The Mark Twain House and Museum made it through a cash crisis this spring, but it isn't out of the woods yet
November 20, 2008
From his modest second-story office in the carriage house, Mark Twain House and Museum Director Jeff Nichols can look down on groups of visitors crossing the patio outside the museum to begin their tours of Twain's fanciful 19th-century home on Farmington Avenue.
There was a time last spring when Nichols, 38, couldn't be certain he'd still have this view in November. An unplanned $11.5 million debt from the new museum center, opened in November 2003, had mercilessly drained the nonprofit of resources.
"A lot of money that could have gone to operations went to debt," said Nichols. "That's where we were last spring — a cash crisis. We had to make a change."
In May, the Advocate reported on the rumors of financial disaster swirling around the Twain House. Soon after, stories in the Hartford Courant and New York Times fleshed out the details.
"I think the psychology was to avoid going public with our financial challenges and work through it," said Nichols. "That went on for a couple of years. But a professor of mine once said if you don't ask for help, you won't get it."
Nichols said the response to the news of the crisis from corporations and individuals has been extraordinary. Last week, he announced a $500,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation that will go into a Stabilization and Planning Fund he hopes will eventually grow to $1.5 million.
In addition, the State of Connecticut has helped to pay down the $11.5 million debt to $4.9 million, and Webster Bank, which holds the debt, has restructured it with very generous terms, says Nichols. The two-inch-thick agreement, not yet signed, sits on his desk.
United Technologies Corporation, a stalwart supporter that donates $50,000 yearly, has also helped the museum and center with technical support, free of charge, reducing its IT costs from $50,000 yearly to $20,000, and fine-tuning the heating and cooling systems in the museum center to make them more efficient.
Cost-cutting has been the order of the day, with museum staff reduced from 49 to 17 over the past four years. Nichols admits the staff was bloated, but says it's a little too lean now.
"[Having] the chief curator dusting isn't the best use of her time," he said.
It was the museum center, designed by renowned architect Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, which put the Twain House in its current fix. Originally budgeted for about $11 million, cost overruns pushed the price to $19.5 million, and the cash drain was on.
Nichols, who became permanent director in April after a year as acting director, is nervous about the coming months, given the economic meltdown the nation is enduring. Rumors of recession have a way of tightening up purse strings in corporate offices and individual homes as well.
But the boost from Annenberg, as well as the outpouring of support from corporations and individuals, has made Nichols optimistic for the long term. There are even donations coming in over the Internet now — around $9,000 over the past several months alone.
"Despite all the sleepless nights and challenges it's been interesting work," said Nichols. "I want to see this through here. Wherever I go next I want to leave behind something better than I found."