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Stressed art museum seeks St. Paul largesse

Memo to St. Paul boosters: If you want to keep the city’s only art museum, you’d better get out your wallets.

The Minnesota Museum of American Art is looking at another move, a leadership change and recurring deficits, a triple whammy of organizational stress. Its reserves have dropped 40 percent in four years, from more than $2.9 million in mid-2003 to less than $1.8 million in mid-2007, according to nonprofit tax returns on the Minnesota Attorney General’s website.

This year’s numbers aren’t available, but the museum ran another deficit, staff says. Can it turn things around? Museum Board Chair A. David Kelly believes so, and sat down in his law office to discuss the museum’s future with MinnPost.

Its options are limited. The museum makes small amounts of money on membership dues ($13,944 in 2007) and program fees, such as its Thursday evening rooftop summer concerts. It doesn’t charge admission (though that option has been discussed.) In an effort to get more people to visit, it asks for donations instead.

That leaves philanthropy as the main lifeline. And the museum needs more rope.

“You don’t want to run a $260,000 deficit year after year,” Kelly said. “I think the heart of it is to go out and ask more people.”

Many challenges
The museum used to occupy upper floors of St. Paul’s Landmark Center, but moved to the Ramsey County Government Center in 2004 for street-level space and better visibility. Its 50 W. Kellogg Blvd. gallery is modest. Using the current exhibit, “Crate 1 of 2,” as a yardstick, it’s enough room to display approximately 50 paintings and a couple dozen sculptures.

The museum faces another move, an added expense.

Opus has a redevelopment option on the building. The county plans to vacate in a year or two, and that means the museum likely will move to temporary space toward the end of next year, Kelly said.

The museum is committed to being independent, but one option down the road is sharing a building.

“We have been talking a little with [Minnesota] Youth Symphonies and the St. Paul Conservatory of Music,” Kelly said. “They both need new space. Maybe it would be more effective to do a building together rather than each one doing their own.”

Further, Executive Director Bruce Lilly resigned this summer. Natalie Obee, the museum’s business manager (and former Café 128 co-owner), is interim director but isn’t interested in the job long term. The museum plans a search for someone with an art and fundraising background – and someone who loves a challenge.

Budget woes
The budget problem facing any new director is clear from the museum’s 2007 tax filing: Revenues ($343,373) were less than half of expenses ($729,187).

The museum lacks the prestige of a Minneapolis Institute of Arts or a Walker Art Center, but Kelly said in seeking new funds it would appeal to St. Paul loyalists. “We have the franchise on art museums in St. Paul.”

It also will tout its 3,500-piece permanent collection, which includes a strong cross section of Minnesota artists. The late Paul Manship donated a significant number of pieces. The museum also owns 60-plus George Morrison works (and loaned many to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian for its 2004 inaugural exhibit.)

“Emerging Minnesota artists, great Minnesota artists of the past, we are all over those niches,” Kelly said. “That’s something worth doing. There ought to be a museum that collects and shows Minnesota artists. That is a strong emphasis of ours.”

The next exhibit will showcase area comic and graphic novel artists, beginning Sept. 27.

The museum will try to build its individual donor base, but that takes time. It is quicker to ask foundations and corporations. “If there are, say, large St. Paul-based corporations that aren’t on our donor list but give generously to others, we want to get on those lists,” Kelly said.

Seeking Republican partiers
Given the state of the economy and the multiple pressures on philanthropy, the museum faces a tough test (and one, to this point, it has failed to master).

Kelly said he has a sense of cautious optimism, given that other area art museums have had successful appeals.

As a short-term boost, the museum would consider extending the current exhibit.

“We are hoping that some generous group of Republicans wants to have a party in the gallery,” Kelly said. “We will leave it up through the convention if we have a taker.”

Interested? Call Obee at 651-266-1041.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/06/2008 - 03:46 pm.

    Is there any way the museum could move back to the Landmark Center? It was great to wander from room to room around the floor on which it was located and to come upon the real treasures it contains (the Paul Manship scultures in particular). Since it moved, it’s been pretty much invisible, or so it seems.

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