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July 25, 2016

Opinion: Rich Donors Drive Museums to Make Costly Expansions

A New York Times opinion piece argues that wealthy donors are driving museum operators to expand in ways that are unsustainable, citing the recent financial troubles at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an example of a large cultural institution taking on projects it cannot afford to woo supporters. 

The Met, which is facing jobs cuts and restructuring to erase a $10 million budget gap, nonetheless opened a new contemporary-art annex in March, the Met Breuer. A former Met director linked the expansion to the museum's desire to appeal to today’s collectors, most of whom are interested in modern art, Ben Davis, national art critic for Artnet News. writes in The Times. Such expansions are “often motivated by the need to have some exciting new thing to rally board members and interest potential patrons,” whom he says like to pay for “flashy new buildings.” 

Such expansions are often too costly, Mr. Davis writes, citing 2012 report from the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago. The center reviewed more than 700 building projects at cultural institutions from 1994 to 2008 and found large overinvestments, with many organizations experiencing financial difficulties after buildings were completed. Meanwhile, attendance at museums and art galleries declined by as much as 30 percent from 2002 to 2012, according to figures from the National Endowment for the Arts.