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Is There a Future in History?

Endowments Benefit Some Museums, But All Are Challenged to Balance Budgets

Dick Hogan

The Gazette

March 5, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

    CEDAR RAPIDS — When The Carl and Mary Koehler History Center reopens in Cedar Rapids on April 1, the public will see little change at first.

    But changes are coming, vows Director Martha Aldridge.

    ‘‘We will open up with a plan for change. . . . The public will know what the plan is when we open up,’’ Aldridge said.

    The History Center was closed Feb. 1 for two months because its operating deficits were continuing and its debt had reached about $170,000. The closure is to save about $50,000, primarily in salaries for 12 staff members, six of them part-time. Museum employees, except for Aldridge, were laid off.

    Her time is being spent ‘‘retooling’’ the History Center’s presentation of 40,000 historical Linn County artifacts. She’s come up with some ideas — using more volunteers, for example — that she discussed with her board last week and is now discussing with the larger community. Those ideas will be taken back to the board, which will come up with a plan before the museum reopens.

    During the closing, The Gazette looked at two successful Eastern Iowa museums, the Grout Museum in Waterloo and the Putnam Museum and IMAX Theater in Davenport, to gauge their financial health and staffing levels.

    The survey confirmed the advantages of a hefty endowment fund — something The History Center lacks — to supplement a museum’s other income. It also found that many counties in Iowa have no historical museums at all and that even the 125-year-old Putnam had money problems 18 months ago.

    Kristin Novak, president of The History Center board, said decisions will be made about the museum’s direction before its April 1 reopening.

    Volunteers, for example, may be asked to do more; a meeting last Tuesday with about 30 volunteers found most primed to help.

    ‘‘We will open up a with a plan that’s pretty darned exciting,’’ Aldridge said. ‘‘Since I’ve been here, The History Center has been struggling with its operating budget. The way to solve that is to come up with a product that the public is excited about.

    ‘‘We now live in a world where people want to do things. They want things that are kinetic. They just don’t want to read museum labels. We have to involve the community more,’’ Aldridge said.

    That may include various citizen advisory committees, including kids, for museum activities and displays, she said.

    ‘‘We’re struggling like anyone else,’’ said Mark Bawden, the new director of the Putnam Museum in Davenport, who previously served as a museum board member for 22 years.

    The museum, with its collection of 200,000 pieces, went through ‘‘a belt-tightening’’ a year-and-a-half ago. ‘‘We laid off a third of the staff. We went from 38 to 25 full-time.’’

    One of the challenges in the Quad Cities, he said, is that the cities have ‘‘so many venues and more coming.

We’re trying to get together with smaller venues to see if there are some things we can do jointly, including bringing some into our building and managing things for them.’’

    The Putnam, at 1717 W. 12th St., has a $3 million debt from adding a $14 million IMAX Theatre three years ago.

    Before the theater was built, the Putnam raised $11 million in nine months. Then the 9/11 attacks happened, and ‘‘everybody closed up tighter than a drum,’’ Bawden said.

    A new campaign to retire the theater’s debt is off to a good start, he said.

    The museum also has an endowment, though Bawden declined to disclose the amount.

    Perhaps The History Center’s Aldridge is on track in looking at more active museum attractions instead of static displays, Bawden said.

    ‘‘People are used to technology and are used to being stimulated in a lot of different ways, so museums have to keep up with that, too,’’ he said.

    In Waterloo, the successful Grout Museum, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, has 100,000 artifacts, no debt and a $3.2 million endowment that continues to grow.

    Its annual budget is $821,338, compared to the History Center’s $576,441, and it has an ambitious fundraising effort for a planned Sullivan Brothers Veterans addition.

    The Grout — a five-building complex at 503 South St., — derives its income from hotel-motel tax money from the city, a small grant from Black Hawk County, state/federal grants, memberships, admissions and donations.

    But if you run a museum, you can’t beat a big endowment fund.

    ‘‘That’s one of the things that has been a salvation to us,’’ said Billie Bailey, the Grout’s director for 15 years. ‘‘We’re not rich, but we get along OK. We’re very frugal, . . . very good at making a penny go a long way here.’’

    To augment a staff of 17 full-time and eight part-time employees, Bailey said Grout’s 200 volunteers donated 2,455 hours of work in the past year.

    Bailey attributes Grout’s success to slow growth, good stewards of its endowment, community visibility, responsiveness to public wants and great employees and volunteers. Grout also has opened an Imaginarium, or science center, and two historical homes.

    The $11 million Sullivan addition will double the museum’s size and tell Iowa veterans’ history from the Civil War through the present. About $8.2 million has been pledged, she noted.

    Interestingly, Polk County does not have a county historical museum in Des Moines. Instead, it relies on the large State Historical Museum near the State Capitol.

    The state museum has the advantage of state appropriations — currently $928,331 for this year’s budget.

    It has no endowment, according to the museum’s Jeff Morgan.

    The state museum has 14 employees, all but one fulltime. With a 110,000-piece collection and free admission, about 45,000 people visit annually — not many more than the 42,500 who visit the Grout in Waterloo.

    Aldridge, Novak and Dick Meisterling, vice president of The History Center board in Cedar Rapids, all said the board’s primary concern is maintaining and protecting the center’s collection in Linn County.

    ‘‘We were operating as efficiently as we thought we could, but our resources weren’t enough to cover our expenses,’’ Novak said. ‘‘That doesn’t mean the community wasn’t supporting us. That’s why we’re retooling.’’

    The current $170,000 debt is not large, but it would have kept mounting had the museum not closed and refocused its mission, Novak said.

    ‘‘We thought it fiscally responsible to stop the expense until we got a plan together that presented a better History Center,’’ she said.

    The community rallied in late 2003 to pay off The History Center’s $1.4 million mortgage when it was faced with foreclosure on the new building opened in June 1999. The city of Cedar Rapids and Linn County kicked in $200,000 each, with the rest coming from private donations.

    The History Center is repaying the city that sum by giving up any hotel-motel tax allocation for 10 years. The city’s hotel-motel tax distribution list shows $24,000 going to The History Center annually, but the money is redirected to the city’s general fund.

    The Grout’s Bailey sends her best wishes to The History Center’s efforts.

    ‘‘Hang in there,’’ she said. ‘‘A lot of people had dedicated a lot of time, energy and resources to it. Cedar Rapids deserves a good history museum.’’