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A museum devoted to survivors now faces its own fight to live
The Tenement Museum in Manhattan on Feb. 24, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered cultural institutions all over the world, withering their staffs and canceling long-planned initiatives but the prospects are particularly dire for small institutions like the Tenement Museum, whose very survival is suddenly uncertain. Celeste Sloman/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The Tenement Museum, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has always seemed fragile, with its creaky floors and cramped rooms in which striving immigrants once made their homes. Now it seems downright breakable.

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered cultural institutions all over the world, withering their staffs and canceling long-planned initiatives.

But the prospects are particularly dire for small institutions like the Tenement Museum, whose very survival is suddenly uncertain. They do not have large endowments or deep-pocketed donors and have long depended on admission fees to keep the lights on.

“This crisis is hitting cultural organizations harder than any in recent memory,” said Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director of the Center for an Urban Future, a public policy think tank, which this month published the report “Art in the Time of Coronavirus: NYC’s Small Arts Organizations Fighting for Survival.”

“Without more support for rent, payroll, utilities, insurance and other costs,” Dvorkin added, “it’s likely that many will be unable to reopen even once the worst is over.”

The report cited the Tenement Museum as among the hardest hit. Experts said its loss would be significant because, while many museums chronicle the history of the rich — their mansions, art collections and aesthetic tastes — few depict the history of the poor, and the cultural life of everyday Americans.

“The Tenement Museum has so magnificently reconstructed that,” said Tyler Anbinder, a history professor at George Washington University who specializes in immigration, “right down to the soap boxes and the scouring pads that immigrants used. If an institution like that were to go under, it would be a real tragedy.”

Other museums around the country are losing at least $33 million a day because of coronavirus closures, according to the American Alliance of Museums.

Founded in 1988 in two once-dilapidated buildings, the museum offers tours of the restored tenement rooms as well as a permanent collection of artifacts, including document fragments, photographs and furniture.

See the table set for Shabbat dinner — complete with challah and candlesticks — in the 325-square-foot home once inhabited by the Levines, a garment-working family with six children.

Learn the traditions of Bridget and Joseph Moore, Irish immigrants who resided in the building in the 1890s and lost four of their eight children to poverty and disease.

Though the Tenement Museum has a relatively modest budget of $11.5 million, more than 75% of its revenue comes from admissions and gift shop sales.

Its endowment — $2.7 million — is too small to generate significant operating income, so the museum has not been drawing from it.

(The Association of Art Museum Directors, noting the fiscal straits of many institutions, just announced it would not censure museums that “use restricted endowment funds, trusts, or donations for general operating expenses.”)

The museum also owes $9.5 million in mortgage loans on its buildings, which costs the museum $50,000 a month.

So the Tenement Museum has pared down, laying off 13 employees and furloughing about 70 part-time staffers and 30 full-time staff — reducing its operating costs by 70%.

“We don’t want to run with debt,” said Morris J. Vogel, the museum’s president. “We don’t want to incur debt now.”

The monthly payroll for part-time and full-time employees has been slashed to just under $100,000 from about $700,000. “If absolutely necessary, we could cut that down,” Vogel said. “One way or the other, we will get through this.”

The museum has also, quite simply, gone begging. Whereas cultural organizations typically cultivate donors through a lengthy courtship, the coronavirus has forced a more brazen and urgent form of fundraising.

“Help the Tenement Museum Survive,” implores the museum on its website (where it has raised $88,115 from 798 small donors and $170,000 from several major donors) and on its Facebook page ($20,229 from 518 donors). “These are extraordinary times,” the pitch continues. “The Tenement Museum is an extraordinary place. The Museum faces an extraordinary crisis.”

While the museum has canceled its annual gala on Thursday, it has asked supporters to contribute anyway, buying virtual tickets and tables. The gala typically nets about $700,000 — 25% of the institution’s $2.85 million annual fundraising goal.

The museum has also received a $250,000 emergency grant from the New York Community Trust’s $75 million COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund (underwritten by foundations like Bloomberg, Carnegie and Ford) and applied for a CARES Act loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

And Vogel has turned to the museum’s friends, such as Stuart Gelwarg and Karen Lipkind, who live in the neighborhood and have taken about 20 tours at the museum over the last year. The couple said they were happy to make a donation of several thousand dollars (preferring not to disclose the exact amount). “We’re hooked on this museum,” Gelwarg said. “It’s a time machine.”

The Zegar Family Foundation has donated a $250,000 challenge grant to encourage gifts to the gala. (Merryl Snow Zegar is a chairwoman of the board.)

It isn’t easy to ask, Vogel said, but he has no choice. “We’re not earning anything for four months,” Vogel said. “Any institution has to wonder what it’s going to look like on the other side.”

Meanwhile, the Tenement Museum is trying to keep the trains running, including maintenance of its two Orchard Street properties, one of which still has a few tenants. “The last thing we’re going to do is leave those buildings to the elements,” Vogel said.

Though Vogel, 74, is in a high-risk category for the virus, he still goes into the museum once every other week to sign checks. Having served as president from 2008 to 2017, he came out of retirement last fall to serve on an interim basis, while the museum searches for someone permanent.

Even as he cuts costs, Vogel is focused on beefing up the museum’s online programming, with a digital exhibit on the census, for example. It offered a live craft-making program for children “inspired by the resourcefulness of former tenement residents.” And Wednesday it will present “A Nickel for a Pickle” on YouTube, “a journey into the history of pickles on the Lower East Side,” including “a short demo of how to make your own cucumber pickles at home!”

With schools closed, the museum has also been pushing out educational materials to thousands of teachers, drawing on the expertise developed for tours like “Life and Death at the Tenement,” developed in 2018, which explores past epidemics like cholera, yellow fever, tuberculosis and AIDS.

Vogel happens to be familiar with pandemics; he spent most of his career as a historian of medicine and is particularly attuned to how viruses are sometimes attributed to “outsiders.” The Federalists in 1793 blamed Philadelphia’s yellow fever on French-speaking refugees fleeing a slave revolt in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, he said. In 1892, Jews were held responsible for bringing typhus and cholera to New York.

“Immigrants were seen as disease carriers,” he said.

In this period of adversity, Vogel said, he is strengthened by a bedrock faith in the institution’s mandate. “A lot of what makes us strong as a people came from the strength immigrants found in themselves,” he said. “It’s important to focus on that.

“I have absolute conviction that what we’re doing is essential,” he continued. “We may have to do it online; we may have to rely on philanthropy instead of earned revenue; we may have to do it with a smaller staff. But we’re going to do it.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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