Citing the need to be "not so dependent on external forces"—forces led by the crash of Washington Mutual, which left Seattle Art Museum without $3.8 million in annual rent payments from the bank—SAM yesterday reduced its staffing by 7 percent, announced that its three buildings will be closed for two weeks in 2011, and its five top managers have taken a 10 percent pay cut. The director, Derrick Cartwright, has proposed to the board of trustees a larger pay cut for himself.
The cuts represent a trim of $1 million in a fiscal-year 2011 budget of $24 million. Faced with a total potential shortfall of $2 million, the board of trustees promised to shoulder half the burden, and Cartwright and the staff and programs of SAM had to make up the rest.
No exhibitions were canceled, though some future shows will be up for longer than originally scheduled. Education events will continue, but some with less frequency (SAM Remix will continue to happen quarterly).
Every department was affected by the cuts. No layoffs were made in the publicly visible curatorial and education departments, but open positions were made dark for FY 2011, while other departments had to suffer layoffs. Cartwright declined to share specifics of which departments were hardest hit.
As for whether there will be more cuts in the future, Cartwright said, "Not if we can help it."
"Days like today here at the museum are devastating for the staff and for me personally," he said. "I think this staff is really talented, but a lot of this is external forces at work, and it’s out of our control."
Nordstrom is set to rent 75 percent of the office space that WaMu evacuated when it collapsed, but the company will not fully arrive on the property until next year—and even then, SAM is left with a quarter of the space still open for rent. That revenue ($5.8 million total, $2 million of which has been given by Chase to help SAM get through the difficult times) was guaranteed and built into the budget when SAM planned its ambitious expansion—and now, "We have a business plan that is not working," Cartwright said.
Contributions, especially from foundations and individuals, are down. And traditional supporters are stricter than ever about not promising money unless they're sure the museum is solvent. "Even some of our longtime supporters are saying they need to see evidence of the stability of the institution, and they are waiting to see us perform to balanced budgets, so I hope that once we've done this, some of the support we've traditionally received will return to the institution," Cartwright said.
Attendance has been "soft," he said. The new exhibition of contemporary art in response to the influence of Kurt Cobain is beating expectations, but the rest of this year's shows didn't draw expected crowds. And more people, protecting their own budgets, are coming on free days rather than paying the $15 suggested admission price.
"Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a gap between what we projected and what actually showed up at the door," Cartwright said. "There are lots of reasons for this, and we’re going to try to figure it out. Some people may go to the Olympic Sculpture Park and get the feeling they’ve visited the Seattle Art Museum and don’t need to come downtown—not to say that this is happening, we don’t know, but I am suspecting it’s economically driven. Up until the moment that Kurt opened, we were significantly off of our projections for this year. At Volunteer Park we’re now ahead of projections because of Fleeting Beauty [an exhibition of Japanese ukiyo-e prints], and the park is doing really well. It’s really the downtown center that’s been the most challenging in this respect."
SAM downtown, the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, and the pavilion at the Olympic Sculpture Park—though not the park itself—will be closed from January 31 to February 13, 2011, after the closure of the major Picasso exhibition that opens this October.