The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture is in trouble.
The region’s foremost collection of the visual arts and repository for historic and cultural artifacts has dismissed its executive director, so far without explanation, and in the process violated trustee bylaws. Forrest Rodgers, hired only last July, was the fifth person to hold the job in the last five years.
Never adequately endowed, the museum has been dangerously dependent on state funds appropriated to support its role as the Eastern Washington Historical Society. A move three years ago to combine funding with its Western Washington counterpart in Tacoma was blocked by Sen. Lisa Brown. A potential cutoff of all state funding – which threatened to close the museum – was headed off last year when money was appropriated from the state’s Heritage Center Account.
But that funding is assured only through June 2013. If the state’s economic fortunes do not improve in the meantime, the $1.5 million annual allocation could go away or be substantially cut back. That sum represents more than one-half of the museum’s total $2.75 million budget.
The MAC has brought in some impressive exhibits in recent years, like those featuring works by Leonardo da Vinci and major impressionists, and historical presentations on themes like women’s suffrage. For the last decade, the museum has benefited from a relationship with the Smithsonian Institution. But attendance, like the endowment, is not where it should be at the handsome buildings and grounds in Browne’s Addition.
Sadly, the handling of Rodgers’ departure has tested relationships between the museum board and a separate board responsible for fundraising, between the board and staff members, with area tribes that have entrusted the museum with treasured artifacts, and among members of the museum board itself. Trustees and staff members have resigned.
Even with an explanation for the precipitous firing, said to be forthcoming, the way forward will be difficult.
Rodgers and board Chairwoman Chris Schnug say they are confident a well-managed fundraising effort could easily lift annual donations to $1 million and up from the $800,000 budgeted for 2013.
Other cities have cultural districts to help support the arts. The MAC could find common cause with institutions in other Washington communities that could explore similar options at the state or local level.
The MAC could cease to be a state-funded institution and instead contract for maintaining state materials. The change would give administrators a freer hand, potentially cutting operating costs.
But the people of Spokane, Eastern Washington and Olympia are going to want some sign the MAC can get its house in order. Because it works, at least in part, as a state agency, the best course may be to request a performance audit that evaluates how well the MAC functions as an organization and where improvements might be made.
The MAC is an underappreciated, undervalued, incredibly important resource to the region. Unfortunate as this situation has become, it may be an opportunity to renew the community’s focus on what, really, is the only museum we have.
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