Sunday, July 01, 2012
Taubman seeks permanent solution to budget gap
KYLE GREENE The Roanoke Times
David Mickenberg, president and CEO of the Taubman Museum of Art, speaks to audience members at a Talk About Monday night. The conversation spanned topics including the museum's finances, mission and staffing.
Correction (July 12, 2012: 3:05 p.m.): The Taubman Museum of Art's membership increased from 2,800 to 3,400 in the past fiscal year. This story has been updated to reflect the change. | Our corrections policy
Taubman Museum of Art President and CEO David Mickenberg stirred debate about the future of the museum and its role in the community at Monday's Taubman Talk About, where he said the museum will close if it doesn't raise $1.4 million to cover a projected budget shortfall for fiscal year 2012-13.
He also said the museum needs a $20 million to $30 million endowment to cover one-third of its annual operating expenses in order to survive long term. "Without that, we're dead."
After reporting this news Tuesday, I wanted to provide more context to Mickenberg's statements, gathered from subsequent interviews with him, and to flesh out some of the topics discussed at the Talk About. Museum board members referred all questions for this column to new President Patricia Kermes, who deferred to Mickenberg.
The financial situation Mickenberg described Monday isn't new. At a Taubman town hall meeting held Nov. 11, 2010, Mickenberg's description of the museum's finances and future were very similar. At that time, Mickenberg said the Taubman needed to raise $1.2 million to $1.5 million to fill the hole in its annual budget. The next year the museum needed to raise another $1.2 million.
The museum's annual expenses hover near $3 million, and so far the museum has only been able to count on about $1.5 to $2 million in annual revenue, so with each new fiscal year the Taubman must again tackle the problem of filling the gap.
Mickenberg's starker tone at the Talk About marked a change. During the meeting, he said he had the approval of the board of directors in stating the Taubman would shut down if the budget gap wasn't bridged. However, there was no timetable presented for when that might occur.
"There's too many variables," Mickenberg said after the forum. "We have a larger donor base, we have more variety [of supporters] but it's still a challenge every year."
The shift in tone comes because the museum wants to find a permanent solution, not because the funds can't be raised, Mickenberg said Wednesday. "It is absolutely imperative that the museum develop an endowment, that the museum develop a permanent close to that gap."
With an art museum, "the expenses are your mission," Mickenberg said, and cutting them further could compromise the quality the Taubman strives to offer. "The city deserves a really high quality institution and they're not cheap to run."
Mickenberg said every nonprofit begins its fiscal year needing to raise funds to cover the expenses that won't be covered by program revenue, but the Taubman's hurdle is impractically high. "Having to raise that much money every year gets really debilitating and hard."
Mickenberg said Taubman officials weren't ready at the Talk About to discuss strategies for making the budget gap manageable. "The museum is working on many different scenarios and having conversations in the community."
At the meeting, he blamed the Taubman's budget woes on the $850,000 annual cost of running and maintaining the building. That figure includes electricity costs of more than $250,000, as well as gas, water, sewer, staff, maintenance and repairs. To protect the art, the museum is kept at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity year-round. In addition, the museum has about 400 light bulbs, he said.
Mickenberg, who was hired in 2009 at a salary of $180,000, said at the Talk About that the museum has finished with a balanced budget each fiscal year since he's been director, and that the museum ended the 2011-12 fiscal year with a small surplus.
However, he appeared to express some frustrations during off-the-cuff remarks made during the Talk About. Discussing the expenses involved in maintaining the building designed by Los Angeles architect Randall Stout, he ad-libbed, "We can fantasize about turning it into a Kroger," eliciting laughter from the audience.
He emphasized that the museum has completely abandoned the concept of becoming an international tourist attraction to focus on art in the Southeastern U.S. and Southwest Virginia. He said the "Bilbao of the Blue Ridge" model for the Taubman was dead, referring to the Guggenheim Museum built in Bilbao, Spain, that turned the town into an international destination.
