Strategy: multi-year, fully informed, results focused. In addition to fulfilling its fiduciary responsibility a nonprofit board, like any business owner, must be strategically focused to ensure it has the best interests of its nonprofit focused in an ever-changing marketplace. One might argue that the Museum of Biblical Art has finally made a strategic decision: it will be closing its doors. One might also argue that that same board had failed to be strategic before this decision.
The following Wall Street Journal article tells the full story but the mini-story tells of an organization that for too many years has been getting its annual rent for $1 -- in downtown Manhattan. Its landlord of some 20 years has sold its business. The board, grateful for its low rent appears not to have ever started an endowment and/or built-up enough of a donor base to ever accommodate a possible change in location - or at least one that would be at the same price. When the landlord gave notice, smart tactics were just not enough. Now the board has moved to close the organization. Lessons for others?
Museum of Biblical Art to Close
Its home has been sold and it can’t afford a new space in the city, officials say
The Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan will close in June, having failed to secure a new space after the sale this year of its current home, the American Bible Society building near Columbus Circle.
This winter, the decade-old museum mounted its most successful show yet: a display of major Renaissance sculptures by Donatello and others that drew critical raves and the largest attendance of any exhibition in the museum’s history.
- Museum of Biblical Art Loses Its Landlord (Feb. 18, 2015)
- Museum of Biblical Art Welcomes Donatello Sculptures (Feb. 12, 2015)
- Bible Society Sells New York City Building for $300 Million (Feb. 1, 2015)
Despite that splash, museum officials said they have been unable to raise enough money to cover the cost of a market-rate space in Manhattan. “The time frame was just too tight,” said museum Director Richard P. Townsend.
The decision to close, announced Tuesday afternoon, highlights the challenges for small and midsize cultural organizations in New York City. Rents here are high and competition for donors and audiences fierce.
A secular institution that examines the Bible’s influence on Western art, the Museum of Biblical Art has mounted well-regarded shows on subjects ranging from the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible to the ecclesiastical work of glass maker Louis Comfort Tiffany.
It has a small staff, no permanent collection and no endowment. But the museum, known as Mobia, possessed a singular advantage: It paid just $1 a year for its space at the Bible Society’s building on Broadway.
The Society, a 199-year-old nonprofit that promotes engagement with the Bible, announced in March 2014 that it would sell the building and move to Philadelphia. Since then, Mr. Townsend said, he has sought new donors, checked out real estate and explored potential partnerships with other museums and universities.
Mobia, which has an average annual budget of about $2.8 million, faced two challenges: coming up with an additional $1.5 million to $5 million in annual rent, plus millions more to equip the space with museum-quality temperature and humidity controls.
“The cheapest appropriate space, which still would have required a build-out, was about $1.4 million,” Mr. Townsend said.
While new supporters stepped forward, and some existing donors doubled their pledges, “you don’t go from zero to 60” in a matter of months, Mr. Townsend said. “As the board looked at this very carefully, they didn’t see a way forward, unless a white knight came and wrote a huge check.”
The museum will close to the public on June 14, the last day of the Donatello show, and cease operations on June 30.
A planned joint exhibition with the Andy Warhol Museum that looks at Warhol’s “The Last Supper” series will be canceled. Another collaboration, a traveling exhibition called “Power and Piety” showcasing Patricia Phelps de Cisneros’s collection of Spanish colonial art, won’t open in New York as planned, Mr. Townsend said.
“It’s really disappointing on a lot of levels,” said Brian O’Neil, chairman emeritus of Mobia’s board. “And yet the plight of the small museum is a tough one.”
Some other institutions in New York are also weighing their options. The South Street Seaport Museum, whose operating budget has shrunk to about $2.3 million—from $4.4 million in 2012—is considering selling off some of the six-vessel fleet that hosts much of its educational programming.
Last month, the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan announced a two-year partnership with the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, an alliance intended to broaden its audience and raise the profile of both groups. The museum has run deficits in five of the past six years, and relies almost entirely on annual fundraising to cover its operating budget, which in recent years has ranged from roughly $11 million to $14 million.
Mobia began as an art gallery founded in 1997 by the American Bible Society. The museum was spun off as a separate, secular entity in 2004 and reopened to the public the following year, after a major renovation. But it continued to receive significant backing from the Bible Society.
In recent years, that support has been scaled back, per an agreement that Mobia would transition into a fully independent institution. The museum was working to replace the Bible Society funds with its own, Mr. O’Neil said, and had made headway despite the financial crisis.
“There was an exponential difference between that,” he said, “and the need to find our own place, fix it up and pay a higher rent.”
Mobia’s board thanked the Bible Society, calling it the museum’s “most generous supporter from the beginning.” Mr. O’Neil and Mr. Townsend said they are proud of Mobia’s exhibitions, and regretted that efforts to sustain it as an independent entity failed to gain traction.
“If you’re a nonprofit and you don’t own your building, and you don’t have an endowment, it’s going to be a tough slog, at least in New York City,” Mr. Townsend said. “We are proud that we can offer this truly great last exhibition.”
Society spokesman Geof Morin said in a statement that he is grateful to museum staff and board members “for their tremendous work highlighting the cultural relevance of Biblical art.”
Mobia filled a unique niche, said its founding director, Ena Heller, now director of the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. Ms. Heller said she plans to visit the Donatello show over Memorial Day weekend.“It’s very sad,” she said. “I was hoping they would find a solution.”
Write to Jennifer Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org