When Times are Tough, Local Arts Groups Tap Into Their Creativity
This crippling economic recession has a way of exposing our hidden financial flaws — whether it’s a family that took on too much debt, a business that hadn’t bothered to save for a rainy day, or a local arts organization with an uncertain revenue stream.
Although the struggling families, businesses and charitable nonprofit organizations have received most of the media attention, museums and visual and performing-arts groups were perhaps the hardest hit by the recession.
In Tallahassee, LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts and the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science have found themselves in an unprecedented financial crisis.
“It is not uncommon for nonprofits of any size that are community-based to be struggling right now across the nation,” said Laura Deaton, a consultant to nonprofits who worked with LeMoyne. “(Art museums and galleries) are particularly hard hit because private, government and for-profit sectors are struggling. When you have a limited dollar pool going to nonprofits, they tend to go to basic-needs organizations.”
Many of Tallahassee’s arts organizations have long struggled to make ends meet from one year to the next. Their operating budgets are based on fundraising projections, admission fees, grants, summer camps, sponsorships and memberships, all of which can change on a dime and are particularly sensitive to the shifting winds of a changing economy.
Directors say that in both good times and bad, they hold their breath that their revenue projections are met. Unlike large, world-famous museums such as New York City’s Guggenheim that are supported by a trust or endowment, museums in towns the size of Tallahassee have to find fresh ways to generate income from the community each year.
In Tallahassee, LeMoyne and the Brogan are deeply questioning their continued survival, and both have developed unique financing solutions to keep their doors open. The Brogan has tried to diversify its fundraising base by developing a partnership with the Italian government. LeMoyne is selling its iconic downtown location, as well as artworks from its permanent collection.
Both have reached a crucial point in their history. Through a combination of new revenue streams, cost-cutting, ambitious exhibitions and optimism about the economy, the two organizations are hopeful that the current economic crisis will help them stabilize their operating budgets and serve as a wake-up call to the community.
The Brogan: shaky foundations
On Duval Street downtown, in the shadow of the state Capitol building, is the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science. The three-story building is a favorite field-trip destination, thanks to its interactive science museum on the first two floors.
The third floor is the art gallery, a quiet sanctuary a world apart from the noisy, bustling science museum below. This mixture of art and science was not how the museum was originally envisioned. City and museum planners had intended to have two separate museums in two separate buildings. But money couldn’t be raised to fund both ambitious projects.
In 1998, the Odyssey Science Center opened, and a year later the Museum of Art/Tallahassee opened on the facility’s third floor. Though they shared a building, each museum had its own director, board of directors and budget.
By 2000, out of financial and practical necessity, the two museums merged and became the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science. At the time, Mary Brogan was the recently deceased wife of Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, who is now chancellor of the State University System of Florida.
Almost from the start, the museum struggled to meet the demand of its operating budget, said museum director Chucha Barber.
“We have struggled since our inception,” Barber said. “There was a belief that when we built it, people would come and it would be all right. There wasn’t a plan for where it would get its operating funds year to year, and it’s difficult to do so.”
Each year, the Brogan has to find a way to bring in between $1.2 million and $1.5 million in revenue to support its operations. And every year, Barber said, she isn’t sure where that money will come from.
“We make projections each year based on history,” she said. “But I can tell you we don’t always live up to history when we are in the greatest recession since the Great Depression.”
Traditionally, the museum has funded its operations from a buffet of financing options. Contrary to what most people understand about museums, the Brogan and most museums couldn’t survive from donations and admission fees alone.
Instead, Barber looks to local, state and federal grants, admission fees, individual and corporate memberships, sponsorships, summer camps, facility rentals, and rentals of art from its permanent collection to bring in revenue.
“There are a lot of uncertainties with my budget year to year,” she said. For instance, she has to reapply for most grants each year — and isn’t allowed to receive others in consecutive years.
Surprisingly, the biggest portion of her revenue pie comes from the camps the Brogan offers for school-age children throughout the year. Any time school is out, the museum typically offers camps that cater to the arts and sciences. The second biggest source of revenue is sponsorships, either corporate or private. A sponsor can pay to have its name attached to an exhibit, a piece of art or an event. The third biggest revenue source is grants.
But the recession upended what Barber said was already a shaky foundation. The Brogan worked hard in 2008 to negotiate for the popular “Bodies” exhibit. The exhibit featured actual human bodies preserved without skin so that viewers could learn about the human body, from the skeletal and muscular systems to fetal development.
“This was our first gargantuan, blockbuster type of exhibit,” Barber said. “We thought we were very successful in our negotiations because we didn’t pay a $1 million rental fee. We convinced our promoter that we were a struggling community.”
At the beginning, “Bodies” was extremely successful. Lines formed to get into the Brogan — a situation that lasted for weeks. It was the most popular exhibit the museum had ever had. Then the lines stopped.
