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MAG asks art lovers to help lower $500k deficit 

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The Memorial Art Gallery announced this week that it’s approaching a $500,000 deficit in its 2020 budget — funds that would have come from admissions, museum store and restaurant revenue, events, memberships, and philanthropic giving.

An email sent to members, donors, and patrons on Tuesday stated that the gallery is facing “potential cuts to much-anticipated exhibitions, to beloved programs for all ages and stages, and to the positions and salaries of our dedicated staff.”

The largest share of the MAG’s expenses is its employees’ salaries, and the museum has already had to make cuts in those areas, MAG Director Jonathan Binstock said. The highest-paid staff took 10 to 20 percent salary cuts while other staff, like at so many other workplaces, are on a rolling rotation of two-week furloughs. Some employees whose work depends on the gallery being open went on full furlough, he said.

Those salary cuts and furloughs didn’t offset the financial losses. But he added that the reason for the rolling furlough is that though the museum is closed, there's still a lot of work to do.

“And the MAG can't afford to not do that work, even when we're closed,” he said. “Planning for exhibitions, changing loan contracts on Schaechter works that are now allowed to stay longer. There's so much back-of-house bureaucratic work, organizing, planning, and project management that has to happen in order to keep this thing moving forward.”

News of the deficit came with an appeal for donations. MAG announced that its annual fundraiser, “An Artists’ Affair,” would take place virtually, and function as the first of two fundraisers this season under the umbrella of the gallery’s newly launched “Protect the Arts: A Critical Campaign for MAG.” The second opportunity to donate is through the University of Rochester’s Day of Giving campaign, to be held on Thursday, June 4 (donors can select the Memorial Art Gallery as the beneficiary, and will receive $10 off MAG membership).

As an incentive to become a new member of the gallery, all MAG members will have exclusive access to a digital viewing of Isaac Julien's "Lessons of the Hour."

The first leg of the fundraising campaign, “An Artists’ Affair,” was launched on Tuesday and continues through Saturday, May 30. It focuses on supporting the MAG’s arts education programs. There’s a $50,000 goal, and the MAG’s board will triple the impact of each donation by matching $2 for every $1 raised.

As in previous years, the fundraiser will specifically support the MAG’s educational outreach programs and resources, through which the institution interacts with more than 7,000 elementary and secondary school students from 36 school districts every year. Funds raised will enable MAG to provide school programming in the year ahead.

The annual fundraiser usually spotlights eight local artists, but the set of selected artists for 2020 have agreed to delay and join the 2021 Artists’ Affair event. But this year, fundraiser contributors can elect to donate a portion of their gift to support those artists by ticking the designated box during checkout.

“An Artists’ Affair” includes some playful incentives for contributors. For example, those who donated to the campaign on Tuesday and Wednesday morning were able to vote on which on-video humiliation Binstock would be subjected to: having his head shaved, competing in a hot wings-eating contest against MAG fundraiser Joe Carney, or taking shots (alternating between bourbon, espresso, and the 3-point line).

The votes have been cast, and the resulting video will be posted on Thursday at 3 p.m. (Watch CITY’s twitter feed for that video @roccitynews.)

click to enlarge MAG Director Jonathan Binstock, center, sits on the gallery steps and awaits his fate. Find out what donors to the fundraiser decided at 3 p.m. on Thursday, May 28. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • MAG Director Jonathan Binstock, center, sits on the gallery steps and awaits his fate. Find out what donors to the fundraiser decided at 3 p.m. on Thursday, May 28.

Those who contribute to the campaign anytime through Saturday have the chance to win a private tour of local woodworker and sculptor Jerry Alonzo’s studio.

The scope of the revenue loss

When the pandemic hit in the middle of March, MAG closed its doors. The museum estimated its earned revenue stream would freeze through at least June 30, the end of the museum’s fiscal year. The assessment was spot on, Binstock said.

Earned revenue, which includes admissions fees and income from events and the museum store and restaurant, accounts for a third of the MAG’s $8.5 million annual budget, Binstock said.

By June 30, the loss of earned revenue will be more than a quarter of the annual amount, and paired with a decrease in memberships and losses in philanthropic giving from this period, the deficit hits about $500,000.

There’s also a domino effect to the current losses, Binstock said. While the museum is busy raising funds to help assuage the current and ongoing earned income losses, it’s not doing the fundraising it usually would, right now, for next year’s projects.

By way of example he cited the upcoming exhibition, “Andy Warhol Portfolios: A Life in Pop.”

“We were planning to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for that,” he said. “We're not even close. So you know, there's a tail to this. It's not going to stop with this fiscal year. We’ll be swimming upstream next year for sure.”

But right now it’s hard to even consider what the impact will be for next year with the same clarity as the current, immediate impacts, he said.

Binstock said that so far, the response to the fundraiser has been encouraging and humbling.

“I’m so impressed with this community,” he said. “The MAG is Rochester’s art museum, it belongs to everybody.”

On the vague hopes of reopening...

In response to the growing threat of the coronavirus pandemic, Binstock and the directors of three other major Rochester museums (The Strong, RMSC, and George Eastman Museum) came together in early March and decided as one to shut the doors of their respective institutions. Now, those same directors are discussing a feasible date for re-opening.

“We recently met to talk about our plans, and we're eyeing Saturday, June 27,” he said. “Pending, of course, the governor's instructions, the county executive’s instructions, and the county health commissioner’s instructions, to ensure that we're doing this according to their requirements for health and safety.”

That date isn’t firm, but was selected as a target if the governor’s phases of re-opening all proceed without obstacles or hiccups, Binstock said.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's arts & entertainment editor. She can be reached at becca@rochester-citynews.com.

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