Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to cover a small piece of the state’s projected shortfall by combining the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture with the State History Museum in Tacoma, and merging the historical societies that oversee them.
But executives at both museums question whether the merger would save as much money as the budget watchers suggest, and could cost the MAC support from its donors.
Dennis Hession, interim chief executive officer for the MAC, worries that some longtime supporters of the Spokane museum could cut back on donations if they thought their money was going to programs or expenses controlled elsewhere.
“We don’t believe that our efforts to promote an operation … that was organized and run out of Tacoma would have the same appeal,” Hession said.
Savings of $500,000 annually
The proposed changes to the museums and the historical societies are contained in Gregoire’s overall plan to cut some $5.7 billion in state spending and balance the biennial budget. Her proposal, released in mid-December, would merge the Eastern Washington State Historical Society with the Washington State Historical Society, creating a single board where two boards now exist. It would also cut state funds to the museums run by the societies by 10 percent, a cut similar to what many other state agencies are facing.
“It’s part of this larger proposal. We’re looking for ways to try to shrink government,” said Glenn Kuper of the state’s Office of Financial Management.
OFM budget analysts project that combining the two historical societies would save about $500,000 a year, mainly through staff reductions. The merged operation could consolidate staff involved in administration, bookkeeping, information technology and exhibit preparation, Kuper said. There would also be some savings, albeit minimal, in taking two boards that currently have about 30 members each and creating a single board with 30 or fewer members.
Historical society board members do not receive a salary, but do receive a per diem payment when they attend meetings. Each board oversees a museum – the MAC in the case of the Eastern Washington society; the state History Museum in the case of the Washington society – and appoints a top executive to run its operations.
In Spokane, that’s currently Hession, who is serving as interim CEO while the society conducts a search for a permanent executive. In Tacoma, David Nicandri carries the title of state historical society director, with roughly the same duties as Hession.
Nicandri is quick to say the plan to merge the two societies and their museum operations did not come from the Tacoma-based organization.
“This is not an assignment we sought,” he said in a phone interview this week. “We have some significant concerns about this proposed legislation as well.”
Local donors could flee
Hession, the former mayor of Spokane, said he understands that the governor has a big task in trying to balance the state budget. But he thinks the savings Gregoire’s budget writers project won’t necessarily materialize. For example, even if the merged museums have a single chief executive in Tacoma, the MAC will still need a qualified manager, he said. The Spokane facility will still need people who answer the phones, schedule tours and maintain exhibits and the building.
The budget proposal cuts some $3.8 million from the money the two historical societies and their museums received in state funding in the current two-year budget. The Washington society and the State History Museum received $10.2 million in appropriated and nonappropriated funds in this cycle; the Eastern Washington society and the MAC received about $7.4 million. Next year the total operating budget for the combined historical society and the two facilities would be $13.8 million.
The proposed level of cuts could leave both museums “mortally wounded,” Hession said. The museums may have even less money if donors, who provide about half the funding for the MAC, reduce contributions because of concerns over how the money would be spent by a board and administration based elsewhere, he added.
Nicandri is also concerned about the effects of the budget cuts, which would come on top of any savings from merging the staffs. And with the economy continuing to slide, the budget cuts may grow. He also understands the MAC’s concern about losing local donor support.
“The issue of community support is of considerable consequence,” he said, particularly since the governor’s proposal gives the appearance that “they’re being merged into our (operation) rather than vice versa.”
Kuper said the governor envisions the merged historical society board would have equal representation from both sides of the state to ease concerns about loss of control.
“We would hope the (merged) board would be able to reach a consensus and a compromise” on how state money would be spent, he said. The board would have to respect the restrictions of any private donation that comes with “strings attached.”
The legislation to set up the merged board hasn’t been drafted yet, but whatever is proposed will be subject to legislative hearings where local concerns can be aired, he said.
Cultural council not consulted
One other stumbling block could be the different character of the two museums, Hession said. The Tacoma museum concentrates on history. The MAC, by its charter, combines history, art and an extensive collection of Native American artifacts, many of them culturally sensitive for the local tribes.
To help oversee that collection, the Eastern Washington society set up an American Indian Cultural Council, with representatives from each of the Columbia Plateau tribes.
“They are the stewards of our collection,” Hession said. “These relationships take time. We’ve spent 10 years developing them.”
The cultural council, which wasn’t consulted by the state about plans to merge the societies and museums, is sending a letter to the Legislature objecting to the proposal, he said.
While it’s too soon to speculate how a merged operation would handle things, Nicandri said it’s clear to him that there would be no wholesale shifting of artifacts and other pieces from the MAC to Tacoma.
“I can’t envision how things could, would or should be moved from Spokane,” he said. “We’re rather cramped. We might propose moving some material to Spokane.”
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