Museums Fight to Preserve State Funding

By: - September 13, 2002 12:00 am

As hard-pressed state lawmakers look to cut budgets, museums make easy targets because they’re often viewed as non-essential public facilities. At least four states have cut museum funding this year, but a public outcry in Connecticut forced lawmakers to put aside the budget axe.

Several museums in New Jersey and Massachusetts are feeling the pinch because the state arts councils in those states took a financial hit. Lawmakers approved operating funds but no money for new exhibits at the Tennessee State Museum . The state-funded Kansas Sports Hall of Fame shut down completely in July, but is reopening in another location without any state money.

State funding for museums is endangered because most states are strapped for cash. Edward Able, president and CEO of the American Association of Museums, says making these institutions victims of the budget crunch is short-sighted.

“Policymakers can’t say on the one hand they’re high on education and then cut museums. That’s what we’re about,” Able says.

Such arguments didn’t preserve funding for the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, where visitors could find artifacts such as the jersey of Harlem Globetrotters legend Lynette Woodard.

Funding this museum would send a poor signal when the state is facing a record budget shortfall, said Kansas Rep. Ralph Ostmeyer, R-Grinnell.

The Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, which is relocating from Abilene to Wichita, was created as part of the Kansas Centennial Celebration in 1961. But the state provided no permanent funding. It will be be privately financed henceforth.

Other states are maintaining subsidies, but at a lower level. In New Jersey museums are coping with a 10 percent drop in the state’s arts budget this year. Massachusetts reduced the state’s cultural council budget by 62 percent, which means less money for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Addison Gallery in Andover, among others.

State museum officials elsewhere said they are bracing for lean times ahead.

Anne Ackerson, director of the New York Museum Association, said the anticipated lack of state funding next year will cause more of a reliance on individual donors.

Ackerson said, “We’re trying to make a strong case for why we’re important. The strongest argument is the educational role that museums play. We’re also the caretakers of the state’s history and culture. And we’re economic generators, providing sales tax revenue and employing thousands of people.”

Texas museums are accustomed to operating with minimal public funds, and the state always falls near the bottom in rankings of arts funding per capita, says Jack Nokes, executive director of the Texas Association of Museums. Texas museums rely on private money from oil and gas fortunes, Nokes says.

“Our situation is not real good,” Nokes says. “Until there is a strong champion in the legislature who takes on the arts and culture and museums as a legislative priority, it’s probably not going to happen. I don’t see any real prospects for increases.”

Virginia is putting the issue to its citizens. Voters in the Old Dominion will decide in November on a bond referendum that would direct million to museum capital projects including an expansion at Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. But Virginia museums still anticipate cuts to operating budgets, “so it’s very tense,” said Margo Carlock, executive director of the Virginia Association of Museums.

Bleak budget pictures have required museum officials and supporters to become more creative in lobbying for state funding.

In Illinois, 13 museums banded together this year to seek operating funds. Their joint lobbying effort was the key to winning million in state funding to help public museums expand and upgrade facilities, said Karen Fyfe, manager of the Illinois Public Museum Grants Program.

Museum supporters in New Mexico won funding when it was attached to the right bill: Gov. Gary Johnson approved funding for museum expansion in March because other projects like radios for state police were part of the spending measure.

In Connecticut, citizens mounted letter-writing campaigns that helped convince state legislators to save four museums from closure this year.

“It’s a perfect example for cynical people who believe that legislators don’t listen,” said Connecticut Republican Senate Leader Pro Tempore Bill Aniskovich. “The system works.”

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