Survivability Report: The American Folk Art Museum and the Seaport Museum

by John Gawarecki-Maxwell on January 17, 2012 · 3 comments A Brief History Of

Demonstrators at a "Save Our Seaport" rally last May. Photo via Paul LaRosa.

2011 wasn't a great year for either the Seaport Museum or the American Folk Art Museum.  The two museums have been in dire financial straits for the past several years, struggling to keep rising operating costs down while bleeding admissions and memberships. These monetary woes came to a head when the Seaport Museum was forced to shutter its doors in February, and the Folk Art Museum, having been forced to sell its ten-year-old, $32 million building down the street from MoMA last spring, was in talks of selling its entire collection. For a while, it seemed like these two museums would see the same fate as the Jersey City Museum, similarly run into the ground by poor management, a miscalculated renovation project, and a loss of funding.

Net Profits Year over Year: American Folk Art Museum and Seaport Museum

Thankfully, the past few months have been far kinder to the faltering museums.  The Museum of the City of New York announced their intent to take over the Seaport Museum in November, tasking current MCNY director Susan Henshaw Jones with turning the museum's fortunes around within eighteen months of their grand reopening on the 26th.  With a 40% reduction in budget for 2012 ($3 million, down from a reported average of $5 million), this is easier said than done.  That said, the faith in Jones and her team is well-earned, as she has vastly improved MCNY's finances and reputation in her tenure with the organization.  Meanwhile, the Folk Art Museum thought better of selling their collection, instead announcing their plan to engage in partnerships with the city's larger museums in addition to holding the fort at their Lincoln Square branch, the proverbial parents' basement they were forced to move back into.

The first of these partnerships was announced at the end of last year, when Ms. Jones announced before a City Council meeting that the Seaport Museum would be teaming up with the Folk Art Museum for what has been described as a “major exhibit” in four of the museum's twenty-four gallery spaces.  The reality of the alliance, however, is a bit less than the struggling museum supergroup this partnership initially sounded to be.

“That was a bit premature,” Linda Dunne, director of the Folk Art Museum, noted in a statement to Art Fag City about the announcement.  ”What we have is an exhibition proposal based on themes around the Seaport Museum.”  Said exhibition, scheduled to open in June, is in “very early stages,” and specifics won’t be announced until after the museum's reopening.

Still, obvious as each museum’s motives may be — the Folk Art Museum gets revenue and a space to show their collection, while the Seaport Museum gets a special exhibit that another institution will put together while they worry about making overtures to entice donors back — it’s curious that the two poster children for the city’s “failing” museums would look to each other for salvation from financial destitution and public apathy.  If patrons were less willing to give these museums the time of day in the years leading up to their disastrous 2011 seasons, why would they be expected to be any more interested in an alliance between the two after they seem to have hit rock-bottom?  Or, perhaps the situation isn't as bleak as originally reported, and these museums aren't in as much danger as we originally thought?

  • Mrsdoba

    Great article. I just wish somebody would question the Seaport as to what their plan is for all the employees they let go last year. 30+ people lost their jobs and there has been no work on MCNY’s part to rectify that. 

  • http://hereisafantasy.com Corinna Kirsch

    Bloomberg Businessweek just made a blog post about the Folk Art Museum after this essay went live. Hm. http://news.businessweek.com/article.asp?documentKey=1376-LXYIXV0D9L3501-5MEMECV2L40MHFB5VMOB7LBNLR

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