Uptown on Thursday morning, one major museum owned up to serious financial problems. Farther downtown on Thursday afternoon, another celebrated serious financial progress.
The bad news at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — ballooning deficits, possible staff cuts and a hold on the planning of a new wing dedicated to Modern and contemporary art — stood in sharp contrast to the jubilant word from the Museum of Modern Art that the entertainment mogul David Geffen had donated $100 million toward an expansion and renovation.
But both developments spoke volumes about the current state of the art world, where Modern and contemporary art dominate the action these days — in auction houses and galleries, as well as museums. Everyone wants in, including a revered institution like the Met, which is striving to play catch-up even as it is struggling to pay the bills.
“The audience for contemporary art has grown exponentially in the last decade,” said Tom Eccles, the executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard, adding that the sector’s attendant money and glamour make it “a honey pot” and “the Hollywood” of the art world.
The Met has stiff competition in the Modern and contemporary realm, especially at home. MoMA is expanding and renovating; the Whitney last year opened a widely acclaimed new home downtown; the Guggenheim has multiplied around the world and the New Museum has helped lead an art surge in Lower Manhattan. In addition, the new Broad Museum in Los Angeles is drawing lines around the block since it opened last fall and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is about to open its new building next month.
The Met has been notoriously weak in Modern and contemporary art — the art critic Holland Cotter of The New York Times once called the collection “an institutional embarrassment” — and is seen as falling short of its encyclopedic mandate, in part because its longtime former director Philippe de Montebello was wary of following trends.
His successor, Thomas P. Campbell, has made improving that area a priority, which led him to take on the Breuer building, the Whitney’s former home. “It’s a significant commitment,” he said, “but we believe it’s an important one for the programmatic health of this institution.”
The Met’s current restructuring suggests that this emphasis may have contributed to the institution’s current shortfall, which the museum says is due largely to a decline in admissions and retail revenue and an $8.5 million annual debt service on $250 million in bonds issued for infrastructure work to the main building and the Cloisters. The museum has also significantly increased its digital staff.
But the focus on building its Modern and contemporary capacity has also siphoned energy and resources away from the Met’s Fifth Avenue flagship. The museum has had to be concerned with fund-raising for Met Breuer, to cover that location’s $17 million annual operating expenses over the course of an eight-year lease as well as an estimated $15 million renovation of the building. The Met has also rebranded its entire operation at a cost of about $3 million and trained 110 staff members at the Breuer, including some new employees.
In addition, the Met has spent an undisclosed amount on the redesign of its Modern and contemporary galleries on Fifth Avenue, which calls for demolishing the existing Lila Acheson Wallace Wing in the museum’s southwest corner, increasing exhibition space and doubling the size of the Roof Garden.
The Met, which has a budget of $300 million and has carried modest shortfalls for years, is now facing a $10 million deficit.
“If we do nothing — if we just carry on — 18 months from now, at the beginning of fiscal year 2018, the deficit would be four times bigger,” said Daniel H. Weiss, the Met’s president. “That’s not O.K., so we’re going to take action to control that.”
The museum will undergo a 24-month financial overhaul that it said was likely to include staff reductions, reduced programming and a concerted effort to increase revenue in its restaurants and retail operations.