The Newseum on Pennsylvania Ave.

The Newseum on Pennsylvania Ave.

The Newseum building on Pennsylvania Avenue will soon be owned and occupied by Johns Hopkins University.

The journalism museum, which long struggled with budget deficits, is seeking a new home. Their financial challenges and their search for a new site highlight the uphill battle private institutions have in a city full of many free and public museums.

What strategies do private museums use to attract visitors? How do they build a community of steady supporters? Kojo discusses the Newseum’s future, and the role of private museums in the nation’s capital.

Produced by Ruth Tam


  • Dorothy Kosinski Director, The Phillips Collection
  • Kathy Southern Part-Time Faculty, Museum Studies Program, Corcoran School of the Arts & Design at George Washington University
  • Mikaela Lefrak WAMU Arts and Culture Reporter; @mikafrak


  • 12:40:12

    KOJO NNAMDIAfter years of financial challenges, the Newseum, a private museum focused on free speech and journalism, is moving on from its home on Pennsylvania Avenue, selling its pricey downtown building. Its challenges highlight the uphill battle that private institutions have in a city like DC, where free and public museums are seemingly everywhere. Joining us now to discuss the future of the Newseum and other private museums is Mikaela Lefrak. She is WAMU's arts and culture reporter. Mikaela, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:40:40

    MIKAELA LEFRAKThanks for having me back on, Kojo.

  • 12:40:41

    NNAMDIMikaela, it's been just a little more than a decade since the Newseum arrived in downtown DC on Pennsylvania Avenue, but it has faced financial difficulty for years. What have they struggled with, and for how long?

  • 12:40:53

    LEFRAKThat's right, Kojo. So, let's begin back at the beginning. Uh, the museum first opened in a much more modest location in Roseland, Virginia back in 1997. Then in 2008, it reopened at its current location, which is this beautiful, seven-story building right on Pennsylvania Avenue. And it got its money, its funding from the Freedom Forum. That's the Newseum's creator and its primary funder. And every year -- excuse me, I'm battling with a bit of a cough, so bear with me. Every year since it opened in its new location, it's posted annual deficits, which is pretty rough. It's also been criticized for high salaries of the executives at the Freedom Foundation. And about a year ago, they announced they were looking for a new buyer.

  • 12:41:36

    LEFRAKAnd then one thing I just want to note, real quickly, you do have to pay for tickets to the museum. That's where they get a lot of their money. But a lot of people -- and a lot of people, you know, say that that's where its financial woes are coming from, you're paying 25 bucks a pop, so people will go to one of the Smithsonians down the road. But there are a number of private museums in DC that do successfully charge for tickets, like the Phillips Museum and the Spy Museum.

  • 12:41:59

    NNAMDIFor Washingtonians who are not familiar, what did the Newseum offer visitors, in terms of exhibits and events?

  • 12:42:05

    LEFRAKSure. So, if you can't picture it right now, it's this soaring, seven-story building, glass facade with this, I believe it was a 75' marble engraving of the First Amendment, which, of course, guarantees freedom of the press. And they had exhibitions on everything from -- or they do, they're still open. They have exhibitions on everything from Pulitzer Prize-winning photography to, you know, the shooting in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis. And they had this large remnant of the Berlin Wall. They also had these really beautiful event spaces that they rent out for weddings and other events.

  • 12:42:43

    NNAMDIThe museum has been looking to sell its building, which is quite grand, for at least a year. It's found a buyer in Johns Hopkins University. How much of the building sale will offset the Newseum's financial difficulties?

  • 12:42:55

    LEFRAKSure. So, a couple big numbers coming at you right now. The Freedom Forum spent about $475 million to build the building, and it sold recently for about 373 million. So, that's, you know, a pretty substantial loss. And then you should also keep in mind that the building was appraised in 2014 at $667 million. So, it seems like Johns Hopkins is getting a really good deal. In terms of alleviating the Freedom Forum's debt, it is going to help, I think, but it's not going to make it entirely financially stable. As of this time last year, they had $300 million in debt, and they still have a lot of work to do in finding a new building and constructing this new home for the museum.