“It was as if someone had turned the tap off,” Barber said.
She believes it was due to the economy. The exhibit ran from Jan. 17 to May 25, 2009, and its cheapest ticket price was $17, with the most expensive at $35.
“People stopped spending leisure dollars,” Barber said. “It was confounding and confusing and overwhelming. All of a sudden, our projections were off. Nothing was going to hold water anymore.”
Barber said her first instinct was to cut costs.
“We started to really tighten our belt,” she said. “We decided not to rent out really big blockbuster exhibitions. We decided to fabricate what we could on our own with very little money.” The museum staff developed exhibits that focused on solar and alternative energy. Eight positions were cut through attrition, and furloughs were implemented. Retirement benefits were eliminated.
“The staff hung in there,” Barber said. The Brogan has 16 employees, although it hires more to prepare for big events or summer camps.
“Everybody was holding on, but when you don’t do blockbuster exhibits, people don’t come,” she said. “It further exacerbated the situation.”
Reaching a critical point in its survival, the Brogan turned to Atlanta-based Convergent Nonprofit Solutions for advice.
“The truth was, if the community did not want to support the Brogan Museum, we needed to know that,” Barber said.
Convergent conducted a survey of Tallahassee residents.
“We learned, first and foremost, the community does really want this Brogan Museum,” Barber said. However, the community had suggestions for improvement. Tallahasseeans wanted to see the Brogan reach out to neighboring communities more, partner with other cultural organizations, and bring in more big, blockbuster exhibits like “Bodies.”
“They want us to bring in awesome exhibits,” Barber said. “They don’t want mediocre quality.”
The problem is, the better the exhibit, the more expensive the rental fee. The Brogan needed to figure out a way to find money in an already financially strapped community.
“All of us in the community that are not-for-profits are knocking on the same doors for our savior,” Barber said. “The truth is that these are wonderful organizations that want to support all of us, but their resources are limited.”
The Brogan needed to find a way to diversify its income source, Barber said.
The solution turned out to be in Italy.
Trish Hanson, the museum’s chief operating officer, went on a trip to Italy with a local Rotary club. She spent her time learning about Italian museums, and an opportunity came up to host 56 Italian paintings from the 16th through 18th centuries from the Brera Museum in Milan.
Nine of them need restoration; as part of the deal Trish pitched, the Brogan will pay the Italian government, which owns the paintings, for the work. The museum will pay no pricey rental fee — only the cost of shipping, restoration and insurance.
Coincidentally, Seagrove Beach resident and art restoration expert Bill Weiller has a second home in Italy and was asked by Sandrina Bandera, the director of the Brera Museum, about this town she had never heard of and pronounced carefully: Tal-la-has-see. Weiller told her he had never been to the Brogan Museum or Tallahassee. Bandera asked Weiller to help vet the idea by checking out the Brogan Museum for her.
Weiller said he’s impressed at Trish’s tenacity in getting Bandera to agree to the exhibition. Bandera is considered one of the leading names in Italian art and has written dozens of books, similar to the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“Trish didn’t know any better and she was an unknown and with her smiling face she (pitched the idea to Bandera) and Bandera said ‘sure’ and Trish followed up,” Weiller said.
After checking out the Brogan, Weiller said he was “intrigued” by the idea.
“It will put this little museum on the map because they will have hosted an international exhibition for the first time from a major museum,” Weiller said. “It will be great for the entire North Florida region.”
Weiller believes this one exhibition could enable the Brogan to expand its reach beyond Tallahassee. He helped fund part of the cost of the exhibit in a show of support.
“We think there may be an opportunity to reach outside the community with an exhibition like this, and perhaps others in our future, whereby we are now generating support from Italian firms and firms in Italy that want to do business in Florida. All of a sudden, there are new revenue streams that are uniquely associated with the Brogan Museum.”
In addition to generating ties with Italy, Barber said the Brogan might have the ability to rent out the Italian paintings to other museums and generate income from that.
The Brogan hopes to open the exhibit in March 2011 and use the opportunity to spur renewed interest in the museum, similar to the way “Bodies” brought in more people than any other exhibit had before. The museum plans on marketing it outside of Tallahassee to cities such as Atlanta, Jacksonville and Tampa.
The Brogan also is seeking sponsors to “adopt” one of the Italian paintings to help pay for the restoration, and has launched a special fundraising effort to get donations to pay for the cost of the exhibit. Although there is no rental fee, the Brogan expects its operating budget to be $400,000 higher in its 2010-2011 fiscal year because of the exhibit.
The Brogan also has an escape clause in the event that fundraising efforts fall short. If financial goals are not met, the museum still will pay to restore the paintings but won’t mount an exhibition, meaning it wouldn’t have to pay for shipping or insurance.
“Our hope at the moment is that by offering our constituents exhibitions and programs of such outstanding caliber, people cannot resist,” Barber said. “We hope that will keep us alive. We have already tried hunkering down, and it didn’t work.”
