WHILE a national debate over federal funding of the arts is heating up, one of the more venerable art museums in the country -- the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) -- is continuing a cool-down mode. Major layoffs, restructuring, and program changes are expected to be announced this week.
Faced with a deficit of $4.5 million, new MFA director Malcolm Rogers on Wednesday will mark the 125th anniversary of the museum's founding with a som ber message for the future. In a New England economy pulling out of a severe recession, the museum will have to become leaner (by shedding some of its 550 employees) and more innovative. And it will need to redouble fund-raising efforts to bolster a $25-million operating budget.
Critics say it also needs a vigorously articulated vision with all departments pulling together.
Behind the belt-tightening are a number of factors. First, unlike other top-rung museums in such cities as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, the MFA receives no money from the city and only a modest amount from the state.
''Bostonians and New England have been very supportive of this museum,'' says Bob Mitchell, a spokesman for the MFA, ''and so have corporations. Five years ago we did a show on Monet, and Digital gave us $1.3 million. Today Digital doesn't have that kind of money. And many corporations have changed their funding by responding to social and human needs instead of the arts.''
The once-vaunted ability of the MFA's popular Museum Shop, and satellite stores in surrounding communities, to sell museum reproductions has all but vanished. From a high of $26 million in 1990, sales have plummeted. In 1993, profits from the stores reached only $1 million. A new manager, appointed by Mr. Rogers, took over last spring.
Rogers, the former deputy director of London's National Portrait Gallery, became MFA director last September after Alan Shestack became deputy director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In 1991, the museum was forced to lay off 21 of its employees, dip into reserves, and cancel shows in response to a $4.7 million deficit. A capital campaign was started the following year, and to date about $50 million has been raised.
The MFA draws from a smaller demographic pool compared with other major museums because Boston's city population is less than 700,000. Even though it has the second-largest art collection in the country, critics say blockbuster shows and exhibitions during the last few years have attracted crowds, but haven't enhanced the museum's financial position.
Diane Frankel, director of the Institute of Museum Services, a federal agency, says that while many museums around the country are expanding, the challenge is day-to-day operations. ''Capital money is so much easier for a museum to raise, and general operating funds -- keeping the doors open -- is the most difficult to raise,'' she says. ''So museums put together patchwork quilts of funding, and some can do it better than others.''
Patrons and supporters of the MFA have stepped forward with hefty donations in response to the need. Architect Graham Gund and his wife, Ann, recently gave $3 million to endow the director's position. Last year, gifts of $1 million and $2 million came from MFA board members. Another $1.25 million came from mutual fund wizard Peter Lynch.
''I think the MFA needs to do adventurous, bold, and imaginative programming,'' says Katy Kline, director of the List Visual Arts Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ''and not follow a path of cautious mediocrity to get through these rocky times. In the long run, caution does nothing to revitalize the health of the institution or the community it depends on.''