Mickenberg Holds Frank Talk About Taubman’s Future

David Mickenberg

by Aaron Layman

While Taubman Museum of Art President and CEO David Mickenberg listed success stories regarding the museum’s attendance and exhibitions over the past fiscal year at a public meeting of over 130 attendees on Monday night, he also opened up about projected budget shortfalls and the downtown museum’s precarious future.

The inaugural “Taubman Talk About” did mention signs of progress. Mickenberg was proud to announce that over 120,000 visitors came to the museum last year, an increase of 40,000 attendees over the previous year. Membership also rose from 2,800 to over 4,000. Since reopening, the museum’s Art Venture program for children has swelled during the museum’s free Spectacular Saturdays program from 150 to 400 attendees.

Mickenberg claimed that the past year “positioned [the Taubman] for the future,” as it carried out the museum’s revised mission – to focus on regional artists in the southeastern United States. That was one result of what was learned from focus groups.

“The model of ‘Bilbao in the Blue Ridge’ is dead,” he said, referring to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain that looks similar archtecturally. Now the Taubman’s goal, said Mickenberg, is exhibitions that better serve Roanoke – not trying to compete as a flashy international museum.

This isn’t to say that the museum will shy away from international artists. Upcoming exhibitions will feature works from John Cage and Yoko Ono, along with paintings from America between 1760 and 1860. However, more regionally-focused exhibitions such as the works of Jean Helion, a French artist living in Virginia, will be in the spotlight as well.

Mickenberg said he was proud in particular to announce “This Light of Ours,” a collection of civil rights photographs from the South. He hopes to have eight living photographers represented in the exhibition come to the museum to discuss their work.

Other steps forward will include reinstalling the museum’s American Art Galleries to include folk art and an expanded curatorial team that includes Floyd artist Donna Polseno and local artist Bill White.

The meeting then took a sharp turn to the subject of the museum’s finances. While the museum ended this fiscal year with balanced budget, which Mickenberg claimed has been the case for the two-plus years he’s been director, projections for the fiscal year 2012-2013 forecast an $1.4 shortfall below the revenue needed to cover $3.4 in expenses.

Mickenberg was candid about the seriousness of the situation. “If we don’t raise the $1.4 million, we will close. That is a fact,” he stated solemnly.

A endowment of $20 to $30 million is needed for the museum’s long-term survival in order to cover a portion of the operating costs. While the museum is seeking grants, Mickenberg noted that those would only cover programmatic costs, not the operating budget.

He called upon the audience to “pass the word” that cultural institutions need community support. “Don’t support an institution,” he said. “Support your institution.” Mickenberg noted that the programming had been changed to fit feedback from citizen focus groups but that support from this same community was essential.

Several audience members asked questions and gave suggestions on building community support – like a “United Way of the arts” fundraising organization and expanded marketing to nearby communities like Blacksburg, Floyd and Radford. Local artist Tif Robinette asked Mickenberg what ways he would use to engage younger people between the ages of 16 and 30.

While remaining blunt about the struggles that the museum has had to and will continue to face, Mickenberg expressed his belief in the community’s potential for support: “It is incumbent that the donor class and arts professionals get together and work this out…there is a lot of expertise in this community and in this room,” he said on a night that could be described as a reality check.

For more information on the Taubman Museum of Art, visit www.taubmanmuseum.org.