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Art Museum prepares for uncertain times

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 24, 2009 - Attendance at the St. Louis Art Museum plunged 18 percent from 2007 to 2008, to its lowest point in a decade. John D. Weil, president of the museum's board of commissioners, speculated on the reason: preparation for construction of the long-awaited addition. The museum closed galleries and curtailed programs in advance of its anticipated, but then delayed, groundbreaking late last year.

Ultimately, though, Weil added: "You don't know why people don't show up exactly."

Museum director Brent R. Benjamin termed the drop "no surprise," given the ongoing reconstruction of U.S. Highway 40/Interstate 64, particularly the months-long closing of the Hampton Avenue entrance into Forest Park. He noted that the museum's previous attendance low came in 2003, when roads were being reworked in Forest Park itself.

Of the four institutions in and near Forest Park that are members of the St. Louis Zoological Park & Museum District, both the Art Museum and the Science Center took attendance hits last year, and the Art Museum's was three times the Science Center's percentage decline. The Zoo managed to squeak out a 1 percent increase, while the Missouri History Museum's attendance increased by a third.

The highway work has continued, and the museum has remained in pre-construction countdown since calling off last year's groundbreaking just short of execution, citing turmoil in the financial markets then.

Weil says that, for the safety of its art and patrons alike, the museum will have to operate at a somewhat reduced level until construction is finished.

The museum scheduled only two major exhibitions this year, down from three in 2008. First up was "Power and Glory: Court Arts of China's Ming Dynasty," which drew 54,696 visitors during its run from late February through mid-May, according to the museum.

That was better than last year's "Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art" (nearly 45,000 visitors) but a comedown from 2007's "Symbols of Power: Napoleon and the Art of the Empire Style, 1800-1815" (nearly 80,000).

The Ming show accounted for roughly one-fourth of the museum's 217,612 attendees through June of this year, an improvement over the 202,543 logged during the last year's first half.

Until the museum's second major show in October, the museum has plugged "migration (empire)--linear version," a video program on loan from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, into the main galleries. Benjamin says the show has been getting 500 visitors a day since opening at the end of June

Comparison of attendance

2007               2008     % Change

Art Museum    461,147           376,507         -18 

Science Center 1,283,671     1,205,271          -6

St. Louis Zoo    2,956,741     2,988,058         +1 

MO History Museum 232,624    306,356      +32 

Sources: St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis Science Center, St. Louis Zoo

This year's second major show is "Five Centuries of Japanese Screens," consisting of pieces from the permanent collections of the museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. It's at the Art Institute now and scheduled to open here on Oct. 18 and close Jan. 3, 2010. The museum has announced no major exhibitions for beyond that date.

"We do have plans going forward," Weil said, adding that "there's a degree of flux" in them. Benjamin, while promising "an ongoing exhibition program in the main galleries with the same variety" as usual during the construction, said the museum is "intentionally" keeping its exhibition schedule for the period "a little bit loose."

He adds that the museum will announce its 2010 shows in conjunction with the groundbreaking, vaguely scheduled for later this year.

At that same time, the museum expects to open the "public phase" of its fund-raising campaign, giving smaller donors the chance to help close the gap between the new wing's estimated $125 million price tag and the $120 million already pledged by museum board members and other major contributors.

The exact timing of the groundbreaking and related announcements depends on last-minute preparations now proceeding behind the scenes on two tracks. The project's joint venture general contractors -- Tarlton Corp., KAI Design & Build and Pepper Construction Group -- "are now working to calculate a guaranteed maximum price in conjunction with a number of subcontractors," Benjamin said. "At the same time we're revising our financing plan," including whether federal stimulus funds are available.

All this fine-tuning will last "late into the fall," he said. As for the decision to delay the project for a year, he said that has proved to be "a very prudent" financial move in light of the markets' recent stabilization. But Weil concedes "a concern" that the extended construction period could cost the museum attendance.

In calculating that, the museum counts not just patrons of major shows but all visitors and people who take part in its adult, family, community and school programs.

The 10-year attendance rundown is from one of several exhibits the museum included in its latest annual presentation to the board of the ZMD, which channels tax money from St. Louis and St. Louis County to the four Forest Park-area institutions and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Once a year representatives of each of the five organizations meet separately with the ZMD board to go over their operations, finances and plans.

The museum's presentation, on June 23, included some budget details for this year and last and a budget forecast for 2010. These show that the the ZMD provides the museum about $20 million, or roughly two-thirds of its total revenue.

The numbers also showed the museum budgeting for a surplus of $6 million in 2008 but ending up with a deficit of almost $12 million, largely resulting from investment losses totaling $27 million. This occurred even as the museum slashed expenses for programs by 17.7 percent and support services by 14.9 percent from their budgeted amounts, according to the documents, which remain on file with the ZMD. Explanatory notes cite "the decline in the financial markets" for the investment losses and "open positions" among the reasons for the "underspending."

To balance its budget, the museum has been reducing employment. Through layoffs, attrition and two retirement incentives, it had trimmed its full-time staff to 159 employees in June from 188 the previous year. 

According to the museum's ZMD documents, the open positions include the jobs of curator and assistant curator for Africa, Oceania and the Americas, curator for prints, drawings and photographs and a modern art intern. Benjamin said that searches are ongoing to fill the curatorial  positions.

The museum says that these curatorial openings have not affected programming. Jennifer Stoffel, director of external affairs, noted that while the curatorial positions are open, the departments are staffed. Additionally, spokeswoman Leigh Hamer said that the museum is working with William C. Siegmann, emeritus curator of African Art and the Pacific Islands with the Brooklyn Museum of Art, "to reconfigure the museum's temporary installation of African art highlights and plan for the collection's reinstallation" after the expansion.       

The museum's 2010 financial forecast, also in its ZMD presentation, suggests it is bracing for a further softening of attendance. Income from admissions, for instance, is projected to drop to $135,000 next year from $173,310 budgeted for this year and last year's actual receipts of $219,100. Sales are projected at $689,000, compared with $1,069,121 last year and this year's budget of $908,063.

Benjamin concedes that museum visitors will experience "some temporary inconveniences" as the new wing takes shape, notably a shortage of parking as the lots behind and east of the existing building are taken out of service. In addition, the auditorium and restaurant will be closed during most, if not all, of the construction.

But Benjamin says no additional gallery closings are anticipated.

The museum has described the addition as a two-year project. A timeline posted in Sculpture Hall shows completion in 2012.

Until then, Benjamin said, the museum is committed "to maintain public access" and to schedule as many activities "as the galleries will accommodate."

"The goal is to do as much as we can in a difficult situation," said Weil. And though people may be discouraged from attending while construction is under way, he predicted that "excitement will build" when the addition opens.

Art Museum attendance

1999: 494,848   

2000: 499,944

2001: 676,774

2002: 479,813

2003: 378,113

2004: 421,059

2005: 480,763

2006: 445,143

2007: 461,147

2008: 376,507

Source: Art Museum's 2009 report to the ZMD

Susan C. Thomson is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

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