Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe were friendly neighbors for years, so it may be only appropriate the two cultural institutions that bear their names are carrying on that legacy.
The Twain House, recently targeted for closure after years of financial woes, is finding a friendly neighbor in the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, as one of Hartford’s most visible tourist attractions looks to ensure the survival of another through cost-cutting collaborative efforts.
“The Stowe Center has a real interest in both organizations succeeding,” said Stowe Center executive director Katherine Kane. “As neighbors, that’s really important to us.”
Both Kane and Twain House executive director Jeffrey Nichols said the organizations began aggressively pursuing cost-saving measures over the past year after mounting debt threatened to finally close the Twain House for good. For these Farmingon Avenue neighbors, that means reviewing vendor contracts in search of obvious overlaps.
So far, they found one: The Dumpster, which the organizations have been sharing for the past few months.
“It’s not very glamorous,” Nichols said, “but we’ve found some efficiency there. We’re looking at basic ground and maintenance contracts.”
“That may seem like it’s little, but in this economy every bit helps,” Kane said.
Working out the details for potential collaborations has taken longer than both sides initially anticipated, Nichols admits, but he said they are starting to gain momentum.
The possibility of more joint programming has been a centerpiece of discussions between the Stowe Center and Twain House. The two last year launched a school program, “Stowe and Twain: Effecting Social Change,” which recently was picked up by public libraries.
Kane said more joint programming could make both organizations attractive targets for corporate giving.
“It depends. Every donor, whether a corporation or individual, has different interests and needs,” Kane said. “For me, bottom line, you put this campus together, there’s nothing else like it in Connecticut.”
Similar to their namesakes, the Stowe Center has long been the model of financial stability while the Twain House has been on shaky financial footing since spending beyond its means. An $18 million visitor’s center finished in 2003 at twice the initial projected cost threatened to shut Twain’s doors.
Over the past couple of years, the museum cut staff from 49 to 17 and received $3.5 million from the state while Webster Bank dropped interest payments owed on the visitor’s center.
Nichols said the museum has started to turn the corner with a modest $28,000 profit in the fiscal year ending Jan. 31 — the first time it finished in the black since 2000.
But in the face of the recession, Kane is expecting a decline in corporate support, a vital component of museum revenue. Last year, corporate giving of $73,000 accounted for about 20 percent of Stowe’s revenue, while $390,000 of Twain’s revenue, or about 15 percent, came from corporation giving.
About 45 percent of corporations have already implemented a reduction in 2009 giving budgets and 16 percent are now considering it, according to a Conference Board survey last month of 158 corporate giving officers.
Arts and culture funding will see the biggest drop of any focus area, with 41 percent of responders reporting a funding decrease.
Bruce Frasor, executive director of the Connecticut Humanities Council, said Twain and Stowe collaboration efforts come at an especially challenging time for museums, given dire economic conditions.
“If there’s anyone who understands new directions in museum possibilities, it’s Katherine [Kane],” Frasor said. “Twain has stabilized itself and their finances have gotten to the point where they’re not bleeding red ink anymore, so there are possibilities for growth there.”
To view the Twain House balance sheet, visit www.HartfordBusiness.com/files/newsitems/Twain_budget09.pdf