Bloomberg News

Folk Art Museum ’Reasonably Secure’ After $3.5 Million in Gifts

January 18, 2012

Jan. 17 (Bloomberg) -- The American Folk Art Museum can survive in a storefront on New York’s Upper West Side, its volunteer president said today, buoyed by more than $3.5 million in contributions and pledges since it sold its main building to the Museum of Modern Art.

“We’re committed to operating on a break-even basis for the indefinite future,” said Monty Blanchard, a former Merrill Lynch & Co. investment banker, speaking at a news conference. “Our future is reasonably secure.”

The museum sold its West 53rd Street building to MoMA for $31.2 million last year after missing $3.7 million in debt- service payments. The 50-year-old museum now operates in a space of less than 5,000 square feet that it has used as an outpost since 1989.

“The plus side of selling our building is that we are debt-free,” said Linda Dunne, the museum’s acting director. All contributions go to programming, not to servicing or repaying debt, she said, adding that the staff is 18, down from a peak of 57 a few years ago.

“Considering what was hanging over our heads, this gives us the chance to start new, without the monster facilities costs,” she said.

Stacy Hollander, senior curator, has assembled 100 pieces from the museum’s 5,000-work collection in a dense new exhibition called “Jubilation/Rumination: Life, Real and Imagined.” It includes Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez and other big names of folk art.

The philanthropist Joyce Berger Cowin recently pledged $2 million to the museum, Blanchard said, and trustees and others gave about $1 million.

Dependent on Donors

The museum is unusually dependent on donors. It occupies its space rent-free as part of a decades-old zoning agreement that prohibits the museum from charging admission, according to a 2000 filing for bondholders. A box near the entrance appeals to visitors for a $5 donation.

Dunne is confident that the museum will gain ownership of hundreds of works promised by Ralph Esmerian, a former chairman and jeweler who was sentenced last year to six years in prison after pleading guilty to fraud. The fate of the works is being decided by U.S. bankruptcy court, she said.

In taking over the board, Blanchard replaces Laura Parsons, the wife of the chairman of Citigroup Inc. Since Maria Ann Conelli resigned last year as executive director, the museum has sought a permanent full-time leader. Dunne said she doesn’t want the job.

“The day-to-day management of the institution falls to me,” Dunne said. “I’m a nuts-and-bolts gal. My heart really isn’t in fundraising.”

--Editors: Jeffrey Burke, Jeremy Gerard.

To contact the reporter of this story: Philip Boroff in New York at pboroff@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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