It was some of the more disappointing museum news I’ve read in quite a while.
At the end of January, the Syracuse-based Everson Museum announced that it would have to cancel two traveling exhibitions slated for the coming year after racking up a $135,000 operating loss in 2013. If it did nothing, the respected cultural institution would have incurred another $500,000 loss over the next two years.
The tough financial situation at the Everson illustrates a daunting reality about running a regional art museum: that the huge attendance and community interest that high-profile touring exhibitions generate comes at an enormous cost. And sometimes, the long lines those exhibitions generate are not worth bringing your institution to the brink of financial disaster.
Sarah Massett, who is serving as the interim director of the Everson after the departure of former director Steven Kern, said the decision to mount more touring shows grew out of a desire to raise the Everson’s community profile. And even now, staring down a significant deficit and belt-tightening at an already underfunded institution, Massett maintains faith in the value of expensive touring shows such as last year’s “American Moderns” and 2009’s “Turner to Cezanne” – both of which the museum advertised at great expense in Western New York.
“I wouldn’t say it was a mistake. Not at all. I think that the exhibitions have done wonders and have really been a successful strategy to raise the Everson’s public profile in our community and the region,” she said, though she admitted those fell short financially. “The goal right now is to eliminate our deficit and move forward with a balanced budget that will allow us to eventually bring on touring exhibitions in the future.”
But the Everson’s enforced break from hosting touring shows with mega-budgets might turn out to be a good thing. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which produced a string of popular but obscenely expensive “blockbuster” exhibitions through the 1990s, found itself in a similar though somewhat less dire financial position when Louis Grachos arrived to run the museum in 2002.
It didn’t take Grachos long to figure out that the blockbuster shows were the problem. In short order, he turned the curatorial focus of the Albright-Knox inward on its own collection, initiating an increasingly creative series of collection-focused shows that aired out the gallery’s vaults in surprising and sometimes even mind-blowing ways.
As one of the most perceptive museum directors working today, Grachos saw that the way to financial stability was in scaling back on tours, mounting unorthodox homegrown exhibitions and producing innovative events such as Gusto at the Gallery and collaborations on the order of Beyond/In Western New York.
“The thing that was a little bit disconcerting for me was that there was this reliance or hope that somehow the touring blockbuster shows were the answer,” Grachos said during his exit interview in 2012. “My point was: Wait a minute. We’ve got one of the great collections in the world. People who love and know modern and contemporary art will come from great distances to see this collection, so why not start that way?”
The Everson’s challenge today is much different than the Albright-Knox’s was in 2002. For one thing, its collection doesn’t have the depth or international regard of the trove of masterpieces in the Albright-Knox. For another, it is directorless and in need of inspiration and guidance from a new leader.
But it has a world-renowned ceramics collection, a gorgeous building designed by I.M. Pei and plenty of opportunity to mount innovative collaborations with the broader community. It’s already done so to great effect with past projects like “The Other New York” and is sure to do so again in the future.
“We’re just interested in doing what’s best for the museum’s financial health and serve the interests of our community,” Massett said. Right now, that means relying less on budget-busting tours and finding new ways to promote the inestimable worth of what it already has.