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Ackland Art Museum one of many arts institutions hit hard by budget cuts

Graphic: Ackland Art Museum one of many arts institutions hit hard by budget cuts (Alexis Balinski)

When it comes to university budgets in a struggling economy, the arts are among the first to go.

And the Ackland Art Museum is no exception. Since 2008, the University’s financial support for the museum has decreased by about $250,000, making it one of the hardest-hit institutions at UNC.

Now, the museum is coping with the changing economy while trying to emphasize the importance of a neglected institution.

“We’re definitely staying afloat,” said museum director Emily Kass. “We’re not sinking.”

“I don’t know any nonprofit organization — or business for that matter — that says it’s been sailing smoothly in this economy,” Kass said.

But what the Ackland needs now, more than just funds and donors, is awareness about how the museum operates, she said.

“It’s really important for students to understand how institutions in their community — in this case, the community of the University — are funded,” Kass said. “A lot of people assume that a majority of our funding comes from the state, but that’s not true.”

For the current fiscal year, UNC allocated $823,000 for the Ackland, 36 percent of the museum’s total funding, which primarily pays for salaries and benefits.

David Winslow, president of Winston-Salem’s Winslow Group, Inc., said that his fundraising consulting firm has been challenged with a de-prioritization of nonprofits in arts and culture.

He said museums and orchestras have been especially hard hit.

“A lot of arts organizations are trying to simply hang on, and they’re not even thinking about expanding or raising money,” Winslow said. “People are looking into supporting primarily what you call basic human services, and the arts is not perceived as one.”

Kass said she understands the need to prioritize emergency and social services, but the educational value a museum like the Ackland offers cannot be underplayed.

“We have, anticipating the cuts, eliminated some positions and cut back on some positions,” Kass said. “We had to move money around and scale back over time.”

For the museum, that means fewer curators and less administrative support, Kass said. Ackland also lost funds for development and information technology staff.

Membership and annual funds account for 17 percent of the Ackland’s budget. With dwindling support from the University, charitable giving is increasingly prominent in keeping the museum open.

“Roughly 40 percent of the income this year comes from philanthropy, not including the income from trusts and endowments, which themselves were charitable gifts,” Kass said in an email.

“All of the art in the collection came by way of philanthropy gifts of art or gifts of acquisition funds — no state funds were used to build the collection.”

But charitable giving, too, has changed with the economy.

Todd Cohen, editor and publisher of Philanthropy Journal, said nonprofits now have to adapt to the more demanding donor.

“People who do give are being much more selective about who they give to, and also what they expect in return,” Cohen said.

Donations haven’t only changed in volume.

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“What charities love, whether they’re big organizations like universities or soup kitchens, (is) what’s called unrestricted gifts,” Cohen said.

“That means, ‘Here’s the money, use it any way you want. Pay your bills, pay for the electricity, pay your staff, start a new program, hire a new person — whatever.’”

Cohen said that fundraising is now more about establishing personal relationships.

The Ackland’s upcoming Black & White Gala, its main fundraising event for the year, is catering to specific groups to do just that.

The largest donors — giving anything more than $500 — are being rewarded with a private catered reception at the museum.

Last November’s gala brought in $20,000 for the museum.

“The arts aren’t an isolated phenomenon,” Kass said. “It’s oftentimes a way for people to understand the world, to understand history – even to get by in school.

“Whether it’s creating a drawing or a painting or writing a song or singing, it’s part of this whole way of learning and looking at the world.”

Contact the Arts Editor at