Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Taubman: Money Troubles and a New Plan

My guess is that there were a lot of raised eyebrows and drooping jaws this morning when members of the local intelligentsia opened their daily papers in Roanoke and saw Mike Allen's excellent piece on the bleak projections for The Taubman Museum of Art. The real-world shortfalls on projections made in what must have been a dream-like state are dramatic on every line of the balance sheet.

The Taubman's new director David Mickenberg signed on to a ship with a big hole in the bow and he's trying to patch it, publicly starting tonight with a meeting to discuss the future. It is a solid, noble gesture amid a sea of unrealistic hope, over-expectation and advice from paid consultants who should have known better than to think that this world-class facility would thrive in a city of about 90,000 people.

This museum was built just as George Bush's wars and tax cuts were intersecting to produce the worst economy in two generations, businesses were closing, unemployment was at a dangerous level, arts funding at every point of government was being dramatically cut or eliminated, a major hurricane helped put building materials out of reach, and this small city was on the verge of exhaustion from mismanagement and divisiveness.

When Georgeanne Bingham, the big-time museum professional brought in to open the Taubman, resigned shortly after the doors parted, my guess at the time was that she saw what was coming. And it wasn't thousands of people to spin the turnstiles.

Museum supporters strongly deny it, but anybody on a cultural board could see money for the arts drying up as The Taubman soaked nearly everything arts related from the community. Mill Mountain Theatre closed in its wake and nearly every other organization (the symphony excepted) is in some danger of closing or dramatically shrinking.

The projections for the museum were outsized and unrealistic from Day 1. Mike's story has all the numbers, so I won't repeat them here. But they are truly out of the park from the standpoint of expectation and delivery.

My guess is that if somebody like Anne Piedmont, who just opened her own statistics shop in Roanoke and was working for the Regional Partnership, had been hired to make projections for the museum, we'd have gotten something more like real numbers. Anne is an artist, a native, a statistical guru and a woman who will not bullshit you. All too often, highly-paid consultants from the major urban areas simply tell you what you want to hear, take the money and run.

In any case, I'm rooting for the museum to make a strong statement to the community and for the community to make a statement back that we want it. I also hope--strongly hope--that the museum board will work hard to integrate itself into the core of the arts community as a leader and an organization that responds to the need for all the arts to be healthy. A community with "art" and not "arts" has little.


  1. So, Dan, just some comments on your comments--these coming from a director of 20 years at a small Gulf Coast museum that went from a library room to an elegant jewel in progress designed by Frank Gehry (but with a slight interruption of a huge casino barge landing on it during construction).
    Yep, Mr. Mickenberg is being honest, and is brave, and I applaud his every move. Yet Georganne was also courageous and she, with her board and a benefactor who has now moved on, were getting those inflated projections when everything was booming everywhere--no end was in sight. As Mickenberg said, those came in pre-k (before Katrina), before the recession, before all of us had a grey mask slipped over our visages. In Biloxi, we too had grand projections; I returned to my native Roanoke in late '08 for family, but worked with my old board, as Mickenberg is doing, to steer them from the glory days of the early 2000s to the realities of a slightly bleaker world.
    I'm a (senior) member of the Taubman and was delighted to see in today's paper the new emphasis on regional arts, collaborative partnerships and, especially from both a business and creative point of view, the hiring of specialized part-time curators.
    Your viewpoint of course is legitimate and pretty much what would be seen from the outside looking in--just thought you might enjoy the perspective of an arts person who had also once toiled in the field.

  2. Amen!

    They should have been doing that from the get-go. We moved to Roanoke about the same time the Museum was opening. We were thrilled that Roanoke was taking the chance. Roanoke has a thriving arts community and we love visiting the various art galleries. We have wonderful talent in this area and they need a good home. Let's hope the Taubman opens its doors to them. (And they put that snotty attitude aside. That was really starting to piss me off.)

    -- Peg

  3. Thank you both for great comments. That snotty attitude pisses me off, too, Peg. I am skeptical that the new plan is sincere, but I'm certainly open to it because it is the right thing to do. The Taubman's efforts at killing the Arts Council--something that has been going on for some time--continues to trouble me a great deal. That is not working WITH other groups. It is the opposite. And it has created a great deal of mistrust and resentment.