Museum Management : Met Seeking Artful Way Out of Pinch

Times Staff Writer

To its many admirers it is America's foremost art museum, a cultural colossus in the gilded heart of Manhattan.

Its vast collections are the envy of other institutions. Its expertise and influence in the world of art are enormous. Its trustees' decisions are emulated by other museums at home and abroad. In the world of diplomacy, it routinely plays host to heads of state and negotiates exchanges with other great international museums. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a social pinnacle, pacesetter and a potent political force.

Its gray beaux-arts buildings take up four of the very best blocks of 5th Avenue and its Medieval annex, the Cloisters, overlooks scenic vistas of the Hudson River. With well over 2 million treasures from 5 millenniums in some 400 galleries, 500 guards, more than 100,000 members and a yearly budget of over $135 million, the Metropolitan is the largest art museum in the United States.

Director's Pride

"The holdings of the Metropolitan Museum are among the richest in the world," preens Guy-Philippe Lannes de Montebello, the museum's director, who traces his lineage to both the Marquis de Sade and Marshal Lannes, one of Napoleon's top officers. "In its encyclopedic scope, this museum covers the history of world culture. In that, it is unique."

But for all its grandeur, some of the Metropolitan's strongest supporters say it is facing major financial and operational challenges, difficulties in part common to other museums. Officials at the Met project a $4.1-million deficit this fiscal year, and other deficits in the $3-million-to-$4-million range could occur in years ahead.

How the Metropolitan responds will be watched closely by other American museums, which over the years have looked to the Met for leadership.

A program of serious cost cutting, coupled with major new fund raising initiatives, is under way at the Metropolitan. The task is complicated because no huge ticketed visiting "blockbuster" exhibitions--which can significantly raise revenues--are scheduled.

Long-Term Debt

"$4 million of deficits is obviously unacceptable in the long run," said Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, who is chairman of the museum's trustees. "You could cope with those kinds of numbers for a short period of time. You can't cope with them over a long period of time.

" . . . I am an optimist. I think we are going to be able to close (the gap), but I think we are going to have a difficult time this year, because New York City has got itself some difficult problems, and we're going to have to ride it through."

The Met's trustees and officers see opportunities amid the problems.

"There are serious underlying challenges, no question, vulnerabilities we are going to have to address," said Diana T. Murray, the Metropolitan's vice president for finance and treasurer. "But there are huge up sides, untapped potential. Quality begets quality, it really does. We've got an eminently salable product."

The Metropolitan's potential and problems, and a recently stepped-up thrust toward marketing, come as it and other American museums are struggling to cope with a troublesome climate in art management.

Fewer Works Donated

Because of changes in the federal tax laws in 1986, contributions of art to museums have plummeted. Astronomical auction prices make it impossible for most institutions to purchase major paintings. A congressional committee is considering whether to recommend taxing the income of museum shops and other business activities.

Many corporations have cut their donations in favor of other, more visible causes. While museum attendance has continued to rise, directors view an increasingly broad canvas of leisure time competition.

"All museums are running very hard to stay in place," said Edward H. Able Jr., director of the American Assn. of Museums. " . . . We have not in this country properly funded our museums to maintain the level of collections care, management and conservation that is required."

"There is terrific intensity of competition for the philanthropic dollar because of AIDS, homelessness, educational and medical problems," said Michael S. Churchman, director of development at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. "The government as a source of funds is declining, but the expectations of the public are greater in terms of educational priorities, exhibitions and programs."

At the same time, many of the great patrons of years past are disappearing.

"What's been lost is a very powerful American tradition, which is the patient, loving collecting of things over many years by people who built a life around the activity and who built a life around devotion to a museum," said John Walsh, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, who worked as a senior curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan.

"The collectors have a far shorter attention span. The pace is quicker and (collectors) cash in their chips and move on to something else."

The Metropolitan's problems are mitigated, to a degree, by a $430-million endowment--built in part through years of tapping some of the wealthiest art patrons in the world--and help from the city of New York, which pays 21% of its operating expenses, including the heat and lighting bills.

But New York City's budget is badly strained by its continuing struggle with crime, drugs and AIDS--and the city's contributions to the Met have declined over the years.

Meanwhile, an ambitious construction program, fed by a desire to remain at the top, has considerably complicated the museum's finances.

The Metropolitan is paying principal and interest of more than $4 million a year, through 2015, on more than $48 million in bonds that the New York State Dormitory Authority issued on its behalf to pay for the expansion. Since 1970, the Met has added six wings and increased its space by 50%.

A Timely Contribution

During the Metropolitan's early years, when it faced a winter heating crisis because of money problems, financier J. P. Morgan simply sent it a railroad car of coal. Nowadays, gifts of money are announced with great fanfare but often arrive in installments.

For example, some donations for interior portions of the museum's 140,000-square-foot Henry R. Kravis Wing have been stretched over a period of years. The city's bureaucratic machinery has been very slow in releasing its $5-million share of the project for this year, forcing the Met to use its own badly needed funds to pay contractors and other expenses.

