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With a Little Help ... The Twain House Admits Its Woes

By Adam Bulger

June 19, 2008

Speaking to a reporter in 1895, Mark Twain endorsed complaining, saying it "pays to kick." That advice has evidently held true in the case of the Hartford cultural institution bearing his name; publicly airing its troubles may help to save the institution.

Officials from The Mark Twain House, in Hartford's West End, acknowledged its long-standing financial problems at a May 19 meeting with representatives from its major corporate sponsors, including The Hartford, Aetna and Travelers CT Foundation. Twain House officials had considered publicly admitting the open secret of the museum's money issues earlier than that (see Hartford Advocate, May 8, "Hard Times at the Mark Twain House").

"We felt that it was our responsibility to have a conversation with our primary stakeholders, and make them aware we were going a little bit more public with the situation," Mark Twain House Board of Trustees president Dede DeRosa said. "Truthfully, people knew the organization has been in trouble, but maybe they didn't know how much trouble."

In 2003, the museum opened an $18 million, state-of-the-art visitor's center without securing funding for construction. Since then, despite receiving $3.5 million in bond money from the state in 2006, the museum cut staff from 50 to 17, scaled back on revolving exhibitions and put two of its buildings on the market.

At the meeting, the donors agreed the museum should go public, and stories then appeared in the Hartford Courant and the New York Times. The Times story (June 3) said the museum would have to close its doors within weeks. The openness, museum officials say, was ultimately helpful.

"From our point of view, being open has so far worked in our favor," Twain House Executive Director Jeffrey L. Nichols said.

The state government, local corporations and Twain fans worldwide responded. Governor Jodi Rell pledged $50,000 for the Twain House, over and above the $60,000 the museum already receives annually from the state. United Technologies Corporation donated $50,000. Small but plentiful individual donations came in through the museum's Web site.

In addition to money, UTC is offering its expertise. A team of UTC employees will conduct an energy audit of the museum to drive operating costs down.

Nichols said the museum hopes to increase the size of its endowment, currently at $1.3 million. Annually, the endowment yields about $60,000, which falls short of the annual operating costs of $2.9 million. Also under scrutiny is the Twain Center, the largest drain on resources.

"Structurally, the financial picture has never worked since that museum center opened," DeRosa said.

Nichols said the museum's staff hopes to find ways to share the center with other non-profit organizations. Nothing has been finalized, but the museum staff has discussed increased campus cost-sharing with the adjacent Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.

"It would be very hard for the Mark Twain House to extricate itself from that space," Nichols said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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