Little City, Big Spenders

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The Crib Death of the Claremont Museum of Art Raises Questions

(or how a small community museum burned through a cool $2 million and then closed in just over two years…)

By Mark Cromer

The spring of 2007 must seem like three years and six lifetimes ago for the patrons, supporters and former staff of the Claremont Museum of Art, the small gallery with big plans on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County that died in its nascent state late last year.

In those heady, flush days surrounding the launch of the museum, the institution was heralded as a cultural anchor to the newly minted retail expansion of the Claremont Village, a Pasadena Old Towne knock-off which to many locals seemed the antithesis of the college town’s distilled bohemian aesthetic.

The museum’s demise at the historic College Heights Packing House last December followed frenzied efforts by its board and civic supporters to save it, including several substantial—and questionable—injections of hard cash by the city shortly before its closure. As the museum imploded through the fall it flushed its entire paid staff (save one worker retained as an independent contractor), closed its hemorrhaging retail store and the Claremont City Council shoveled nearly $30,000 into the dying enterprise in its twilight weeks in a frantic effort to keep it from flat-lining.

In a post-mortem that announced the closure of the museum, then board president Frank Chabre noted that the museum could have continued operations for a year on a shoestring budget of $213,000—or nearly 80-percent less than the million bucks a year it had planned on spending.

But a funding drive to raise that baseline budget for 2010 brought in only $26,000 and the board pulled the plug.

It was a sad, inglorious ending to an institution that its boosters had insisted would become an artistic hallmark that would put Claremont on the art map around the world.

While such hubris was little more than a civic pipedream, the museum launched itself in 2007 with nearly a million dollars in cash on hand and a business plan that called for raising an endowment of three times that amount. It may not have been anywhere close to a debut on the global stage, but the Claremont Museum of Art seemed fairly well positioned among Southern California’s blue chip art institutions.

The museum’s board tapped art veteran William Moreno, vice president of the California Association of Museums who had helmed the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, as its executive director and Moreno hit the ground running.

“We have got a clean slate here,” Moreno told Artillery that spring. “There’s definitely expectation and anticipation that we are going to bring something different to life. I think the big challenge is what we’ll be in the future; we already have the essence of what we want to become.”

Despite a series of successful exhibits in its first full year of operation, signs of trouble surfaced fairly quickly as the museum burned through its cash and revenues were nowhere near covering the cost of its operations. And by the fall of 2008 the recession was coming into full bloom, which Moreno said dried up potential funding sources.

“People started to get scared and they retracted their support,” Moreno said. “We had some large donations that we thought we were going to get that didn’t come through. I think in large part because of our youth as an institution.”

But Sandra Baldonado, a former mayor of Claremont and the museum’s newly minted president of the board, said the museum spent too much money right out of the gate and then fumbled efforts to secure significant donations.

“I think what went wrong were a couple of things, the first of which was the board didn’t keep a strong hand in the management of the museum,” Baldonado said. “Once they hired [Moreno], they pretty much gave him a free hand.”

Baldonado said Moreno—whose director’s salary was more than $127,000 annually—in turn began hiring staff and consultants that significantly inflated the new museum’s operational overhead. According to financial statements filed by the non-profit museum, in 2008 the museum had two other employees besides Moreno that made $73,000 and $52,000 respectively; and another four consultants that cost nearly $90,000.

“We were not ready to expand that fast,” Baldonado said. “He was spending lavishly and hiring lavishly as well.”

But Moreno disputes the notion that he spent too much too fast and left the museum dangerously anemic just as the recession hit.

“Look, it was a ground up proposition and we had to build out the museum,” Moreno said. “In terms of hiring, everything I did was done in tandem with the board.”

Another critical misstep, according to Baldonado, was inflating major gifts to the institution and presenting a very large potential gift as a done deal—when it wasn’t.

“We led members of the art community to believe we had more financial backing than we actually had,” Baldonado said. One donor that had made major ongoing donations to the museum was “unhappy” with how her financial support was being portrayed and as a result, Baldonado said, pulled out as a benefactor.

Moreno dismisses the notion that he jumped the gun or overplayed the patron’s planned gift, speculating the donor just got cold feet as the economy worsened and changed her mind. “It was pretty solid. I went ahead and made plans based on that promise, that’s how solid it was,” he said. “But these are not legal instruments and they can back out.”

From the vantage point of hindsight, Moreno said if he could do it all over he would probably have delayed the launch of the museum’s small but vibrant retail store, which he described as a significant drain. But if he harbors any regrets or second-guesses he doesn’t share them.

“Every step of the way we tried to be prudent,” he said. “It was a fairly straight forward challenge. We launched without an endowment and we had enough funds to open the museum, but we were always playing catch up.”

And Moreno is quick to note that the museum didn’t take public funding until after his departure.

And it is the specter of a city council funneling tens of thousands of dollars in support to a museum that clearly should have been read its Last Rites instead that has more than a few locals shaking their heads in this cash-strapped time.

In an appeal to the city for cash in early November of last year, then board president Chabre declared that if the Claremont Museum of Art closed it would be a “tragedy”—a 20% real unemployment rate in California and recently middleclass families now sleeping in their cars aside.

But Claremont’s intrinsic charm has always been the warm cocoon of small town tranquility that it seamlessly blends with a culture of cosmopolitan sensibilities, and perhaps that explains the hard-charging desire (and belief) among some that it should launch a museum and spend like it was flying Business Class all the way to the crash site.

As for the future, Moreno said he is considering offers from out of state, but is taking some time off to write in LA for now. Baldonado said the museum’s new board is focusing on paying off its debts and plotting to rise again from the ashes as either a “virtual museum” or in some other creative incarnation. The works of its permanent collection are in storage.

Whatever may come for the Claremont Museum of Art v.2, perhaps the lesson learned is to innovate and create like there may be no tomorrow, but plan and spend as if a future may actually be possible.

This article was first published in Artillery.