Saint Louis Art Museum faces economic challenges

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 | 3:52 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — Tough economic times have prompted the Saint Louis Art Museum to trim $1.5 million in expenses, even as it moves forward with a major building expansion project.

The museum's endowment has declined by nearly 30 percent during the past six months and annual giving levels are also down for the first quarter, Director Brent Benjamin said Wednesday.

"It's regrettable that the larger economic crisis has had such an impact," he said.

Museums across the country are facing similar cash crunches, and the St. Louis museum had been working for months to keep its resources and expenses aligned, he said.

In September, a dozen employees took a voluntary retirement package, which the museum recently offered to another 19 of its 179 full-time employees. Other cost-cutting measures include reductions in printed materials and all but essential travel. Staff committed to giving international presentations, or who need to travel to work on exhibitions, will still do so.

Some of the cuts were made in the 2008 operating budget of $22.2 million, and others from this year's operating budget of $21.3 million. Museum operations are supported by St. Louis city and county property taxes, endowment income and annual giving. Admission to the museum is free although it does charge for special exhibits.

In 2008, the museum announced a delay to its building expansion projectbecause of volatile short-term credit markets. However, museum officials now say they hope to break ground on the project late this year.

The expansion was designed by London-based architect David Chipperfield. The addition will be built to the east and south of the museum's 1904 building with a dark, polished facade. It will include 82,000 square feet of new galleries and public spaces as well as 129,000 square feet of underground parking.

The expansion can move forward because of success in a nearly completed $125 million capital campaign consisting of donations. Money from the campaign will be added to the endowment to cover the additional costs of operating a larger museum, officials said.



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