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Economic downturn causes cuts at Art Museum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 16, 2009 - Count the St. Louis Art Museum among the untold thousands of enterprises across the country, profit and non-profit, pinched by the current economy and tightening their belts accordingly.

The museum on Wednesday offered a voluntary retirement program to its 19 employees eligible for full or early benefits under the Employment Retirement System of the City of St. Louis, to which the museum belongs. The 19 are among 179 full-time employees of the museum, which also employs 89 part-timers.

The full-time count is down from 188 at this time a year ago, the result of jobs left vacant by departing employees, including those of some of the 12 who accepted a retirement offer the museum made in September.

In addition to their pensions, employees signing up for the new incentive will get a week of pay for every year of service, pay for unused time off and counseling about pension and retirement. Eligible employees have until June 1 to make up their minds.

The museum announced the offer -- the newest and most significant of its current moves to shave its current budget by $1.5 million -- in a news release Wednesday. Museum director Brent R. Benjamin elaborated on the reasons in a separate letter sent by email and regular mail to the museum's board members, friends and patrons.

In it, Benjamin said the museum had made a "regrettable but necessary decision" to reduce staff. Hinting at but not specifically mentioning possible layoffs, he added that the goal is "to achieve as many reductions as possible through voluntary retirement incentives in the coming weeks."

In response to a question about layoffs, spokeswoman Leigh Hamer said in an email Thursday that the museum "will have a better idea of our staffing levels after the voluntary program is complete."

In other efforts to make ends meet, the museum said Wednesday that it was eliminating all non-essential travel and reviewing all of its print materials with a goal of shifting to cheaper, web-based communications.

The cost cutting has been necessitated by shortfalls in all of the museum's income streams, including sales at its shops and restaurants, but especially from its three main revenue sources:

--The museum's share of real estate taxes levied in the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County by the Zoo Museum District, typically covering about two-thirds of the museum's operating expenses. Receipts have been down for the past two years after being flat for the four years before that.

--Annual giving through the Art Museum's various membership programs, which Benjamin described as showing "a modest but concerning" softening over the first three months of this year.

--The Museum's endowment, shrunken 27 percent to $63.6 million at the end of February from $87 million at the beginning of August 2008.

Benjamin wrote that the Museum's board had determined not to tap the endowment beyond its standard annual withdrawal rate of 4.5 percent of the account's average total for the previous five previous years.

The museum cut its operating budget to $21.3 million this year from $22.2 million last year in anticipation of constraints resulting from the construction of Interstate 64 and of the museum's planned $125 million addition. That expansion -- increasing gallery space and public amenities, including parking -- was first slated for groundbreaking early this year. The museum announced late last year, however, that it was delaying the project until short-term credit markets stabilized.

Benjamin said in his statement Wednesday that the project remains on the horizon, with groundbreaking anticipated before the end of this year. Donors have already committed more than $120 million of the cost, and more than half of their gifts and pledges have already been turned in, he said. Because this money is being held as "cash and cash equivalents," it is immune to the gyrations of the financial markets.

For U.S. art museums in general, the current financial picture is anything but pretty. The Art Newspaper reported in January that a survey of about 40 museums, done in December, found that most had lost at least 20 percent of their endowments, were cutting between 5 and 20 percent of their current budgets and planning for even deeper budget cuts next year.

Benjamin wrote that the St. Louis Art Museum is, however, in "a stronger position than many" of its peers.

It is also unusual among them in charging no admission. To get in the door, adults pay at $12 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago and $20 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for instance.

The St. Louis Art Museum's open-door policy is a condition of the state law that established the tax-supported Zoo Museum District in the early 1970s. A bill sponsored by Missouri state Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City, would amend that law to allow ZMD institutions, if they chose, to charge admissions to visitors who are not residents of the district. The ZMD board met for an hour Tuesday to hear a few views on the bill pro and con but took no position on it.

The St. Louis Art Museum is obviously not looking to admissions fees as a way out of its current financial crunch. Benjamin made that tacitly clear when he concluded his Wednesday letter with a vision of the museum remaining "one of our region's most treasured and vibrant cultural assets for generations to come, dedicated to art and free to all." 

Susan C. Thomson is a freelance journalist.

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