State Museums Feel a Pinch

With governments cutting back funding, the search for new money is underway

In the art world, the role of director of the British Museum should be a dream job. But Neil MacGregor's first week on the job was more like a nightmare. When MacGregor took over on Aug. 1, the 1,000-person staff had just staged the first strike in the museum's nearly 250-year history over planned staff cuts. The budget was heading into a $7.7 million deficit. To top it all off, a marble head from ancient Greece was stolen in broad daylight.

MacGregor's counterparts on the Continent have their own problems. From the Louvre to Florence's Uffizi, the monumental showcases of Europe are getting battered by a huge funding crisis. Cash-strapped governments are refusing to hike grants in line with inflation, causing museums to close galleries, skimp on security staff, and put off much-needed restorations. "It gets worse from year to year," says Jean-Michel Charbonnier, an editor at Beaux Arts Magazine in Paris. Under intense pressure, museum directors are taking a lesson from their American colleagues and turning to the private sector for help, a revolutionary step that could lead to more autonomy for Europe's vast web of state-run museums.

Better management is sorely needed. At the Louvre, which has 5 million visitors a year, disgruntled visitors are apt to find one-third of the galleries closed at any moment because of a lack of security guards--even though some staff members take 3 1/2 hours of coffee breaks a day. "Something is wrong when you enter a state monument and entire sections are cordoned off, but five attendants are smoking together in the next room in plain sight," says Italian art historian Anthony Majanlahti.

But change is coming. After decades of heavy, centralized supervision of museums, governments are demanding more accountability and efficiency. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is putting the national jewels into a holding company that will be run by private management. Jean-Jacques Aillagon, who served as director of the Pompidou Center before being appointed France's Culture Minister in May, recently lent his support to a plan to give museums more independence, including direct control of their staff. "It's not about privatization. It's about responsibility," Aillagon told France Culture radio station. In Britain, where museums already have more autonomy, the culture ministry agreed to allocate funding for three-year periods instead one, allowing for better planning.

Overcoming a long tradition of distrusting big business, museums are going after corporate sponsors to finance major exhibitions. The Louvre's entire 2002 exhibition schedule relies on donations, such as this summer's Pharoah's Artists exhibition, sponsored by conglomerate Suez. The Louvre's five-person fund-raising team is small beer compared with the 50-strong group at New York's Metropolitan Museum, but Louvre director Henri Loyrette plans to bring it closer to the size of the British Museum's 12-person staff. "Corporate sponsorship is a new means of functioning," says Loyrette.

The British Museum is going further afield for corporate underwriters. Its Shinto show last year was put on with the help of Japanese partners such as Japan Airlines and the newspaper Asahi Shimbun. "These exhibitions would be almost impossible without the support of generous corporate sponsors," says Carol Homden, director of marketing at the British Museum, which brought in $10 million in donations last year. The British Museum also is adding on services. In 2000, it opened a Great Court with new bookstores and cafes. That effort has paid off handsomely: Spending per visitor jumped 36%.

None of these museums has any surplus to brag about. Despite the hike in spending by visitors, the British Museum's MacGregor has to spread his already thin staff over additional space now that the Great Court is open, and basements full of art await money for restoration. Pierre Rosenberg, who stepped down as director of the Louvre last year, thinks things are so bad that France needs to channel national lottery funds to its museums. No one's thinking of leasing out the Mona Lisa. But those who care for Europe's art need some big-picture thinking fast.

By Christina W. Passariello in Paris, with Kate Carlisle in Rome

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