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Six Tampa Bay museum directors tell how they're coping with recession

MELISSA LYTTLE   I   Times

MELISSA LYTTLE I Times

The directors of our six Tampa Bay area museums are one busy group. But we managed to get them together for a portrait and discussion of their individual and collective takes on the business and art of museums in tough times. Their responses are as varied as their institutions. One thing comes through loud and clear: They are committed to excellence and are most creative in seeking it. Our panel: Hank Hine, Salvador Dali Museum; Joanne Milani, Florida Museum of Photographic Arts; Margaret Miller, University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum; John Schloder, Museum of Fine Arts; Todd Smith, Tampa Museum of Art; and Lynn Whitelaw, Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art.

Lennie Bennett, Times art critic

How are you all weathering the economic challenges right now?

Milani: We're so small, we're not overextended in any sense. It's a little harder getting sponsorships for shows, but we're getting them. And grants.

Schloder: Attendance is actually up, and first-time donors are up. The size of the donation is a lot smaller now, so we need a lot more donors.

Hine: The corporate sponsorships just vaporized except for the real stalwarts who are still there, trying to help but with much less.

Miller: Our corporate loan program has continued to thrive. It's just the range of cuts, in my case, from the university itself in terms of hourly wages; graduate assistantships are cut. Then, on top of that, the grants are reduced almost in half.

Hank, the Dali especially seems to be less reliant on special exhibitions that tend to generate attendance for many museums.

Hine: We don't feel compelled to do special exhibitions for economic necessity because most of our visitors from abroad complain about contemporary shows because they came here to see Dali's art. But we are compelled to do them in terms of our sense of our role in the community.

Miller: I think it's more of a challenge than just to keep things going in the same way, at least in the university. For me — I'm speaking for university concerns — it's what artists am I bringing in? Are they contributing to global literacy? Are they adding to the students' and the community's understanding of art practice internationally? That's how I see my role, and we have to think of new ways to do this.

Whitelaw: We're in the creativity business. That's what we do, so out of challenges come possibilities. The realities of, do you have to close a day? Do you have to let some staff off? Those are realities that we will have to deal with. But in terms of having to maybe cut an exhibition budget but find creative ways to still address our audiences, I welcome that challenge. And still make sure that we touch on what we need to do, what our core business is, what we want to engage the public with. But there are still realities and those are hard.

Smith: And I would be reluctant to view any of us as immune to the recession. As a citizen of any community, we need to do our job as well as be horribly efficient in how we manage what we do with our resources because of the public trust we have. So, that means reducing programs, reducing staff, reducing really our entire footprint at a time when everyone else is doing the same thing. I think we have to do that. I don't think we can stand outside of that arena.

Hine: Across the country there have been two responses from museums. One is to pull back and be prudent, try to survive like a seed in the winter. The Tacoma Museum closed an extra day a week, cut 25 percent of salaries across the board, shortened their hours during the workday. The Modern (Museum of Modern Art in New York) raised their price. They're going to raise it again. They extended their hours.

Miller: I think a third response is to repurpose the museum in some ways. Sometimes I find that quite troubling, but, on the other hand, I see my colleagues having music events, food events, social events that attract an audience in a more cultural integration of art into all aspects of living. Everybody's talking about social networking, using Twitter, using Facebook. There's hardly a museum out there that doesn't have a Facebook page now. There's an enormous pressure to rethink communication.

Schloder: For us, special exhibitions are really important, although we want people to come see the permanent collection because it is the only place where you can experience 4,500 years of art and culture on the west coast of Florida. I think museums are re-evaluating their exhibition schedules, doing a lot more exhibitions from their own collections.

Miller: I think some museums are doing a little bit too much of that from my perspective because it doesn't have the kind of critical eye that you would get with a curated exhibition.

Schloder: You've got to find ways of breaking down barriers to go to museums, and there are all sorts of what I call entry points. There might be jazz on Friday nights, or the kids' programming or joint programs. There are all kinds of ways you can attract people to put that first foot in the door and then suck them in for a lifetime experience.

Smith: We're in a different position from all of you because you're actually up and running a place, so we've had some luxury in terms of thinking about what we're going to do when we open.

But there's also pressure to do something really whiz-bang when the Tampa Museum of Art opens.

Smith: There are so many expectations as to what will happen with an opening of any new building, but for us it is a specific challenge in that this has been a long-fought battle to get this museum up. So, the expectations are beyond what anyone in this community could actually ever achieve and I think we understand that. But I've made it very clear I wanted to have the first three years lined up when we opened so that people can see the range of what we can do, so it's just not the first two shows and everything is judged on that. We made a conscious effort for the first year to have three traveling shows. But in the second and third year, every show is going to be curated by us or by an adjunct curator because I wanted us to make a statement about the importance of this museum as part of this community in terms of an intellectual place, as a place with a very specific identity.

Have you cut staff at this point?

Schloder: There's been a hiring freeze.

Miller: Hiring freeze and attrition, and we had to cut some production staff, hourly people, because we lost a lot of money from the university.

Hine: Museums are like big ships and they're difficult to turn around in midstream. We have a show now that's with a very leading-edge videographer, and we started planning this three years ago. Although it would have made sense to say, why don't we just work from our collection during this period and cut those expenses, there are institutions and people who've supported it; you have a reputation to maintain, so you go ahead and do it.

Do any of you have plans to raise your admission rates?

