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Cleveland Museum Hasn’t Tapped Acquisition Funds for Bricks and Mortar (yet)

Deborah Gribbon, Cleveland Museum of Art’s interim director

It’s about time we followed up on the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Bricks-and-Mortar Morass:

Although it sought and in early October received court permission to do so, the CMA has not yet tapped any money intended for art purchases to help bankroll its major expansion project. The museum obtained the legal go-ahead to divert up to $75 million of the income from four acquisition funds to
defray building costs for its partially completed Rafael
-designed expansion. Such use would be contrary to the stated wishes of the funds’ deceased donors. But the judge bought the argument that times have changed and that the donors would have looked favorably upon this expansion.

In response to my recent queries, Christa Skiles, Cleveland’s assistant director of communications, confirmed that the acquisition funds have not yet been applied to the project, adding:

We continue to move forward with the renovation and expansion of the Cleveland Museum of Art,with the option to use income generated from four art funds should we feel it necessary to do so for financing the project. There is no specific timetable established for making that decision….As we look ahead to the financing of this final phase of construction, we will evaluate all of our options and, at that point, consider what role income from the art funds may play within the mix.

Skiles also told me that the scheduled completion date for the entire project is 2013 (previously, 2012). New galleries for prints and drawings, as well as several reimagined antiquities galleries, will open this summer in the museum’s original 1916 building, which has been renovated. She added that the museum “has raised approximately $217 million to date” towards its “campaign goal of $350 million, all of which is for construction and renovation.”

Wait a minute! They’ve raised about $217 million? As of September, the museum had raised “more than $213 million.” This means that less than $4 million has been raised over the last seven months. I guess it still is, as Cleveland’s former director, Timothy Rub (now the Philadelphia Museum’s director) previously told me, a “very difficult time economically” to raise capital contributions for this project.

As reported in December by Steven Litt of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the museum’s president, Al Rankin, has stated that “it’s likely the museum will either sell bonds or take
other steps to raise cash in anticipation of future donations.” Litt reported that the museum’s board voted unanimously on Dec. 14 to authorize “only the first half of the remaining work, called ‘Step C,’ which
includes completing exterior facades and the raw interior structure of a
new West Wing and central atrium. Trustees will vote in June on whether to proceed with the final
stages, including completion of interior floors, walls and ceilings, and
the installation of art in galleries devoted to textiles, pre-Columbian and Asian art.”

Asian art is one of the supreme strengths of Cleveland’s collection. It seems to me those galleries (now closed) should have been among the first priorities, not the last. Failing that, there should have been some way to put a substantial portion of the Asian collection on temporary display in the completed parts of the project. Long-term storage of those masterpieces was not a good option.

Rankin expressed cautious optimism that the entire project would reach completion, but told Litt:

We see no reason to commit ourselves to each phase any sooner than is
required to carry them through in a logical manner.

The museum’s current interim director, Deborah Gribbon, was not on board at the time when the decision was made to seek court permission to divert the income from acquisition funds to the capital project. Even though last year, in response to my query, Gribbon had expressed the view that such reapplication was “a reasonable financing strategy, given the extraordinary
circumstances we currently face,” it’s good to see that she and the board are in no rush to tap that resource.

Meanwhile, the search for a permanent director continues. Like the Getty, Cleveland has posted the job description, but (unlike the Getty) not the application itself. For that (as Cleveland’s website informs us), you must contact Sarah James or Becky Klein at the Phillips Oppenheim search firm.

And my search for blog benefactors also continues: My warm thanks go out to CultureGrrl Donors 123 from Snoqualmie, WA, and 124 from Cincinnati.

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