let go. But what caught my eye in Betsky’s email was the titles of two upcoming exhibitions that have not been cancelled:

...[T]here will be fewer exhibitions, but you will still be able to enjoy Wedded Perfection beginning in October, and The Amazing American Circus Poster beginning in February, 2011.

Hold on a minute. I don’t know enough about either show to say this with confidence (nothing is available online about Wedded Perfection, and the circus poster exhibition appears to be from the museum’s own collection, organized in collaboration with the Ringling Museum), but by their titles these don’t appear to be the kind of energetic, risk-taking programs you might expect a museum in dire straits to offer in order to improve its fortunes. They sound like business as usual.

In a terrific article last week in The Art Newspaper criticizing AAM’s newly-unveiled strategic plan, consultant Adrian Ellis observed that “[t]he question that most preoccupies leadership today is: Do we need to rethink fundamentally or can we tough it out?” Cultural institutions can either retrench and try to keep doing what they’ve been doing in hopes of not overturning the already-rocking boat. Or they can engage in the “radical examination of means and ends” necessary for exploration and adaptation to new conditions.

Ellis isn’t hopeful about which path arts organizations will take; the field is fundamentally conservative.

But a few brave institutions (Denver and Brooklyn leap to mind) have shown that it’s possible for large, curatorially serious museums with major collections to experiment with new ways for people to experience and connect with art.

Betsky and his trustees and senior team in Cincinnati may want to give some hard thought to the relationship between programmatic reinvention and financial sustainability. They won't be alone.


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