Museum looks to private sector for survival

For decades, the financially strapped Pioneers Museum has been one of the city’s crown jewels, an institution owned and largely funded by city taxpayers.

With public dollars dwindling, that may be about to change.

Museum Director Matt Mayberry is exploring the idea of privatizing the museum, a rare move in the museum world.

Admission would remain free for the foreseeable future, though new fees could be imposed on touring exhibits as part of the museum’s bid to shore up its finances.

Its first step will be to hire a consultant to help prepare a roadmap. “We’re looking at candidates now,” said Mayberry, “and we hope to have somebody aboard within the next few days.”

While there have been occasional discussions over the years about possible privatization, the museum — which had 75,000 visitors last year — now has little choice in the matter.

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“In 2008 the museum received $890,000 in general operating support from the city,” Mayberry noted, “and this year (that support) was reduced to $365,000 which, along with $300,000 from private sources, has allowed us to keep the museum open through the end of the year.”

Mayberry said he’s not counting on much, if any, support from the city after 2010.

“We’ve cut our staff from 11 FTEs to five,” Mayberry said, “Without volunteers, we’d have to close our doors.”

Vice Mayor Larry Small said he supports the museum’s efforts to forge a new ownership structure, although he believes there may still be some city funding after 2010.

“It’s too early to think about what the city’s financial condition might be next year,” Small said, “but I think that it’s a shame that the museum’s funding is subject to politics. I want them to be out of the political arena.”

Few comparable institutions are.

“Public funding for museums generally has declined during the last 10 years,” said Dewey Blanton of the American Association of Museums, “but more than 81 percent of all museums receive some kind of public funding. That’s particularly true of history museums such as yours.”

Blanton said the recession has taken a toll on museums throughout the country.

“In Ohio and Illinois, state governments have closed historic sites and historic houses for lack of funds,” he said, “but I’m not aware of many situations like yours.”

Blanton said that he knows of only three institutions in the country that have transitioned from public to private ownership during the last 25 years, and in each case the process has taken many years.

Small said he believes the museum will thrive once it separates itself from the city.

“It’s my belief that people in this city support this kind of thing. The zoo has been completely private for a long time, and they’ve done fine. We need to move the museum to the same kind of private foundation model.”

To be fully self-supporting, the museum will need to raise more than $1 million annually.

“So far this year we’ve raised $97,000, not including money to fund a consultant,” Mayberry said, “and we’ll need to do that every month. (Privatization) may open up a lot of different options.”

In the past, private funding for the museum has amounted to approximately $300,000 annually.

Unlike similar private institutions, the museum has no significant endowment, relying upon gifts from supporters. The long-established support group “Friends of the Pioneers Museum” numbers more than 1,000 members, and the Pioneers Museum Foundation also contributes to the museum’s budget.

Small said privatization would likely mean pursuing donations and other fundraising opportunities that are not now available under city ownership, noting that foundations are often reluctant to make unrestricted grants to government-owned entities. “Also, it might be possible to get additional revenue by charging for admission to traveling exhibits, but continue the free general admission policy that we have at present.”

Jessica James, who directed a successful multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign for the Fine Arts Center four years ago, believes the museum can pull it off.

“A million dollars is a pretty modest budget for an organization of that size and scope,” James said. “Colorado Springs has a lot of worthy causes, but if the individuals in the friends group are passionate about the museum, and if they have the (financial) capacity, it’s attainable.”

Susan Edmondson, the executive director of the Bee Vradenburg foundation, warned of potential pitfalls.

“There are a lot of successful (private) models out there,” she said, “but the city and community need to understand that it takes time to build donor relationships. You have to raise that money every year. We have a wonderful private museum, the Fine Arts Center, and they’ve been building their model for 75 years.”

How the museum would move forward in its privatization will take a while to figure out.

“There are lots of options,” Mayberry said, “the building is owned by the city, and it sits in the center of a Palmer-dedicated park. Any transfer of the building, and the museum’s collections, would be subject to ethical and legal restrictions, so (a new structure) might involve a dollar-a-year lease, or something similar.”

One thing is certain, though. Items from the collection will not be sold to support the museum’s operating expenses.

“We hold our collections in trust,” said Mayberry. “Museums can only sell objects if the funds are used for acquisitions, not for expenses. More than 10,000 donors have contributed to the collection since 1886, and that’s not something that we would ever do.”

“The museum is just too important to lose,” he said, “so we have to figure it out.”

Pioneers Museum by the numbers

$890,000 — City funding support 2008

$365,000 — City funding support 2009

$300,000 — Approximate annual private funding

60,000 — Objects in collection

Full-time equivalent positions in ‘08 — 11

Full-time equivalent positions in ‘10 — 5

About the museum

Since 1979, the museum has been located in the iconic 1903 El Paso County Courthouse. The museum’s mission is to “collect, preserve, research, and interpret the history and culture of the Pikes Peak Region.”

Its collections, which have never been formally appraised, include more than 60,000 objects. Along with collections of strictly local interest, such as bound newspapers and city directories dating from the 1870s, the museum has significant collections of quilts, van Briggle art pottery, and historic Colorado art.

The museum also has large collections of items representative of the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho cultures, and, according to its website, “collections related to the founding of the city, the area’s mining and agricultural history, its early prominence as a health resort, and its more recent significance as a center for military training and operations.”