Is Bigger Always More? How U.S. Museums Fared in 2016

A breakdown of how museums fared in 2016.

Snøhetta's new SFMOMA expansion in the SOMA district.
Snøhetta’s new SFMOMA expansion in the SOMA district. © Iwan Baan, courtesy SFMOMA

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times? The Metropolitan Museum of Art set a new attendance record in fiscal year 2016, bringing in 6.7 million visitors, the fifth year in a row that more than six million people have come through the doors in a given year. However, the institution reported a $10 million general operating deficit, requiring it to institute a hiring freeze, lay off dozens of staffers and put on hold an addition to the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing.

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This might be just an oddity, but other art museums have experienced financial troubles as well. The Museum of Modern Art has offered early retirement buy-outs for its older employees in order to trim its budget, and a $3 million deficit has compelled the Brooklyn Museum to offer its staff early retirement packages. The San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, which is planning an expansion that will triple its exhibition space, is eliminating eight full-time and 20 part-time employees, and the Cincinnati Museum Center has cut 60 jobs in order to stem the flow of red ink while it prepares its own expansion.

“Museums are in a period of transition, as they are spending more on marketing … and attracting more people through new educational, digital and other programming while garnering less revenue per person who attends,” said Zannie Voss, director of the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Spending by the average visitor has declined from $25.81 in 2012 to $17.52 in 2015, according to data from DataArts, one of NCAR’s partners, for more than 100 art museums around the country. Meanwhile, those same institutions have increased their programming by 67 percent, raising their costs while earning less per visitor.

“Museums are striving for larger and more diverse audiences, looking to increase accessibility and remove the economic barriers to visiting, and they are creating new programs to engage people,” Voss said. Program revenues and fundraising have not been keeping up, though, she said, noting that the costs of running the sampled museums have risen 10 percent above inflation and only trustee giving, at nine percent, has kept pace. Growth in the other principal sources of raising funds— through individuals, foundations, corporations and government grants—“have not been as robust and, in the case of individual giving, represent a decrease of seven percent in absolute dollars.”

Museums are looking for ways to connect to younger people for whom the internet and real life are inextricably integrated: reaching out through social media, apps, digitizing the permanent collection; making exhibitions interactive; permitting visitors to amass virtual collections and encouraging (young) visitors to bring in their phones and take selfies next to artworks. It is considered a museum world success nowadays to see millennials in a painting-filled gallery all staring into their phones, rather than a sign of skewed values, because those young people are in the museum, obtaining information about objects and conveying their opinions about them.

“Increasingly, people are rejecting the artificial distinctions between art forms, as they want the participatory, interdisciplinary experience,” said Salvador Acevedo, vice-president in charge of strategies for the San Francisco-based museum consulting firm Scansion. “Younger philanthropists also are demanding that kind of experience.” Translating technology into financial stability remains a challenge, especially as technology is always a catch-up game. “It still is to be seen how museums can monetize this,” Acevedo said.

One area in which many major museums have been able to keep down their costs, Voss has found, is paying women directors less than their male counterparts. Women directors of museums with budgets of more than $15 million earn 71 cents for every dollar earned by a male director. However, she claimed, at museums with budgets under $15 million, women directors tend to earn $1.02 for every dollar that a male counterpart receives. “And the fact is, 75 percent of museums have budgets under $15 million,” she said. Smaller museums tend to promote from within, while those with larger budgets often conduct national searches, seeking candidates for the job who already have led other institutions, which historically have been men. “It’s a closed set,” she said. Still, she expected that as “there are more women with longer tenures at museums,” the pay gap at the larger institutions would narrow in time.

Bigger and Bigger

The comment “when you stop growing you start dying” is attributed to novelist William Burroughs, but it could be the motto of many museum directors who so often are preparing for the next capital campaign to build out, add to or do something grandiose to their institution.

Expansions and erecting big new buildings appear to be part of the unwritten job description for museum directors, said Geri Thomas, president of Thomas & Associates in Manhattan, which assists museums with staffing and training. She noted that more and more museum directors have long-term visions not so much for their institutions but for their own careers. “They have milestones they want to meet in their careers.” The first is “putting their stamp” on the museum through some sort of staff or department reorganization, then developing some sort of initiative and finally a building project. “These days, museum directors do things that demonstrate they are ready for the next position,” at some other museum, she said.

Some museums have other priorities than building or getting into debt.

Among the museums that have opened new expansions in the past year are the Portland Art Museum in Oregon (the Rothko Pavilion, which are filled with paintings by Mark Rothko from the collections of his children Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel); the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in California (the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (after a three-year closure); the Dallas Museum of Art (the north entrance, renamed Eagle Family Plaza); the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky (the 62,500 square-foot new building doubled the museum’s overall square footage) and the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland (the new building doubles its space to 7,700 square feet). Expansion projects in the works include the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Washington State, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Mildred Lane Kemper ArtMuseum at Washington University in St. Louis, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (a 22,000 square-foot conservation center) and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (on the next door site of the now demolished American folk art museum).

Some museums have other priorities than building or getting into debt. Others opt to change their names, such as the Mystic Museum of Art (formerly the Mystic Art Center), the Buffalo Albright-Knox-Gundlach Art Museum (formerly the Albright-Knox Art Gallery), the Salvador Dali Museum (formerly the Museum of Monterrey) and the Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (formerly the Santa Monica Museum of Art). The Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon, closed and its collection was taken over by the Pacific Northwest College of Art, while the incipient George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, the plans for which did not receive a warm welcome in San Francisco and Chicago, is trying again, this time in Los Angeles.

