Local galleries, museums cutting costs


Due to the economic slowdown, Thornebrook Gallery has started to see fewer customers.

CARLOS BES/SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Published: Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 6:12 p.m.

Last year, business was going pretty well for David Arrighi, owner of Thornebrook Gallery. Then September came.

Nation retail sales hit a low. Lehman Brothers sank into bankruptcy. The stock market suffered its biggest losses in decades. The bank bailouts started.

What was happening to the U.S. financial system was unimaginable, and the crisis was being felt beyond Wall Street - like inside the art gallery and framing shop at 2441 NW 43 St. in Gainesville.

"We took a hit. We went a couple of day with no customers," Arrighi said about business at the gallery last September. "It's come back some since then. We're not to the level that we were. ... It's going to be slow progress."

For the local visual arts scene, the economic downturn has painted a grim picture for museums, galleries and artists. Attendance is down. Membership numbers at some places have dropped. Cultural institutions such as the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art and the Florida Museum of Natural History, which receive state funds in connection with the University of Florida, have had to scale back exhibitions and postpone projects due to budget cuts.

Amy Vigilante, director of The University Galleries, said affordability is the focus right now at the University Gallery, Focus Gallery and Grinter Gallery. About 20 shows are presented annually in the three galleries.

"We are organizing exhibitions that cost much less, particularly by utilizing artists and collections closer to home," she said. "Next year we may cut back the number of exhibitions, but just by one in the University Gallery because Grinter and Focus Gallery tend to be more student/faculty artwork that costs very little to present. ... We have always operated on a shoestring. A small gallery program such as ours uses creativity to survive even in less tough times."

Even big galleries such as the Harn Museum are feeling the economic struggles.

Director Rebecca Martin Nagy said when budget cuts hit UF, all departments had to find a way to trim back. The museum had planned to close an extra day - Tuesdays in addition to Mondays - as a cost-cutting measure. Some of the Harn's private donors heard about the plan and donated money to make up the difference.

"That kind of saved the day for this particular (fiscal) year, but now we anticipate we'll be facing further cuts for next year, and we may have to revisit that option again," Nagy said.

Even with the save, Nagy is still worried about the museum's budget.

"We're a little bit over halfway through the fiscal year, and we realize we're probably looking at a shortfall of about $300,000 right now," she said. "We just have to stay in the black. We can't afford to go into a deficit situation, so we are going to have to make some further cutbacks ... and tighten our belts to ensure that we have enough money to see us through the end of the fiscal, which ends at the end of June."

Exhibitions have also been impacted. Typically each of the five curators are responsible for organizing an original exhibition, which can run as high as half a million dollars. The Harn-organized shows usually are presented frequently, but because of the current economic climate, Nagy said they've decided to space out them out.

She said, "We may have one major exhibition a year, and then we have to fill-in in between with exhibitions that are more affordable for us," such as traveling exhibitions from other museums or ones that are have local ties. For example, "Uncommon Glazes: American Art Pottery, 1880-1950," which opens Feb. 24, features all items on loan from private and museum collections in Florida.

"It's really a beautiful show that we can do for a very modest budget," Nagy said. "We're always trying to get the most for our dollars and do the most that we can within our budget."

The Harn, which saw attendance drop from 101,200 in 2007 to 87,879 in 2008, has free admission and Nagy said they are working to strongly emphasize this to the public through marketing and the museum's Web site.

With more expected cuts to the upcoming state budget, Nagy is looking ahead to how the museum can be "frugal" without diminishing the quality of its exhibitions and programs.

"We're just looking for ways to be very creative with the dollars we have so that we can survive next year without too much pain. We don't want the services to our audiences to be negatively impacted," she said. "That's certainly a concern that we have."

Florida Museum of Natural History's permanent exhibitions are free throughout the year, but there's an admission free for special traveling exhibitions, such as the recent "Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of the Human Body."

The museum saw a 12.6 decrease in attendance from 2007 to 2008, however, paid attendance increased 23.3 percent. Membership attendance as well as the number of memberships also rose.

The museum's gift store brought in more revenue to the museum than it did in 2007, added Doug Noble, head of exhibits and public programs.

But the outlook isn't all picture perfect.

Last year, five people were laid off, and an unfilled position was cut. Noble said programs might be in jeopardy too, but declined to give specifics. The Butterfly Rainforest, he said, is in good shape partly because no government money is involved in the operation of the attraction.

"I think next year in the case of public program there may be some things that we're just not going to be able to do, but we haven't really reached a final decision on that yet. ... There's some programs we're doing that don't pay for themselves or are poorly attended, and so you have to ask yourself the hard questions."

On Feb. 7, the museum opens its double-feature exhibit "For Everglades: Photos by Clyde Butcher & Jeff Ripple" and "Alien Attack: Target Everglades," which will be free to the public.

"That was an exhibit we did in-house, and we used our staff. We'll do it (host free exhibitions) from time to time, but it has to be relatively low-cost for us," said Noble, adding it was funded by the associates board of directors and the South Florida Water Management District.

At the Gainesville Artisans Guild Gallery in the Millhopper Square Shopping Center, hard times are hitting the artists.

Miriam Novack, an acrylic painter, said they are holding their own, "but it's been very difficult."

"We had to raise the percentage the guild collects from artists (after their works are sold), and now we have a monthly fee, which we've never had before," said Novack, who worked at the store this week.

Novack - who sells at Tioga's art fair, Thornebrook Arts Festival and Downtown Art Festival & Art Show - has seen less people buying at art shows, and her income is down by 50 percent. She said some artists have put off entering art festivals and shows, which can be expensive with entry fees and travel costs.

She said foot traffic at the gallery has remained strong, but spending hasn't.

"Everyone still loves the gallery, it's just now they come to browse and be entertained and happy and aren't actually buying anything," she said.

Arrighi can relate.

He said holiday sales at his Thornebrook Gallery were good, but well off compared to past years. To meet his customer's "monetary constraints," he's started to bring in items with lower price points. He also had to lay off a sales associate last week. She'd worked there for 10 years.

During the 28 years he's operated the store, Arrighi has lived through similar situations to what's happening now with the economy, "but not with this severity."

"We can weather this, but it'd be nice to know when it's going to end, but we don't," he said earlier this week. "I don't see it turning around in the next six months."

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top