Judith H. Dobrzynski
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture

Judith H. Dobrzynski's Real Clear Arts

Museum Secrets: Instructive Audit In St. Louis

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St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin (below right) receives $670,000 in pay, “slightly more in annual compensation than the heads of similar art museums.” The museum has an endowment of $140 million and an operating budget of about $30 million. In 2012, it spent $1.4 million on exhibitions that yielded only $320,000.00 at the gate. The museum’s restaurant is losing money — $260,000 last year.

Why do we know all this?

As a city-supported museum, the St. Louis Art Museum is subject to regular audit, and late last month, the most recent results — including those facts above — were published. SLAM receives about $20 million each year from local property taxes (much like the Detroit Institute of Arts…more about which in a minute).

Interesting and instructive. The audit also noted that SLAM was under budget by $1 million on its recent $130 million expansion, and that the museum is great at collecting on pledged donations (Of more than $10 million in pledges at year-end 2010, it wrote off just $12,000 as uncollectable), and — according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch account of the audit, “has millions of dollars more than it needs to pay its bills” — “more than 16 times the current assets needed to cover liabilities — basically, enough cash in the bank to pay bills 16 times over.” That last quote is from an earlier P-D account, here.

The news was all the better for SLAM because the 2011 report, about the St. Louis Science Center, and the 2012 report, about the Missouri History Museum — two of the five institutions that receive money from the tax — turned up more substantial problems. Now about about those exhibition costs; There’s no reason to worry. SLAM is free, except for special exhibitions, and Benjamin, according to a follow-up story, “pointed out that exhibition losses, about $1 million in 2013, were explained in part by the museum’s free-Friday policy. “It’s been successful,” Benjamin said, adding that “between one-third and two-thirds of museum attendees came on Fridays.”

Yikes — I’m not keen on that part. I know money is tight, but maybe the museum could make it “pay as you wish” on Fridays instead of free — to even things out. Or, maybe the museum should reexamine its hours: it must be nearly empty at times.

Benjamin also said the restaurant — which was apparently praised by local critics for the good looks of its food but panned for its taste — had planned to lose money for a while, in start-up costs. Nevertheless, there will likely be changes, soon.

So Benjamin gets an A, or maybe A-, from me. But I write this post because it’s revealing to other museums, too, not least the DIA, where The Detroit News recently criticized director Graham Beal’s salary of $455,453. The DIA and SLAM have similar sized budgets, and while that is not the total indicator of a job’s worth, it is one indicator. And there are those hours — if everyone is coming when a museum is free, maybe it’s time to try other options.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of SLAM

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  1. The museum has millions of dollars more than it needs to pay its bills, and you have a problem with Free Fridays?

  2. By the way, I think you’re comparing that $320,000 to the wrong number. What’s important isn’t how much of the exhibitions’ cost that revenue covers, but what percentage of the overall budget it covers, which is about one percent. Why not just emulate the Menil Collection and go all free all the time? That would most likely both increase attendance and distribute it more evenly across the week, and Max Anderson at the Dallas Museum of Art has shown how forgoing revenue at the gate can do wonders for fundraising while making the museum more accessible. (With that said, the DMA still charges for special exhibitions.)

  3. Nothing wrong with free entry. All major public galleries in Australia are free – with charges for entry to the blockbuster exhibitions only.

  4. by realcleararts

    I don’t have a problem with free Fridays. I was suggesting only that the museum might explore variable pricing (or free days) in a way that would smooth out the crowds and make it easier to see the art!

  5. by realcleararts

    The comparison was made by the auditors, not by me.

  6. by realcleararts

    See my answer below. Additionally, I am not opposed to free entry if a museum can afford it. The St. Louis museum is free, except for those special exhibitions.

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