Cuts leave museum facing challenges

January 17, 2010 

In the annals of the arts in Fresno, it’s hard to imagine a more rotten couple of weeks.

We lost the Fresno Metropolitan Museum on Jan. 5, of course, and the community still reels.

The very next day, the Fresno Art Museum, in the throes of its own financial crisis, doled out some bad news of its own — albeit much more quietly. It laid off its longtime curator, Jacquelin Pilar, and its staff preparator, Steve Ruppel.

The cuts leave just one half-time staff member in the art museum’s curatorial department, which is responsible for the museum’s exhibitions and permanent collection. There were five in that department last October.

“Right now we’re in survival mode,” interim executive director Eva Torres told me Wednesday. “We’re doing everything we can to keep the museum alive.”

The Fresno Art Museum is in better shape than the Met was, its leaders tell us. It doesn’t have the Met’s crushing debt. Cash flow should remain in positive territory once the latest cuts are made. The art museum’s board says it can weather the storm, and members point to a major fundraising campaign that includes a $50,000 matching grant from the Bonner Family Foundation.

In many ways, the art museum’s story is the same we’ve heard throughout this brutal recession: We have to live within our means. Deep cuts had to be made to ensure survivability. (Those of us in the newspaper business know about this all too well.)

The alternative is terrible to contemplate. Without the Fresno Art Museum, the fifth largest city in the state would be left without a major museum.

Still, I wouldn’t be an arts critic worthy of the name if I didn’t stand up and remind the museum’s leaders that with these latest cuts, the institution is on shaky ground here.

For many reasons, a museum needs an experienced, full-time curatorial staff. It takes professionals to catalog, store, display and protect an art collection.

Some small museums get by with having a director who acts as curator. That’s not going to happen in this case. Torres brings lots of experience in the nonprofit world to the museum, but little of that experience is in art.

The Fresno Art Museum could get by with freelancers doing some of the curatorial work. But without a full-time professional curator, the museum opens itself up to potential ethical problems.

Why? Because a curator acts as a critical buffer between the board of trustees and the art. There’s great potential in the museum world for conflicts of interest.

Board members of any museum also may be collectors who have a vested interest in seeing the value of their collections rise.

And nothing makes art go up in value like being featured in a museum show. That’s why the American Association of Museums, of which the Fresno Art Museum is an accredited member, has strict ethics guidelines that bar direct trustee involvement in artistic decisions.

I’m certain some will say that worrying about such things as ethics is a luxury in the midst of calamitous financial times. To me, however, we have to at least acknowledge these issues, if only to make sure they don’t become permanent.

I’m feeling confident about the longtime viability of the museum, and I know there are people who are working hard to ensure its survival. I hope that the Fresno area closes ranks around its remaining major art institution and makes sure it thrives.

But I’ll feel better when those improved finances mean the Fresno Art Museum can afford a full-time curatorial staff.

The columnist can be reached at dmunro@ fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6373. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com/author/donald_munro.

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