Weisman makes art of museum business

Kane Loukas

On the eve of its fifth anniversary celebration in November, the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum is pushing to further expand its exhibitions and programs despite cuts in federal funding for the arts.
“It’s hard to raise the kind of money that the National Endowment for the Humanities provided for us,” said Kathleen Fluegel. “But we’re still in a kind of building mode.”
At $350,000 the NEH grants were the largest of its kind. During the last two years they’ve been greatly reduced; the next NEH grant the museum hopes to receive will be in the neighborhood of $30,000.
Operating on an annual budget of $2 million, the Weisman ranks among the best mid-sized American museums. It isn’t business as usual though: When compared to business norms in a world where money, not art, carries the day, museum operations are unorthodox. Its directors hold lofty priorities and cater to the needs of the campus before those of the balance sheet.
The red flag setting the Weisman apart from its profit-minded counterparts is that its directors spend much of their time not making money, but finding it.
Lyndal King, director and chief curator since 1981, figures her 26 full-time staff members spend more than half their resources composing and researching funding proposals — the first step in setting up exhibitions and sniffing out money.
This of course isn’t a rarity for nonprofit museums. The odd thing is that they have to look harder for money on account of being associated with the University.
Potential donors often shy away from contributing because they believe the University covers all the museum’s costs.
Just because you ask for University money doesn’t mean you’re going to get it, said King. In fact, the University covers the museum’s basic operating costs of about $1 million annually.
Furthermore, it isn’t always a win-win relationship. For a few years beginning in the late 1980s, the University mandated an across-the-board 4 percent pay increase that went on for a number of years. Meanwhile, the Weisman saw no increase in its budget. So each year the pay raise was in effect, the museum had less and less money for programs.
The Weisman’s budget is now growing along with memberships which have jumped from 250 to 1,000 members in the last five years, providing them with $100,000 annually.
“Everybody in a for-profit business realizes that the most important thing about the business is to make money,” said King. “Everybody from the secretary to the CEO understands it.”
This isn’t so with the Weisman. Everybody on the board might want to take the museum in a different direction, said King. One might want more engagement with the University, another might want this exhibit over that exhibit.
“We know that everything we do isn’t going to be a blockbuster,” said King. She added there is scholarship and reputation to consider.
The lawsuit the University filed against the Weisman Group last week is a reinforcement of the museums’s integrity. The suit, which has since become national news, was filed because the University alleges the Weisman Foundation, an entity separate from the Weisman museum, continually attempted to dictate the arrangement and display of art within the museum.
The foundation put up $3.3 million for the construction of the Weisman museum, completed in 1993.
The museum is thriving in part because of its strong infrastructure of board members, constituents and members, said Chris Volf, a partner with South Carolina-based Work-Volf Consultants.
Because a museum’s achievements can’t be measured in profits, said Volf, programs need to be evaluated. The successful nonprofit is asking whether they are involving all those who need to be involved.