Since the opening of the $450 million building on Pennsylvania Avenue in 2008, the Newseum has had successive rounds of layoffs. A January layoff trimmed 32 of 152 full-time employees from the Newseum and its parent organization, the Freedom Forum, a foundation dedicated to freedom of the press. A few weeks later, around 80 part-time positions were also cut (around a quarter of those were later hired back as full-time staff). For years, the Newseum’s expenses have outpaced revenues. In 2011, it had a $7.6 million deficit. Just released budget figures for 2012 show that despite layoffs, the budget shortfall grew to $8.3 million with operating expenses at $68 million. Financial reports continue to show the Freedom Forum endowment providing nearly half of the Newseum’s 2012 revenue, a practice experts say is risky.
“In the museum field, we treasure our endowments and, like all nonprofits, want to be able to preserve that as a cushion,” says Martha Morris, an associate professor of museum studies at George Washington University. Boards have to carefully weigh how heavily they rely on endowment funds. “All museums rely on endowment payout income for a portion of operating expenses,” Morris says. She puts that portion at no more than 30 percent. But museums “have to have another business model for ongoing operations. They must be thinking about this and trying to plan for something more sustainable.”
With “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” out in December, officials are hoping Ron Burgundy and his eyewitness news team can bring visitors in record numbers to help stanch the bleeding. Though most of the Newseum’s previous temporary exhibits are educational or historical — “JFK,” marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination the most recent example — the Newseum has dabbled in entertainment in the past, notably with its Elvis exhibition in 2010. It’s putting forward 60 props from “Anchorman,” which Cathy Trost, vice president for Newseum exhibitions, refers to as “artifacts.” There are Ron Burgundy’s jazz flute, groovy leisure suits with airplane lapels and Sex Panther cologne. There’s even Baxter the Dog, a stuffed toy so tattered it looks as though it has been kicked off a bridge one too many times.
The pieces on display are mostly ’70s-era kitsch, and officials are in on the joke. If one notes how movie character Veronica Corningstone’s suit is fraying at the seams, Trost replies, “You’ll remember, she did fall into a bear pit.”
The exhibition provides some educational content about the advent of female anchors — only 11 percent of local anchors in 1972 — and the broadcast model that “Anchorman” mocks. But it’s less about education and more about hype, which raises some questions about adherence to the Newseum’s core mission.
It’s like Madame Tussauds, Crime and Punishment or any other “non-Smithsonian museum,” Jonathan Thompson, Newseum spokesman, says of the entertainment value of the “Anchorman” exhibit. “We want to educate visitors about the First Amendment, to educate them about journalism and the free press, and there are a number of exhibitions that tell that story. ‘Anchorman’ is lighthearted and fun. It’s meant to bring new eyes to some of the serious exhibitions. It’s a little sugar,” Thompson says, “to draw people in.”
“There’s room for fun,” says an individual who worked for the Newseum for over a dozen years and who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about Newseum financial matters. With the News History Gallery, the 9/11 Gallery, the First Amendment Gallery and the Journalists Memorial, “the entire museum is in one way or the other serious,” the individual says. The real point is, “will coming up with a blockbuster pop culture exhibit save them? It won’t, the numbers are too large.”
Financial documents paint a picture of a once-flush foundation falling victim to poor planning and economic downturns. Nearly half of the Newseum’s operating costs are covered by the Freedom Forum’s shrinking endowment, as first reported by the Associated Press and Gannett Blog. In the late 1990s, the endowment had an estimated value of more than $1 billion, but stock market losses helped fuel an era of decline. In 2007, the endowment was $600 million. As of 2012, the endowment stands at $340 million with the Newseum being the biggest financial drain. Sources attribute the Newseum’s financial woes to the high cost of operating the 250,000-square-foot Pennsylvania Avenue building.
The Freedom Forum is “becoming a self-liquidating foundation,” says the former employee. It “started out as a traditional grantmaking foundation. It transitioned into being programmatic, then it turned its attention to the Newseum. The Newseum ate the Freedom Forum.”
In an e-mail, Thompson says the Freedom Forum “created the Newseum — and has always intended to supplement its operating expenses, as needed.”
The Gannett Foundation became the Freedom Forum in 1991, and it has operated international programs, First Amendment education and journalist training programs. Three separate entities housing Freedom Forum priorities were created, The First Amendment Center, the Diversity Institute and the Newseum which first opened in Arlington in 1997. The boards of each are legally separate but because the Freedom Forum funds the Newseum, many of the players and practices of the Newseum are imports from the Freedom Forum.
This included the practice of paying board members. According to tax filings from 2012, some trustees were given tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for serving on the board. (Newer board members are no longer paid, according to individuals familiar with this practice.) While paying boards is common for for-profit corporations and some foundations — and often, board members donate the funds back — it is rare for a nonprofit museum.
“The Newseum board was based on a business and grant-making model, and it has been a very slow and awkward transition” to a more traditional philanthropic museum board, says another former Newseum employee who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the Newseum’s business model.
“In the past year, we’ve made significant adjustments in operations which have reduced our expenses. Meanwhile, investments in marketing and development are raising revenue and attendance,” Thompson says in the e-mail.
He calls 2013 “a splendid year of progress. As of October, we’ve seen an increase in attendance of more than 8 percent, our per caps are up 12 percent and our Newseum Press Pass memberships are up more than 30 percent.”
While the Newseum spokesman wouldn’t address specifics of the financial picture, Thompson’s e-mail totes the endowment’s growth potential: “In a strong stock market year, the Freedom Forum’s investment portfolio is doing even better than our benchmarks and we’re excited about the opportunity this portfolio growth provides us to continue to execute our important mission.”
Tough financial challenges might well call for a Hollywood-heavy dose of pop culture. This may seem at odds with an institution that brandishes the First Amendment on its facade. But this model of partnerships is becoming more common at museums across the country.
Fashion exhibitions, such as the Met’s spring 2013 Costume Institute exhibition, “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” co-sponsored by editors at Conde Nast, drew sizable crowds. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts just opened a “Hollywood Costume” exhibition of iconic movie apparel. Even the National Gallery of Art, across from the Newseum, pursued an interdisciplinary exhibition of costumes, set designs and posters with its “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes: When Art Danced with Music” earlier this year. Whether they feature art or artifacts, blockbuster shows that trend high on social media and generate younger foot traffic, are becoming the norm.
“Museums are always embracing the sacred and profane, because museums are educational institutions,” says Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums. “Someone may go to Newseum to see ‘Anchorman,’ but that’s not all they’re going to see. The genius of museums is that once you’re in the door, you’re hooked. You can’t walk in and see one thing.”
Paramount Pictures is poised to benefit just as much from placing a huge chunk of its media push for “Anchorman II” in the hands of a renowned nonprofit. Paramount also will benefit from items sold in the Newseum gift shop — like “Sex Panther cologne,” a replica of the film’s memorable fragrance. A marketing blitz is a potential win-win partnership for both parties.
Back to our lede story: Can Ron Burgundy save the Newseum? Unclear. #Stayclassynewseum could be part of the Newseum and the Freedom Forum’s salvation; or it could be another harbinger of its decline.
Anchorman: The Exhibit
is on display at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, through Aug. 31. Adults $21.95; seniors $17.95; ages 7 to 18 $12.95; children 6 and younger free. www.newseum.org.