The weekend of May 17-18 was a high point in the Contemporary Arts Center’s almost-75-year history. Not only did the long-planned Patti Smith show organized by Adjunct Curator Justine Ludwig, The Coral Sea, open — a coup for the downtown museum — but a charming, gracious Smith herself was present in the galleries on Friday night to greet visitors.
The weekend was followed by tough financial news, though. On May 20, the CAC announced cutbacks and layoffs to avoid fiscal deficits in the coming years. But there is more exciting news in the offing: A new Robert Mapplethorpe-related exhibition is planned for 2015.
Smith’s The Coral Sea, a heartfelt rumination and tribute to the memory of her friend Mapplethorpe — who died in 1989 — has special meaning here. In 1990, the CAC successfully fought an attempt by conservative elements, led by then-Sheriff Simon Leis, to censor a posthumous retrospective of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, The Perfect Moment. The new show underscores how thoroughly those conservative efforts failed.
On Saturday at Memorial Hall, Smith gave a performance for the ages. On stage with daughter Jesse Paris Smith on piano and Tony Shanahan on guitar, she read from The Coral Sea — a book of prose-poems inspired by Mapplethorpe’s life and death — and her National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids, about her friendship with Mapplethorpe while both were struggling artists in New York.
In between the readings, she forcefully sang key songs from her repertoire, such as “Because the Night,” “Dancing Barefoot” and “Pissing in a River.” She covered Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and mentioned it had been recorded in Cincinnati; she dedicated show closer “People Have the Power” to Mark Carson, the gay man murdered in a New York City hate crime that very day.
The fact the show sold out Memorial Hall at $250 for floor seats and $50 for the balcony was proof of public support.
Next door at Music Hall at the same time as Smith was the longer-established (and more Establishment) May Festival. On this night, both institutions stood equal in civic prominence.
Monday’s tough announcement came from Raphaela Platow, CAC’s director and chief curator. To avoid a deficit in fiscal year 2013-2014, which begins in September, the museum immediately laid off four employees — the exhibitions director, assistant curator of education, development director and director of communications/community engagement. Those four represented 16 percent of the institution’s staff. Additionally, Platow is taking a 20 percent salary reduction so that remaining employees can get long-delayed merit raises. (This fiscal year’s $3.1 million budget is balanced.)
In the press release Platow issued, she pointed out CAC was hardly unique in doing this. “According to data from the American Alliance of Museums, 70 percent of all museums reported ‘economic stress’ in 2011, the same number reported in 2009, right after the recession began.”
With the four positions eliminated, there will be several new hirings of “redefined and reorganized” job descriptions, she told CityBeat in a follow-up interview. “By redefining, I mean changing to a different skill set and position, sometimes on a very different salary level. This is what we have to do to move forward,” Platow says.
A previously announced new curatorial hire, Steven Matijcio, arrives from North Carolina in June and will be here to reveal the 2013-2014 exhibition season on June 26.
Platow explains that the primary reason for the cutbacks was a decision by her and the Board of Trustees to reduce CAC’s reliance on drawing from its endowment. That’s to ensure financial longevity, since the amount of annual investment income has been unpredictable in recent years. The institution is currently dependent on drawing from the endowment, which has an investment portfolio of about $24 million, at a rate of 5.25 percent. But it’s trying to get cut back by .25 percent — roughly $60,000 — per year for the next five years.
There are other reasons for the cutbacks, Platow says. Major donors have warned of possible reductions in contributions next year, and there are the increased maintenance costs for its Zaha Hadid-designed building as it reaches its 10th anniversary this year.
Platow said the CAC plans to reach attendance and membership goals this fiscal year — drawing about $78,000 in admission and $200,000 from memberships.
In the meantime, looking ahead, the CAC is observing three anniversaries with programming. This year it will mark the new building’s 10th anniversary; next year will celebrate the institution’s 75th; and in 2015 the CAC will consider the 25th anniversary of the The Perfect Moment fight. For the last, “We might do a show of Mapplethorpe’s works or something related to artistic freedom,” Platow says.
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