by Sheri Boggs

Imagine that the arts are like a hospital patient with a mysterious ailment. "I don't feel so good," says the patient. "Well, let's take a look at your lifestyle," says the doc. As the doctor and the patient examine everything from the patient putting too much food on his plate to his nagging debt problems, the patient is still suffering. "My head hurts," says the patient. "And I keep hemorrhaging. And I think I cracked a rib." The doctor makes a note of his patient's elevated temperature, his booming blood pressure, even murmurs something about getting some X-rays. "Well, you'll get better," the doc finally sighs, tapping his clipboard. "But you're going to have to make some changes. Big ones. And it's not going to happen overnight."

Okay, so maybe it's a little dramatic to liken the arts to a hemorrhaging patient, but for the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC), the Seattle Art Museum and many other Northwest arts organizations, these are some of the most difficult times they've ever faced. And far from being a regional phenomenon, these hard times are epidemic, affecting the health and well being of museums all over the country.

"We're seeing a considerable decline in museum budgets all over the United States," says Edward Able, president and CEO of the American Association of Museums (of which the MAC is a member). "And the size of the cuts -- whether they're happening in budgets, staffing or museum programs -- is unprecedented."

In fact, the AAM has even responded to the budget cut crisis by recently putting out a book for its member museums, entitled Slaying the Financial Dragon.

Here in the Inland Northwest, the MAC recently announced that it would be eliminating eight positions. For local arts lovers, it was an unmistakable sign that not only was the MAC in financial trouble, but that the recession was beginning to hit many of the organizations we hold dear. While the museum's beautiful new facility and high-profile shows, like the Hometowns exhibit and the Young America show on loan from the Smithsonian, perhaps led people to believe things were going well, the truth is one of the Inland Northwest's most important arts institutions has been struggling.

"We had a $300,000 cut from the state," explains Joyce Cameron, director of development and communications from the MAC. "We are the Eastern Washington State Historical Society, doing business as the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. So cuts in our state funding really affect us. There were positions that we didn't fill, that people left through attrition and there were also four positions that we took down to part time, so only three people actually lost their jobs."

In addition to the MAC's budget cuts and layoffs, the museum has also asked remaining staff to each take one day off a month without pay. Cameron says the entire staff, realizing that refusal to cooperate might cost someone else's job, signed up for the day-off-without-pay option.

A Nationwide Struggle -- In addition to state funding, the MAC -- like museums all over the United States -- is being hit in almost every area of its budget.

"Our corporate donations are down 13-and-a-half percent, and our earned income -- which includes admissions, the store, the caf & eacute; and artwork rentals -- is down about 22 percent," says Cameron. The state budget cuts alone equaled 12 percent of the MAC's total budget.

"All nonprofits have four main sources of income," explains Able. "First, you have your contributions, both corporate and individual. Second, is your foundation money -- your endowment. Third is earned revenue, which is what the museum brings in by being open to the public. And fourth is your government support, which happens mostly on the state and local level.

"And where foundations are concerned, there are a whole host of problems that come into play during a bad economy," he continues. "When the stock market is so erratic, that affects a foundation's individual portfolios. I think it's going to take the recovery of the private economy for a lot of our museums to really be able to get back on their feet."

Ironically, the stock market has been a boon to the MAC, with a modest increase in their private donations.

"Our foundation contribution was down this year but our individual contributions were slightly up. There were some people that were maybe a little more conservative, that didn't lose a lot of money in the stock market, and we've been able to benefit from that in private donations," says Cameron. "

Although location also plays a role, the MAC's current financial and organizational problems don't have as much to do with Spokane's economy as one might think. Able points out that museums in small towns and big cities are all being affected, and even venerable institutions in modestly thriving cities are finding themselves scrambling to make ends meet.

"Spokane's economy isn't as strong as Seattle's, but it's been a tough time for us and it's a tough time for all the arts organizations in Seattle," agrees Cara Egan, public relations manager for the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). "It's happening across the board. There are drops in our foundations, in our government funding and, yes, even corporate and individual donations are down."

What many museums, the SAM and the MAC included, are having to do is reinvent themselves with more of a business model in mind.

"There used to be the days when nonprofits could do things a little differently," says Cameron. "But a lot of those nonprofits aren't around anymore. It's time to start running ourselves like a business."

