Seaport Museum: Sailing the Rough Seas to Solvency
The Seaport Museum ended its financial 2002 stronger than ever, posting a profit of $7,556,000 for the year. That year alone could have paid for the losses they would incur over the next seven years twice over, even discounting their profitable 2004 and 2009 fiscal years. What was the former management doing that made the museum so insolvent? Similar to the Folk Art Museum, the Seaport Museum's previous administration defaulted on debt owed to the city et al for operating expenses. Beyond that knowledge, disseminating their financials shows no clear indicator of what was strangling them in spite of sizable profits in the beginning of the decade. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the museum's previous administration amassed a large tab with the city (who owns the museum's buildings) over unpaid rent and various other companies for utilities and other necessary expenses. How the museum was unable to reduce these debts despite multiple years of profits exceeding $3 million remains unclear. The Seaport Museum was neither able to clarify the issues the previous administration faced, nor how the new administration intends to overcome these issues. (It has been reported, however, that the museum has been absolved of some of that debt, which should lessen the burden a bit.) Without knowing this, it's harder to gauge the efforts Susan Jones and her team are taking to save the museum.
One clear catastrophe for the museum has been membership: the institution eroded a period high of $173,000 accrued in 2004 to a low of $50,800 accrued in 2009, a drop of more than 70%. In a similar period, the American Folk Art Museum saw their membership dues halved from a high of $508,000 in 2003 to a low of $249,000 in 2008. Both are significant losses, but the Seaport Museum has an added hurdle: by “starting from scratch” with their memberships, even that meager $50,000 is not a sure thing. Larger donors, too, seem to be an issue moving forward, with seven of the museums twenty-one trustees having resigned last fall.
Nevertheless, Jones remains unperturbed. “There has been a good response to our letters, we are pleased to say,” she told AFC, “The response has been particularly strong from people who supported the museum in its earlier years.” If getting the word out isn’t the issue, getting those same responders in the door will be.
When it reopens on January 26th, the Seaport Museum will feature three special exhibits: selections from Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky's series on ship breaking; a photography exhibit based on the Occupy Wall Street movement; and the Mannahatta/Manhattan exhibit that premiered at MCNY in 2009. In total, 16 new galleries will be opened, with sixteen new shows. Will this be enough? It seems a ridiculous question to ask, and clearly Jones and her team, faced with the uphill battle of having to quell increased apathy and turn the museum profitable in a year with less money than ever, are making the best of a bad situation. It must be asked, however – will those who have written off the museum be enticed back by a three-year-old exhibit from another city museum, or a popular photographer whose work's only resemblance to New York's maritime history is that his subjects are boats?
Jones remains optimistic about the museum's future, and it's easy to see why. Even in the limited time we talked, it's clear that she sees the challenges facing the Seaport Museum in the coming year and is willing to work with the city, the neighborhood, and fellow museums to “build alliances to get the word out” any way she can. ”We need to introduce the new residential population downtown, as well as the new businesses, to the Seaport Museum,” she notes, “in the hope that they will come to see the Seaport Museum as an important community resource worthy of support.” The optimism is almost infectious.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the Seaport Museum will open three new shows instead of sixteen.