After many months of trying to extract detailed information from the Metropolitan Museum’s press office about its operations at the Met Breuer (opening Mar. 18), my dogged persistence was rewarded last week with a brief but informative interview with its president, Daniel Weiss.
One of the things I learned is that the Met has projected a worrisome operating deficit this fiscal year of $8.2 million—its largest shortfall in four years. (More details on this below.)
Some of my key questions about the financial arrangements, programmatic plans and long-term prospects still remain unanswered at this writing. (More on that in Part II.) But my hope is that the culture of openness that Weiss brings with him from a long career in academia (Haverford and Lafayette colleges, Johns Hopkins University) may help to usher in an era of increased transparency at the Met.
In the interest of clarity and structure, I have lightly edited our conversation [adding a few of my own italicized asides, in brackets].
Here is Part I:
ROSENBAUM: Now that you’ve had a chance to see how the Met Breuer is working with visitors (although not yet with the general public), is it functioning well and is there anything that needs to be changed?
WEISS: So far, we’re very pleased with how it’s working. We haven’t placed a lot of pressure on the building yet, because the visitors have been limited in number: We’ve had various opening events. But we’re very pleased with how it’s functioned thus far—the flow of the building, the use of the facilities, and the aesthetics of the work we’ve done seem to be playing out very nicely. The real question will be once we open to the public and have larger numbers going through.
ROSENBAUM: I wanted to ask about the Met-Whitney relationship: You both have indicated that the two museums will have shared programs in the building. What will those be?
WEISS: The shared programs are not “programs” so much as shared responsibility for some aspects of the maintenance of the building—what you have with a landlord and a tenant. We have a comprehensive agreement to use the building for an initial eight-year period.
[Contrary to Weiss’ description, the Met’s fiscal 2015 annual report (p. 129) suggests a programmatic collaboration, stating that on Aug. 10, 2012, the Met “entered into an operating agreement with the Whitney Museum…, pursuant to which the (Metropolitan) Museum will use and occupy portions of the Whitney’s building located at 945 Madison Avenue…(the “Building”), for a term of 8 years with an option at the Museum’s discretion to extend the term for an additional 5.5 years. The Whitney will continue to occupy portions of the Building and both parties will work together to develop joint programming initiatives for the Building as well as other locations” (emphases added).]
ROSENBAUM: The Met’s annual report says you have an option to renew the eight-year agreement for another five and a half years, at the Met’s discretion. Does that mean that the Met has the right to renew for another five and a half years, if it so desires?
WEISS: The agreement gives us that option. But whatever we decide would be done mutually. We really think of them as our partners.
ROSENBAUM: So if they wanted it back after eight years, you wouldn’t stand in their way?
WEISS: I don’t think we’d get into any kind of dispute with them about that.
[The Whitney’s fiscal 2015 annual report (p. 19), unlike the Met’s, merely characterizes the length Met’s occupation of the Breuer building as “a multi-year term,” with no specifics about its duration.]
ROSENBAUM: Robert Hurst [the Whitney’s executive committee chairman] told Robin Pogrebin of the NY Times that the Whitney will likely reclaim the Breuer building. Is that your understanding? That’s the first time I’ve heard it stated so explicitly.
WEISS: The spirit of the partnership is that we’re really both going to see how it goes. They have a whole lot of adapting to do over the next several years. They have a magnificent new building and we are taking on this role [at the Breuer]. I think, realistically, within about five years, both parties will probably have a good sense of what we want to do.
ROSENBAUM: If given the chance, might you want to stay there in perpetuity?
WEISS: Yes. We’re embarking on this very exciting experiment—taking over this iconic building and doing some work in it. I think everything’s on the table.
ROSENBAUM: Including your taking it over?
WEISS: If that’s agreeable to the Whitney and if we would like to do it, we’d certainly make that proposal. We wouldn’t be afraid of asking, if we thought that was something we really would like to do.
ROSENBAUM: From your conversation with Pogrebin, it sounds like you relieved the Whitney of the financial headache of running two buildings, but maybe gave yourself one. The budget for the Met Breuer, Robin wrote, is going to be $17 million a year. Is that correct?
WEISS: Yes. The operating budget that we anticipate will be about $17 million a year and we have 110 staff members working there.
ROSENBAUM: Is there an anticipated deficit?
WEISS: We put together a financial model that is predicated on visitation numbers comparable to the Whitney’s when they were there and maybe a little bit higher. So we’re assuming a certain kind of revenue and a cost structure—the cost to operate it—and then we’re raising the difference from our donor base, to help offset the cost. So the idea is that it will have no effect on our basic operating budget.
ROSENBAUM: How does that jibe with what Robin wrote—that the Met Breuer will run an “expected operating loss”?
WEISS: I think what she meant is that the expected revenues from admissions would not offset the full operating costs. Most museums have endowment and other kinds of philanthropic support for this.
ROSENBAUM: Does that mean that the Met Breuer is not going to affect the bottom line in a negative way and that you’ll raise money for its operations, as you do for everything else?
WEISS: That’s correct. And thus far, we’re on schedule to do that.
ROSENBAUM: Is there a capital campaign associated with all this? Is there an amount that was going to be raised and is there an endowment amount associated with that?
WEISS: Not specifically for this project. We projected what these costs are, as part of our overall fundraising strategy for the family of buildings that we now oversee.
ROSENBAUM: When we spoke about a year ago, you mentioned that one of your strengths was financial management. You also stated that museums “have to balance our budgets.” But the Met hasn’t had a balanced budget for a while now.
WEISS: Everybody during the financial downturn after 2008 has had to deal with very deep operational deficits—every cultural institution and university. And then they all kind of balanced out the budgets. So we [at the Met] had a balanced budget thereafter for a few years. But if you look over the last 25 years, we have carried modest deficits most of those years. They’re not material. In the last couple of years, they’ve probably been a little higher than that.
ROSENBAUM: Do you have any plans to address that?
WEISS: We’re doing various things to control our spending and to match revenues to spending. This year [fiscal 2016, ending June 30], we had a projected deficit of $8.2 million [emphasis added], which was approved by the board. There are always changes to revenues and costs that might change that number.
[The projected $8.2-million deficit this year almost equals the $8.4-million deficit in fiscal 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession. After that, thanks in large measure to cost-cutting (fiscal 2010) and the Alexander McQueen Effect (which straddled the next two fiscal years), there were three years of surpluses—$3.7 million (FY ’10); $1.3 million (FY ’11); $0.2 million (FY ’12). Those were followed by deficits for the past three years: $4.4 million (FY ’13); $3.5 million (FY ’14); $7.7 million (FY ’15).]
This year has been a bit challenging, because it’s been a very difficult retail environment for everybody. The strong dollar has cut back on the spending from international tourists coming to New York and what we’ve seen is that total visitor numbers are up a little bit—not only at the Met but across New York—but spending is down. So they come three days instead of four days and they spend a little less money.
That’s had an effect on our budget and we want therefore to take a look at our cost side to make sure that we’re trying to track the commitments that we need and the budget that we had approved.
ROSENBAUM: What are your feelings about how the Met Breuer is succeeding?
WEISS: I hope it contributes meaningfully to the way people think about modern and contemporary art in New York. People may not love everything we do, but if it gets them talking and asking new and different questions about this area, that’s terrific. We want to produce high-quality programming that is also stimulating. I think we’re doing that.
The other thing to say, as a newcomer, is that watching this staff produce this new building and a whole new way of structuring operations is really inspiring. I’ve never seen an organization as capable as this one. I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement, but it’s been super-impressive watching how we did it. It was not easy.
COMING SOON: Part II