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Hard Times at NYC Museums: National Academy Homeless (with video); Staffing Cuts at the Metropolitan Museum, Brooklyn Museum, MoMA

Unlike the 2008 meltdown, there’s currently no major economic recession in the U.S. to blame for the recent epidemic of belt-tightening by three major New York City art museums—the Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art and Brooklyn Museum.

While the long-term viability of those institutions is not in doubt, a fourth—the National Academy Museum—intends to shut its doors tomorrow ceasing normal operations (but offering to lend works to other institutions), until and unless it can sell its posh Fifth Avenue buildings and find a new, more modest home. (See the valedictory CultureGrrl Video at the end of this post.)

In recent remarks to the press, Tom Campbell, the Metropolitan Museum’s director, recently sought to soften the impact of his museum’s bombshell announcement that it planned to rein in expenses and cut staff to address a projected deficit of $10 million.

Tom Campbell at the May 17 Met press breakfast Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Tom Campbell at the Met’s May 17 press breakfast
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Speaking to journalists assembled at the museum’s recent continental buffet breakfast (frugally downscaled from the customary sit-down press lunches), Campbell tried to assure us that “this is not about compromising. In many ways, the changes that are ahead for the Met will probably not be felt by the public at all. We may be doing some adjustment to the pace and scale of our activities, but not their substance. We may extend our timelines and focus our priorities, but not shift away from our core commitment to scholarship and accessibility.”

Maybe so. But the Met’s “commitment to scholarship” took a big hit two days later, when Houston’s Menil Collection announced that its new director would be Rebecca Rabinow, a former Houston-ite (like her rhyming Met colleague, Gary Tinterow, now director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston).

The Met’s longtime curator of modern art, Rabinow was the point person for ushering in Leonard Lauder‘s major promised gift of Cubist paintings, drawings and sculptures. With much fanfare, she had also been named as the inaugural curator-in-charge of the Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, established and endowed last year.

Rebecca Rabinow

Rebecca Rabinow

On the same day when the Met disclosed its buyout plans, the Museum of Modern Art had exultantly announced David Geffen‘s $100-million naming gift for its planned renovation and expansion. Intentionally or not, the timing made it appear that while the Met was financially pinched, MoMA was flush.

But MoMA had saved the worst for last: Two weeks later, its press office sent me this:

The Museum of Modern Art is offering its employees who are 55 years of age or older, and who have at least nine years of service as of July 31, the opportunity to participate in a voluntary retirement program this summer.

The Museum is in a transitional stage in terms of the scope of its operations, which are at a reduced level during the renovation period. The program is entirely voluntary and is intended to benefit staff who are considering retirement this year.”

A couple of weeks after MoMA’s bombshell hit the news, the Brooklyn Museum told Robin Pogrebin of the NY Times that it would offer its staff “voluntary buyouts to address a budget deficit of about $3 million.” Its press spokesperson later sent me this statement:

The Brooklyn Museum has seen tremendous growth over the past few years, but like many other prominent cultural organizations in New York, the cost of running the Museum has substantially grown, creating a structural deficit.

The Museum is therefore being proactive by setting a course correction and realigning its work with its budget, restructuring its staff, cutting non-essential spending, and investing in areas that will enhance core programs and increase support.  As a part of this effort, our employees are being offered voluntary buyouts.

We will undoubtedly be saddened to learn some of the distinguished names of departing veterans. But nothing could be sadder than the closing tomorrow of the 190-year-old National Academy Museum, with no certainty about if, where or when it may reopen.

Below is a detail from the salon-style hanging of American works, 1820s through the 1970s, in the Academy’s permanent collection, as seen at the press preview for its 2011 renovation and reinstallation, when its prospects seemed brighter. (I allude to this photo in my video of my return to this room.)

National Academy curators Marshall Price and Bruce Weber at Sept. 2011 press preview for the then reopened, renovated National Academy Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

National Academy’s then curators Marshall Price and Bruce Weber at Sept. 2011 press preview for the then reopened, renovated museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In the elegiac spirit of my visit to the American Folk Art Museum during the final hours of its last day on W. 53rd Street, come join me for a last look around the National Academy, via my CultureGrrl Video, shot on May 7, the day before the museum’s last exhibitions were to close. Those displays were followed by a show of works by the faculty and staff of the National Academy School, which continues to function on the premises while a real estate buyer is sought.

In more upbeat news: The New Museum and Bronx Museum of Arts both recently announced expansion plans. Here’s hoping these feisty, well managed museums raise the bulk of what’s needed for construction and endowment before a spade hits the ground.

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