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As Corcoran reels, Washington’s other private art museums hold their own

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Even as Washington’s oldest private art museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, reports troubles so deep its leaders may sell its historic building, the city’s other private art museums say they are holding their own.

The Phillips Collection, the Kreeger Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, all 20th-century creations, are surviving the waves of financial stress and wavering public loyalty. While all the museums show the impressionists and were founded by generous benefactors, their missions and scopes are vastly different.

The long-troubled Corcoran reports a deficit of $7.2 million for the fiscal year that ended in June 2011 and estimates it would cost $130 million to bring its beaux-arts building up to modern museum standards. The remaining three private museums have balanced budgets, or a small deficit, and need no major repairs on their own historic buildings.

But they, like museums nationwide, were hit hard by the recession that began in 2008. Unlike the national museums, which get appropriations from Congress for salaries and benefits and upkeep, the private art museums have to take those expenses out of their operating budgets.

Most art museums say their financial pictures have stabilized since the hard hits of the recession. Reflecting this positive trend, 63 percent reported an increase in revenue in 2012, attributed to more giving by individuals, according to the Association of Art Museum Directors. In 2009, only 31 percent reported an increase .

This turnaround from four years ago — when museums were struggling with stock market chaos, foundation decreases, state and federal government cutbacks, and declining donations — presents an encouraging outlook.

The Phillips, Kreeger and Women in the Arts museums survived relatively unscathed because they have little or no deficits and could reorganize their spending. Modest cutbacks worked. And their benefactors donated generously, realizing that fundraising for arts organizations was usually the last to recover from a recession. Also, they are much smaller organizations than the Corcoran in collections, staff and upkeep.

The Phillips, opened in 1921 by steelworks heir Duncan Phillips to showcase modern art in his Dupont Circle house, attracts about 140,000 people a year. Its fundraising is modest with a yearly average of $12.5 million over the last five years. Earnings from a $34 million endowment provides 16 percent of its annual budget of $11.6 million.

Like the Corcoran and other arts institutions, it received a blow in 2010 when the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs program reduced its unrestricted money to D.C. organizations. Although the Phillips received 3.5 percent of its operating budget from the fund, individual gifts have made up for the loss.

The Kreeger was founded in 1994 to display the collection of businessman David Lloyd Kreeger, and is housed in his private estate on Foxhall Road. Operating on a $1 million budget a year, it raised approximately $352,000 last year and received $500,000 from the Kreeger Foundation. Its challenge, says Director Judy Greenberg, is donors believe it doesn’t need any additional money because of the largesse of the Kreeger Foundation. The foundation does make up any shortfall, she says.

Nonetheless the recession made the Kreeger tighten up. “We were very cautious with our expenditures. We trimmed down as much as we could. We did not fire anyone,” said Greenberg. Fundraising, she added, became very targeted — Kreeger supporters as well as collectors of exhibiting artists.

It also developed a new revenue stream a few years ago by renting its space, mainly to corporations. “We don’t want weddings, partying all over the place, no dancing, no red wine,” Greenberg said. But the Kreeger’s stability has prompted the museum to start a $5 million capital campaign this fall to improve the grounds and establish a sculpture garden.

Belt-tightening was also the strategy for the Women in the Arts museum. It was opened in a stately former temple on New York Avenue NW in 1987 by art patron Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband, real estate developer Wallace F. Holladay. Its grand space has made it a popular destination for weddings and special occasions and provides one-fifth of its earned income.

To be frugal, the museum kept to a budget of $8.5 million in 2012, and projects a slight increase for 2013. Its endowment is $50 million, but the board vowed not to borrow from it, no matter what, said Director Susan Fisher Sterling.

By comparison, the Corcoran’s endowment is less than $20 million. The museum and arts college expenses total $31 million. While college enrollment has increased, bringing in tuition revenue, the museum has been on a critical downward path.

Visitors fell 60.2 percent from 2007 to 2011. Financial gifts were down 75.4 percent from 2006 to 2011. Raising money has been difficult for the Corcoran for years, going back at least to 2005 when a Frank Gehry addition was canceled, and perhaps as far back as the 1989 firestorm over the cancellation of an exhibition by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

In 1999, Corcoran electrified the arts community and official Washington with plans to expand into a Gehry-designed structure. As the costs escalated to $200 million and the fundraising stalled at $95 million, the board canceled the project.

The Corcoran also has had recession-related problems, with donors cutting back and reorganizing their giving priorities. In 2010, the National Capital Art and Cultural Affairs program, gave the Corcoran $476,911, or 5.5 percent of its income. In 2011, the grant was reduced to $153,815, and it was 7.8 percent of income.

While other art museums turned to critical benefactors, the Corcoran admitted there was malaise, even at its board level.

Sitting in his office a few weeks ago, current Chairman Harry Hopper spoke about the challenge of fundraising and coming up with a plan to once again give donors hope about the Corcoran. The idea of testing the market for a buyer and moving the museum and college was in the works. The plan would reinvigorate “fundraising activities of the Corcoran,” he said.

Private Art Museums

Corcoran

Founded: 1896

Mission: The oldest private art museum in Washington, with extensive collection of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century American art and photography, as well as European art

Collection: 16,000 works

Deficit: $7.2 million

Endowment: $19 million

Admission: $8-10

Attendance: 65,699

Phillips Collection

Founded: 1921

Mission: Salon atmosphere for American and European Impressionism and modern art

Collection: 3,000 works

Deficit: $178,000

Endowment: $40 million

Admission: Fee for special exhibits; donations Tuesday-Friday; Saturday and Sunday, $8-$10

Attendance: average of 140,000 over five years

National Museum of Women in the Arts

Founded: 1987

Mission: Showcase for art by women from all countries, covering the 16th century to 21st century

Collection: 4,000 works

Deficit: $0

Endowment: $48 million

Admission: $8-$10

Attendance: 103,000

Kreeger Museum

Founded: 1994

Mission: American and European art from the 1850s, plus collection of African art

Collection: 200 works

Deficit: $0

Endowment:

Admission: $7-$10

Attendance: 11,000

(Numbers are from 2011 unless noted)

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