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Twain Museum Seeks Grants To Cover Budget Deficit

Museum Plagued By Budget Problems Is Hopeful Grants Will Help Offset Shortfall

By MATT EAGAN | Courant Staff Writer

June 06, 2008

The Mark Twain House and Museum, which has a $350,000 shortfall in its operating budget this year, remains under financial pressure but its position has improved during the last month.

The museum has received a $50,000 grant from United Technologies, a $30,000 chairman's grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is awaiting word from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, which gave $125,000 in 2007 to offset an operating deficit and is considering a similar grant this summer.

"We submitted an application in May and are very hopeful," said Jeffrey Nichols, executive director at the museum since April. "We do have a long way to go but things are trending in the right direction."

Officials at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving said they will decide on the funding soon.

"We'll make a decision as expeditiously as possible," said Chris Hall, the foundation's vice president for programming and special projects. "That would be within two months and hopefully within a month."

While many of the Twain House's financial woes are self-inflicted, including not having funding in place when it plunged ahead and built a $19 million, 33,000-square-foot visitors' center, which opened in 2003 near the historic house, some of its woes are a sign of the times.

"Part of it is generic and the kind of problems everyone is having and part of it shouldn't be a revelation," said Ken Kahn, executive director of the Greater Hartford Arts Council. "We have been talking with them about this for some time and urging them to take corrective action, which they are trying to do."

The museum addition, designed by architect Robert A.M. Stern, has attracted more visitors, including 12,000 school groups a year and 68,000 visitors from all over the world, but it has also created cash flow problems.

It still owes $5 million on the expansion, even after the state gave the museum $3.5 million and Webster Bank restructured its loan. As operating costs soared (energy costs alone have more than doubled since the visitors' center opened) the museum found itself short on cash.

The recent donations give the museum a temporary respite and offers to help the museum manage its physical plant have also been made. United Technologies has consulting services to help the museum figure out more efficient ways to heat and cool its buildings. General Electric and Northeast Utilities will help the museum replace its existing lightbulbs with energy-saving bulbs that will save money long term.

The struggles are aggravated by its debt burden, but the museum is not alone in some of the challenges it faces.

"This is something we see across the board for the nonprofit sector," Hall said. "There are rising costs with health care and with energy and yet there are not rising sources of revenue to fund those costs. It's a tough environment."

Energy costs influenced the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art last fall to nix its plan to expand into the old Hartford Times building. Critics questioned the withdrawal, but museum officials insisted it was the only financially prudent course.

The spike in the price of oil that has sent homeowners' heating bills climbing has also hit museums and other arts organizations. Add in the rising cost of gasoline and shrinking family entertainment budgets, and arts organizations are feeling the squeeze.

"This is a concern for any business," said Katherine Kane, the executive director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, which neighbors the Twain House. "This year with the energy impact you worry about the rolling effect. We don't know about the impact it's going to have on visitors."

Any chance of additional help from the state was eliminated when the so-called "do-nothing" budget was passed, dashing hopes for increased state funding for the arts. And corporations, some caught in the same economic vice as the organizations they have helped fund, are not always willing to donate money for day-to-day expenses.

They typically want to donate to programming or expansion projects that carry naming opportunities.

"Raising operation money has always been difficult but it's getting worse," Kane said. "They want to donate toward a program rather than the nuts and bolts that keep the doors open."

Kane said arts organizations need to focus on their mission and attempt to reach the community in different ways.

At the Stowe Center, lectures about the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and other topics have been curtailed in favor of discussion, a simple,yet popular, change. Kane also said organizations need to start working together. The Stowe Center has collaborated with the Twain House on school programs and is exploring other ways where cooperation might be beneficial. The Hartford Stage and the Wadsworth engaged in a successful collaboration to honor former Wadsworth director Everett "Chick" Austin.

"It makes sense to partner when our programs and missions overlap," Nichols said. "We all have limited budgets and we all face challenges."

More than anything, the economic climate can cause organizations to make short-term decisions at the expense of long-term growth.

The Twain House, which has reduced its staff from 50 to 17, has no marketing or development director to help it attract visitors. Nichols said reduction in staff was necessary but the cuts have gone too far. Hall said other organizations might be tempted to chase after grants that don't precisely fit their mission, a move that eats funding and ultimately creates a drag on the organization.

"There is no quick fix," Hall said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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