Walters cuts staff, spending

The Baltimore Sun

Faced with a 27 percent drop in the value of its endowment funds and expected cuts in state and local government grants, the Walters Art Museum announced yesterday a restructuring plan that includes laying off seven of its 150 employees, imposing a salary and limited hiring freeze and staff furloughs, and canceling an exhibition that was to have had the museum collaborating with the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the Getty in Los Angeles.

Earlier this year, Hackerman House, where the Walters' Asian art collection is displayed, was closed weekdays in a cost-cutting move.

"We'll keep up the scholarly exhibits we are famous for, and our family and school programs," said museum director Gary Vikan. "And we will maintain the free-admission policy. The board is wedded to it. They love it, I love it and the staff loves it."

Vikan will take one month of unpaid leave before the museum's fiscal year ends June 30. The furloughs "are all at the top," he said.

The canceled exhibit, slated for spring 2010, would have featured the work of French painter Jean-Leon Gerome. Vikan said the planning for the project had been going on for two years. "But there would have been a $300,000 net loss to us. In normal times, we could have lived with that," he said. "Canceling that exhibit, and losing the chance to work with the d'Orsay and the Getty, was really painful."

The number of donors to the Walters is down slightly, "but what they are giving is up, which is gratifying," Vikan said. The decline in endowment over the past year - it is now in "the low 50s" (millions), the director said - is the major pressure on the budget. The Walters' annual budget of about $14.5 million will be reduced to $12.5 million, Vikan said.

Like other arts organizations, the Walters also faces a substantial reduction in state funding. "There's a cut of 36 percent on the table right now," Vikan said. "That would be a loss of $420,000 for us next year. That's brutal."

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra launched a letter-writing campaign among its supporters yesterday to protest proposed funding cuts; the BSO stands to lose $700,000.

The weakened economy has forced the Baltimore Opera Company to seek bankruptcy protection and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra to suspend operations for the rest of the season. Other groups are experiencing severe pressures, including the Baltimore Theatre Project, which revealed this week that it is in danger of canceling next season.

Robert Rogers, director of the Maryland Historical Society, said six staff members were laid off effective Feb. 18, bringing the staff size to 42. "This was a necessary move to position us during this difficult time," he said. The difficulties include a 31 percent drop in the endowment and a reduction in state funding.

Rogers said he does not expect any other changes to staffing, admission fees or operating hours, although the staff is taking another look at its operating hours.

Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Gunts contributed to this article.


* Seven Walters staff members laid off

* Hackerman House closed weekdays

* Exhibit planned for 2010 canceled

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