  • 12:43:37

    NNAMDIYou mentioned a lot of work still to be done on finding a new building. That means we don't yet know where the Newseum will be located?

  • 12:43:44

    LEFRAKThat is right. I spoke to Newseum representatives last week, and, obviously, they're being a little bit tight-lipped about their options. And they said they've been in conversations with basically every county in the area already. So, it could be anywhere, maybe back to Roseland, maybe to Montgomery county, who knows. But one thing I did want to note is that I think it's been interesting in the past couple days and weeks since this sale was opened, a couple -- a number of people, primarily journalists, have been criticizing the Newseum, you know, for spending too much money on this huge kind of monument to journalism and filling it with things that are not necessarily indicative of the state of journalism today. And I think...

  • 12:44:29

    NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, I'll tell you about the state of journalism today in a Facebook comment from Stir (sounds like). It's a fun and interesting place, but in a world where people expect to read the news for free on the internet, the thought of paying to see a monument to that industry was farfetched. In other words, if people don't want to pay a buck-twenty-five to read today's news, what makes anyone believe they'd pay a plug nickel to read yesterday's news? And there you have it.

  • 12:44:51

    LEFRAKThere you have it.

  • 12:44:51

    NNAMDIDo we have any idea about what Johns Hopkins University's plan is for the Newseum building?

  • 12:44:56

    LEFRAKYes, we do. So, they say they're turning it into what they call a consolidated academic facility. That basically means that it's their new home in DC. They already have a number of buildings in the city, particularly along Massachusetts Avenue, and they're going to be selling those. It is going to take a couple of years for it to open. They're going to do some massive renovations, and they're planning to reopen the building in 2023. So, if you're interested in visiting, you should go by the end of the year.

  • 12:45:24

    NNAMDIMikaela Lefrak is WAMU's arts and culture reporter. Mikaela, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:45:28

    LEFRAKThank you for having me.

  • 12:45:29

    NNAMDIJoining me in studio is Kathy Southern. She's an adjunct professional lecturer of museum fundraising at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. Kathy, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:45:38

    KATHY SOUTHERNThank you.

  • 12:45:39

    NNAMDIKathy, to the casual visitor, it might not be very obvious what the differences are between a public and a private museum, but take us behind the scenes. What does funding look like at both kinds of institutions, and what challenges do private museums in DC in particular face when it comes to financial support?

  • 12:45:55

    SOUTHERNFor the regular visitor coming to our institutions across the town, you don't think about whether they're federal or private. We all have exhibitions, carry out great programs. But the behind the scenes, as you said, is really where we, the professionals, part of the museum studies program at GW, and we've been working with professionals, graduating students over 40 years in town. So, many of them are in both the public and private institutions.

  • 12:46:29

    SOUTHERNOne of the big differences between the two is about the financial makeup of their balance sheets. And what we find as we look at private -- so, on the public side, they are assured of, first of all, a subsidy, a regular annual subsidy coming from the federal government.

  • 12:46:50

    NNAMDIWell, not exactly from the federal government. An email from Marsha says: I think there's value to remind listeners that they paid for the museums that are not private. They and their families and friends and members of their communities have paid for the museums with their tax dollars. That's why they don't have to pay admission. They can walk in as a privilege of membership, because they paid for it with their tax dollars.

  • 12:47:13

    SOUTHERNWell said. Well said. That's exactly right. What privates do, however, is they don't have that regular flow from the federal government. They do have -- and what the private institutions in town -- and, Dorothy, you're such a stunning example of a lot of this work -- is that if you're going to make your balance sheet, make your institution work over time, an endowment, being able to raise money for an endowment so you can depend upon a regular flow coming out, or a core group of donors who are with you. That may be your board of directors, others, and especially individuals.

  • 12:47:51

    SOUTHERNGiving USA last year pointed out that $410 billion, $410 billion were donated in the United States, 2017, to all institutions, not just the arts. And of that, 70 percent are individuals. So, the role of the individual donor, for each of us, is really important. And the private institutions usually have a really strong group of board of directors, of volunteers working with them. And then, most importantly, their role in the community.

