Burman: Long Island museums facing an existential threat

By: Opinion, Scott Burman October 21, 2020
The Cradle of Aviation has launched a “Go Fund Me” campaign that seeks any amount of contribution that would help keep their doors open. The Long Island Children’s Museum has hosted a virtual gala to protect its bottom line. The Museum of American Armor partnered with Nassau County and media outlets to conduct an online virtual observance of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Across Long Island our cultural institutions are seeking to reinvent themselves in response to the COVID pandemic that shut them down for months. Even with their doors reopened, the pandemic has dramatically slashed their ability to host people, events, and programs. In many instances, staff has been furloughed or positions eliminated altogether. At a time when state and county budget deficits are reaching historic highs, an economic lifeline is problematic. The implications for many of our Long Island institutions are foreboding.

Long Island isn’t unique in facing this existential threat to its educational and cultural institutions. A survey undertaken by the American Alliance of Museums found one-third of the nation’s museum directors said they faced significant risk that their institutions wouldn’t survive by the fall of 2021 without some form of financial assistance.

The survey also found that 35 percent had laid off or furloughed up to 20 percent of their staff members during the late winter. Some 21 percent had laid off or furloughed as many as 40 percent of their staff.

The “monster” museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue may be feeling the pain, but the Met has a nearly $3 billion-plus endowment to sustain itself, plus the continued support of New York’s mega wealthy who won’t let their neighborhood museum go dark.

The smaller museums don’t have access to those checkbooks, and yet they are just as important to the fabric of the regions they serve. The one advantage they have is that these museums are less encumbered by layers of bureaucracy, enabling them to pivot quickly, recognize the threats, consider alternatives, and quickly introduce programs that will enable them to survive the pandemic’s grip on their bottom line.

As Long Islanders living under the long shadow of New York City’s cultural destinations it is easy to lose sight of the enormous contributions the Island’s various museums provide a population of 2.7 million people. Their presence helps strengthen our society, provide families opportunities for shared experiences, and shape our individual appreciation of the world around us. All of this is at risk because, at the end of the day, these institutions require dollars to operate, regardless of their size.

The region’s business community will need to play a direct role in protecting the future of these museums. The survival of these not-for-profits is an essential element in creating a quality of life that, in turn, attracts the best and brightest to our respective Long Island companies. If we allow our museums to close we will be participating in the slow motion deconstruction of Long Island as we know it.

This effort will be a marathon. We need to take a clue from Broadway. which is not expected to return to normal before May of next year. Any number of our Long Island museums will not be able to reopen this spring if the bi-county’s business community doesn’t dig deep to help them. We will need to be creative, expanding on such innovations as the virtual gala successfully conducted by the L.I. Children’s Museum and co-chaired by a long time museum supporter, Scott Rechler of RXR.

We know this much. The importance of Long Island’s museums can’t be measured in simple metrics like attendance or social media outreach. They serve to bring together our diverse population to share an experience that enhances their lives while defining our past and envisioning the future. It’s an investment beyond measure.

Scott Burman is vice chairman of the board of The L.I. Children’s Museum, a principal at Engel Burman and president, EB Construction.