LeMoyne: Back from the Brink
In March of this year, much of Tallahassee was surprised to hear that the LeMoyne Center for the Visual Arts — the 46-year-old grand dame of local arts organizations — was in deep financial trouble. Like the Brogan,
LeMoyne’s funding was uncertain from year to year; passing the hat around to board members to pay expenses was common, and the current recession only compounded its problems.
At a hastily called general meeting in March, board members told supporters they had cut expenses by laying off most of LeMoyne’s staff and were trying to retire debt by selling off its properties, including the historic Meginnis-Munroe House, home to the organization for more than four decades.
The most drastic option put on the table was to temporarily shut down the venerable institution’s operations and go into “hibernation.”
LeMoyne was able to continue operating throughout 2010 with a bare-bones budget and only two paid staff members — an interim director and an education director. The popular art camps — which make money that has traditionally paid some of LeMoyne’s operating costs — continued through the summer.
One austerity measure was to eliminate storage costs by bringing the organization’s permanent art collection on site.
“We knew there were hundreds of art pieces we had in storage, and very few of us had even seen (them),” said LeMoyne board member Colleen Castille. She said the board revived an idea that members had been kicking around for a few years: to inventory the collection’s 550 or so pieces and raise money by selling ones that aren’t needed.
And so, as a special component of this year’s annual Art and Soul Celebration, LeMoyne will be auctioning off about 150 pieces of art in silent and live auctions. The public is invited to view about 100 artworks now hanging in the LeMoyne gallery. Some are for immediate sale and others will be part of a silent auction held Sept. 21–22. LeMoyne is planning a preview party Sept. 22 from 5–8 p.m., when the auction will be closed and the winning bidders announced. Ticket prices for this event are $15 and include a free membership to LeMoyne.
Another 50 pieces will be sold in live and silent auctions held during the Art and Soul event, set for Sept. 23 at the trendy new Hotel Duval on North Monroe Street. Castille, who is chair for the event, says the night will include a runway show of “clothing as art” created by senior textile students from Florida State University as well as “luscious” hors d’oeuvres, a cash bar and musical entertainment. Tickets are $75 each, and the event is limited to 250 people.
LeMoyne is being deliberative in deciding which artworks to sell.
“We’re not taking it lightly,” Castille said. The board has invited FSU art professors with longstanding ties to the organization to “come over and look at what we have and evaluate” which pieces should remain with LeMoyne and which ones can be sold.
“We’re trying to be respectful of the family members who have given us this art for safekeeping and yet be able to provide to art lovers an opportunity to have some of our treasures become their own,” Castille said. “If we believe it is valuable, we will not let it go for a song. But it’s certainly a time in the art market that people can get a good deal.”
On the auction block will be works by notable painter Hiram Williams. After his death in 2003, LeMoyne was given several of his works. Organizers plan to save the best and sell the rest.
“We have some cool things that don’t have particular value, but they may have historic value,” Castille said, including photographs of local sinks from “way back when in the ’60s.”
Organizers hope to raise $40,000 with the event, which is about the same amount raised in the popular Chain of Parks Art Festival, held this past April. Other individuals have pledged support, including restaurateur Eric Favier, who hosted a Bastille Day fete at his Chez Pierre restaurant in July that netted about $20,000.
But even with successful fundraisers, LeMoyne’s leadership has decided that the long-term success of the organization rests on retiring its mortgages and other debts totaling $750,000, requiring payments of about $5,800 every month.
Their extreme solution is to sell the 1.2-acre complex — including two historic buildings, an education center and the Helen Lind Garden — and move elsewhere. The current asking price for the entire parcel is $1.45 million.
The board has decided that even if an “angel” were to write a check for the entire debt, the challenges in maintaining the historic buildings — the gallery building, the Meginnis-Munroe House, was built in 1854 — detract from the organization’s true mission of art education.
LeMoyne’s new board president, Kevin McAlpine, is a banker with an accounting background, and he is bringing his business experience to bear on an organization that has, in the past, been led by more artistic sorts.
In addition to the property sale, McAlpine said the board is going to require all activities to be profitable, or at least break even. As an example, he said artists having gallery shows might have to pick up the costs for advertising and mailings as well as hanging their own art, instead of depending on a curator.
“We’re doing the heavy lifting right now to put LeMoyne back on track,” McAlpine said. “The downturn in the economy really forced LeMoyne to reinvent itself for the future. I see that as a good thing, because we never would have really addressed it if we’d just kind of ebbed and flowed as an organization with the fundraisers and the subsidizing of the operations.
“Now we’re really forced to look at it as a refocus of our mission — which is education — and look at it with more of a business acumen,” he said. “And address our membership with being different — reinventing ourselves.”
Wendy Dixon contributed to this article.