  • 12:48:27

    NNAMDIYou mentioned Dorothy. That would be Dorothy Kosinski, the director of the Phillips Collection, who also joins us in studio. Dorothy, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:48:34

    DOROTHY KOSINSKIThank you, and congratulations on your anniversary, Kojo.

  • 12:48:37

    NNAMDIThank you very much. You have run the Phillips for 11 years now. What do you think is often misunderstood about running a private museum?

  • 12:48:45

    KOSINSKII would think precisely the challenges that we're discussing today. It's an interesting combination of challenges and exquisite freedom from being part of a huge federal system. So, every year, my staff and I, my trustees or patrons, we raise $7 million-plus from zero to all that way. My legacy is going to be building an adequate endowment, so that, in the future, we can run a more rational, not-for-profit business.

  • 12:49:26

    KOSINSKIBut, you know, I have a $12 million annual budget, and we don't have a safety net. And I take that really seriously. I run a tight ship. I feel a real responsibility to my trustees, to everybody who gives us their money. I'm grateful they allow us to do our good work. And in the museum on 21st Street, in our new space at the Ark in southeast, in all of the public schools that we serve. So, there's a real -- we're passionate about the impact that we can bring to our communities.

  • 12:50:00

    KOSINSKIAnd so that sense of run a tight ship, watch out for pitfalls, anticipate unusual expenses. Such as, a year-and-a-half ago, we kind of owned up to our responsibility to our 1897 building, which needed new HVAC system, new climate control, absolutely fundamental for the health of an art museum. The project ended up being around, I think, near to $9 million. And we had to borrow. We had to raise money from individuals, foundations. The DC Commission on Arts and Humanity gave us a grant. And so, you know, we had to cobble together all of that.

  • 12:50:48

    NNAMDIAnd you had to build a new roof on top of your old roof?

  • 12:50:50

    KOSINSKIYeah, I love that. Do you hear my pain on the radio?

  • 12:50:53

    NNAMDI(laugh) Yes.

  • 12:50:54

    KOSINSKIIt's not like I sat up one day and said, oh, please, let's do this. But we had to put down steel, pour concrete, build a protective penthouse for all of this new machinery so that we can offer a comfortable and safe and state-of-the-art environment within that beautiful, historic shell.

  • 12:51:15

    NNAMDIWhat a challenge. Kathy, what solutions, if any, seem obvious for the Newseum, which must now figure out not only where to relocate, but what they might do differently to make the museum more viable?

  • 12:51:27

    SOUTHERNWell, I think we have an excellent one sitting right here with Dorothy in the -- no, no, you can't go to the Newseum (laugh). But it's a question of leadership. And in the instance of the privates who have existed well in this community, they have had steady visionary. I would really say that of Dorothy and a number of our museum directors in town, who have the long term view of how to create an institution that is also really serving the community. We don't exist separate from the community. We live in this community. And the institutions who are doing that well and are here for the long haul have done that.

  • 12:52:09

    SOUTHERNA second piece that I think is really important is being at a sustainable scale, the question of the size of the institution and its projections on people who will visit, how many people will come, what's the scale that's sustainable? And, again, the privates that have done well have figured that out, have grown over a period of time, slowly adding to themselves. The Newseum's a good example of coming in from Mars and kind of landing in town without 400,000 visitors in Arlington. But to jump from 400,000 to a million shows a business plan that doesn't work.

  • 12:52:50

    NNAMDI(overlapping) And you're absolutely right about the kind of relationship to the community that such an institution had, because I, for one -- and I know a lot of other people -- think of the Phillips Collection as ours, okay.

  • 12:53:00

    SOUTHERNOh, I love that.

  • 12:53:01

    NNAMDIWe just think of it as ours in a way that we don't necessarily think of the taxpayer-funded museums as being ours. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on private museums. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:53:46

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about private museums with Kathy Southern. She's an adjunct professional lecturer of museum fundraising at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. And Dorothy Kosinski is the director of the Phillips Collection. We got an email from Rachel, who is director of artifacts and exhibits at the Crime Museum. She says, we've been following what's happening to the Newseum closely, as not too long ago, it was us. I couldn't help but mention, in case it comes up, media gets it wrong 99 percent of the time that we are defunct, since we closed our location next to the Verizon Center in September, 2015, forced out by our DC landlord. However, we are alive and well with a location in Tennessee. It wasn't our choice, but it certainly worked out for the best. Glad to hear that, Rachel.

