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LI museum officials: We'll survive recession woes

Homage to Naguchi by Allen Bertoldi at the

Homage to Naguchi by Allen Bertoldi at the Nassau County Museum of Art outdoor sculpture collection. (April 25, 2009) Photo Credit: Newsday File

After several years of budget cuts and curtailed operations, Long Island museum officials believe they have survived the recession. But they expect any rebound in their fortunes to lag behind an economic turnaround, so they will continue to operate on a reduced scale in the coming year.

"It's been a struggle," said Andrew Parton, executive director of the Cradle of Aviation Museum at Mitchel Field.

Attendance has been stable or down slightly at most of the institutions as people look for things to do closer to home. But the stock market plunge reduced the value of museums' endowments, which provide income for operations. And continuing to obtain donations from corporations and individuals remains a challenge.

"With corporations, marketing money is the first to go," said Jackie Day, president of the Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages.

How tough times had become for nonprofit and government-owned facilities alike can be seen in the experience of large institutions. Day's institution made dramatic trims to remain solvent. And the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum came close to shutting down before the county bailed it out it this year.

But small institutions weren't spared, either. The Walt Whitman Birthplace in West Hills, owned by the state but operated by a nonprofit organization, has been borrowing up to $10,000 a month from a bank since September to keep its doors open. It cannot afford to continue doing that much longer.

 

Salvation in 2010

But salvation for the Whitman site and the Vanderbilt will be coming next year with proceeds from the county's increased hotel/motel tax. In September, the county legislature voted to quadruple the tax to 3 percent. It should bring in an estimated $5.1 million a year in additional revenue for museums.

The most severe cuts were made at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook. "We had to do some major things to become sustainable," Day said. That meant trimming $700,000 in operating costs over two years from what had been a $2.8 million annual operating budget.

To achieve the goal, Day eliminated three full-time and other part-time positions. More noticeable to patrons was changing its days of operation and closing the museum store. The museum last spring began closing on Thursday, remaining open to the public Friday through Sunday. School groups continued to visit Tuesday through Friday. Overall attendance has dropped slightly.

The museum will close entirely starting this week through February except for school groups as it undergoes carriage museum gallery renovations. After March, the history building and temporary exhibit space on the west side of Route 25A will remain closed except for a gala and other special events. As for the gift shop, Day said, "It was a real community favorite but it was losing money."

 

Scaled back budgets

The Vanderbilt in Centerport is continuing to operate on a scaled-back budget after a one-year bailout by the county Legislature. The county anticipates giving the museum $750,000 in 2010 from the hotel-motel tax. "If we can get a couple hundred thousand dollars from our investment income, then we can survive and stay open," executive director Carol Ghiorsi Hart said. The Vanderbilt's hours were reduced last winter, and four full-time employees who left since January have been replaced by part-timers.

At Walt Whitman Birthplace, after an annual state grant evaporated last year, three positions have not been filled after staffers left. Executive director Cynthia Shor said two new fundraising events brought in $19,000 to augment the borrowed money. But the new county tax is expected to bring the museum $103,000 in 2010 starting in February so it can resume normal operation.

The Parrish Art Museum in Southampton a year ago eliminated a half dozen positions and deferred construction of a new $81-million facility in Water Mill. Its director, Terrie Sultan, said the Water Mill project has been redesigned and will proceed next year at a cost of $25 million.

At the Cradle of Aviation, Parton said three staff members who left have not been replaced. "The economy has hurt more in fundraising than attendance," he said, "so we've been trying to make it up in other ways."

One of the biggest cash generators for the museum in recent years has been showing feature films on its IMAX screen. But Parton said there were fewer movies this year because many releases have been in 3-D and that technology doesn't work on a dome screen (such as the Cradle's). As a result, IMAX attendance and revenue dropped even as more school groups came. Attendance this year so far totals about 240,000, down about 20,000 from 2008.

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