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Atheneum Looking Inward

Its Expansion Plan Put Aside, The Wadsworth Works To Get 'Fiscal House In Order'

By MATT EAGAN, Courant Staff Writer

November 15, 2007

There was no grandiose talk of expansion plans at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's annual trustees meeting Wednesday night.

As the museum continues its search for a new director, such fanciful dreams have been replaced by a call for fiscal responsibility.

"A new director will find a museum that has its fiscal house in order," said acting director Coleman Casey, who is also president of the trustees.

If nothing else, the release of sobering financial data showed why plans to lease the Hartford Times building and expand there were called off in October.

The museum ran an operating deficit of $733,354 for fiscal year 2007, which ended June 30.

About $350,000 of that deficit was caused by one-time expenses such as severance payments and an engineering study of the museum's physical plant needed before renovations on its aging main campus can begin.

An expansion into the Hartford Times building would have added $300,000 in annual operating expenses to the budget money the museum would have been unlikely to recoup in increased revenue.

"That was an expense we could not afford," Casey said. "The money raised for that expansion was unrestricted, and so that comes into the unrestricted fund and we don't have a $300,000 operating expense looming over us."

Without the expansion, Casey said, the museum will be able to significantly reduce its operating deficit next fiscal year and balance its budget.

This will require some fundraising.

Even subtracting the one-time expenses, the museum had an almost $400,000 operating loss.

"Our operating budget is not covered by existing revenue streams," said Vincent Dowling, the outgoing head of the finance committee. "This can't be made up by cutting expenses or getting more people to come through the doors. The money comes out of one place the unrestricted endowment."

The museum's unrestricted fund, as opposed to restricted funds dedicated to specific purposes such as acquiring new art, has dwindled in recent years from a peak of $36 million in 2000 to $20 million in 2004.

Recent gains have restored about $9 million, and Dowling said the board has made a commitment to try to bolster the fund.

Any such drive must await the hiring of a new director, a task Casey said continues on schedule, which would mean a director should be in place this winter.

For all the dire financial numbers released at the meeting, Casey and Dowling both said the museum was in better financial condition than it was even a year ago.

Attendance and donations were both up for the year and with a major show of Impressionist work set to arrive in February both trends are expected to continue.

And with the Times expansion a thing of the past, museum officials say they are ready to reinvent the museum in its own space without sacrificing the Wadsworth's tradition and reputation.

"When you are as old as the Atheneum, you get used to reinventing yourself," Casey said. "It's what we need to do."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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