Te Papa has revealed it will make an $8 million loss for the year ending June, nearly double its forecast, after a wretched start to the financial year.
Two exhibitions under-delivered heavily on visitors and revenue, and the museum was forced into aggressive cost-cutting that led to speculation it was in serious financial trouble.
"There was not the crisis that was being speculated, but you can see why people would be saying ‘What is going on at Te Papa?' because we cut expenses hard," chairman Evan Williams said yesterday.
"The first half of the year was awful. It was caused by losses on the Aztecs exhibition . . . and another exhibition called Colour & Light . . . and by the fact that Te Papa wasn't operating within its budgets."
The museum had budgeted for a $4.4m deficit for the 2014 year. "We're going to miss that," Williams said. "Our actual number is going to be up around $8m."
Without the severe cost-cutting, the museum would have been looking at an even bigger loss, of about $12m.
The Aztecs: Conquest & Glory was expected to attract 115,000 people, but it drew just under 40,000. It was pegged to make a $478,000 profit, but ended up losing $403,000.
Figures for Colour & Light: Impressionism from France & America were not available, but it was a similar story of over-promising and under-delivering.
In April, chief executive Michael Houlihan was seconded for a year to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage as a special adviser on military heritage. He will not be returning to Te Papa.
Williams would not say whether the financial strife at Te Papa contributed to Houlihan's departure, but said he was "not fired".
"He contributed enormously to Te Papa's vision and the 10-year plan we've got under way. He worked very hard on it and we worked well together. That is all I can and will say."
Houlihan did not respond to messages yesterday.
Labour's arts, culture and heritage spokeswoman, Jacinda Ardern, said it appeared that Te Papa had been on a really dire trajectory.
"There must have been some significant failures at management level for that to have occurred. It may well have been . . . particular exhibitions which let them down, but it is a significant loss."
She was sceptical about the "secondment" of Houlihan. "A secondment usually implies somebody will be returning to their previous post. I do think the way it's been portrayed has been pretty disingenuous."
An Audit New Zealand management report for the year ending June 2013, obtained under the Official Information Act, raised issues at Te Papa around management, financial information and service performance information systems.
Williams said a new accounting system was introduced in November, and change management consultancy Tregaskis Brown and PricewaterhouseCoopers, at Te Papa's request, had swept the broom.
"I have categorically assured the ministry and the minister that Te Papa is aware of where every single dollar is going, that financial capability has been and is being rebuilt . . . we know absolutely what is going on."
A PwC adviser is assisting Te Papa's executive team as the search continues for a new chief executive. Williams said the museum was working on its 2015 budget, in which he expected the deficit to be lower than in any of the past few years.
- The Dominion Post