The Fresno museum was one of the largest arts institutions in the Central… (Craig Kohlruss / Fresno…)
Reporting from Fresno — Thursday, two days after the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art & Science closed its doors to the public for the last time, the atmosphere inside resembled a wake.
In one hall, an exhibition on "The Art of Dr. Seuss" was being entombed in packing crates. Alongside the museum's lobby, the gift shop's shelves had been nearly stripped bare.
Upstairs, at the nexus of the museum's fifth-floor offices, a lone employee sifted through the contents of a filing cabinet. Not a single ringing phone or casual scrap of conversation could be heard in the virtually empty halls.
"It definitely is like a death, I mean the mourning process and just the whole feeling here," said Dana Thorpe, executive director of the 25-year-old museum, one of the largest arts institutions in the Central Valley.
The museum appears to be the latest cultural victim of the current economic downturn. It joins a growing list of about 20 U.S. museums of various types and sizes that have folded in the last year, including the Las Vegas Museum of Art and the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo, Fla., said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Assn. of Museums in Washington, D.C.
Additionally, dozens of other museums have been forced to trim budgets, cancel or postpone exhibitions and/or layoff staff, even including such well-endowed behemoths as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Center in Brentwood.
Fresno museum officials blame the closure on what Stewart Randall, president of its board of trustees, called a perfect storm of ill fortune: the global financial crash, a corresponding drop-off in key long-time donor contributions and a prolonged three-year building rehabilitation project that drained away patrons.
In the 13 months since the museum reopened in November 2008, its total attendance was 110,000, the third best in its history, and its number of contributions had increased, Thorpe said. But its income in total dollars received declined. Because of the diminished value of their stock portfolios, long-time donors who had given annual gifts of $25,000 and more "were informing us that they were lucky if they could give us a $5,000 gift," Thorpe said.
Thorpe and other officials said that since reopening the museum had stepped up efforts to attract more of the city's young families by programming fewer fine art shows and more exhibitions aimed at children.
It also had been aggressively targeting ethnic communities, including Fresno's large Latino and Hmong populations, by hiring Spanish- and Hmong-speaking docents, translating wall panels and creating new audio guides.
Now Thorpe, who previously served as exhibits director for Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, wonders what will fill the void created by the museum's departure.
"It's not a community that's fortunate to have multiple museums or education-related attractions," she said. "It's very limited. So the importance of the museum to this community has stood out."
Hurting the city
Although Met officials last week expressed hope that someday a replacement museum may emerge, they acknowledged the damage that will occur as a result of the closing to the city's cultural life, as well as its civic and quality-of-life reputation, at least in the short term.
"It hurts to see the museum that's of such quality not make it," Randall said. "It doesn't help the next survey that comes out that puts Fresno toward the bottom," he continued, alluding to the city's generally low ranking among livable American cities.
The decision to permanently close the facility followed months of rumors and several ominous recent signs, including the slashing of the museum's 2009 operating budget by 45%, two rounds of layoffs last year and the premature closure of a Chagall exhibition in December. The museum has a debt of between $4.4 million and $4.8 million, said its lawyer, Riley Walter.
In coming weeks, under a plan approved by the Met's board of trustees, the remainder of the museum's skeletal staff will be laid off, its art collection valued and other assets will be sold at auction, and the historic 50,000-square-foot building it occupies in downtown Fresno, which is owned by the city, will be seeking new tenants, probably nonprofits and possibly including other arts organizations.
Several of these transactions will be funded in part by a recently formed limited liability company calling itself Friends of the Met, whose purpose is to help the museum engineer what officials refer to as a "soft landing" and avoid filing for bankruptcy.
The Friends' organizer, Emory Wishon, an attorney and former Met president, said the group comprises about a dozen long-time supporters who wanted to help the museum shut its operations and dispose of its assets in a responsible manner, and to pay off its remaining employee-related costs, including salaries, pensions and accrued vacations. So far, Wishon said, the Friends have raised about $600,000 toward that end.