'My axiom is, to succeed in business: avoid my example." So said Mark Twain, who was a great writer but a notoriously poor businessman.
Too bad the people trying to protect his legacy in Hartford didn't learn from his mistakes. The Mark Twain House & Museum is carrying a burdensome debt.
The Farmington Avenue home of America's best-known storyteller is a premier tourist attraction. It enlightens 12,000 school groups a year about the life and works of the man whose real name was Samuel Clemens. It serves 68,000 visitors from 68 different countries. Attendance keeps rising.
Yet the enterprise has a cash-flow problem serious enough to threaten its survival. Its operating budget is short about $350,000 per year. Board members worry that, with energy costs rising precipitously, it could get worse before it gets better. They have even considered — and wisely rejected — shuttering part of the facility.
How did this happen to such a venerable institution? Simply put, poor planning. The wondrous Robert A.M. Stern museum building next to the Mark Twain mansion was erected in 2003 before sufficient money was in place. One board member called it a period of "irrational exuberance," a term Mark Twain surely would relate to.
Within two years, debt had risen to $11 million. Annual payments soared to about 25 percent of operating costs before the state chipped in $3.5 million to reduce the debt and Webster Bank restructured the loan. Staff was reduced from 50 to 17.
Unbelievably, the museum has no endowment and no lines of credit to tap for even simple economies, such as changing to more energy-efficient light bulbs. That would cost $30,000, cash it doesn't have, to save on utility bills that have risen 225 percent.
Most arts organizations are feeling the energy pinch while struggling to offer visitors an experience that will resonate in the era of iPods. But the Twain shortfall, like the crisis at the Old State House before it, cries for emergency measures. The museum is a national asset. It shouldn't have to sell the Twain family silver to keep the lights on.
Some promising overtures: The boards of the Twain and well-endowed Harriet Beecher Stowe houses are talking about collaborating. That is a logical move for the neighboring institutions. Also, the museum board is attracting national figures, such as author David Baldacci, soon to join. It has appealed to its advisory board of celebrities who have delivered lectures at the house.
But the museum board is also casting about for funds beyond traditional sources and trying to rally community support. One way to renew interest in Hartford's famous personage would be to bring back Mark Twain Days in time for the 2010 centennial of the author's passing. The three-day event drew 100,000 people at its peak. It was one of the more imaginative city celebrations, with all things Twain, from frog-jumping to white-washing fences.
Meanwhile, utilities could take the edge off the crisis by donating energy-efficient light bulbs to the museum. As Mr. Twain opined, "To be good is to be noble; but to show others how to be good is nobler and no trouble."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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