Near the top of New York’s Museum Mile, north of the Cooper Hewitt, a gem from the Gilded Age, and the Guggenheim, itself a Frank-Lloyd-Wright-work-of-art, and the classical majesty of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sits the Museum of the City of New York.
It, too, occupies a building of architectural distinction, a five-story, red brick and marble Georgian Colonial-Revival completed in 1932 and the home of the museum ever since.
But it can be overlooked amid the star power of its cultural neighbors, even when it punches above its weight with expansive exhibitions like “New York at Its Core,” which examines the city’s history since 1609 or “Activist New York,” which reviews the city through the prism of social justice and political agitation.
“If you had to pick one place to learn about New York City, it would probably be the Museum of the City of New York,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a former president of the New-York Historical Society and editor of the Encyclopedia of the City of New York.
Though many museums are struggling financially since the pandemic forced them to close, the city museum is among medium or smaller ones that are facing a particularly difficult path forward. Like other institutions its size, it has a modest but growing endowment — $27 million — and does not boast a board of extremely wealthy donors who can be called on to shore up its revenue with immediate gifts.
Since closing in March, the museum has laid off 20 percent of its 100 full-time and full-time-equivalent employees. Others have been furloughed or are working fewer hours.
Executive salaries were cut by 25 percent, said Whitney Donhauser, the museum’s director. Ms. Donhauser, who makes $371,000 in salary, said she and the museum’s deputy director had both taken pay cuts of 35 percent.
Ms. Donhauser summed up the financial situation in an email last month to the staff.
“With the closing of the Museum,” she wrote, “came the loss of all of our major streams of income, including admissions, venue rentals, and important fund-raising events.” To address this, she continued, costs were cut in “all areas of the Museum — staff, exhibition and education programming, collections and building operations.”
Museum officials said it incurred a deficit of $1.9 million this year and faces a possible deficit next year as well. A museum spokeswoman, Meryl Cooper, said this year’s deficit was addressed by part of a $1.7 million federal Paycheck Protection Program loan that the museum hopes to turn into a grant and by about $850,000 from the endowment. The museum has also received additional financial help from the New York Community Trust and Terra Foundation for American Art.
Though the museum has often operated with tight margins, Ms. Donhauser said she believed it would emerge from the pandemic in good shape.
“I do feel confident,” she said. “I do believe that the museum is in a solid place.”
When the city museum was founded in 1923, its mission overlapped in some ways with that of the older New-York Historical Society. At points there was talk about merging the two institutions, but they have remained independent and on opposite sides of Central Park, with the City museum, on Fifth Avenue between 103rd and 104th Streets, concentrating exclusively on history within the five boroughs.
Although the museum’s name makes it sound a bit like a municipal entity, it is run by a private nonprofit. It does receive some funding from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and is housed in a city-owned building
The City Museum, panned years ago by some as too staid in its programming, was widely seen as having become more energetic in the 2000s. Exhibitions, including one that detailed the physical transformation of New York by Robert Moses and another that featured tens of thousands of vintage photographs of the city, drew international attention.
In 2011 the museum was secure enough to take over the operations of the beleaguered South Street Seaport Museum, using a $2 million grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. But that arrangement dissolved two years later after Hurricane Sandy caused serious damage to the Seaport Museum and the City Museum’s board decided to concentrate on its own affairs.
Ms. Donhauser was named the director in 2015 and in 2017 the Thompson Family Foundation donated $10 million to the museum, its biggest gift ever. The museum’s endowment is now at $27 million, she said, up from about $9 million a few years ago.
The museum’s annual budget has hovered around $15 million for most of the last several years, but Ms. Donhauser said that it was projected to be about $11.5 million for the fiscal year beginning in July.
But there were also bright spots. While the museum has been closed it has drawn large audiences for its online programming, which includes a series called “Curators From the Couch,” featuring talks with artists and others, and “Covid Stories,” which has collected more than 4,000 photographs and accounts documenting a socially distanced city.
Among the possibilities being discussed at the museum, she said, are online adult education courses on New York topics that could cost around $20 for a series. Those might be accompanied by a reading list, Ms. Donhauser said, as well as online conversations moderated by curators.
Meanwhile, she and others were starting to think about the museum’s reopening, which is planned for July 23 if the city continues to progress in stemming the coronavirus. Curators are now preparing a fall exhibition to be called “New York Responds: Beyond Covid.”
A model for that sort of exhibition could be the 2018 show “Germ City,” which examined epidemics in the city including the 1918 flu epidemic that killed more than 20,000 people.
“There are a lot of challenges ahead of us but there is also a great opportunity to present the complexities of New York,” Ms. Donhauser said. “We have the curatorial expertise and knowledge to present a very nuanced discussion about what the city is going through.”