Museum Board member Tonya Hurley confirmed the news in a Facebook post Sunday night. "A heartfelt thank you to everyone who has supported us in this endeavor," she wrote. "We are extremely proud of the groundbreaking work we've done and the incredible community we were so privileged to serve."
A small, jet-black museum in a former Gowanus nightclub on 4th Avenue, Morbid Anatomy was an ode to the occult. Founder Joanna Ebenstein hosted regular lectures on death as it intersects with science, religion, psychology, and history. (In November, "Psychedelics and Death." Earlier this month, a lecture titled, simply, "How to feel about death.") There was the annual Krampus party for the holidays, and (perhaps?) the only flea market in NYC stocked with cat skulls and memento mori jewelry.
I interviewed Ebenstein for The Awl in April 2014, before the museum's doors had opened. At the time, she described what she loves about taxidermy. "When I started collecting, I found myself saying out loud, 'This really adds some life to the room!'" she recalled. "I can see how that might sound crazy. After all, these things are dead. But over the years I've realized that objects can flicker on edges — repulsive and attractive, spiritual and clinical, dead and alive. I am definitely attracted to that flickering."
The news didn't come without warning. On December 6th, the museum sent out an appeal urging fans to make donations and sign up for memberships in the coming year. Museum leadership also called for longterm funders, citing a political climate in which federal and state grants for the arts are increasingly hard to come by. "If we cannot raise $75,000 with this year’s annual appeal, we face the very real prospect that the Museum will close in the coming months," they wrote.
"We're proud of the award winning and critically acclaimed work we have done," the team added. However, "Good press doesn't pay the rent." As of Monday, the appeal had brought in $8,010.
Since the museum's inception, Ebenstein has had little interest in conforming. During our 2014 conversation she contrasted her own mission to that of larger museums:
"Museums are like icebergs," she explains. "Ten percent of the collection is on display at any given time, and 90 percent is backstage." Her five-year plan is to showcase not just private collections on loan from quirky collectors with left-field interests, but "the pieces from public collections that would never be shown otherwise."
With Morbid Anatomy's fate hanging in the balance this month, the quirkiness of this mission was not lost on Ebenstein and her team.
"Let's face facts," they wrote. "There are not a lot of grant programs for 'death and beauty,' and there is no major philanthropic foundation dedicated to 'the celebration of artifacts, histories and ideas that fall between the cracks of high and low culture.'"
Ebenstein could not immediately be reached for comment.
[UPDATE 1:00 p.m.]: The museum issued a statement Monday, confirming the closure. "The Morbid Anatomy Museum has ceased operations," staff said.
"Our institution was made possible by an incredible investment from our founder and a dedicated group of early supporters, but we were unable to develop both the broad support from our audience and from grants, gifts, and other sponsorship that is necessary for sustainability," they added. "Thank you again, to our many friends, collaborators, and stakeholders. We don’t yet know what comes next, but we’ll look forward to seeing you on the other side of this."