State museums have to master the art of survival

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Published: April 6,2009

George Bassi was in West Virginia recently for a meeting of museum directors. Director of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Bassi heard his peers talk about the challenges the current economy is posing to museums nationwide.

“Generally, budgets have been cut by about 10 percent,” Bassi said. “Most of the budget cuts are in the form of staff reductions.”

While celebrating the state’s past, museums find themselves in the throes of a present-day dilemma, namely the recession and bleak economic picture.

Other segments of the state’s economy are feeling the pinch, but the current environment is a one-two punch for museums. Lack of discretionary income has many museum patrons staying home, affecting revenue streams at a time when costs are rising. Throw in impacted donations and other financial support, and museums find themselves at the center of the present economic storm.

Lauren Rogers enjoys a somewhat unique advantage over other museums in Mississippi. It has an endowment, which constitutes approximately 40 percent of the museum’s operating budget. Its membership drive and fundraising activities concluded in the fall, before the economic woes began playing havoc on household and corporate budgets.

Still, the stock market’s fall cost Lauren Rogers approximately 25 percent of the endowment’s worth. This has led to a five percent cut in Lauren Rogers’ budget.

(Admission is free at Lauren Rogers, so ticket sales are not an issue at the museum.)

“We had a full-time position come open last October, and we did not fill that position,” Bassi said. “That made up most of the five percent cut, though we did trim our travel budget and cut back on professional development and some marketing.”

The news is not all bad from the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science (MMNS) in Jackson, either. Director Libby Hartfield said attendance is up, and sharply so. Attendance during the summer, fall and winter was 30 percent higher than the same period the prior year. Membership is also up slightly, and members are visiting more frequently.

However, it is state agency and with a 501(c)(3) organization. The museum has already facing a five percent cut in state funding, part of the state’s budget-trimming actions, and the 501(c)(3) is still raising private dollars, though “they are little harder to come by,” Hartfield said.

The main challenge at MMNS, then, is to serve its increasing visitors with less, as the state budget cuts were handled through not filling vacated positions. Those positions were in the aquarium and education areas, two of the museum’s strongest draws. Thus, MMNS is feeling the squeeze.

Still, Hartfield said MMNS is “hoping for the best” as it plays wait-and-see on the Legislature’s budget decisions, and banks on a new summer exhibit —“Monsters of the Deep” — to be a solid draw.

The Old Capitol Museum in Jackson is also enjoying some pluses. In early February, the museum reopened after getting extensive renovations, work necessitated by the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. The newness of the Old Capitol Museum is paying dividends, said Clay Williams, the museum’s director.

“Since opening Feb. 7, we have had visitors from 35 states and roughly 30 countries,” Williams said. “Because everything is new, we don’t need to have special events to bring people in.”

While things are going well now, Williams admitted that the near future has many question marks. Under the auspices of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, it, too, is feeling the bite of state budget cuts. Already running short-handed, Williams said one vacant position remains unfilled. He said that means more reliance on volunteers.

“But, there are some things volunteers can’t do,” he added.

The museum’s publicity budget, which was never large, has also been cropped. Williams is concerned that when the newness of the Old Capitol Museum wears off and the museum needs to promote new offerings to get people to return, it could prove a huge challenge.

For MMNS and the Old Capitol Museum, all eyes are on the Legislature. Lawmakers were facing a challenge to craft a new budget. However, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act further clouded the picture. The Legislature has decided to wait and see what kind of stimulus money is coming the state’s way before drawing up the final budget.

Still, the state’s museums are soldering on. The Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs is preparing to offer the exhibition “The Lost Murals,” which will run April 16-July 19.

On April 30, the Tupelo Automobile Museum will offer “Drive-In Movie,” a special event kicking off the Tupelo Blue Suede Cruise with a Classic Car Drive-In Movie in the museum’s parking lot. The event is free and open to the public.

William Carey University in Hattiesburg is not only offering a special event, it is celebrating the renovation of its museum. The university will present “Celebrate the Arts” April 15 in the new Sarah Ellen Gillespie Museum of Art on the Hattiesburg campus. The event will include several lectures, a gallery talk and a dedication of the museum. The public is invited.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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