Not everything discussed at the meeting was so dramatic. Mickenberg said the renovated Art Venture activity center for children has had 9,000 visitors since it reopened March 31. He also said memberships have gone from 2,800 in 2010-11 to 3,400 in 2011-12, though he added that increasing memberships to 5,000, while a reachable goal, wouldn't bring in enough income on its own to address the budget woes. The museum has in the past floated a goal of 6,000 to 7,000 members.
He also went over the Taubman's exhibition plans for the next 12 months. These included:
n reorganizing the Taubman's American galleries to include folk art
n an exhibition of photographs documenting the oil industry by Canadian artist Ed Burtynsky
n a show dedicated to "50 Great Americans"
n a contribution to the international "Yoko Ono: Imagine Peace" project created in partnership with Virginia Tech
n an exhibition of photos of civil rights era activists that will include programming with the Harrison Museum of African American Culture
n paintings by Hollins University faculty member Alison Hall
n an installation in the atrium by Roanoke sculptor Ann Glover
n a curious inflatable sculpture, also in the atrium, that will be visible through the museum's huge glass skylight. This piece is to be created by avant-garde Paris-based artist Anne Ferrer with the help of regional artists employed as art handlers, the same way Los Angeles artist Wayne White's "Big Lick Boom" was built.
"I think it all has local flavor," Mickenberg said. "It's about how to use this building for the benefit of our community."
Comments posted to my blog after my June 26 story appeared about the Talk About questioned whether or not the museum shouldn't simply abandon what it's doing and start over from scratch.
Gwenda Kellett, who runs the Southwest Virginia Artists website, wrote that some in the arts community have been calling for a zero-based study for a while. "A fresh start could help, there is so much pain being felt by so many, that it may well be too late to get the community back involved with this model."
Gamut Theatre artistic director Miriam Frazier debated about the art museum's community identity with Megan Robinson, a Hollins University graduate who works as an education coordinator for the Taubman.
"I think what people forget is that this institution was created by the community in 1951 and this institution's mission of preserving art and presenting art has not changed," Robinson wrote.
"The Art Museum of Western Virginia was around all those decades and it was part of a multi-arts building that housed various other arts organizations. It lost its community identity when it moved away from those other arts organizations," Frazier wrote. "Many of us thought it was a mistake to divide resources this way."
Roanoke artist Tif Robinette, who was one of those attending the Talk About and who was critical of some of the Taubman's efforts to engage younger artists, still stood up for the museum and against continued complaints about the building it's housed in. "I am SO bored by this endless rant about the building," she wrote. "Where do we go from here? That's the question I'm interested in us solving as a community."
The Roanoke Symphony Orchestra has restructured its system for selling concert subscriptions and tickets to allow payments in monthly installments. In a statement released June 25, RSO board President Joe Ferguson called the new system "a win-win situation for the RSO and concertgoers."
The system involves monthly credit card charges, and four different packages are offered that include subscriptions to all the Masterworks and Pops concerts offered, selections of individual concerts, or a single concert. The complete "RSOMax" package begins at $9 per month for 12 months, depending on seating preference, while other packages begin at $19 a month.
Subscription packages will be on sale starting July 16, while installment payments for individual concerts will become available Aug. 20.
The new system may work to address a budgetary conundrum RSO has faced in recent years. The majority of its program revenue comes in during the summer when subscribers renew for the next season, thus requiring the symphony to borrow on credit to complete its season the following spring. This annual situation, combined with a budget that counted on a $100,000 Taubman Foundation Sustainability Grant that didn't arrive, caused RSO to launch a fundraising campaign in May with a goal of $250,000 to prevent the symphony from starting its new season in the red.
The symphony has made significant progress toward that goal well ahead of its Oct. 1 deadline, beginning the campaign with an anonymous donation of $100,000. RSO marketing director Rodney Overstreet wrote Monday in an email that the Crescendo Campaign has $65,000 left to raise.
For more information, call 343-6221 or visit rso.com.
On the Arts blog
The Science Museum of Western Virginia is open free to military personnel on Independence Day, and today at 1 p.m. there'll be a one-of-a-kind puppet show at A Little Bit Hippy. For more details and other arts news, visit http://blogs.roanoke.com/arts.