  • 12:54:34

    NNAMDIThe Newseum, Kathy, as Rachel indicates, is not the only private museum that's faced financial difficulty. The Corcoran Gallery of Art, DC's first art museum, closed its doors in 2014. For some, that one felt like a long and slow death. What led to its demise?

  • 12:54:51

    SOUTHERNWell, it's a sad story, over a period of time. But what we should first remember about the Corcoran is many, many years of extraordinary service to this community, many years, and an extraordinary collection.

  • 12:55:05

    NNAMDIAnd many great students.

  • 12:55:06

    SOUTHERNAnd many great students, indeed. So, that combination of the school of the arts and the institution and a great building in a great location seems like it has everything right. But, you know, Kojo, underneath all of that, there is, finally, the issue of how do you attract in and maintain this sustainable financial support for an institution. And, over time, the Corcoran couldn't find that long-term, steady source or sources. They had some but for the scale of what the institution was, changes in leadership, the board finally, I think, ran out of steam, as it was constituted at that point in time.

  • 12:55:49

    SOUTHERNNow, at least, thank heavens, the institution now is part of GW and is, as an institution, seeing itself as a facility, is now filled with students again, Kojo, right to the point in terms of who is there. And the collections are being also shared in the broader community, with obviously the National Gallery and others. So, as a next step, we're seeing a legacy that is going forward.

  • 12:56:16

    NNAMDITom in Annapolis, Maryland has a question, I think, for both of you. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:56:21

    TOMThank you, Kojo. I appreciate for taking the call. I just got a question for the panel. It's interesting, their discussion with regard to endowments for private museums. Do they see there's a potential risk if they end up with very large endowments that museums can sort of drift into no longer being really accountable to the communities that they serve, since they're financially independent of them?

  • 12:56:45

    SOUTHERNThat drift -- and Dorothy, I know you will come in, too -- that drift, I'm not aware of at all in the institutions that we work with in town. What the endowment does, first of all, it only provides a source, a stream. It's the payout, as you know. It's a 5 percent or 4.5 percent, depending upon the institution. It's a payout into the annual operating fund of the museum. It does not solve everything, and it is there to support the mission of the institution. It doesn't take the museum away from what it's there to do. It reinforces the mission. So, no, that's not a problem.

  • 12:57:24


  • 12:57:25

    KOSINSKIWell, I'd also have to say that museums have changed so much, certainly in my 30 plus-year career. And there's so much more expected of us, digital access, service to community, work in the public schools. You know, our new space at the Ark is a good example of that where we're exploring art and wellness. And I'm so grateful for our advisors in that community for giving us such good guidance. So, the mission has evolved into something much broader and deeper and engaged than simply beautiful artworks on the wall. There's really a sense of responsibility to veterans and students and families.

  • 12:58:10

    KOSINSKISo, as the mission expands, so do the expenses. And, again, as Kathy explained, right now, you know, the biggest part of our annual success really comes from my board of trustees, major gifts, patrons. And that's fundamental to our ability to thrive.

  • 12:58:33

    NNAMDIWe got a Facebook comment from Linda, who says, the Phillips Collection charges $12, less than half of the Newseum. The Newseum was self-congratulatory, pompous crap and expensive. I love museums. I'm a journalist, and I would take the Phillips over the Newseum any day. If they recast the Newseum as one that presented the challenges of journalism, the ethical dimensions and the needs of reporting today, that might be an institution worth supporting. On the other hand, here is Jessica in Herndon, Virginia. Jessica, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:59:03

    JESSICAHi, Kojo. Thanks so much. Yesterday -- I actually just got in the car and happened to hear the bit about the Newseum. And yesterday, my kids were off of school. We live in Fairfax County, and my kids are ages eight to 14, and I had been wanting to take them to the Newseum. And we drove downtown, and we had the most wonderful experience. Because we live with all these free museums, I was skeptical about paying, but it cost us about $60. The Newseum offered a discount online, and from my eight-year-old to my 14, we were all engaged. We must have spent four hours there. And I thought it was so worthwhile. I'm so glad I took them, and I just wanted to put a plug in for the Newseum, because I found it really interesting, engaging for all ages.