The Met also faces the increasing cost of competing with universities and other museums for some of its most famous curators. At the lower end of the ladder, many promising junior art scholars find it extremely difficult to live in New York on current salaries. With 2,200 employees, the Met is a labor-intensive institution, and the costs of some benefits have soared.

The museum collects only voluntary donations (suggested gift: $5) at the door, and does not charge an admission fee except for "blockbuster" exhibits. Museum officials expect a 24% decline in admissions revenue this year because no blockbuster is scheduled.

Because of all these factors, top management at the Met has begun crafting a strategy for mitigating deficits in the short term, and for capturing new streams of revenue that can sustain the museum in the decades ahead.

"This deficit is large, but the budget that has been prepared (for this fiscal year) is an honest and open one," said William H. Luers, 60, a former ambassador to Czechoslovakia who left a long State Department career to become the Metropolitan's president in 1986. "We have to reduce that (deficit) to zero, which will happen over the next several years."

"I think museums today are very much where universities were 10 years ago," added Murray, the treasurer. "They are just beginning to realize they are big business, and the size and complexity requires a different style of management."

The Metropolitan's strategy combines austerity inside the museum with a controversial move toward marketing. Some elements of the plan:

--Extending weekend hours to increase admissions and raise revenues at the book store, restaurant and parking garage.

--Increasing the suggested admission donation to $6 (the average contribution is $3.20), in steps over a number of years, is being considered.

--Making a variety of budget cuts, from tightening guidelines for travel expenses to using maintenance and security staff more efficiently.

--Soliciting more national associates (patrons who live at least 150 miles from the museum).

--Sending Sulzberger and Luers to Japan, and perhaps also to Europe, to raise money. Both men lobby city and state officials on issues important to the museum, such as getting the city to make quicker payment of its share of the Kravis wing.

--Imitating university fund-raising techniques, including deferred-giving programs (in which donors give over time to maximize tax benefits), annual giving (yearly pledges not destined for the endowment that can be fully spent), and seeking endowment of its 19 curatorial departments (just as universities seek to endow distinguished professorships). So far, eight of these endowments have been funded.

In its marketing thrust, the Met courts the most contention.

Some curators at the Metropolitan and other institutions say angrily that marketing means that art is being hyped and treated as a commodity. ( Marketing is a term so emotionally charged that it isn't even used at the museum.)

But, in his office at the New York Times, Sulzberger is not hesitant. "I don't think there is anything wrong with marketing," he said. "I think you should market. . . . I think we're all nuts if we don't. I think it is good for all our institutions."

Some marketing efforts have met little resistance. For example, passengers aboard some Pan Am flights last month began hearing the distinctive, mellifluous voice of De Montebello announcing the fall exhibitions at the Met and narrating a 30-minute audio "tour" of 16 treasures, including the Rembrandt self portrait, which De Montebello said once held him spellbound for 10 minutes.

"I had been literally forced into submission by this very intelligent, slightly ironic man who peers at us so resolutely from 300 years ago out of this crusty canvas. I hope you will go to the Met and try to experience it on your own," he said.

Other efforts--including using the Met's galleries for parties--have proved to be controversial. Earlier this year, New York magazine accused the museum of "allowing the nouveau riche to run amok in its halls. . . . Some people are beginning to question whether all of this chewing and swilling and posturing is proper in such a proud temple of art. Is it not, they wonder, something of a desecration?"

The article pointed out that for a $30,000 donation, most anyone could party at the Met. It cited examples such as the lavish affair that multimillionaire Sid Bass gave for his bride-to-be, Mercedes Kellogg, another that launched a perfume named for actress Catherine Deneuve, and the $3-million wedding reception given there for Laura Steinberg and Jonathan Tisch, whose parents have been generous patrons of the museum.

Since the magazine article, the Metropolitan has tightened its rules for parties. A gala now must be related to the opening of an exhibition or the installation of a gallery. But some of the Met's multimillion-dollar donors do enjoy partying, and for a corporation considering sponsoring an exhibition, a party at the museum can be an added inducement.

"I am not sure it is in our interests to stop all festivities here," said Luers. "The fact is, an awful lot of people enjoy looking at works of art at night."

Some of the gatherings have underscored the Metropolitan's position as one of New York's premier social institutions. New York magazine also noted that to be named in the museum's annual report as a fellow or a member of one of its visiting committees "is as important these days as a mention in the Social Register."

The Metropolitan Museum was chartered by the state in 1870. It was opened at a time when money flowed freely, when newly wealthy merchant princes were eager for social acceptance in the Establishment--a condition that still exists today.

"To be taken into the Met means to be taken into the heart of all the right things about New York," said James P. Shenton, professor of history at Columbia University and a savvy observer of the New York scene. "You know there, civilization is alive and well. . . . You don't grovel to be taken into the Met, but you are grateful."

The Metropolitan and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., have been the leaders in presenting and promoting blockbuster exhibitions, which can be highly profitable through admissions as well as in sales of related posters, calendars, books and other merchandise.

But in recent years, some other museum directors, as well as some curators at the Met, have expressed fears that museums were being turned into places from which the public would expect a continuing parade of new things.

