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New York's Cultural Institutions Facing Hard Times - 2003-03-12


Budget cuts, a weak economy and a drop in tourism are raising entrance fees and closing doors at many of New York City's world famous cultural institutions. This could be one of New York City's worst crises.

Thirty-four of the City's major cultural institutions museums, theaters, botanical gardens and zoos are connected by an organization called The Cultural Institutions Group, or CIG, which looks out for their collective interests.

"Many of the institutions have cut back the days they are open," says Ethan Geto, who heads public policy for CIG. He says things are bad all over.

"All of them have cut back the number of hours they are open," he said. "Many have had to raise their admission fees, many are now contemplating converting these admissions fees, which largely are voluntary or suggested fees, to mandatory fees."

The Metropolitan Museum had a deficit of more than $5 million last year, and expects a similar one this year. It has reduced its staff and raised its admissions fees.

Met President David McKinney says this may well be just the beginning.

"This one has the earmarks of being an extended period. New York City supports the museum through operating subsidies. They own the building and they help us with its maintenance," he says. "Those budgets have been cut as well. The state of New York also supports us, particularly in the area of capital, from time to time. And it appears to me that it will be quite sometime before either the city or the state is back in the kind of economic health it enjoyed in the latter half of the 1990s."

Twenty years ago, the Met received 30 percent of its funding from the city. Today it receives only 10 percent.

Much of the current woes can be blamed on the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. McKinney says. More staff and resources have had to be directed to security and international tourism, which dropped off dramatically after September 11, has not returned.

Ellen Futter, President of the American Museum of Natural History, says tourism in the city is hurting. "It's affecting all New York City institutions profoundly. There's no question but that tourism is down, particularly international tourism," she says. "That has an immediate effect on all cultural institutions, especially those of us that actually attract large numbers of international visitors. So, it's a serious effect."

The Museum of Natural History has cut its 130 million budget by 14 million, reduced staff and is no longer open on Saturday evenings. To make matters worse, City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing another cut in the museum's 2003 budget.

CIG's Ethan Geto says that skimping on culture might backfire, because the city is underfunding one of its biggest sources of income.

"Unlike the money the city provides for other service, such as police and fire, which are expenditures, the money it puts into cultural institutions actually makes money for the city of New York," he notes. "For every dollar the city invests in a cultural institution, the cultural institutions match that one dollar by raising $6.50 in private contributions. For every dollar the city puts in, it gets back two dollars in sales taxes. So, besides being the greatest cultural institutions in the world, they actually make money for the city."

Mr. Geto says the institutions also provide an invaluable educational resource for the City's one million public school children, most of who benefit from the various community programs.

But, he says, as bad as things are in New York City, cultural institutions are in greater peril throughout the country.

"Many states, let alone cities, have completely eliminated their arts budgets. The governor of New Jersey announced a few weeks ago that he was completely eliminating the state's support of the arts…in the state of New Jersey. As bad as it is [in NYC, we still receive more money from our government in New York City than probably any other jurisdiction in the U.S.," he says.

The director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, Lowery Stokes Sims, says the only option with a fiscal crisis is to endure.

"It's going to be tough," he admits. "We're going to have to deal with it in the ways we can. Try to keep up the level of service. We're looking at ways to raise the revenues. Unfortunately, we had to raise the admission price, and we might have to charge for a lot more things that we had for free. But we're committed to maintaining New York as the cultural capital that it is."

Meanwhile, tourism officials are working overtime to lure tourists to New York City. They point out that visitors to the city's cultural institutions also spend money in hotels, restaurants and retail stores.

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