  • 12:59:45


  • 12:59:45

    KOSINSKIWell, I want to -- excuse me, I'm also fighting a bit of a throat thing.

  • 12:59:51

    NNAMDIWe all are. (laugh)

  • 12:59:52

    KOSINSKIOkay. It's the season. But I just want to say, you know, an institution devoted to the essential principals of journalistic freedom is so important, and I wish that institution well. And, you know, our ticket -- so, general admission is $12, but during the week anybody can come in and see our permanent collection, free. And that's been the -- that's part of our principals of incorporation. So, you know, I think that the value proposition -- and I think your caller has really put that forward -- that there's great value in the confrontation with, you know, an authentic object or with an educational experience. And so I don't think that it's a matter of the ticket price, as much as being careful stewards of the resources at hand.

  • 13:00:48


  • 13:00:49

    SOUTHERNWhat your caller has also done wonderfully for us is to remind us of the importance of the mission. And in the instance I remember at groundbreaking, Kojo, I'm sure we all do remember the groundbreaking for the Newseum, it seemed like such an extraordinary, important idea to be here in this town. And I hope they hang on to all of that. We still need that idea. And as you have so wonderfully said, it's the manifestation within the Newseum is still there, also.

  • 13:01:18

    SOUTHERNSo, these are issues, again, of scale. And what's the implementation? How is the museum really demonstrating what it's doing? And there are many ways, as Dorothy has mentioned, that can be within a big facility, or in a smaller facility with programs that go out and serve schools, that work within the community. It is about a topic -- as you said so well, Kojo -- that is right at the core of who we are as a democracy. They have their work cut out for them, and I hope they don't go away. I hope they take the mission forward.

  • 13:01:51

    NNAMDIJoseph in Hagerstown, Maryland. Don't have a lot of time left, Joseph, but go ahead, please.

  • 13:01:55

    JOSEPHThat's all right. I just wanted to -- you asked about favorite museums. I'm trustee at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown in Washington County, Maryland. We faced many of the same challenges that your panelists do. Just put new roofs on, new HVAC overtime, capital improvements and it is all primarily privately funded. I want to say that we are free to the public. We do accept donations, but we're free to everybody. Come one, come all, and one of the four credited art museums in Maryland.

  • 13:02:28


  • 13:02:29

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Almost out of time, Dorothy, but the impact on the surrounding community is important to get the kind of high-level support that you get at the Phillips. What should private museums be thinking about, in terms of local community outreach?

  • 13:02:44

    KOSINSKIWell, for us, we've embraced and invested in a diversity program. We really take seriously -- after all, it was Duncan Phillips who, in the 1940s, supported African American artists and collectors. So, I think being responsive, being proximate, having a real relationship with your community is fundamental. And I just want to add one thing. In the nation's capital, I adore the fact that I shepherd a museum with a personal vision. Isn't that essential to our democracy, too, to not just have big federal -- or I should just say big museums -- but have the voice of the individual thrive and have an impact?

  • 13:03:31

    NNAMDIDorothy Kosinski is the director of the Phillips Collection. Kathy Southerland is an adjunct professional lecturer of museum fundraising at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. Thank you both for joining us.

  • 13:03:41

    SOUTHERNThank you.

  • 13:03:42

    KOSINSKIThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:03:42

    NNAMDIToday's conversation on private museums was produced by Ruth Tam. Our discussion on photographer Gordon Parks was produced by Cydney Grannan. Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has admitted he, too, once dressed up in black face in college. We're following this developing story and we'll cover it this Friday, on the Politics Hour. Coming up tomorrow, Maryland's Red Flag Law went into effect last October. It allows police to temporarily take guns from people considered at risk by the judge. In the four months since it went on the books, 375 people petitioned for these orders. That's all coming up tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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