The Met "is a great museum because of its collections, primarily because of its staff," Walsh, the Getty Museum director, said. "Both of these need to be treated as they deserve. That means the public ought to be encouraged, above all, to see the permanent collections as the main reason to come. It's practically impossible nowadays to stage a temporary exhibition with materials that are better than what the museum has already."

"What the museum needs now is more creativity in using permanent collections for the public's benefit, not bigger and sexier traveling carnivals," Walsh added. "The Met has all it takes to do that."

Officials of other museums have found that blockbusters no longer offer a sure financial fix. The balance sheets for blockbusters are closely held at the Met, but at other museums, rising insurance and other costs associated with such shows have drained potential profits. In addition, many of the major artists already have been exhibited.

"I don't think we can count on blockbusters to pull our financial chestnuts out of the fire," Sulzberger said.

Scholarly Exhibitions

At the same time, De Montebello defends the scholarship involved in such exhibitions at the Met.

During an interview in his office, the 53-year-old director rose from his seat and moved from bookcase to bookcase, plucking huge catalogues from the shelves and tossing them on a table. The 640-page book from the recent massive (392 works) Degas retrospective landed loudly.

The Degas "was one of the most intellectually rigorous exhibitions we have ever mounted. Should it be put in doubt because a lot of people came?" he asked.

Still, De Montebello added: "I would rather be viewed as a stately pleasure dome than as a caravansary," (an Asian inn where caravans stopped for the night). "And I think there was a moment when we were flirting with being a caravansary. I do not think that is the case any more."

De Montebello, director since 1978, is in charge of all curatorial activities, the conservation of the museum's collection and acquisitions, its library, concerts and lectures and public information as it relates to art. Luers, as president, supervises the finances, fund-raising, memberships, maintenance and operations, merchandising and the legal staff.

Luers, who has assumed a much more public fund-raising role in New York than his predecessor, William B. Macomber, "knows the people," said Sulzberger. "He knows where the money is. He is completely open and ready to go and ask for it. . . . He is a good asker."

"I think we are fairly comfortable," Luers said of his relationship with De Montebello. "I really defer to him on aesthetic judgments. If I've got a comment, it is in private, to him. I would never make a statement in a staff meeting or in public disagreeing with him on aesthetic issues, and he defers to me on business questions and outreach and financial issues and the whole question of membership. It is a good relationship."

"In the year-plus I have been chairman, I have not found myself in the role of a tie-breaker between those guys," Sulzberger said.

Some other museums have tried the Met's structure of dual management and have abandoned it as an unnecessary division of authority. De Montebello says it works at the Metropolitan because the museum is so large.

Wings of the Met are bigger than many other museums. The treasures range from the largest collection of Rembrandts in the United States to primitive shields from the Solomon Islands. To visit the museum on a weekend often is to experience cultural gridlock. The crowds streaming up its broad front steps can rival rush hour at a busy subway station.

Sulzberger grew up across 5th Avenue from the Met and still lives just a few steps from the museum. Some Sundays after he returns from the country, he will wander through its galleries. Sometimes, he confesses, he has gotten lost.

A major task, he and top officials agree, is to make the Met more user friendly, not only for its foreign visitors but for all New Yorkers. In a city where minorities make up more than half the population, the role of the museum is under review and strengthening its educational outreach is a priority.

Advantages of Size

At the same time, the Met uses its size to great advantage by marshaling it expertise, its collections, its location, its role as a training ground for art scholars and its relations abroad to be an institution of enormous influence.

It lobbies actively in New York and Washington. Once a year, the museum gives receptions to which the presidents of each of New York City's five boroughs may bring guests. Gov. Mario M. Cuomo's art awards are presented at the Met and paintings on loan from the museum decorate the offices of key city and state leaders.

But for all that, curators remain the heart of the museum, and the effort to endow its departments is a reaffirmation of that fact.

"My view is we are there for (curators)," said Murray, the museum's treasurer. "We are secondary in the scheme."

In an era when when soaring auction prices preclude most purchases, a curator's expertise and the ability to bargain discreetly are especially prized.

Olga Raggio, chairman of the Metropolitan's Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, recalled a time recently when a dealer showed her a "bad, miserable photograph" of an object that was in a bank vault in Switzerland.

"The day came (to see the object) . . . they pulled out this bust on the floor. It was not an ideal way of exhibiting, you know."

The more Raggio looked, the more she was convinced. The bust was the earliest known portrait of the young Cosimo I de' Medici, the duke who lived from 1519 to 1574. The rare work by Baccio Bandinelli--the greatest Renaissance sculptor after Michelangelo in Florence--now rests in the Metropolitan's collection.

"You feel you have wrenched from history a very crucial work. In a way, you almost have salvaged it," Raggio said, "brought it back and sort of gave it back to the world. That is what one does with great passion."

And, in these days of pinched budgets, was there some bargaining over the price?

"Oh, of course," Raggio replied with a lilt in her voice and a small laugh.

"One always does bargain--yes--a little bit--yes, yes, yes!"

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