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Endangered Art Museums: An Alarming Trend–PART I

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On the Upswing: The American Folk Art Museum’s former satellite facility at Lincoln Square, now headquarters for the downsized institution
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Notwithstanding somewhat improved economic conditions since the 2008 meltdown, an alarming number of art museums are currently in extremis or slowly recovering from near-death experiences. Considered together, these fight-for-survival sagas send a deeply disturbing message about the fragile state of arts institutions in the U.S., at a time when other claims on financial resources, both public and private, are regarded by many as more urgent than cultural support.

Let’s start here with the more hopeful recovery stories, before wallowing in the tales of woe (in a subsequent post).

Brandeis University’s previously moribund Rose Art Museum, about which I wrote yesterday, is poised for a return to robust health, as it anticipates the arrival next month of an energetic director brimming with hopeful plans for the future, buoyed by the enthusiastic support of the university’s new president.

But it remains to be seen whether these ambitious ideas and high hopes will attract the financial wherewithal needed to make them happen. While incoming director Christopher Bedford had previously raised funds for the exhibitions he organized as a chief curator at the Wexner Center, Ohio State University, he is untested as a rainmaker for an entire museum’s operations. Brandeis’ readymade donor prospects—enthusiastic, culturally attuned alums—should make his job easier.

Also on the rebound is the American Folk Art Museum, which recently shot off a letter to the editor of the NY Times, taking exception to the paper’s recent article that quoted a founder and senior fellow of the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center, who called AFAM “a wonderful museum” that had “self-destructed” [my link, not his].

The museum’s president, Monty Blanchard, fired back:

I can assure you that we are alive and well….

Our collection is on view in three
simultaneous installations: Jubilation/Rumination, at our flagship
Lincoln Square location; Compass, which opened last month at the South
Street Seaport Museum; and 14 major works in the Metropolitan Museum of
Art’s recently reopened American Wing [my links, not AFAM’s].

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Installed at the Met, on left: Ammi Phillips, “Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog,” 1834-36, a signature work of American Folk Art Museum
On right, by same artist: “Mrs. Mayer and Daughter,” 1835-40, Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Additionally, the museum has recently added three new trustees,
eliminated its debt and commenced a search for a new executive director.
We offer numerous educational, artistic and music events at Lincoln
Square [the location of its current headquarters] every week and are operating in the black [emphasis added] on a yearly budget of
about $3.5 million.

That said, AFAM not only hasn’t named a new director to replace Maria Ann Conelli, who departed a year ago, but its acting director, Linda Dunne, has now also left, becoming director of museum services and operations at the Rubin Museum, New York, effective July 9. Barbara Livenstein, AFAM’s new public relations manager, told me that Dunne is “still working with us on a limited basis and has indicated that she will do so until a new director begins.”

Livenstein also noted that on Sept. 11, a traveling AFAM exhibition—Politics Not As Usual: Quilts with Something to Say—will open at the Boca Raton Museum. And two new exhibitions will open in New York on Sept. 12—Foiled: Tinsel Painting in America, “the first comprehensive exhibition to study a particular form of reverse painting on glass,” and Ooh, Shiny, a show of “folk art that incorporates reflective material.”

Not so “shiny” (and causing us to be morosely “reflective”) is the situation at several other endangered institutions.

COMING SOON: A downbeat update about jittery museums on the verge of a (possible) breakdown.

an ArtsJournal blog