By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
An ESDC vice president wrote her again in April 2009 "to invite her to apply," and ESDC officials then guided the museum step by step through a long application process. When the agency tried to calendar the first $6 million grant for a board meeting, an official had to ask McCabe-Thompson twice for a memo explaining why it was "urgent" that the funding be approved. When the agency questioned why McCabe-Thompson had only accounted for $66 million of the $113 million pricetag on the project (both numbers were grossly inflated), she simply said that the museum could cut $30 million in costs mostly associated with the Nelson Mandela Center, a historical feature of the museum that she had used to appeal to private funders and the Mandela Foundation in South Africa. An assistant secretary to the governor, Arana Hankin, repeatedly and atypically contacted ESDC about the project, and Paterson personally attended the August 2009 board meeting when the grant was approved, a rare occurrence for any governor. After the grant was approved, the museum inquired about the second $6 million, and an ESDC e-mail suggested: "Maybe you should inquire directly with the Governor's office." ESDC says that the museum has also applied for a $5 million Downstate Revitalization grant, which would come atop the $12 million, and that funding decision is pending. Though there has been much media speculation about Thompson running with Paterson's likely opponent, Andrew Cuomo, Thompson has been publicly urging Democrats to get behind Paterson.
ESDC e-mails also raised questions about the museum's charter with the Board of Regents, which lapsed two months after McCabe-Thompson became president in 1997 (she had her title immediately changed from executive director). The five-year charter has never been renewed. The charter itself said it would become "void" unless the museum applied for another provisional or absolute charter before the expiration date. The museum finally sought an absolute charter in 2004, but it did not file its annual reports, which are required by the Regents, until the end of 2008, when it retroactively made submissions for 2004 through 2006. Despite 12 years of derelict filings, the Board has never formally acted against it, in large part because it rarely takes action against institutions out of compliance. After Voice inquiries, the museum sought this December to renew its provisional charter, but was too late to get on the board's agenda. The museum acknowledged its "discrepancies in status" with state chartering officials in 2009 e-mails with ESDC but said they usually resolved questions "by providing a certificate of good standing issued by Kirti Gotswani," a lawyer at the State Education Department. But Gotswani tells the Voice: "We can't say they're in good standing," insisting that all he has done is provide a letter confirming that the museum "can do business in the state." The Bloomberg administration questioned the museum's status in 2005, forcing it to write the Regents seeking an immediate absolute charter. But when that couldn't be done, the city apparently backed off from the demand.When the Voice asked the city's cultural affairs department if it was aware that the museum's charter had not been renewed since 1997, the agency said simply that it was.
By every standard other than its grand new home, the museum has declined dramatically under McCabe-Thompson, who relocated it from Soho to Queens. It reported earning $326,217 in fees for the exhibits it organized and showed at other venues in its 1998–1999 filings—McCabe-Thompson's first full year. By its most recent filing in 2007–2008, exhibit fees had plummeted to $102,500. It published and sold so many catalogs associated with its exhibits that it reported a $121,153 profit in its 1999–2000 annual filings; now that number is blank on the filings. It ran a store that sold $331,831 worth of African art and other objects in its peak year. That's down to $13,225. Its educational programs dropped from $421,161 to $143,063. Its membership, once lofty, fell to 130 members by 2006, according to its latest filing with the Regents. The more the museum declined, the greater government support it drew. Its gross receipts bottomed out in 2005 at a quarter of what they were when McCabe-Thompson took over, and that's precisely when the city started the ball rolling in its direction. That's also when it closed its gallery to cut its rent in half.
Research assistance by Steve P. Ercolani, T.J. Raphael, Kate Rose, Amanda Sakuma, and Grace Smith
What did go up were its management and general expenses, tripling under McCabe-Thompson. Her salary went from $102,000 to $184,069 by 2003–2004. The museum declined to say what it is now, what her other benefits are, or whether the personal loans listed on its financial records involve her. She took out a mortgage on her West Side apartment with the same bank that she simultaneously secured an annual $150,000 credit line for the museum. She told friends that she was trying to get one or two condo apartments for the museum from the developer. The museum's travel expenses, which were zero in 2001–2002, hit a high of $516,813 in 2004–2005. Much of that is associated with what it cost to move exhibits, but the travel amount billed to management and fundraising (her two functions) hit nearly $100,000 a year later, almost as much as the amount billed to the program services tied to the exhibits. The more the museum depended on connections, the less it did for its African art constituents, the more it spent on itself, and the better it fared as a magnet for public funding.