bigger ain't better

MoMA’s endowment is about the same size as the budget of 150 museums in 1989 combined

May 24, 2014
May 24, 2014

A museum’s appeal once was remote. In 1929, its inaugural year, the MoMA occupied a 12th floor rental in an office building on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Abby Rockefeller, wife of oil magnate, John D. Rockefeller, wanted a modest space to display modern and contemporary art. And so the MoMA became a repository for the world of privilege to flaunt their art collections to the world of privilege. The MoMA’s first exhibition attracted more than 40,000 visitors—socialites, mostly, and their unenthusiastic husbands. The critics sneered at its collections, the “daring” work of questionable value by Picasso, Gaugin and Seurat. A press release announcing the MoMA’s formation read: “The belief that New York needs a Museum of Modern Art scarcely requires apology.”

Its mission was to be a legitimate counterpart to the historically rich and critically-accepted collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which exhibited beautiful art in a beautiful setting to beautifully-groomed, genteel people.

Nowadays, museums have a much more public-oriented approach. They are no longer ivory towers catering to the moneyed elite; they are businesses with a global reach by the number of visitors they get. Today, the MoMA’s relevancy as an arts institution aggressively competing in the global marketplace for visitor dollars is a foregone conclusion. In the face of a lot scrutiny, the MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, raises questions about how museums should evolve in service to more and more visitors, which underpins his belief that the MoMA’s commercial interests are not in opposition with its integrity as an arts and educational institution. In that sense, the belief that New York needs a Museum of Modern art scarcely requires apology; it requires scale.

In the coming years people will be reintroduced to the MoMA as a significantly larger institution: more gleaming glass boxes built to accommodate 30% more exhibition space, including galleries in the soon-to-be demolished American Folk Art Museum and another 40,000 square feet occupying the bottom floors of a residential skyscraper that has been designed to look like a giant spike. The MoMA has colonized much of its city block. By choosing to demolish the cutesy, architecturally distinctive Folk Art Museum, Lowry has not only angered the art and design communities, he has also stated that nothing, not even art, will get in the way of the MoMA’s continued success.

As the MoMA embarks on this expansion, its second major refurbishment in the last 10 years, the question becomes: How much bigger and more powerful will it get?

Twenty-five years ago, the largest 150 art institutions had a combined annual operating budget of less than $1 billion. In 2000, the top 5% of US visual art institutions controlled almost four-fifths of combined museum revenue, endowments, infrastructure and donations. As of 2013, the MoMA’s operating budget totaled $125 million and its endowment had grown to $870 million, a number quite above pre-recession levels. By comparison, when the Whitney Museum announced its plans to build a much bigger institution in downtown Manhattan in 2010, its endowment was only $190 million.

“The trends in museums mirror the trends of our society,” a consultant for major NYC museums said on the condition of anonymity. “Top megabrands have great resources, and strong boards and then you have the struggling middle tier who are ambitious but don’t have the same access to resources, and then the bottom tier, who survives by virtue of its passion, volunteers and a smaller [operating budget].”

Running a museum can be considered from a few angles, a triangulation that pits fiscal responsibility against a commitment to the arts and an educational contract with the public. The fiscal health of a growing art institution is, for the most part, contingent on two sources of revenue: visitor dollars, which only accounts for a small percentage of a museum’s revenue, and the larger piece of the pie: private funding. Fiscal success for a museum is tied to visitor numbers insofar as it is a sign to potential donors that the institution is a vital one.

Despite the influence arts institutions have, directly and indirectly, on a city’s economy, they rely very little on public funding. The MoMA’s previous large-scale expansion, costing nearly $900 million dollars, was bankrolled primarily by trustee donations and other charitable giving, the major source of funding for capital projects. The city contributed a mere $65 million. While for-profit companies finance investment activities by issuing equity, museums in New York have to rely on the kindness of very rich strangers. Ideally, these private interests are balanced by a taut institutional vision that strengthens a museum’s roles as cultural authority and public educator. This balancing act doesn’t always make par, depending on how deeply one believes that museums behave like Robin Hoods, taking from the rich and giving to everyone else. The public is skeptical that museums like the MoMA are accommodating the interests of trustees, their major funders, and not us.

So, in order to compete for donor dollars, to not fall within the fledgling bottom tier, a director’s job to market a museum to visitors—by creating a brand through advertising campaigns, celebrity-architect helmed rebuilds, satellite locations, and identity appraisals, to name a few, all of which shouldn’t compromise an institutional identity but is cohesive enough to attract visitors–is no longer just an option. The question isn’t: to brand or not to brand; it’s how to brand appropriately.

Glenn Lowry has practically patented the use of branding strategies to promote a museum. Lowry has used a visitor- and donor-friendly brand to solidify the MoMA’s superstar status, a must-go for tourists. Under Lowry’s stewardship, the number of visitors to the MoMA has dramatically increased.

“If you look at how many people go to museums,” Stephan Meier, co-author of The Economics of Museums, told Quartz, “it’s a huge part of peoples’ activities but it’s limited to a handful of them. If you’re in Paris, you go to the Louvre.”  Trends would suggest that funds for arts and cultural institutions will become more concentrated. It’s a winner-take-all market and certain institutions win out.”

Art historians, on the other hand, shudder when traditional notions governing the role of an art museum require reappraisal.

“In the field, branding sends shimmers down the spine of many classically trained art historians,” the consultant said, “It’s a sort of museum myopia where there is a feeling that the museum is solely for collecting, preserving and exhibiting the art when actually, museums have many businesses now: an identity business, a community business, and a communication business.”

While the Folk Art Museum has suffocated at the hands of its expansion hopes, unable to pay the bill for its ambition, Lowry continues to build his empire, drawing from a bigger and bigger constituency of donors, whose attraction to the museum’s dominance has contributed to a shift in what it takes for museums to stay relevant. The MoMA is no longer apologizing for its existence; it’s justifying its size and power. Others have taken notice. And no one wants to be left behind.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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