The cash crisis is past, but the Mark Twain House isn’t on Easy Street
March 16, 2010
Jeffrey Nichols will celebrate his second anniversary next month as executive director of the Mark Twain House, a trial by fire behind him and an uncertain but hopeful future ahead.
As the Advocate reported in November 2008, seven months after Nichols took the helm, the Mark Twain House was trying to pull itself out of a fiscal crisis precipitated by cost overruns on the new museum center it opened in November 2003.
The center, designed by renowned architect Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, went over budget by nearly $9 million, contributing to a total unplanned debt of $11.5 million that began draining the nonprofit of cash. To make matters worse, the Great Recession of 2008 dropped the visitation numbers by several thousand.
“There was one way out of this and that was to continue to work hard,” Nichols said in an interview last week. “Mark Twain had his share of financial problems as well, with his failing publishing business and page compositor.”
As word spread in 2008 of the Twain House’s troubles, help began to arrive. The Annenberg Foundation came through with a grant of $500,000. The State of Connecticut helped to pay down the $11.5 million debt to $4.9 million. And Webster Bank, which holds the debt, restructured the remaining balance with very generous terms.
Nichols had hoped the $500,000 grant from Annenberg, deposited in the Stabilization and Planning Fund, would eventually grow to $1.5 million or more. But last week he said the nonprofit had used the money for day-to-day operations.
“We have been able to do so much,” he says, “using that [Annenberg] grant for leverage on fundraising, continuing to drive down expenses.”
The museum center finished last year converting all of its lighting fixtures, some 470 in all, to LED bulbs, one of the first applications of this cutting-edge technology on such a scale, according to Nichols. The conversion has already resulted in a 50-percent reduction in the annual electric bill, saving about $80,000.
But with an operating budget of $2.7 million, despite cutting staff from 49 to 18, much of the Twain House’s fundraising still goes to bottom-line expenses. The museum generates about $1 million annually from house tours and retail sales, leaving about $1.7 million to be fundraised every year just to keep the doors open. As a consequence, the $4.9 million debt from 2008 is only down to about $4.5 million today.
“We continue to pay what we can on our debt, and the bank has been wonderful,” Nichols says. There’s a lot of pressure on the giving community, and corporations as well as foundations have re-evaluated how much they give. “In some cases there’s less to give. All that plays into how we pay down the debt,” he says.
Nichols did score a $250,000 grant last fall from the Hartford Foundation for Giving that he’s using to revamp the organization’s Web site, and for a marketing campaign to mark the 175th anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth, and 125th anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
There’s a full calendar of events, including a Clemens Lecture by author Wally Lamb on April 7, and a Hartford Stage world premiere adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer starting April 1 and running through May 9. On Nov. 30, Twain’s birthday, the museum will sponsor “A Celebration on the Mississippi River.” Details are yet to be announced.