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Closure risk heightens MAC’s significance

“Civic cultural institution” – the very phrase conjures an air of granite-like permanence and robust health.

Yet one Spokane cultural landmark is in danger of slipping into the equivalent of a long-term coma, with no guarantee the state won’t pull the plug.

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed 2011-’13 budget calls for closing Spokane’s Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture and reducing the staff from about 34.8 full-time-equivalent positions to 2.8.

The museum would become, in essence, a hulking Browne’s Addition warehouse.

“The exhibit hall would just be locked,” said Ron Rector, interim executive director.

Under this budget proposal – which is still only a proposal, pending legislative action this spring – the staff would be reduced to one maintenance person to manage the $30 million complex, plus one or two other people to take care of the 60,000 artworks, tribal objects, historical artifacts and photographs in the MAC’s collection, according to Rector. Not to mention the million-plus documents in the archives.

The budget includes no funding for security or for outdoor maintenance of the five-acre campus, he said.

“What does that do for Browne’s Addition?” said Rector. “It’s just an accident waiting to happen.”

The governor’s budget, announced in December, is only the latest blow. Two years ago, staffing was cut 40 percent and the museum reduced its hours drastically, so that it was open only Wednesdays through Saturdays. Rector said the MAC is already operating at “the absolute minimum.”

It has been a frightening free-fall for what has been Spokane’s premier art and history institution for nearly a century.

Generations of schoolchildren have toured it. It has displayed Rembrandts, Monets and Greek antiquities. It acquired the region’s most important repository of tribal cultural objects.

And only 10 years ago, the museum moved into a new, gleaming multimillion-dollar facility – built mostly with state funds.

And now, nobody is certain whether it will be open at all this time next year.

The museum staff is surprisingly optimistic about the future. In fact, they are planning exhibits all the way through 2016 – the institution’s centennial – including two especially big ones.

The first is a touring exhibit titled “Leonardo da Vinci: Man-Inventor-Genius,” scheduled from June 3 through Labor Day, which will feature large-scale, handcrafted replicas of da Vinci’s inventions, including a “flying machine” and “naval cannon.”

This will be coupled with a related exhibit, “Leonardo da Vinci: Man-Artist-Genius,” which will feature replicas of his paintings, including “Mona Lisa” and “Last Supper.”

The staff predicts it will draw between 40,000 and 50,000 visitors, rivaling the Tyrannosaurus rex exhibit in 2007.

The da Vinci exhibit is not in doubt – the governor’s budget calls for closing the museum right after it ends.

The MAC staff also is pursuing plans for a major traveling exhibit of Impressionist paintings next October, including works by Renoir, Pissarro and Manet. And there are at least three more exhibits in planning stages, on Inland Northwest history, the Plateau Indian cultures and botanist David Douglas.

They’re forging ahead because … well, because it’s their job. But they are also doing so because they are confident that the Legislature will, in the end, allow them to stay open.

“I think the state has a moral obligation to preserve the history of the state,” Rector said.

“The whole point of creating a repository is so that people could have access to it,” said Laura Thayer, the museum’s program manager.

This issue gets especially sensitive when it comes to the tens of thousands of Indian objects in the collection.

“From a cultural point of view, those things are part of their family,” said Rector. “And we’re telling them they can’t have access to their cultural artifacts?”

Yet the state’s budget crisis is so vast, nobody expects the museum to remain immune. The staff takes considerable comfort in the fact that it already survived a 21 percent funding cut – and made the best of it.

“We took that as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves,” Thayer said. “We wanted the museum to be a cultural hub. We had to reorganize and stop doing things that weren’t important to the community and do things that were. I think we’re succeeding – people are telling us how much fun our exhibits are.”

One success story has been BeGin, a once-a-month museum “happy hour” event which has been drawing around 300 people each time, mostly a younger crowd. Attendees buy cocktails, listen to music and cruise the museum exhibits.

The latest BeGin event, on Jan. 14, featured a new presence: volunteers from Save the MAC, a new organization supporting the museum.

“People are angry and concerned and what they really want to know is, ‘How can we help?’ ” said Chris Schnug, a Save the MAC volunteer and also president of the museum’s board. “The answer is, ‘Be heard.’ ”

By the end of the evening, the group had signed up almost 100 people for a grass-roots letter-writing campaign to legislators. (Their website is

Museums all over the country have struggled during the recession, because both corporate and private philanthropy have fallen. The American Association of Museums cites a survey that reports more than a quarter of all museums are under “severe” or “very severe” financial stress. More than half say they now “lack adequate staffing to deliver programs and services.”

However, most museums are not state-funded and not directly affected by the wave of state budget crises sweeping the country.

The MAC is in an especially difficult position, since more than half its budget – $1.6 million – comes from the state. The remaining $1.2 million comes from local sources, including admissions, memberships, donations and an endowment.

In rough terms, the state money pays for the staff and the local money pays for exhibits. If the state funding vanishes, the museum closes and most of the local money will also disappear. It’s hard to sell memberships to a padlocked institution.

The MAC is not alone – the governor’s budget also calls for closing the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

So Rector, who testified at a legislative hearing Thursday, is lobbying hard in Olympia, using a number of arguments:

First, that after factoring in severance payoffs, security costs and lost revenues, closing the MAC will not save nearly as much money as the state predicts. Second, that Spokane, unlike Tacoma, has no other big museums within hundreds of miles. The third argument is the “moral obligation” one.

The latter is particularly touchy at a time when libraries, health care programs, schools and poverty programs are also facing cuts. Is a museum more important?

“We have an exquisite dilemma,” said Ben Mitchell, the MAC’s senior curator of art. “It leaves us vulnerable, rightfully so, for people to say we need to care for the poor and for health programs.”

Yet Mitchell argues that a healthy community is made of three crucial components, like the three points of a triangle.

“No. 1, you take care of people, those who have less,” he said. “No. 2, a healthy community has clean air and clean water. The third point of the triangle is this: A healthy community preserves and celebrates its culture and celebrates all of the acts of the human imagination.”

Meanwhile, Rector knows exactly what his mission must be if the museum survives: to wean the MAC from state funding over the next few years.

“I would love to be independent from the state,” he said. “… The key is to build the endowment so it’s large enough to support the operation. ”

An especially tough task, if the building goes dark.