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Hands Out, Belts Tight

As arts and culture organizations angle for a piece of Obama's stimulus pie, local museums brace for bad times.

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Now that the feds have cracked open the piggy bank, the rush is on to grab some loot before the next guy gets it. Americans for the Arts, a leader in the coalition of arts organizations that submitted policy recommendations to the Obama administration last month, recently submitted its own nine-item gimme list for the economic recovery package.

Among the proposals: unemployment and health-care benefits for artists who have only part-time jobs, a National Endowment for the Arts budget boost to $200 million for 2010 (less than the coalition demand of $319 million, but with another $469 million proposed for the National Endowment for the Humanties and the Institute of Museum and Library Services), and an immediate outlay of $1 billion that the NEA would hand over to local arts agencies via "formula grants" based on population size.

The grants, Americans for the Arts says, would "speedily disburse" money to "all the arts disciplines" and provide jobs for artists. Local agencies on the receiving end of this bounty would be "units of city or county government." So if you're in the arts, you might want to touch base with, say, the Department of Cultural Affairs soon—just to keep the lines of friendly communication open.

There's nothing in the Americans for the Arts list about building in safeguards to make sure the hastily dispatched funds will be wisely spent—but given the torrent of cash gushing into the financial sector, where it's being guzzled by the same people who gave us the real estate bubble and magic derivatives, why should there be? Any program that stands a chance of putting money in the hands of regular folks—even artists—is preferable to what's already gone on: $45 billion to Citigroup (largest single shareholder, Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal), $150 billion in investments and loans to insurance giant AIG, and $25 billion each to Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Bank of America—whose extensive corporate art collection is the font for an exhibit that opened last week at Chicago's National Museum of Mexican Art—has received $45 billion in cash infusions and another $118 billion in guarantees against bad loans. Under the circumstances, a billion in mad money for the NEA is pocket change.

According to Americans for the Arts, Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009—which calls for $550 billion more in direct spending plus $275 billion in tax cuts—already incorporates all nine items. A few of the numbers are vastly different, however. For example, the $1 billion in stimulus funding Americans for the Arts wants for the NEA shows up as a mere $50 million. Not to worry: Americans for the Arts expects the numbers to morph as the bill makes its way through Congress.

One item legislators might consider with a wary eye is the one demanding an investment in job training for the arts. There was a dearth of stable jobs for artists even when the economy was a roaring engine. Short of putting full-time arts teachers back in the schools, jobs created by massive, WPA-inspired, government-supported arts projects will disappear as soon as the federal funds dry up.

Meanwhile, cultural institutions are feeling the pinch now and bracing for worse to come. Field Museum spokesperson Nancy O'Shea says more layoffs are likely there, the museum's endowment having dropped by $95 million, or about 30 percent, in the last half of 2008. Fourteen positions—including those of some contract employees—have been slashed since late summer, and 23 more employees took early retirement. Of the remaining 527, anyone making $75,000 a year or more took a pay cut of 3-5 percent effective this month. Two potential visiting exhibits ("Lucy" and "Sesame Street Presents: The Body") have been scratched.

In fiscal 2008 the endowment provided $15.8 million of the Field's $64.6 million operating budget. O'Shea notes that the museum is also getting hit with higher heating bills and other overhead costs. A ticket-price increase of $1 went into effect January 5. Still, O'Shea says, "We're looking to tighten our belt without impacting the visitor experience." The current "Aztec World" exhibit runs through April 19, the refurbished Grainger Hall of Gems opens in October, and a new exhibit from the Field's own collections, "Mammoths and Mastodons," premieres in 2010.

Over at the Art Institute of Chicago, salaries for senior staff members have been frozen even though the Art Institute may be the only institution in the city in expansion mode. With the new Modern Wing set to open in May, adding 30 percent more space to the facility, the already huge staff (1,000 people, including full- and part-time employees at both the museum and school) will have to be supplemented no matter what the economy does.

The Art Institute's endowment stood at $641 million last June, according to spokesperson Erin Hogan, who declined to put a current value on it but admitted that it's "down, like every major institution's." The institute takes a single annual draw on its endowment, pulling out about 5 percent (figured on a three-year average) when the fiscal year starts, on July 1. In fiscal 2008 the amount drawn for the museum was $19 million—nearly 25 percent of that year's museum operating budget of $83 million. Since there's less in the pot now (at the end of June, 38 percent of the Art Institute's money was invested in equities and 26 percent in hedge funds, according to its annual report), there'll be less of a draw next time.

They're expecting a 20 percent increase in attendance with the opening of the new wing, which is unlikely to fill the gap. And fund-raising for the wing isn't over. Hogan says they've got the $283 million they need to cover design and construction but are trying to meet the $90 million goal for a Modern Wing operating endowment. They're also looking for money to cover the less glamorous reinstallation of art in the old museum. Hogan claims they "haven't seen any downturn in contributions this year. People are pretty committed to this project. This May has been a long time coming."v

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