Money is, of course, important to most people. However, for Donald Ratner, it is especially important—his life is money. As executive vice president and chief financial officer of the Terra Foundation for American Art ( since 1999 ) , Ratner is responsible for all monetary- and human resources-related activities, not only here and at the Musée d'Art Américain Giverny ( the French museum occupied by the foundation ) . The busy ( and openly gay ) Ratner recently talked with Windy City Times about the foundation, his own past and the closing of the Terra Museum of American Art.
Windy City Times: You've gone from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago [ where Ratner was vice president of finance and government relations ] , and eventually ended up at Terra. What was it about the Terra Foundation that lured you?
Donald Ratner: This looked like a real opportunity to me. When they came knocking, I knew about them because I had been in Chicago. I did know that [ museum founder ] Dan Terra had died, and that there was a sizeable endowment. And from doing research and talking with some of the board members, I knew that they were at a really pivotal point in their maturing. They basically didn't have a financial leader, and I thought this was a great opportunity to come into a place that has an established reputation; doesn't know what they're going to do and needs to go through a strategic planning process, which I knew how to do; and have some money to carry out their strategic plan. How often does that happen? It was a unique situation.
They also had an incredibly clout-y board. Maggie Daley was on our board, [ former Republican gubernatorial candidate ] Ron Gidwitz is on our board and we had two ex-ambassadors as well as the Rector of the French Universities. We had a woman who started her own school, and we had two leading art experts, including the foremost experts on Monet in the world. You walk into something like that and you say, 'Wow.'
WCT: What do you like least about your position?
DR: I don't like anything the least. There's a great group of people; we went from 45 people at the museum to like 13-14 people. We've gone from a staff where we had security, retail and other support functions to all professionals; most people here have master's degrees and some have Ph.Ds.
I guess what I like least [ if I had to name something ] is that I don't have the staff support I'm used to. At the Rehab, I had about 145 people working for me in various areas. Then, when we had the museum, I had a few, but we ended up having to downsize and I ended up doing a lot more stuff myself—and, hey, I make mistakes, but I'm very good at catching them. So, the good thing is that I do everything and the bad thing is that I do everything.
WCT: How difficult was the transition once the museum closed in '04?
DR: It was a very difficult event. The transition was not difficult, but the event was. It was hard because there were a lot of people you worked with, and then they were gone.
We really bent over backwards taking care of people. We knew back in 2001-2002 that the museum had a good chance of closing, and the staff was a little tense, as you can imagine. I said to the staff, 'If you stick with us through all of this'—because there was a lot of turmoil with lawsuits and other things—'I'll make sure you're taken care of.' I put together a severance plan that was extremely generous; some of our security people got more than one year of pay. We put up a Web site with all their resumes, we advertised throughout the museum world that we had all these people, and brought in consultants and financial advisors. I said to the board that we put them through a lot of trauma and that we could afford to make sure they would be taken care of reasonably.
The transition to the foundation—we had a year to plan it, we had a lot of things to change—more from a programmatic standpoint. We had to figure out how to do grants as opposed to how to run a museum. I knew many of the grant officers at the foundation, and we set up training sessions for people who had never done this thing before. We transitioned our accounting systems and finance. [ The transition ] was not insurmountable; we were just changing what we were doing.
WCT: Did the museum close because of a decrease in visitors?
DR: [ Firmly ] No. You may have read back in 2000 about the widow [ Judith Terra ] wanting to take the collection to Washington, and everybody was suing everybody else. There was a very nasty lawsuit brought by two members of our board against three other members of our board, including Sen. Alan Simpson. I was the only foundation employee at the time, and all I can say is that I lived through it. We spent $7 million in legal fees, and the end result was that all the members had to leave the board.
So we had to bring in a whole new board, and they decided to [ put forth ] a strategic plan and decide if we would keep the museum. After a year and a half of evaluating—the bottom line was that our museum had about 100,000 visitors a year, and the cost per visitor was in line with other museums. We were well-known throughout the art world, but were spending four and a half million dollars a year to support the museum; we didn't really raise a lot of money—$50,000 in a good year. Most museums receive 60-70 percent of their support from contributions; we were funded by the foundation. So the [ thinking ] was, 'We're spending four a half million dollars a year. If we closed the museum, what could the foundation do with [ that money ] ?' We basically decided that we could be the top foundation in the world supporting American art—and that is in our mission statement and that is our goal.
It just had to do with a limited amount of money, and getting more bang for our buck. A hundred thousand visitors, which is not bad, or ( for example ) we did an exhibition a year ago at The Louvre—the first exhibition of American art at [ the Parisian art museum ] The Louvre, and we were the major funder. Roughly a million and a half people saw it, and it cost us $600,000—and our name was all over Paris. So, if you look at the bang for the buck, how did that work?
This past year, we opened an exhibition at the National Museum of Beijing, and we collaborated with the Guggenheim [ Museum in New York ] . The exhibition was about 150 pieces—first major survey exhibition of American art in China. It went from Beijing to Shanghai, and then went to Moscow; in October, it opened the 10th anniversary season of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. Roughly two and a half million people have seen it, and it cost us a million dollars. Our tag line is, 'Bring American art to the world and the world to American art.'
It wasn't that the museum wasn't successful. We just thought that, with leverage, we could have more of an impact—and that's the story that almost never gets out.
WCT: A few years ago, you described yourself as a fiscal pessimist. Do you think that label is still accurate?
DR: I would say 'fiscal conservative.' Every board of directors of every organization I've been on—we've managed to balance the books every year, which doesn't happen if you're aggressive. Having said that, I think you have to take some risks in certain things like investments to get a return now, because of the economy. However, I do believe that organizations should be fiscally sound and prudent. I would say I'm cautious.
WCT: I'm sure you heard about what happened at the Art Institute of Chicago with the [ forged ] Gaugain. Do you think the institute will suffer any financial hit from that?
DR: No. When museums buy art, it's just an expense; it's not an asset. The money [ from buying the art ] is gone, and I don't think it will have any impact. Now, the other question is if they'll be able to collect from the end parties, and that's the sort of legal issue that could be tied up for ages, because ... there could be a lot of finger-pointing—and the only ones who make any money in that situation are the lawyers.
WCT: My last question is about you: What's something about you that most people don't know?
DR: Whoa. ... I like to read airport trash novels, like Robert Ludlum. I read so much business stuff at the office that, when I'm away, I read trash. The people at the office know this because I go through a lot of it, and I bring it all in because I hate throwing it away. Now, we have what I call the Ratner Memorial Lending Library; 98 percent of the books there are mine.
See more information about the foundation at www.terraamericanart.org .