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Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Junto Photos:Richard Carreno
Digs Deeper for Support
By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer
The Philadelphia Museum of Art may have found an 'underground' solution to its financial woes.

In a rarefied world where multi-million dollar gifts from prestigious personages are more the norm, the art museum's newly-minted multi-level underground parking garage might not be the solution most people would immediately contemplate as a budget shortfall fix. But this might well be the case, or at least, a significant part of it, as the financially-strapped museum could soon discover. As other non-profits have learned, digging down often helps in digging out from deficit debts.

The subterranean garage, which got its formal opening last week, stretches out from the museum's west entrance, hidden above ground by a new sculpture garden and two impressive over-looks facing the Schuylkill River.

Nobody likes parking hulks. You don't. I don't. Especially, in Fairmount, already starved for public transportation.

But, despite this, even Inga Saffron, The Inquirer's architectural arbiter and constant critic of encroaching Park-adelphia, has begrudgingly bestowed her influential imprimatur on the museum car park, largely-hidden, as it is, by creative landscaping. And don't forget the great views.

There's even more sugar-coating. The 'overarching goals' of the garage development, according to the museum, is 'to provide access to great art while improving ecology, transportation, and public recreation and amenities.' (Whew! And we thought it was just a garage). 

Of course, it's anything but. The 442-space, $32-million garage is also a legacy -- ironic as it may be -- to the much-regaled tenure of Anne d'Harnoncourt, the museum's late director, better known for her connoisseurship (her expertise on the works of Marcel Duchamp), showmanship (who can forget her Frida Kahlo blockbuster?), and fellowship (be it with princely donors or up-and-coming artists). 

As a builder, D'Harnoncourt will always be better known, future finances permitting, for another underground venture -- a below-ground gallery expansion, designed by Frank Gehry and, despite its current on-hold status, still on the drafting boards. At surface level, D'Harnoncourt of course will also be remembered as the director who seeded, nurtured, and brought to fruition the Perelman Building.

But those projects involve more expense, especially troublesome now in the aftermath of last year's unexpected Wall Street crash. Just stir in declining revenues and contributions and a significant drop in the museum's endowment, roughly $16 million in fiscal 2008 (the last year for which the museum provides published figures) for an even more toxic budget brew. As a result, the museum has announced lay-offs, a salary cut for senior personnel, an increase of $2 in an individual admission fee, and, most nettlesome of all, the reduction of pay-what-you-wish Sundays from every Sunday to the first Sunday of the month.

The museum's new garage, in turn, is all revenue all the time. The suits will sort out long-term depreciation and amortization. But based on simple mathematics, it's not hard to figure out that that the garage will be provide a cheap, sustainable windfall of more than $1 million in income annually.

For Tim Rub, 57, who joined the museum as its 13th director last month, the timing couldn't be better.

Rubb is not inheriting the same museum, fiscally-speaking, that was overseen by D'Harnoncourt and her budget guru, Gail Harrity.

Theirs was a quite handsomely profitable, yes, profitable, non-profit. Until last year's bust, the late director and Harrity, the museum's chief operating officer, presided over a fairly robust, solvent institution which, according to the latest published figures, showed a $2.7-million profit in fiscal 2008. In addition, net assets increased by almost $30 million from 2007 to 2008.

'The Museum raised a remarkable $97,416,079 in fiscal 2008,' Board Chairman Gerry Lenfest further reported in the 2008 Annual Report, 'including $30 million from the City of Philadelphia for capital projects.'

Robust? Solvent? Yes. But the museum's fiscal soundness also relies on a lot of freebies.

For example, take that $30-million 'grant' that Lenfest referred to, slotted for, as Gail Harrity noted, 'historic improvements' to the museum's main building. Actually, it wasn't as much a 'grant' or an altruistic gift as it might at first seem.

When the museum moved to the Parkway in 1924, its charter established city ownership of the new building. The museum was then its tenant. The $30 million? Call it just regular maintenance, an expense any conscientious 'homeowner' would budget.

Moreover, as part of its on-going annual financing, the city 'donates' an unrestricted $2.5 million and foots a utility bill of about $3.4 million.

No biggie. This arrangement is similar to the relationship shared by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the City of New York. But with a catch.

Because the Met is also publicly funded -- as well as privately, of course -- its charter requires that museum admission be free. What free has actually meant over the years has been subject to much semantic parsing and controversy. But ultimately, it came down to the current admission fee policy -- pay what you wish, but at least a penny.

Theoretically, the Philadelphia Museum should have been guided by a similar policy. But traditionally, it hasn't been held to the Met's example. This, though even millions more pour into museum coffers from a half dozen other tax-payer funded agencies, not including the state's annual contribution, of course.

There's another significant difference between the museums' admission policies. Again, it has to do with the price of admission. No, that admission. Rather, the 'price' museum trustees need to cough up to sit on the board.

At the Met, with the likes of Morgans and Rockefellers formerly deciding the museum's fortunes, expected, even demanded, annual gifts of $1 million or more -- much more -- were typical. They still are.

At the Philadelphia museum, in contrast, some trustees unbelievably now get away with annual contributions, as defined in the annual report, of between $1,000 to $4,999. (With that kind of penny-pinching eleemosynary largess, they could recruit me as a trustee). Not surprisingly, Gerry Lenfest, one of Philadelphia's great philanthropists, donated more $5 million in 2008.

Unfortunately for Tim Rubb, Lenfest is expected to leave the board later this year. Whether stalwarts of his stature, and some other deep-pocketed trustees, will step up to the plate is only to be hoped for.

Moreover, Rub arrives just in time for a Welcome Wagon gift from Governor Ed Rendell and Mayor Michael Nutter: an extension of the sales tax on museum admission fees.

Of course, Rub can console himself with his other house-warming gift -- free parking in his new garage.