The Best and Worst of Times: On the Mixed Fortunes of Regional Art Museums

downtown iowa city. photo:  David Harmantas/shutterstock

downtown iowa city. photo:  David Harmantas/shutterstock

Scan IP's 2017 coverage in the visual arts space and you'll likely conclude that it was a good year for regional art museums. 

Donors remained leery of funding risky capital projects at mega-institutions, often to the benefit of the little guy. When Judy and Leonard Lauder announced an endowment gift to Maine's Portland Museum of Art, they said, "while we recognize the importance of buildings, we also recognize the tremendous importance of economic stability for cultural institutions."

Meanwhile, the surge in regional philanthropy continued unabated. The logic that underpinned the recent tax bill applies here: A portion of the billions in donations flowing to the heartland will inevitably trickle down to its art museums.

Given these factors, it's no surprise that two Midwest schools, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Iowa, each received huge gifts earmarked for art museums within a week of each other. 

Yet, in Massachusetts, the Berkshire Museum's controversial plans to sell 40 works in its collection suggests that the prognosis for some regional museums may not be so rosy after all.

These contrasting scenarios underscore an obvious hypothesis concerning regional fundraising: Location matters. University fundraisers removed from large urban centers and blessed with a built-in audience and strong donor ecosystem have a relatively easier job than those located near large cities or in economically depressed areas.

Let's test out this hypothesis.

Two New Midwest Museums

Less than a month after Kenneth Ricci gave a $100 million unrestricted gift to the University of Notre Dame, the school netted a lead gift from South Bend, Indiana philanthropists Ernestine Raclin and her daughter and son-in-law Carmen and Chris Murphy for the construction of a new Raclin Murphy Museum of Art at Notre Dame.

At 70,000 square feet, the $66 million Raclin Murphy Museum of Art will be the first phase of what will become a 132,000-square-foot museum complex. Construction will begin in 2020 with an anticipated completion in late 2021 or early 2022.

Raclin is a trustee emerita of Notre Dame, while Chris Murphy is chair, president and chief executive officer of financial services company 1st Source Corp. He also serves on Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters Advisory Council. Carmi Murphy has served on the advisory council for another on-campus museum, the Snite Museum, since 2007.

Meanwhile, roughly 300 miles west in Iowa City, Richard and Mary Jo Stanley committed $10 million to support the building campaign for the University of Iowa Museum of Art. The gift will fund a new museum and permanent home for one of the country's leading university art collections. In honor of the gift, the museum will be renamed the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art.

Dick (who recently passed away) and Mary Jo have been longtime supporters of the school. A portion of the gift comes from the estate of Dick Stanley’s parents, C. Maxwell and Elizabeth Stanley, who developed one of the country’s finest collections of African art, which they donated to the museum in 1985.

Construction of the $50 million, 63,000-square-foot museum will begin in 2018, with a planned public opening in 2020. 

Feeling the Pinch

Now, contrast these news items with the saga of the Berkshire Museum.

The museum expects to realize approximately $68 million from the sale of artwork and use these proceeds to strengthen its endowment and fund its New Vision plan, which finds it refocusing its mission away from fine art to science and history.

By rebranding itself as a science and history museum—due, mind you, to the glut of art museums in the region—Berkshire, at first, seems like an outlier in the larger scheme of things. But a piece by Andrew Russeth in ArtNet argues that there are many other regional museums facing similar financial challenges regardless of their strategic intentions.

Russeth cites Jonathan Binstock, the director of the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York, who said, "I definitely feel the pinch, if you will, that most institutions in regional locations whose economies are not growing robustly would feel."

Similarly, Matthias Waschek, the director of the nearby Worcester Art Museum told Russeth that "philanthropists in Massachusetts have tended to concentrate their money in the Boston area, to the detriment of museums elsewhere in the state."

And therein lie two clues as to why the rising tide of regional philanthropy isn't lifting all boats.

First, economic recovery remains uneven. The unemployment rate in Iowa City, home to the future University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, stands at 2.4 percent, well below the national. Meanwhile, the figure in Rochester, home to Binstock's Memorial Art Gallery, was 5.1 percent as of November 2017. 

And to Waschek's point, while fundraisers in places like the Worcester Art Museum need to compete with dozens of institutions in Boston, their brethren in South Bend and Iowa City generally have a more centralized and alumni-rich donor pool to draw from.

I explored these institutional perks in greater detail in a previous post on the allure of university art centers. Donors remain keen on investing in preexisting ecosystems blessed with a built-in audience of college students and residents.

Which brings me back to the University of Notre Dame gift earmarked for a second on-campus museum.

Charles Loving, director of the Snite Museum of Art said, "Our current museum is presently turning down some requests for tours and programs because the building is at capacity. We cannot display certain temporary exhibitions offered to us because of limited gallery space, and as the collection has grown we have had to convert some galleries to art storage vaults.

"In short, the new building will allow us to better fulfill the University’s mission as it relates to the arts."

It's the kind of problem that other regional museums would love to have.