Published April 16, 2020

Why Museums Can’t Always Fall Back on Endowments

The COVID-19 pandemic may be an opportunity to look transparently at museum endowments and their limitations, and consider the need for alternative sources of support in the months to come.

Image: Adriaen Isenbrant, “Man Weighing Gold” (ca. 1515-20), oil on wood, 20 x 12 inches (The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“When ROM laid off full-time staff, it made news and people were surprised given the economy wide relief measures announced by the government. I explained to some offline why the leadership took this decision (explained not justified!) and how MUSH factor impact in their case.

To understand why museums are closing and/or staff laid-off despite amassed sizeable endowments might which strike to some as a puzzling case of cognitive dissonance at best; an unexplainable act of cruelty at worst.
If there ever was a time for the walls to come down between a museum’s trustees and the top leadership and its staff, it is now, as the present public health crisis makes distinctions in access and privilege permanently more stark.
Its time for the Leadership to have candid conversations about finances with their front-line staff, rather than offering limited explanations for decisions like furloughing workers.

Do you know that out of about 35,000 museums in the United States only about 4 percent of those are museums, and its these 4% that corner the vast endowments, in other words, are richest?

I was going to write something about furloughing staff despite endowments. But here is a good piece and you cannot get any better and simpler explanation of how endowments function in an Art Museum/cultural institution.”
– Zainub Verjee, Executive Director of the Ontario Association of Art Galleries (OAAG)