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Donor Intent Honored? Cleveland Museum Director Disavows Plan to Divert Acquisition Funds to Capital Project UPDATED

CleveExp3.jpg

Cleveland Museum’s Rafael Viñoly-designed East Wing, which opened in June 2009
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Today’s NY Times special Museums section contained many meaty articles and eyebrow-raising ads:

Fred Bernstein’s article about the ways in which architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have cut themselves some slack in interpreting their mandate to “replicate” the original Barnes Foundation galleries in the foundation’s new Philadelphia facility, opening May 19. Moldings will be simplified, lighting improved, and, most significantly (as discussed by me here and in my video tour, here), the flow of the galleries will be interrupted by a reading room, classroom and a sunken garden court.

—Another Fred Bernstein piece, on the difficulty of getting donors to fork over funds to a museum named for a megabucks patron. (He gave credit, as I did, to Alice Walton, for not affixing her name to Crystal Bridges). Another museum that Fred might have mentioned is the defunct Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, founded in 1980 by the late collector Daniel Terra, Ronald Reagan‘s Cultural Ambassador-at-Large, and shut down in 2004 due to financial and attendance shortfalls. At the time of these difficulties, I wrote an in-depth piece on the Terra (no longer linkable), for the Wall Street Journal‘s “Leisure & Arts” page.

Judith Dobrzynski has an article in today’s “Museums” section about the successful repurposing of the Terra Foundation as a grant giver and art lender.

—The Metropolitan Museum’s three-page ad spread with the tag line, “What’s Your Met?” and featuring this purported quote from NY Yankee Alex Rodriguez: “The Met is where the action is off the field. You can hang out with the legends of the past and the icons of today.” (Did he really say that?)

—The Art Institute of Chicago’s full-page ad for its upcoming Lichtenstein retrospective (May 16-Sept. 3) featuring a large image of the ex-Steve Martin “Ohhh…Alright…,” which had been sold at Christie’s in November 2010 by a subsequent owner (thought to be Steve Wynn) for $42.65 million. The ad proclaimed, “It’s here,” making me think that perhaps the Chicago museum had acquired it. But the small print at the very bottom of the page said, “Private Collection.”

But what really made me sit up and take notice was a passage buried near the end of another excellent Dobrzynski article—How an Acquisition Fund Burnishes Reputations—on museums’ uses of their endowments for art purchases. Judith wrote that the Cleveland Museum’s director, David Franklin, has “abandoned plans [conceived in 2009, during the last days of the directorship of Timothy Rub, and later endorsed by interim director Deborah Gribbon] to devote $75 million in income from its art acquisitions funds, over 10 years, to the museum’s expansion.”

Having sharply and repeatedly criticized (here, here and here) that violation of clearly stipulated donor intent, I was gratified to read that this court-approved plan had been “abandoned.”

But then I read what Franklin had actually told Dobrzynski, and it sounds like the plan still exists: It involved not direct expenditure of the money for bricks and mortar, but the use of the income from the acquisition funds to back bonds supporting the expansion. The Association of Art Museum Directors’ 2011 revisions to its professional guidelines explictly prohibit the use of art-acquisition endowments as collateral.

Although Franklin told Dobrzynski, “We will not spend any of that [the acquisitions money],” he also went on to say, “It’s almost an insurance policy. Our goal is to fund-raise that money. It will never be spent on the building if my campaign works [emphasis added].”

That’s a very big “if.” The “insurance policy”—use of the money as a fallback to defray construction debt if fundraising falls short—appears to be in force. And as Steven LItt reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, recent turmoil on the museum’s board might negatively impact fundraising for the expansion.

Litt wrote this on Jan. 29 about the departure from the board of its former chairman and long-time supporter, Michael Horvitz:

The loss of a generous donor—Horvitz and his family have contributed more than $5 million to the museum’s expansion and renovation—also raises questions about how the museum could have alienated someone with the potential to do more for it in the future.

The timing is troubling, too. While the museum has raised $230 million for the expansion and renovation, it still needs an additional $120 million to pay off its debt, a huge sum for any institution in Cleveland.

It sounds like that “insurance policy” may yet need to be called upon. UPDATE: This just in from Cleveland Museum spokesperson Caroline Guscott, in response to my query about the current status of both the $75 million acquisition-fund money and the capital campaign. I had specifically asked (and did not get an answer) about how much had actually been raised on Franklin’s watch.

Currently, the $75 million dollars is being used to back the bonds; however, at this time, no funds from the art endowment account have been used for the building project. We have a robust campaign in place and we intend to fund the building project through donations. Since David’s appointment in 2010, he has actively and tirelessly campaigned for the building expansion and renovation project as well as other museum initiatives.

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