SAM struggles just like the rest of us…

I feel like a terrible, terrible schmuck for slamming the Seattle Art Museum for its lack of information at the S’abadeb show. I was chatting casually with a SAM staffer today and asked a pointed question about the missing audio guides for the current special exhibition. Turns out (duh) that SAM couldn’t afford to put together the audio guides. She also pointed out that the current small Edward Hopper show doesn’t have any guides either (which I hadn’t noticed because it’s only a two room show). Audio-visual support for shows has become prohibitively expensive; not only are production costs excessive, but the individual devices themselves are costly to purchase and maintain — currently the museum only owns about fifty of them. As a result, there will be no audio tours for any upcoming exhibitions, at least for the forseeable future. Audio guides will only remain available for the permanent collection.

(As an aside, SAM’s audio-visual equipment seems particularly prone to gremlins: over the last eight months or so, Security have been trying out wireless radios with the fancy earpieces that were supposed to be more discreet than the large, brick-sized radios worn at the hip. Though the wireless radios were sleeker and lighter, they still required a battery/transmitter to be worn around the waist, had a tendency to squawk painfully in the ear, and were often fragile and finicky. Last thing I knew, most of the guards had gone back to carrying their black bricks.)

But back to the issue about audio tours; it touches on a larger problem at SAM, and that is that the museum is struggling financially. Many museums bank on their ability to serve as a venue for special events. TASTE, Seattle Art Museum’s restaurant, runs almost a full second catering business just doing events at SAM and the Olympic Sculpture Park. One of the guys from the kitchen told me that between September and December, SAM had nearly sixty parties cancelled.

During mid-December, while an ad for seasonal help at the Admissions desk was still open on their employment page, Seattle Art Museum froze all hiring, a freeze which is still on currently. And given the absurdly long lines that stack up at both Coat Check and at Admissions, I’m fairly sure there have been layoffs of at least portions of the SAM support staff, though that’s speculation on my part. (I will say that today, on my regular Saturday morning Information Desk volunteer shift, I jumped back to help out at the coat check a couple times – something I’ve never needed to do before.)

When I pressed the SAM staffer a little bit further about just how bad things were, she said that SAM is several million dollars under water. It remains afloat on the goodwill and deep pockets of the SAM board members and trustees. These leaders of the museum have famously deep pockets — the current director of the museum is Mimi Gates, afterall, Bill Gates’ stepmother.  A wealthy board won’t rescue the museum from serious, crippling longterm debt, and who knows exactly what lurks behind the shiny facade of the new downtown building and the green sod at the Olympic Sculpture Park? During the last five years, the SAM has took on both of these huge development projects; Olympic Sculpture Park had been planned for years, but the wholesale renovation of the downtown site was pursued solely at the behest of the prelapsarian Washington Mutual. (See this article, which makes for eerie reading. Sounds so celebratory, doesn’t it?) I don’t have any data about how bad things are, what the expected shortfall is, or even if the shared building with WaMu means that they, too have been caught in the financial dragnet. I just don’t know.

The worst part in all of this is that attendance is good! PEOPLE ARE COMING TO THE MUSEUM. We have visitors! We have tons of members! Seriously, I need to just record my voice telling people where they can buy their tickets and check their coats and find the bathrooms, because then I’ll have time to actually talk about more interesting things, like, “ooh! flying cars!” or, even better, “so, this is what I was thinking about doing with the rest of my afternoon…”

This is where I make a plug for those of us who stop up the holes in this leaky, leaky ship. If you love the arts, hell, if you love anything in this information rich but money poor economy, for your sake and for the sake of the institutions you love, GO VOLUNTEER. I hang out at the Information Desk at the SAM, but they use volunteers across the museum — at the Coat Check, in the Library, in the galleries, and for the education programs, too. Our docents are fantastic (they go through a year of training before we let them loose on the hordes).

And, if you are lucky enough to live in a city where your museums are free, PAY the next time you go. Buy a membership. Put your money where your heart is. We don’t want these institutions to be in the horrible position that the National Academy Museum in New York is in right now, having to sell its collection piece by piece, simply to keep its lights on.

One last thing: for those who are in Seattle, S’Abadeb closes tomorrow, January 11. There are several docent tours tomorrow: for S’Abadeb at 1:30 and 3pm; for Hopper at 1pm; and for the permanent collection at 2pm. Ticket prices are $13 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $7 for students; kids under 12 are free.

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~ by ecp on January 11, 2009.

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