The Recession and US Museums
The contraction of anything short of all-weather philanthropic support is, of course, compounded by dramatic drops of 30-50% in endowment income (whether museums’ own or of the trusts and foundations on which they rely). The precipitous drop in Brandeis University’s endowment led to its president’s ill thought-out plan to close the Rose Museum and sell its collection. A more wily plan may well have attracted less attention. It is also compounded by cuts in public expenditure as local and national governments enter a prolonged period of austerity, reflecting their reduced tax base and the increased demands for fiscal intervention. UK Culture Secretary Andy Burnham said in January: “All parts of government have to hear that message and live in the real world. Some people may not like it, but the arts has [sic] to live in the real world too. Nobody is immune from what is happening.” In the US, the State of California is sending out IOUs instead of the tax rebates it owes, and most state and city arts departments—far more significant in the US than federal arts funding—have either implemented cuts or warned that they are on their way. Layoffs, furloughs (unpaid leave), pay cuts and shortened public openings are common in smaller museums and galleries in the US.
Museums of art have tended to rely more heavily on spectacle than programme to attract visitors—loud headlines rather than a fine print of involvement in the community. This is despite exhortations by trade associations such as the American Association of Museums in the US and the Museums Association in the UK that their members adopt agendas that increase and parade their social relevance, and myriad programmes of outreach and social engagement.
In the painful process of the prioritisation of public expenditure, the prospect of political underwriting—that is, a sense of obligation to sustain cultural institutions by civic leadership—is greatly diminished both by the realities of public expenditure constraint and by the growing sentiment of politicians that the art world, at least at its current scale of activity, is simply not central to a civic agenda congested with crises in health, housing, employment, education and the environment.