New Acquisitions

Looking around the country, however, one sees many museums acquiring new objects for their permanent collections. Here is a sample:

  • A gift to the Museum of Modern Art of 102 Latin American paintings and sculptures from the collection of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, a trustee of the museum. The donation will increase the Modern’s holdings in Latin American art by 50 percent, as well as lead to the establishment of a Cisneros Institute that will research and host annual international conferences on the art of Latin America.
  • The Getty Museum purchased for $30.5 million at Sotheby’s Orazio Gentileschi’s 1621 painting Danae, which recalls the ancient Greek myth of the daughter of King Acrisius of Argo who is hidden away by her father in a secret chamber to keep away potential suitors who might impregnate her, fulfilling the Oracle of Delphi’s prediction that she would be murdered by her son. The $30.5 million exceeded by seven times the previous auction record for the artist’s work.
  • The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has become one of the most active in acquiring postwar and contemporary art, and 2016 was no exception. Entering its permanent collection was a 1970 Claes Oldenburg soft sculpture Typewriter Eraser(purchase of the museum’s Collectors Committee), 39 prints produced at Gemini G.E.L. studio by such artists as Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha and Frank Stella (gift of Gemini co-founder Sidney Felsen and his wife, Joni Weyl, along with Roy Lichtenstein’s widow, Dorothy Lichtenstein) and the 1963 John Lautner-designed Beverly Hills house with its gravity-defying architecture and distinctive triangular concrete roof that played a role in the 1998 Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski(gift of James F. Goldstein).
  • Some collectors worry that artworks they donate to a museum eventually may be sold at some point, but it is the policy of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. never to deaccession anything. Among the artworks permanently acquired by the museum are Alex Katz’ 1959 painting Portrait of Ada, his wife (published courtesy of the Avalon Fund), an artist book that was a 1947 collaboration between artist Joan Miró and surrealist poet Paul Éluard consisting of 80 woodcut color prints entitled À toute épreuve(purchased with several funds), a 1973-74 collage by Jim Dine Shellac Orientale(donated by Milly and Arne Glimcher) and a large-scale 1972 mezzotint by Chuck Close titled Keith (gift of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel).
  • The Cy Twombly Foundation donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art five bronze sculptures by the artist – Untitled, Rome, 1980, Rotalla, Zurich, 1990, Untitled, Rome, 1997, Victory(conceived in 1987 and cast in 2005) and Anabasis, 2011 – and art collector Daniel W. Dietrich II bequeathed to the museum more than 50 works of art, including two large-scale paintings by Cy Twombly, Untitled (Roma)(1961), and Untitled (Bolsena) (1969), as well as two monumental canvases by Philip Guston, The Night (1977) and Kettle (1978), four paintings created in 1965 by Agnes Martin and Edward Hopper’s 1962 painting Road and Trees.
  • The first painting that Mexican artist Frida Kahlo ever sold, the 1928 Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia), was purchased early in 2016 by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which immediately put the artwork up for public display. The two women depicted worked as maids in the artist’s mother’s house but, in keeping with Kahlo’s left-wing political sympathies, they are not shown wearing aprons or at work but side by side in front of tropical foliage.
  • The process by which previously unknown, misattributed or unattributed works of art become authenticated as pieces by major artists is sometimes highly unsavory, more reliant on money and who-you-know. Just how the directors of Colnaghi, the well-known London-based art gallery, managed to establish that a 1515-17 painting of Christ Carrying the Cross was the work of Sebastiano del Piombo, an artist lauded by Giorgio Vasari, probably won’t be revealed anytime soon, but the artwork now has a home with its new attribution at the Art Institute of Chicago. A variety of museum funds and individual benefactors contributed to the cost of this artwork.
  • Museums love to acquire artworks, but sometimes they have to give them up, often these days because they were looted from some nation or confiscated from Jewish owners during the Nazi era. One such artwork, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s Nude, was purchased by New York’s Neue Galerie in 1999 from a Berlin auction house, but the museum later learned that the 1914 painting had been taken from the widow of a Jewish art collector when she fled Nazi Germany in 1939. This year, the Neue Galerie restored the painting to the heirs of collectors Alfred and Tekla Hess and then promptly bought it back from them for an undisclosed price. Not so fortunate New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In the fall of 2015, the Modern was forced to return returned a 1917-18 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner landscape Sand Hills in Grunauto the heirs of its original German Jewish owners, Ludwig and Rosy Fischer, who had been friends with the artist. That heir, Max Fischer, promptly donated the painting to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
  • Sculptors sometimes paint, and painters sometimes produce sculptures. Jackson Pollock only created six sculptures during his lifetime, and one of them – an untitled sand-cast with plaster, gauze and wire piece from 1956 – that had been exhibited most recently at Manhattan’s Matthew Marks gallery in 2012 was purchased by the Dallas Museum of Art from the Tony Smith Estate through the support of the Gayle and Paul Stoffel Fund for Contemporary Art Acquisition.
  • If Jackson Pollock’s sculptures are not all that well know, the same could be said about his drawings. Perhaps rectifying that is the gift of nine Pollock drawings to Houston’s Menil Collection. The earliest of these drawings date from 1939 and the last from 1951, and they trace his development from Surrealism into what would become Abstract Expressionism. The gift of the Pollocks, from Menil trustees Janie C. Lee and Louisa Stude Sarofim, is part of a donation of 55 drawings that includes works by Helen Frankenthaler, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Eva Hesse, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Brice Marden, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman and Richard Serra.

Is Bigger Always More? How U.S. Museums Fared in 2016