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Hard Times At Twain's House

One of Hartford's international landmarks struggles to remain fully funded and relevant

By Adam Bulger

May 08, 2008

I was the only person on my tour group at the Mark Twain House on a recent rainy Tuesday afternoon. My guide, who described herself and fellow employees as "Twainiacs," said a school trip scheduled for the day had cancelled. Still, the international draw of the house was evident; as I wandered the visitor's center, waiting for my scheduled tour to begin, I overheard visitors speaking in German and other languages.

I had taken the tour before, so the dimly lit opulence inside the house didn't surprise me. Maybe it was the general dreariness of the day or the rumors I had heard about increasing financial troubles at the museum, but what struck me was the hubris on display.

Twain enjoyed great literary success in Hartford he wrote Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Prince and the Pauper and other required reading list classics while he lived in the house but it was also the site of some of his greatest failings.

Twain went broke in Hartford, and the record of ambitious failure is evident. The house, initially financed by his wealthy father-in-law, was loaded with then-cutting edge appliances and amenities, many of which never worked. Twain was an early adopter of emerging technologies, and stocked the house with central heating and an early version of the telephone, which, respectively, never worked at all and never worked satisfactorily. The frame of the bed in the master bedroom is an ornately designed carving Twain paid handsomely for; he learned that is was an overpriced copy.

My guide was effusive on how Twain, though unquestionably gifted as a writer, was a serially awful investor. He became a publisher, and released a memoir written by Pope Leo XIII that, according to one source, sold only about 200 copies; the publishing venture later went bankrupt. He sank hundreds of thousands real money in those days into a printing system that was a resounding failure.

Twain moved out of the house in 1891 and reconstructed some of his lost fortune through writing and lectures. The house was almost razed in the late '20s, but Katherine Seymour Day (Harriet Beecher Stowe's grandniece) and others purchased it for preservation.

It is hard to not read the state of the Mark Twain House Museum in the last decade against that history of cultural victories and monetary defeats.

There's a lot of loose gossip about the dire state of the Mark Twain House. But although it continues to face a difficult financial situation, its death may be greatly well, I think you can guess where I'm going with this.

In 2006, things looked dark for the Mark Twain House. The Hartford cultural institution opened an $18 million, state-of-the-art visitor's center in 2003, but its financing was not completely in place. By 2006, paying down the money loaned by Webster Bank seemed increasingly difficult. Then director Debra Petke fretted to the Hartford Courant that the museum was running out of cash, and had been "paralyzed as an institution."

The state stepped in, providing $3.5 million in bond money to help pay down the $11 million remaining on the debt from the construction. The Mark Twain House trimmed staff, leaving a marketing position vacant, and scaled back on revolving exhibitions.

The following year, Petke left the museum for a job at the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts in Old Lyme. Former deputy director Jeffrey Nichols became the third person to act as executive director of the museum in five years John Boyers, who helmed the institution for 16 years, left in 2003.

The organization sold its former administrative offices at 66 Flower St. and currently have a second building on the market. The Mark Twain House has continued to trim staff, while maintaining an impressive program of events, including a lecture series with an upcoming appearance by political satirist Andy Borowitz.

In recent conversation, Nichols said the museum was facing challenges, but he emphasized that the challenges are the same ones all arts and cultural non-profits are facing in the current economic climate.

"Like many other non-profits, it's been a challenging period for us. With the new buildings project in particular, it increased our expenses, and has been a challenge for the museum to manage," Nichols said. "With any new project, those are the kind of things that one would expect to have happen."

The museum is still paying off the loan. Nichols wouldn't say how much is left, just that it's manageable. Webster Bank representatives could not give any information on the loan because of federal privacy laws. However, other unforeseen factors are increasingly eating at the budget, such as the rising cost of energy.

"The largest cost that we have is a cost many other people can relate to, which is utilities," Nicholas said. "The costs have gone up over 200 percent in the last four years, Part of it is because of the expansion, part of it is also the rising cost of energy over the last five years."

Ken Kahn, Executive Director for the Greater Hartford Arts Council, said that money for local arts and cultural organizations has been slowing down. Hartford-area organizations have felt the crunch. Last year, the Wadsworth Atheneum of Art's operating deficit forced the museum to abandon their plans to expand into the old Hartford Times building. The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts laid off a number of staff in 2005.

"I think some companies have shifted their philanthropy from a local scope to a national or more international one," Kahn said. "Some grants have dried up on that count. Other companies are contracting, and so their grants and gifts to the not-for-profit world have contracted."

Funding for non-profits has changed recently. The increasing trend in corporate charitable giving is toward funding specific programs or features, and having a company's name prominently attached to it. The visitor's center at the Mark Twain House demonstrates this, with its Aetna gallery and the Hartford Financial Group Theater.

"Like many other non-profits, it's more difficult to fund-raise for general operating expenses," Nichols said.

Observers in the arts community voiced guarded optimism about the Twain House's future.

"I think they're short-staffed and are having real challenges," Kahn said. "I think they need to have a much more vigorous marketing effort on their part. Unfortunately, marketing suffers in tough times. It requires a lot of work and a lot of media placement in a very cluttered marketplace."

Katherine Kane, executive director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe House (located next to the Mark Twain House) said that the number of non-profits in the state have increased the competition for donations.

"There are more and more non-profits and we compete against each other and cooperate. There are many demands for people's money," Kane said.

Considering the increased competition for funding, Kane said it was incumbent upon arts and cultural institutions to plan carefully.

"Museums have to make very thoughtful and careful decisions about their future. No one has a crystal ball, unfortunately, so you're guessing," Kane said.

Bruce Fraser, executive director of the Connecticut Humanities Council, which directs state and federal money towards state heritage institutions, said the Twain House is feeling the effects of what he termed a "sea change" in the arts and culture world. Like heritage sites worldwide, the Twain House, Fraser said, is facing the same challenge of virtually all arts institutions; drawing people to historic sites in the modern world.

"A lot of our traditional cultural institutions are feeling the effects of this new electronic world people live in," Fraser said. "There are old ways of educating people and conveying knowledge that are really being challenged by the way people are using the Internet."

Adapting to the new landscape isn't just a matter of getting a Web site, Fraser said. He believes that institutions need to become more interactive and continue to engage their audiences. To help them, the Connecticut Humanities Council recently instituted a grant to help institutions reinvent themselves, in hopes of making the Internet a resource rather than a competitor.

"There is a growing sense that the connection between, for example, the Mark Twain House and schools, has to be complemented by some kind of online set of programs and resources," Fraser said. "The bridge between the classroom and the museum can't solely be a bus."

In order to increase, or just stabilize their attendance, Fraser said, organizations like the Mark Twain House need to adjust to what the market wants. For museums, the danger of catering to market demands is the possibility of losing track of the institution's mission.

"The tension that everybody is trying to maintain is how to invigorate their audience while still telling the stories they need to tell," Fraser said.

Will K. Wilkins, the executive director of Real Art Ways, stressed the importance of aid diversified programs is important for attracting and maintaining an audience.

"Just like you have to have diversified income, you have to have different reasons that people care about the place." Wilkins said.

Fraser views the Mark Twain House's expansion and recent programming as a step in the right direction.

"They have to expand the notion of what Twain is all about," Fraser said, adding that the museum is moving to encompassing all aspects of Twain, including history, literature and cultural preservation.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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