How will the show go on?
On their first date, Barack and Michelle Obama went to the Art Institute of Chicago. Back then it was possible for them to go to a museum without attracting much attention. But when Michelle paid a visit to another museum a few weeks ago, people took note. On May 18, the First Lady traveled to New York City to inaugurate the newly refurbished American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later she moved on to the city's other Met--the Metropolitan Opera House--to celebrate the opening night of the American Ballet Theatre and speak to the glamorously packed house about the importance of the arts to "our future as an innovative country."
As a moment of social and cultural pageantry, the visit was a hit. But it carried an anxious subtext. The Great Recession has struck museums and performing-arts groups with a vengeance. No one expects the Federal Government to bail them out. But the people who run these organizations--and the people who care about them--were eager to see in the First Lady's appearances a sign that the White House knows just how bad things have gotten for them.
And how bad is that? You could start with the Metropolitan Museum. The nation's largest and wealthiest art museum is in no danger of disappearing. But having watched its mighty endowment shrink last year from $2.9 billion to $2.1 billion, its administrators decided a few months ago to cut staff 10%. The Met is not alone. Endowments have shrunk everywhere, and sizable budget cuts have been the rule at museums in Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Diego. In February the 35-year-old Las Vegas Art Museum simply gave up and shut its doors for good.
In the world of performing arts, the news has been just as bleak. All around the country, orchestras, opera houses, theater troupes and dance companies are cutting salaries, jobs and programs. A few have simply collapsed. The Hartford-based Connecticut Opera closed this year after 67 seasons. So did the 58-year-old Baltimore Opera Company. "Most organizations have been hurt," says Robert Lynch, president of the advocacy group Americans for the Arts. "But arts organizations aren't driven by profit. They're driven by mission. And they'll do anything to survive."
The problem is that these groups have been hit in all three of their main revenue streams. For many of them, audiences are down sharply, because in a recession a theater ticket or concert seat can seem like an indulgence. Meanwhile, with corporate profits tanking and charitable endowments badly deflated, donations and underwriting have also been drying up. And as state and local governments contend with huge deficits, arts spending has been a major casualty. In Michigan, where the struggling Detroit Institute of Arts recently laid off 20% of its staff, the 2010 budget proposed by Governor Jennifer Granholm would cut arts funding to exactly nothing.
Finding ways to tweak the revenue stream is not as simple as raising prices. For instance, for most museums that charge admission, fees at the door account for less than 10% of annual income, so hiking ticket prices doesn't do much to close a budget gap. And because many museums benefit from taxpayer support, any attempt to charge more can turn into a battle over the right of the public to have affordable access to a place it subsidizes.