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Old State House May Close

Diane Weaver Dunne

June 08, 2009

The Old State House may close if state lawmakers approve Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s proposal to ax the operating budget for the 212-year-old historical landmark for the next two years.

In the governor’s most recent budget cuts, she wants to suspend the state’s financial support of the museum by eliminating a $600,000 appropriation in fiscal year 2010 and $608,400 in fiscal year 2011.

Since the state assumed financial responsibility for the building in 2007, nearly all — 95 percent — of the Old State House’s operating budget came from the state, said William Bevacqua, spokesman for Connecticut Public Affairs Network (CPAN), which was contracted by the state Office of Legislative Management to manage the Old State House and its museum programs.

The Old State House in downtown Hartford is considered a nonessential function of the state, explained Jeffrey R. Beckham, undersecretary for legislative affairs for the state Office of Policy and Management.

Beckham acknowledged that in the absence of state funding for the Old State House, “closure would be an option.” However, he also said that there are other options as well, such as fundraising.

In response to the proposed budget cuts, Bevacqua said that CPAN has adopted “a wait-and-see attitude” regarding the Old State House’s future.

“We have seen proposals come up like this before and there is no way to handicap what will become part of the budget,” he said. “We will pay attention to the special session with keen interest and we will be moving forward with our plans and we will build on the vision for the building that we have articulated.”

Additionally, CPAN had expected that the $600,000 cost to replace the roof and to paint and repair water damage caused by a leak would be bonded by the state. However, the bond allocation has been suspended, Bevacqua said.

Wrong Message

“That doesn’t mean it is a foregone conclusion that the state Office of Legislative Management won’t find a way to fund it,” he said.

But shuttering and not maintaining a national historic landmark sends the wrong message, said Carl Nold, president and CEO of Boston-based Historic New England and chair of Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Museums.

“Connecticut has preserved the Old State House for over 200 years for a reason, and those reasons still exist,” said Nold.

“But when an economic crisis is experienced, suddenly there is a sense that we don’t want to support museums because they aren’t providing an essential operating function in the state,” Nold said.

That assumption that historic structures are not essential is not true, and needs to be refuted, he said. Historic preservation provides educational enrichment to school children, creates jobs, generates economic activity for businesses nearby, and creates a unique sense of place that is attractive to investors and to businesses, particularly for worker recruitment, he added.

“Preserving a cultural centerpiece is really about economic vitality for a community as a whole,” Nold said.

But preservation is costly. Very few museums are able to sustain their operations on ticket sales, Nold explained. Revenue generated from endowments, support from a parent organization, fundraising and ticket sales typically generate the funds needed to operate a museum.

Notably, museums funded solely by the government — such as the Old State House — have a tougher job fundraising. “People don’t want to write checks to the museum supported by the government,” he said.

Visitors Counts Tank

In addition, visitor counts dropped significantly as the management of the Old State House transitioned from the Connecticut Historical Society to CPAN.

There were 33,229 visitors to the Old State House in 2007 when the Connecticut Historical Society managed the building and museum.

In contrast, between 5,000 and 7,000 people visited the Old State House over the past nine months as new museum programs were tested and developed. CPAN plans to have the Old State House museum fully operational on July 13.

The new programs include costumed historic interpreters, who will begin June 13, as a way to increase visitor interaction, Bevacqua said.

It won’t be the first time costumed interpreters led tours through the Old State House. They were part of the museum’s educational program developed under the direction of Wilson H. Faude, who headed the Old State House for 20 years.

Faude said that when people are faced with decisions of putting food on the table or visiting a historical society, food on the table will always win.

“Regrettably, it may be in this economy that they will have to moth ball the Old State House and not far behind, will be the Connecticut Science Center,” Faude said. “If indeed the nonprofits are being mothballed, it’s because the nonprofits haven’t proven that they are part of the solution. Why haven’t they talked about their economic impact, the services they deliver, the people they employ? Why don’t they say, ‘We are part of the answer.’ Instead, they are saying, ‘Woe is me. I don’t know. Oh dear.’”

The governor has also proposed slashing funding for the science center from $1.2 million to $237,500.

“None of the arts — here or in New York, or wherever — the cost of producing the arts and the cost of the ticket are never in sync. You always need support,” he said.

Support from the state was what the Connecticut Historical Society needed when it threatened to shutter the Old State House in 2007, following the installation of a nearly $4 million exhibit in the building’s basement.

At that time, Kate Steinway, executive director of the Connecticut Historical Society, which agreed to manage the Old State House in 2003, warned that if the state didn’t come to its rescue, visitors wouldn’t be able walk the halls of the Federal-style building where the Amistad slave ship trial began.

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