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The Extraordinary Steps Museums Are Taking To Survive The Pandemic

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The pandemic has been devastating for many museums. Shutdowns and restrictions mean fewer visitors, and that means fewer tickets, less money. So some are taking an extraordinary step. They're talking about selling some of their art to help pay the bills, including one of the biggest art museums in the world, the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. It's home to more than 2 million pieces. Max Hollein is the director, and he joins us now.

Thank you so much for taking the time.

MAX HOLLEIN: Thank you. My pleasure.

MARTIN: How has it come to this? I mean, you're facing a $150 million deficit because of the pandemic. Just give us a sense of the financial duress that your museum is under.

HOLLEIN: First of all, to say (ph) the Met is a very strong institution, so it's not an existential crisis. But on the other hand, yes, indeed, we will have a very different environment even for the next couple of years. Our attendance is, of course, way, way below from what - where we were before the pandemic. And it's going to continue to be that way even when restrictions are going to be lifted. And besides that, of course, we have not been able to do a whole number of things, benefit galas that we normally do, of course, our retail work that we have on site. A whole number of income streams have significantly suffered during this time and will continue to do so.

MARTIN: But let me ask, instead of using this worst-case scenario option of selling your art to have to pay salaries and maintain your collection, why not fundraise to make up the difference?

HOLLEIN: Well, indeed, we are doing all of that. We are using all different means of income and additional fundraising to compensate for that. And the only change that we are doing right now, it's not that we're selling more art. It's that we are using the proceeds of the works that we normally sell for this limited period to support the salaries of collection care workers. We are doing that at the same time while we will get, this year, another 50 million of endowment proceeds through restricted endowments that are just for acquisitions. We get another 50 million just to buy up (ph). So it doesn't mean that the museum is no longer acquiring new works, but that we are not growing other (ph) collection. We continue to grow. We just, for this two-year period, might not grow as vigorously or as rapidly as before.

MARTIN: So that's interesting. Is that your response then to your predecessor, Thomas Campbell, as I'm sure you know, who has warned that this step could be a slippery slope, basically, that museums could get addicted to using proceeds from these sales as a way to just keep the lights on and maintain collections instead of more aggressively growing collections.

HOLLEIN: I don't see it that way at all. First of all, I don't think it's a slippery slope. I think the slippery slope would rather be if we as museums would dip into our endowment, into our funds that we have operations, and diminish them because that would then have enormous effects in the long run. So it's not kind of OK, we do this this year than we do in all the other years. I think we are doing it in a year where we are in a crisis as a museum. But it may be more as sad (ph) as we have not seen before. So in that context, I think there should be a possibility to support our staff as much as we can.

MARTIN: Max Hollein, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Thank you so much for your time.

HOLLEIN: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.