NFT News

How radical transparency saved a US museum

“I believe in transparency, because that builds trust,” says Kate Casprowiak Scher, the new permanent director of the Bellevue Arts Museum (Bam) in Washington state. On 15 February, less than a week into her post, she announced that the institution faced “dire” financial straits and might have to close. To right the ship, Scher took a bracingly frank approach, publicly acknowledging the mistakes made by museum leadership over the years, chief among them the failure to establish a permanent endowment to fund operations. That candour seems to have paid off so far, and an emergency campaign Scher launched to raise $300,000 to save Bam was met—and exceeded by nearly $50,000—by the end of March with 300 donations.

“I don’t want to be leading a museum that’s dying a slow institutional death, which is what it looked like was going on here for a while,” Scher tells The Art Newspaper, adding that the situation developed despite the dedicated staff and board members who have kept the museum functioning through its most difficult years. Since opening its $23m Steven Holl-designed home in 2001, the museum already closed once in 2003 because of financial issues, before reorganising to focus on both arts and crafts and reopening in 2005.

“Because Bellevue is so wealthy, and because we have a long-term relationship with the Freeman family, the community likely thought we’re properly funded,” Scher says, referring to the local family of land developers who have supported the museum for decades. (An affluent suburb of Seattle, Bellevue is home to offices for many major tech companies—including Microsoft, Amazon and T-Mobile US.) “Many people were surprised to hear that we are in such a vulnerable position,” she says. Without an endowment to draw on, however, the museum has had to essentially fundraise its $2m budget from scratch every year, and often operates with a deficit.

Living on fumes

“When you’re living on fumes, it’s easy for things to compound, and they’ve compounded massively here. But we should be able to change things,” Scher says. “It doesn’t take that much to get us level, and then if we have a bit of intentional funding, with some goals, we can do something amazing here. I wouldn’t have accepted this position had I not believed that we can get to this exceptional place.”

Scher accepts, however, that it will be a years-long process to get the institution on steady ground. The next two years will be about stabilising its finances, then she would like to expand programming as well as relationships with regional and national institutions. “We’re coming up on the 25th anniversary of the Steven Holl building and the 50th anniversary of the actual art museum. That’s a nice milestone, now that we’ve done this awareness call,” she says.

New director Kate Casprowiak Scher has blamed the lack of an endowment for the institution’s financial issuesBeauclair Photography

This energetic push to the next goalpost is likely what clinched the directorship for Scher, who previously served on the museum’s advisory council and board of directors. And it has helped her in recent months as she juggled gaps in the museum’s staffing caused by significant turnover. “I’m doing a lot of jobs right now,” Scher says. “I don’t have a development director, so I’m kind of operating as development director. We also don’t have a curator, so I’m acting as curator.” The museum’s last chief curator, Benedict Heywood, also served as executive director; he resigned in 2021 amid accusations of disrespecting a Black guest curator. The position has remained open since then.

Scher sees her main job at the moment as not just bringing in much-needed funding but rebuilding relationships with the community as well as the staff. “There’s a pretty positive energy” among the Bam employees, Scher says. “There’s a sense of relief with going public. There’s a sense of gratification with the responses, which have generally been positive.” In fact, one donor hailing all the way from Minnesota gave the museum $145,000—after reading about Bam’s need. “He said: ‘I don’t know you, you don’t know me, I’ve never been to Bellevue, but I read the article in The Art Newspaper, and I knew I had to help,’” Scher says.

“Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t still have a deep well of anxiety, because we really need to have six stakeholders come to the table at the same time, and that’s what my next phase of this campaign is,” Scher adds. She is aiming to get a mix of local government, corporate sponsors—ideally from the city’s many tech companies—and private patrons to get involved in the museum’s rebirth. “I really hope I am given the opportunity to emerge out of this survival mode that we’ve been in, and show the community that we can serve them in a way that’s very distinct to our region, to our location, and very different than what happens across the lake in Seattle,” Scher says.

Putting Bam on the map

Seattle is only a 15-minute drive west of Bellevue, and it has its own robust arts and performance scene, so even locals who have lived in Bellevue for decades are used to heading to Seattle for their cultural fix. Making Bam a destination in its own right will take further strategic effort. “We have to show our relevance,” Scher says. “And we need to do that through consistent programming. We should have events four nights a week, if not more, and in regular cycles. There’s been so much inconsistency here that, rather than build community involvement, we’ve lost it.”

Scher hopes to regain that engagement in the coming months and sees a lot of potential in Bam’s status as a kunsthalle—a museum without a permanent collection that can more nimbly organise temporary exhibitions and artist projects. “Because we’re not a collecting institution, we have a lot of ability to pivot and change with what’s going on around us,” she says. “We should see that as an asset.” Some of Scher’s ideas draw on the local tech scene—for example, including regular virtual-reality experiences in the galleries or offering visitors trackers to wear through an exhibition that provide a readout of their emotional reactions to the art on view.

Even with the first financial hurdle cleared, which will keep the museum’s doors open for the time being, the need to establish a permanent endowment to ensure Bam’s long-term viability remains. “We live in a city with a dynamic, growing population. And the opportunity to partner with a museum and be part of its cultural direction should be very exciting,” Scher says, appealing once again to potential partners. “We’re committed to doing something that is different than Seattle, that’s different than New York, that’s different than London. It’s something that reflects the cultural demographic and the interests of the people that live in Bellevue. We’re defining what that is. I think that’s pretty amazing.”

Source link

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button
Translate »