Thursday, two days after the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art & Science closed its doors to the public for the last time, the atmosphere inside resembled a wake.
In one hall, an exhibition on "The Art of Dr. Seuss" was being entombed in packing crates. Alongside the museum's lobby, the gift shop's shelves had been nearly stripped bare.
Upstairs, at the nexus of the museum's fifth-floor offices, a lone employee sifted through the contents of a filing cabinet. Not a single ringing phone or casual scrap of conversation could be heard in the virtually empty halls.
"It definitely is like a death, I mean the mourning process and just the whole feeling here," said Dana Thorpe, executive director of the 25-year-old museum, one of the largest arts institutions in the Central Valley.
The museum appears to be the latest cultural victim of the current economic downturn. It joins a growing list of about 20 U.S. museums of various types and sizes that have folded in the last year, including the Las Vegas Museum of Art and the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo, Fla., said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Assn. of Museums in Washington, D.C.
Additionally, dozens of other museums have been forced to trim budgets, cancel or postpone exhibitions and/or layoff staff, even including such well-endowed behemoths as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Center in Brentwood.
Fresno museum officials blame the closure on what Stewart Randall, president of its board of trustees, called a perfect storm of ill fortune: the global financial crash, a corresponding drop-off in key long-time donor contributions and a prolonged three-year building rehabilitation project that drained away patrons.
In the 13 months since the museum reopened in November 2008, its total attendance was 110,000, the third best in its history, and its number of contributions had increased, Thorpe said. But its income in total dollars received declined. Because of the diminished value of their stock portfolios, long-time donors who had given annual gifts of $25,000 and more "were informing us that they were lucky if they could give us a $5,000 gift," Thorpe said.
Thorpe and other officials said that since reopening the museum had stepped up efforts to attract more of the city's young families by programming fewer fine art shows and more exhibitions aimed at children.
It also had been aggressively targeting ethnic communities, including Fresno's large Latino and Hmong populations, by hiring Spanish- and Hmong-speaking docents, translating wall panels and creating new audio guides.
Now Thorpe, who previously served as exhibits director for Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, wonders what will fill the void created by the museum's departure.
"It's not a community that's fortunate to have multiple museums or education-related attractions," she said. "It's very limited. So the importance of the museum to this community has stood out."
Hurting the city
Although Met officials last week expressed hope that someday a replacement museum may emerge, they acknowledged the damage that will occur as a result of the closing to the city's cultural life, as well as its civic and quality-of-life reputation, at least in the short term.
"It hurts to see the museum that's of such quality not make it," Randall said. "It doesn't help the next survey that comes out that puts Fresno toward the bottom," he continued, alluding to the city's generally low ranking among livable American cities.
The decision to permanently close the facility followed months of rumors and several ominous recent signs, including the slashing of the museum's 2009 operating budget by 45%, two rounds of layoffs last year and the premature closure of a Chagall exhibition in December. The museum has a debt of between $4.4 million and $4.8 million, said its lawyer, Riley Walter.
In coming weeks, under a plan approved by the Met's board of trustees, the remainder of the museum's skeletal staff will be laid off, its art collection valued and other assets will be sold at auction, and the historic 50,000-square-foot building it occupies in downtown Fresno, which is owned by the city, will be seeking new tenants, probably nonprofits and possibly including other arts organizations.
Several of these transactions will be funded in part by a recently formed limited liability company calling itself Friends of the Met, whose purpose is to help the museum engineer what officials refer to as a "soft landing" and avoid filing for bankruptcy.
The Friends' organizer, Emory Wishon, an attorney and former Met president, said the group comprises about a dozen long-time supporters who wanted to help the museum shut its operations and dispose of its assets in a responsible manner, and to pay off its remaining employee-related costs, including salaries, pensions and accrued vacations. So far, Wishon said, the Friends have raised about $600,000 toward that end.
"It would be a very black eye for Fresno if we were just to close the doors in the middle of the night and leave this for Fresno to sort out," Walter said.
The museum's collection, including the Oscar and Maria Salzer Collection of European & American Paintings, a collection of Native American baskets and substantial holdings of trompe l'oeil and still-life paintings, has been appraised at a value of around $2.1 million. Museum officials hope that part of the collection may remain in the Central Valley.
But they said that their main priority was to maximize the proceeds from auction to help the museum pay its creditors. Although Wishon acknowledged that 2010 "is probably not a good year" to sell, given the depressed worldwide art market, "the choice not to sell is not realistic."
Recently, a number of U.S. museums have faced criticism for building costly expansions or new structures during the boom years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, only to burden themselves with cumbersome debts that they had trouble repaying when the recession hit. Some cash-strapped museums have contemplated selling off parts of their collections to raise money, an action that most museum ethicists regard as a violation of public trust.
Blanton, of the museum association, said he believed that Fresno's situation was different because the museum is liquidating all its assets and going entirely out of business. "The question of ethics goes out the window," he said. "Much as we as a field would like to see the collection stay in the public domain, it's really up to the museum, its board of directors and the state attorney general to decide how [its assets are] going to be disposed of."
By all accounts, the Met's troubles began in earnest when a three-year, $28-million rehabilitation of the building, which started in 2005 under a previous director, ran significantly over budget. The Met ended up defaulting on a city-guaranteed $15 million bank loan, and the city took title to the museum property. (City officials could not be reached for comment.)
The 1922 building was chosen as the site for the new museum, which opened in 1984, because of its historic significance -- it was formerly the home of the Fresno Bee newspaper and is on the National Register -- and in hopes that it would serve as a cornerstone of a planned downtown cultural district. A major reason for the cost overrun was that the building turned out to require extensive seismic retrofitting and asbestos removal, Randall said. "It's like a heart patient. You don't know the condition until you open up the chest and take a look," he said.