By Adam Andrzejewski
The Kennedy Center’s $25-million taxpayer-funded grant may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to coronavirus “stimulus.” Even after receiving heavy criticism for including the Center’s generous gift in the latest relief package, members of Congress are pushing for billions more to be sent to other arts organizations.
Last month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City (the Met) – an organization with a $3.6 billion endowment – kicked off a petition campaign lobbying for $4 billion more in taxpayer assistance to America’s museums and cultural non-profits.
For perspective, fourteen state governments receive less than $4 billion in federal aid during a typical year.
Without mentioning the Met’s large endowment, the New York congressional delegation published a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – citing the Met’s anticipated $100 million loss – and advocating for $4 billion for museums.
Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jerrold Nadler, and eight other New York members of Congress argued that “due to the nature of the nonprofit industry, many of these museums do not have the savings necessary to survive such a hit,” and that “donors are understandably more hesitant to make charitable contributions given the economic uncertainty they face.”
However, the New York delegation failed to explain the public purpose of taxpayer subsidies for wealthy non-profit organizations like the Met, American Museum of Natural History, and the New York Botanical Garden.
- The Met: With a $3.6 billion endowment and $4.4 billion in total assets, its trustees have a combined net worth of $500 billion. In IRS tax filings, the museum reported that its CEO, Daniel H. Weiss, received total compensation of nearly $1.2 million last year. Yet, the Met may furlough all employees after May 2nd. Since 2010, the organization received $3.7 million in federal grants. Last year, the Met disclosed $342,708 on lobbying.
- American Museum of Natural History: Last year, the organization disclosed$1.5 billion in total assets (up $25 million in 12-months). Its network of wealthy individuals includes trustees Jackie Bezos (Jeff’s mom), banking executive Theodore Roosevelt IV, heiress Virginia Hearst Randt, and entertainment luminaries Tom Brokaw, Lorne Michaels, and Tina Fey. President Ellen Futter received over $1.7 million in compensation during FY2018. Since 2010, the museum received $71.1 million in federal grants. Last year, $249,545 was spent on lobbying.
- New York Botanical Garden: With investments exceeding $315 million dollars, well-connected board members include Sigourney Weaver and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. The organization already receives public funding through the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York City Council, and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. Since 2010, the Botanical Garden received $24.3 million in federal grants. Last year, $127,261 was spent on lobbying and total assets increased from $575.6 million to $606.8 million.
This is not the first time that non-profit, well-heeled, public arts charities and their congressional backers have requested—and obtained—federal grants.
In 2017, our auditors at OpenTheBooks.com published an oversight report finding that 80 percent of all federal arts grants flowed to organizations with over $1 million in assets. In fact, 71 organizations with assets exceeding $1 billion received $120 million during a ten-year period.
Now museums want even more money despite the fact that congressional action on coronavirus stimulus already helped America’s museums and cultural organizations.
We reached out to the museums for comment and the Met responded:
The arts and culture community employs over 725,000, and is an economic engine for innumerable communities. The Met has joined with the Alliance for American Museums to help mitigate the immense crisis this will cause to institutions of all sizes – particularly the small, but ever so valuable museums and cultural organizations that bring enlightenment, jobs, and financial activity across the nation. The Met, a spokesperson 4/10/2020
Three weeks ago, the Phase III $2.2 trillion federal stimulus passed Congress and included $350 billion to aid non-profit organizations and small businesses (another $250 billion has been proposed). Museums and cultural organizations are eligible for this aid.
Furthermore, the coronavirus stimulus included $200 million in direct aid for arts organizations: $75 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, $75 million for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and $50 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) defended the New York congressional delegation’s $4 billion request in an on-the-record statement:
If we want to ensure that our cultural heritage is still here when this pandemic ends, and that the hundreds of thousands of museums workers have a job to go back to, we need to make sure our museums have the resources they need to stay afloat, like any other employer. Congressman Jerrold Nadler
Read Rep. Nadler’s full response to our request for comment here.
As our nation enters the first major economic downturn in eleven years, museums and cultural organizations argue that they need another special carve-out on top of all existing coronavirus packages.
However, critics say that transparency is more important now than ever as well-funded institutions seek to capitalize on the national COVID-19 crisis.
It’s a worthy public policy debate.