Colleen Lowe of Cape Henlopen, Del., strolled happily around the Farnsworth Art Museum’s new exhibit on Maine artists.
She saw dresses made from seashells, a witty multimedia piece and 6-foot-wide panoramic landscapes of Maine and the desert Southwest. It was different, compelling and well worth the visit, she said.
In fact, what’s inside the museum is so exciting that it’s almost possible to forget what’s happening outside the gallery walls, economically speaking.
“My kids are all in the arts,” Lowe said. “My daughter is a jeweler, and she’s concerned about the economy. I just hope nothing happens to the arts.”
Due to the down economy, it’s already too late for Lowe’s wish to come true. The tough financial climate has cast shadows over some of the bright colors in the nation’s art museums. The J. Paul Getty Trust, which funds two arts institutions in the Los Angeles area, has lost $1.5 billion. Officials from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., had a plan to auction off its museum’s substantial art collection.
Even the Farnsworth, one of Maine’s premiere museums, cut back on its winter hours and has closed the popular Wyeth Center until May.
“We’ve all seen the same drop in the value of these endowment holdings,” said interim director Michael Komenecky. “It’s just as true for the small museums as it is for the J. Paul Getty Trust. They are the wealthiest museums in the world, yet they have had to cut expenses to live within their means.”
It’s worse for the Getty institutions, according to Komenecky. Their operating costs are dependent on income generated by endowments, he said, whereas the Farnsworth’s endowment provides a “relatively small” proportion of income.
“We’re cushioned against major events,” he said. “Although in our current economy, no one is entirely cushioned.”
Janet Henry, the president of the Maine Philanthropy Center in Portland, said endowments are particularly important in the arts.
“If they charged for a ticket what it really cost to put on an event, none of us could afford to pay,” she said. “They are a real lifeblood of the arts.”
Maine is both lucky and unlucky in regards to its arts and nonprofit endowments, she said, being typically much smaller than those in other places. That was the bad news, until the financial free-fall took a 20 percent to 35 percent bite out of the value of those holdings nationwide.
“The good news is that Maine nonprofits haven’t grown dependent on these endowments,” Henry said.
Farnsworth officials are banking on the hope that a more diversified income stream with revenues from membership, an annual appeal, admissions, gift shop revenue and donations will allow the museum to be able to hold its own through the recession.
“It’s a broad-based source of support,” Komenecky said. “We have strategically focused on key areas to meet our goals for the year.”
But it has been a strange year so far. Even though the weather was as stormy as the economy, attendance this winter was up.
“That was a surprise,” said Farnsworth spokesman David Troup.
One reason, he figured, is that after Andrew Wyeth died on Jan. 16, art lovers from around the world “made a pilgrimage” to the Farnsworth.
Another reason might be that when times are tough, the Farnsworth — which is free to Rockland residents — is “great entertainment,” he said.
“We want to get as many people from the community into the museum as we can,” Troup said.
This kind of broad appeal is healthy for any institution, and perhaps even more so for the Farnsworth. Starting in the mid-1990s, the museum benefited from the financial support of credit card giant MBNA and Charles Cawley, the company’s former chief executive. But when MBNA was bought by Bank of America in 2005, the largest single donor the museum had ever had disappeared.
“MBNA’s departure affected the museum dramatically, as would be the case of any single major donor,” Komenecky said. “The challenge has been to replace the level of support coming from MBNA and other donors. It’s a great challenge.”
Rockport’s Center for Maine Contemporary Art fills several levels in a pristine white building overlooking the harbor. The plain exterior serves as the perfect foil to the explosion of color and art that joyously crowds its walls.
“It’s no surprise that it’s a challenging time for everybody,” said Kat Richman, the operations and finance manager. “I know that Maine has a huge number of nonprofits — and I’ve heard that 1,000 are in danger of going under. We’re not planning to be one of those.”
Richman said that as with the Farnsworth, officials at the center — which is a nonprofit institution dedicated to advancing contemporary art — are looking into new ways of tapping into revenue streams. One of those is expanding the center’s sponsorships from businesses or private individuals.
“It will be interesting to see what the summer brings,” she said.
The center has not cut back on its operating hours and continues to have its flagship outreach program, “Fear No Art,” bring contemporary art into schools.
“If anything, we’re expanding our mission,” she said.
Though Richman was leery about releasing specific numbers on the center’s operating budget or endowment, she said attendance is up over last year.
“Art is important for some people,” she said. “It’s going to be important to them regardless. But it might be hard to reach a new audience. If someone is broke, it would be hard to convince them that art is important.”
Though the economic times are tough everywhere, Richman — who stood in an attic gallery packed to the eaves with works from Camden students — said she isn’t too worried about the future.
“In general, we’re feeling optimistic here,” she said. “I think it’s hard not to be, when you see all this wonderful artwork around you.”