A New World -- For the MAC, the budget cuts and subsequent layoffs were a necessary wake-up call that forced the organization to reexamine its existing goals, plans and projections.

"We had to live with the projections of people who were here before we all were. Our visitor projections in particular were based on a lot of things before we even opened our doors. We opened two months after Sept. 11, and obviously that changed everything," says Cameron. "So have we met our visitor projections? No. But were those projections realistic? Probably not."

Cameron says that the museum has cut its hours back (it's no longer open on Wednesday nights), and that they're evaluating the profitability of certain programs.

"We've been talking about Art at Work, and while we won't cut that program, there is the possibility that we may have to move it back to the museum," she says. "That particular program loses money, and we can't do that anymore. But we're still in the talking stages. That program is enormously important, both for the artists and the community. We just need to find a way to make it profitable."

The cost/benefit ratio is something that Scott Patnode, director of the Jundt Art Museum on the Gonzaga University campus, never loses sight of. As a private institution, the Jundt hasn't been hit by state budget cuts and, in fact, has managed to stay in the black by a thin margin. Still, Patnode recognizes that the Jundt, like so many other museums, must be resourceful.

"The money is drying up, and museums are needing to really think through what kind of exhibits they can afford," he says. "We're lucky that we have this incredible collection that we can draw on for many of our shows, rather than bringing in big exhibits that we can't afford."

Cameron says that the museum is already weighing the costs of several tentatively scheduled upcoming exhibits, and they're also looking into finding new patrons in previously untapped populations. It's an idea that's worked remarkably well for the Seattle Art Museum, which has begun to market itself as an entire package rather than spending all its publicity dollars on new shows.

"We had an increase in membership due to two of our shows that did really well -- Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and also, the Jacob Lawrence retrospective," says Cara Egan of the SAM. "But we've really broadened our audience by researching communities that had never been to the museum before, and one of the things we learned is that they responded more to the idea of the whole museum as a place to go."

If there's one thing the MAC recognizes as incontrovertible amid its swirling options and impending changes, it's that its health depends on making the right decisions. But where to start?

"There are a lot of things we would have done differently," says Cameron. "Here we are a year-and-a-half into our new museum, and we're already looking at a lot of changes, from the kinds of exhibits we'll offer to the museum's layout. At some point I'd like to move the store and the admissions to the top level to make room for more exhibit space. But it's going to take time and it's going to take money to do that. And most of all, it's going to take patience."

Five Easy Pieces?

The following five bits of advice for the MAC were culled from interviews for the story, and some with people not quoted but interviewed on background.

1. Realize there's no silver bullet solution -- As Edward Able of the American Association of Museums points out, there is "no one-size-fits-all solution that's going to work for every museum." Instead, Able suggest that museums get to know their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the needs of their community. Only from that perspective are museums going to be able to come up with the right kind of exhibits and programs.

2. Resist grandiose plans -- This naturally follows No. 1 above, and even though living within your means might sound like a no-brainer, many museums get into trouble when they think too big. As much as we all say we want to see a traveling Van Gogh exhibit, are we really going to be able to support the costs of bringing in such a thing? That goes for the peripherals -- posters, show catalogs and other related merchandise. Despite their allure, blockbuster shows often cost museums more than they make. Once financial conditions improve, perhaps then a major traveling exhibit would be nice to see.

3. Dig around in the basement -- Less than 3 percent of the MAC's collection is actually out in the galleries where the public can see it. The MAC's Joyce Cameron says that in addition to saving on shipping and rental costs (which are considerable for some of the larger traveling exhibits), the entire collection is something many museum patrons often say they'd like to see.

4. Build your endowment -- Several sources told us that a museum's investments can make or break a museum's budget. A bearish market can maul your endowment, but some wise investments can also help make ends meet during a recession.

5. Live up to your name -- The MAC could benefit from emphasizing the "Northwest" in Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. One of the things we haven't seen at the new MAC is a strong show of Northwest art. The Jacob Lawrence show was a big success. Why not bring in a retrospective of such Northwest School names as Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan? Or how about even some living artists of note, perhaps of the stature of, say, Harold Balazs?

Sheri Boggs is The Inlander's Arts and Culture editor. If you have any comments, share them with us at

Publication date: 08/07/03

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