Hine: We raised them right away. That was our response, to be open more hours, charge more money, make the shows as good as possible.

Schloder: For the summer, we're actually lowering the fee, half-price weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon, but we are going to add a surcharge on the Fernando Botero show that's coming up because the cost of that is just so enormous.

Hine: At the Association of American Museums meeting in Philadelphia in April, there was a really interesting presentation by the Baltimore Museum (of Art) and the Walters (Art Museum, also in Baltimore).

Smith: They went free.

Hine: And they talked about their experience. Really exactly what you would not expect. First, they thought, we'll lose membership because if it's free, people will say, why should I become a member? And they did, but they anticipated they would make it up on store sales. Store sales dropped and their admission numbers did not improve. When they polled people — do you go to the museum? — they'd say, no, it's too expensive.

Whitelaw: I call it the Disney effect. If you pay $60 to go to Disney, you spend another $60 to validate that you spent $60 to go in. We're free on Sundays and we're packed. We can have anywhere from 100 to 400 people in four hours, but that used to be our lowest day for sales in the museum store. Saturday, which was actually our lowest day of attendance, had our highest museum store sales because you paid, you came, you had a quieter experience, you had the time to spend in the museum store. But I do believe those people who come free on Sundays, after they come several times, to see new exhibits, eventually they do join. We may go to a $2 charge on Sundays, which is really, hopefully, still nominal.

Smith: Do we think that membership as a concept is going to be different going forward than what it has been in the last 20 years? When someone joins and then doesn't come during the whole year, is that really a value to the organization? Yes, it's cash at the door, but is that person really supporting you on an ongoing basis? I'd rather have 25,000 people come four times a year than 100,000 come once a year because they grow with you, they see the organization across a long period of time and they understand what you're trying to do versus a one-shot.

Miller: You're going to be a destination because you'll have a fabulous new building.

Whitelaw: And there's always a peak after a new building.

Joanne, do you think your membership is growing because of your exhibitions or because of your education program?

Milani: It's both. I think one feeds off the other. Many people become members because they get a big price break with the classes, but they have to come through the museum to go to their class.

You're all trying to plan shows for better times, yet I'm sure you're dealing with myriad funding and availability issues created by current economic conditions.

Miller: I'm part of contemporary art museum directors for mid-site museums, and one of the things we do is to try to partner on a project with another institution. So instead of just touring the show, you ask for help with the catalog, for example.

Whitelaw: We're doing a lot of that. And those are good. They're collegial, and that's important.

Schloder: A lot of times, you call in chits, too. That's the only reason we were able to get Monet's London show (a blockbuster at MFA in 2005).

Miller: That's been a major source of the Dali's internationalization of their collection. They've had some wonderful partnerships.

Schloder: We love to say there's something for everybody at our museum but, you know, for a foreign visitor, the Dali's more exotic. So that's one of the reasons why we continue to do international shows, contemporary exhibitions, is to drive the attendance.

Smith: The antiquities curator is an endowed position that was vacant for almost three-plus years now, and one of the reasons that we went ahead and hired one was the acknowledgment of the strength of that collection for us. It's known among antiquity experts but not among more general audiences. The more we can get that collection known outside of Tampa and throughout the country, we become, I think, a much better museum and we can partner with other museums on upcoming shows in terms of lending.

Miller: We're all conscious of the different missions and qualities of exhibitions and different ideas that each of these institutions has, but it's the constellation. And there are other ingredients that have to be there. There has to be a supportive public. There have to be patrons. There has to be a critical review. And so it's all of those elements: collectors, critical writers, patrons.

Milani: What I think is really interesting is that, no, we don't have a Louvre here, but what we have is a critical mass in this area. It's just not under one roof.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

Tampa Bay area museums
at a glance

Contemporary Art Museum

University of South Florida, 4202 E Fowler Ave., Tampa

It has a good permanent collection, but with only two galleries, space rarely permits exhibiting it. Instead the museum features innovative special exhibitions of emerging and established artists who often work in new media.

Florida Museum of Photographic Arts

200 N Tampa St., Tampa

The smallest of the group, it occupies a reconfigured retail space in downtown Tampa with special exhibitions ranging through all eras and aesthetics of the photographic medium.

Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art

600 Klosterman Road, Tarpon Springs

It sits on the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College and has a permanent collection devoted to Abraham Rattner, a 20th century artist, and his stepson, Allen Leepa, who donated the works as well as those of Rattner's wife and Leepa's mother, Esther Gentle. Special exhibitions focus on art of the 20th and 21st century.

Museum of Fine Arts

255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg

The comprehensive museum has a permanent collection spanning antiquities through contemporary art. Special exhibitions several times yearly can also span that spectrum. A new wing has added more space as well as a full-service cafe.

Salvador Dali Museum

1000 Third St. S, St. Petersburg

A new, larger museum is under construction and scheduled to open in January 2011 to better show off the largest collection of the Spanish surrealist's works in the United States. Special exhibitions rotate works from the collection as well as by artists who share a connection to surrealism.

Tampa Museum of Art

The museum's new building on Ashley Drive on Tampa's downtown waterfront is to open in January, and no shows are planned at its small, temporary location until then. It has an excellent permanent collection of Greek and Roman antiquities and a smaller one of contemporary art. Plans are for several traveling exhibitions in the first year.

Six Tampa Bay museum directors tell how they're coping with recession 08/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 13, 2009 3:02pm]

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