Indy museum aims to boost attendance, cut costs

INDIANAPOLIS - The Indianapolis Museum of Art is taking steps to cut costs and increase attendance in hopes of reducing reliance on its endowment to cover expenses.

The museum has a $326 million endowment, which director Charles Venable says is "a nice endowment." It's rebounded since tumbling from $393 million before the recession to $266 million, but Venable says the strategy is designed to help it grow back to its pre-recession level.

"I do want to make sure we get back as soon as possible to taking a conservative amount from our endowment," Venable told the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Venable wants the museum to reduce its dependency on the fund to 5 percent, ideally reaching the 4 percent range.

The first step is to reduce the institution's $22 million annual budget. Venable has already merged seven departments into five and eliminated the job of its chief operating officer. More of the museum's 250 jobs could follow.

Venable also hopes to double the number of annual visitors from the current 400,000, which is well below the 1 million annual visitors the museum can accommodate.

"I need more customers in the buildings," he said. "Then you will get a higher number of people . who will actually buy lunch and buy cups of coffee and buy from the gift shop and buy tickets to exhibitions."

Venable blamed the attendance numbers on a lack of major special exhibits.

He hopes to change that with a three-month Henri Matisse exhibit that opens in October.

Museum officials say the exhibit could draw 80,000 to 100,000 people. Though the exhibit will cost more than $1 million, Venable said he is confident the IMA will come out ahead.

"We have to get over a certain threshold where we gamble that we can get that many people," he said.

If the Matisse exhibit does well, Venable hopes to feature three or four world-renowned artists a year, compared with the current one or two.

"Certain artists just have followings. What you have to do is balance those kinds of things -- hit-it-out-of-the-ballpark artists -- with local artists, emerging artists. You just can't spend $1 million" bringing in lesser-known works, he said.

Venable acknowledged that bringing in more people alone won't improve the bottom line right now because general admission, excluding special exhibits, is free. When attendance increases, the IMA has to hire more staff to handle the influx.

"If you just do the straight math and say it's all about the bottom line, the more people we have in this building, the more it will cost us," Venable said.

He hopes to take a page from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

Paid annual memberships at the museum have grown from a 2009 low of 6,900 to 37,000. In contrast, the IMA has 6,400 paid memberships.

Memberships at both museums cover admission to special exhibits and parking, as well as discounts at gift shops and restaurants.

The Virginia Museum, which also offers free general admission, became more aggressive about staging high-profile exhibits after a $200 million renovation in May 2010. Shows since the reopening have featured Pablo Picasso paintings and Faberge decorative objects.

Director Alex Nyerges said the exhibits helped bring in new members who generated several million dollars in annual revenue, allowing the museum to increase its budget from less than $17 million a year to $32 million.

"To boost attendance and boost membership, they go hand in hand," Nyerges said.

Venable said drawing more visitors each year could pave the way for the IMA to start charging for general admission.

He notes that The Children's Museum of Indianapolis offered free admission before 1991 but now charges $18.50 for adult general admission.

"This year, they're doing 1.2 million visitors, which is, what, three times the people (as the IMA)? And it's $18 just to get in the door," he said.

The IMA tried charging $7 for general admission following a renovation in 2005 but eliminated the fee less than two years later to increase attendance.

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