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

American Folk Art Museum: Down, but Not Out

American Folk Art Museum: Revenue vs. Expenses YoY

Going by the numbers, the Folk Art Museum's financials paint a dire picture.  The museum, weighed down by annual expenses of just over $10 million, hasn't been profitable since 2001; 2006 was the best year in recent memory, and the museum still posted a loss of $350,000.  Revenue dropped even more sharply in the three year period following 2006, including an especially disastrous 2008 that saw the Folk Art Museum end the year over $7 million in the red.  It is easy to see why the museum was seriously considering liquidating its assets and calling it quits.

However, these painful financials don't give the entire story.  It's true, the Folk Art Museum was never able to bring in the 225,000 attendees per year they infamously forecast after their move to 53rd St.; it's also true that they have seen a significant decline in attendance, memberships and donations since 2006. Poring over these nine years of financials, though, the elephant in the room becomes clear — the Folk Art Museum's 53rd St. branch was almost single-handedly choking the life out of them.

Consider that disastrous 2008: In that year alone, the Folk Art Museum spent $1,496,000 on expenses necessary for running the building, including utilities, security and maintenance costs.  Coupled with the money owed in interest on their federal bonds, the Folk Art Museum was spending $3,286,000 on the building's loans and upkeep – and with revenue of only $2,977,000 for the year, that meant they were already $309,000 in debt, before paying $837,000 to independent maintenance contractors and before spending $1,941,000 on staffing the 30,000-square-foot space.

To put it another way: The Folk Art Museum has always been a smaller museum with big ambitions, and the past ten years have been a stunning example of the hubris that can come from those lofty goals.  They went forward on a space they couldn't afford, yet were never able to capitalize on the location they argued would be a boon to their bottom line.  Selling the building — to MoMA, for close to the $32 million bond price — doesn't mean their problems are over, but returning to their much smaller Lincoln Square space means significantly reduced overhead. The museum pays next to nothing for the space (which they famously rent for $1 a year), and only having to account for 5,000 square feet should cut their operating expenses significantly.

Ultimately, the partnership with the Seaport Museum will have little effect on the Folk Art Museum's survival. At best, the exhibition will expose the museum's collection and its talented designers and curators to a new audience they could potentially funnel back into the Lincoln Square branch; at worst, they still get paid for putting together the exhibit.  As an indicator of the museum's ability to survive, however, it has the potential to show how seriously Director Linda Dunne and company are taking this partnership initiative. An excellent exhibit at the Seaport Museum could open the doors to partnerships with even bigger museums and put focus on their unique exhibits and collection.  If they can supplement these partnerships with a strong presence in Lincoln Square, the Folk Art Museum should have no trouble turning their fortunes around.  Besides, this is a museum that has been able to survive with far less — in the mid-eighties, the museum soldiered on without a space of their own for more than three years, instead focusing on traveling exhibitions and utilizing public spaces.  If that didn't kill them, why would this?


Mrsdoba January 18, 2012 at 8:34 am

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. 

Corinna Kirsch January 18, 2012 at 11:52 am

Bloomberg Businessweek just made a blog post about the Folk Art Museum after this essay went live. Hm.

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