Eiteljorg museum makes layoffs as attendance, revenue fall

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. (IBJ file photo)

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art has laid off five full-time employees in a reorganization prompted in part by lower-than-expected attendance and revenue in 2015.

The museum last week eliminated positions in the education, rental, marketing, and facilities areas as well as a retail position in the museum store. That leaves the Eiteljorg with 38 full-time staff and roughly 20 to 25 part-time employees, depending on the season.

“We are recognizing we have limited resources and that we need to organize ourselves for the most efficient sort of operation,” said the museum’s CEO and president, John Vanausdall. “We had to get smaller, but I think we’re going to get stronger.”

The layoffs are the first for the downtown Indianapolis museum since 2009.

At the same time, the Eiteljorg is preparing to launch a 5-year campaign to boost its $20 million endowment, a move that—if it’s successful—could stabilize the museum’s operating revenue for future years.

Currently, about 15 percent of the museum’s $7.5 million in annual operating revenues are generated by the endowment. The goal is to move the amount to more than 30 percent.

About 65 percent of the museum’s budget comes from gifts from individuals and corporations, grants from private foundations, and annual memberships. The remaining 20 percent comes from daily admissions, facility rentals, and purchases from the museum store and cafe.

In 2015, the museum’s revenue missed the mark by about $100,000 as attendance fell to about 145,000 visitors—down from a record of 161,000 in 2014. The slowdown broke a five-year run of increasing attendance, Vanausdall said.

The culprit was in part lower-than-expected attendance and admissions revenue for “Gold! Riches and Ruin,” the museum’s biggest exhibit in 2015. However, attendance for its annual holiday Jingle Rails celebration beat expectations.

“The exhibition business is a difficult thing in terms of predicting the public’s response,” Vanausdall said. “We can put the most creative minds into something but the public may adopt it or they won’t.”

The Eiteljorg has also come up about $800,000 short of its $8 million goal for the Project New Moon capital campaign that has funded special exhibits over the past few years, including an Ansel Adams photography exhibit that helped it break attendance records in 2014. The Project New Moon campaign was launched in 2010 and continues.

Vanausdall said the museum had been counting on some of the revenue from that campaign to support last year’s operations.

This year, the Eiteljorg hopes to return to attendance and revenue growth with a six-month exhibit it is creating about the Grand Canyon. The exhibit opens in March and will feature art and artifacts that have never been brought together in a single exhibit.

“Of all the topics we’ve tested, the Grand Canyon ranked the highest. The public understands the Grand Canyon. They are in love with it,” Vanausdall said. “The Grand Canyon has inspired artists, explorers, Native Americans. It captures a sense of awe and wonder.”

But to deal with the immediate revenue issues, the museum spent the past six months studying how to reorganize to become leaner—without harming the experience for customers, Vanausdall said. Where the museum’s staff had been working in fairly independent departments, more of its workers are now part of a centralized operating division that will be responsible for the building and grounds, admissions, the cafe, building rentals and the store. Previously, those positions had been spread over four divisions.

Vanausdall said that’s made it easier to distribute the work of the lost staff positions over a smaller number of people. But he acknowledged it means the remaining employees will have more to do.

“We have to live within our means,” he said. “That will allow us to have lower operating costs going forward for the foreseeable future.”

Museum leaders are still working out the details and strategy for the endowment campaign. But Vanausdall said Lilly Endowment’s recent $7.5 million gift will help kick off the effort and “encourage others to step up and support the endowment.”

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