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Queens Chronicle

Silver linings for Queens museums

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Posted: Thursday, August 13, 2009 12:00 am

Budgets are being slashed, employees laid off and health insurance benefits scaled back, but despite the tough economic times — or perhaps because of them — museums in Queens are getting more and more visitors.

The Queens Museum of Art in Flushing Meadows Park has seen attendance rise 22 percent this year, and other institutions are reporting similar increases.

“In a recession, you have more staycations,” said Jenny Dixon, director of the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. “People are looking for things in their own backyard. In these times when everybody's tightening their belts, we're being sought out.”

That doesn’t mean museums are making more money, though. QMA, which asks for voluntary donations rather than charging a set admission price, said people have been paying about 12 percent less than they used to, on average. The Museum of the Moving Image in Long Island City also recently changed its admission policy to “pay-as-you-wish.”

Those changes make little difference, though, as the bulk of museum funding comes from private donors and government funds, both of which have taken a hit since the recession set in.

Some museums have reduced their hours or closed on weekends in response to shrinking budgets, but in general the institutions are attempting to make cuts that visitors won’t notice, in an effort to continue providing the same level of exhibitions and programs they have in the past.

QMA laid off more than 15 percent of its employees; the Noguchi museum is making cuts to employee health insurance and pensions; and workers at the Museum of the Moving Image have all taken pay cuts.

“It’s been horrible,” said Tom Finkelpearl, executive director of QMA. “One of the worst things I’ve done in my professional life is to sit down and lay off a bunch of people.”

He added that it’s hard to provide the same level of services with a smaller staff. The museum used to invite the public to hold meetings or events in its facility for free several nights a week; now it is cutting back to once a week, with the result that groups will have to start booking space months in advance.

Finkelpearl said the museum is feeling the absence of staff members in unexpected ways.

“Many security guards spoke Spanish, and some have been laid off, so this is a problem for Spanish speakers who expect to find people at the museum who speak Spanish,” he said.

In addition to cutting staff, QMA has reduced expenses in other ways. This year, instead of hosting its annual gala, the museum had a “non-gala,” which was described as “a no-cost, no-event, web-based fundraiser.” Unlike the traditional fundraising dinners the museum used to hold, there was no $300 minimum to “attend,” and Finkelpearl said the event netted more money than past fundraisers, in part because costs were virtually non-existent and in part because new donors came forward with smaller contributions.

QMA is also cashing in on its fabled panoramic three-dimensional map of the city by letting visitors “adopt” specific buildings or apartments for a fee.

Several of the borough’s museums have also lucked out with renovation and expansion projects.

QMA sought out contractors for a major expansion of its facility in the summer of 2008 but didn’t find anyone who wanted to take on the project. In December the museum went back out to bid and found numerous contractors who were hungry for work.

The Noguchi Museum also had fortuitous timing, having recently completed a major renovation, which was paid for before the economy bottomed out.

Museum directors agree that the recession has been tough, but they say it’s not as bad as it could have been — at least not yet.

“Some funds were restored in spite of this really terrible downturn in private funding,” said Rochelle Slovin, director of the Museum of the Moving Image. “The city was very good about allowing the funding for the cultural institutions to be maintained.”

Finkelpearl said he expected up to $240,000 of city funding to be cut in the fiscal 2010 budget; in fact, the cuts amounted to less than $50,000.

And despite feeling the pinch, museum directors are optimistic about the future.

“We’re definitely holding our own here,” Slovin said. “Prospects look OK for the future.”

The rise in attendance is also heartening, directors say.

Finkelpearl said that when a staff member informed him that the museum is going through three times as much toilet paper as it used it, he took that as a good sign.

“That, to me, is a great gauge of how successful this museum is,” he said.

Welcome to the discussion.