March 25, 2009
Good times and bad for museums

Nice to hear that a couple of local museums are thriving in these hard times. Sadly, they're very much the exception.

On the heels of the March 14 opening of a seven-gallery addition to its Hermann Park-area building, the [Children's Museum of Houston] this week announced plans to add 25 positions to its 177-member workforce.

The $35 million expansion almost doubles the museum's size to 90,000 square feet. Plans call for boosting programs targeting low-income or bilingual families.

Meanwhile, the [Houston Museum of Natural Science], which this year marks its centennial, is moving forward with a campaign to raise $85 million for construction of a 194,000-square-foot addition that will help it cope with millions of visitors who pour through its doors annually.

Museum President Joel Bartsch said $61 million has been raised and a summer groundbreaking is scheduled.

"We're fairly fortunate in that we have a lot of rocks and seashells -- and a town full of geologists and universities," said Bartsch, who noted attendance, membership and revenues all have increased over the past year.

I've heard many good things about the Children's Museum expansion, which we plan to experience soon for ourselves. The HMNS expansion sounds exciting, too - Olivia has been a big fan of dinosaurs for awhile now, so I'm sure she'll love this. The BeyondBONES blog has been giving regular updates on their centennial celebration.

Unfortunately, as noted, for most museums it's been the opposite experience.

"Overall, the state of non-profits right now is very, very difficult," said Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. "They are laying off staff. We hear a lot of stories about capital campaigns postponed. Nationally, museum attendance is up ... unfortunately, admissions don't pay the bills."

As foundations and private donors see the value of their portfolios dwindle, he said, donations drop. Profitable museum memberships, Bell said, also are declining.

Earlier this month, New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it would lay off one-fourth of its merchandising staff and cut its total workforce by 10 percent by summer.

The New York Times reported the museum, whose endowment lost $800 million, or 28 percent of its value, since last summer, has halted hiring and curtailed merit raises and staff travel.

Museums in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis and Los Angeles also have cut staff, the newspaper reported.

The Museum of Fine Arts-Houston has cut workers' salaries up to 4 percent, and the Contemporary Art Museum imposed a hiring freeze and reduced its budget by 10 percent. By the end of last year, said MFA spokeswoman Mary Haus, the value of the art museum's endowment had dropped 28 percent. CAM spokeswoman Connie McAllister said the museum fell short of its fall fundraising goal.

That's really sad. I just hope things turn around soon for them.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 25, 2009 to Elsewhere in Houston
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