Historical society seeks public aid
October 9, 2005
The Aspen Historical Society is asking for public funding this fall in the form of a property tax that could help the nonprofit get back on its feet after years of financial difficulties.Specifically, Referendum 5D asks voters to approve creation of a special taxing district, called a Historic Park and Recreation District (see related story), that would collect property tax from homeowners following the same district boundaries as those of the Aspen School District. Referendum 5E asks residents of that district to then approve a mill levy of .30 mills – that’s $2.38 for each $100,000 of market value on a home in the district.”It’s a cup of cafe latte per $100,000,” said Georgia Hanson, executive director of the Aspen Historical Society.The money is expected to raise $487,489 for the nonprofit in 2007 – in the meantime, the society hopes to get a bridge loan from either a government entity or a bank to see it through 2006.The money will go toward the historical society’s basic operational expenses, not capital projects, Hanson said. There are a number of hidden costs behind the Aspen Historical Society, she said, including cataloguing artifacts and items for the archives such as newspapers and photos, and keeping up high museum standards.The society also has five properties it takes care of – the Wheeler/Stallard Museum & Grounds, Ashcroft and Independence ghost towns, the Holden/Marolt Mining & Ranching Museum and Lift One/Willoughby Park – all of which need employees to maintain basic operations.Hanson said plenty of voters have asked her why the Historical Society isn’t just raising funds more aggressively, and she has a few explanations. First, extensive fund raising requires many more resources than the society now has as it is operating on a small budget. She does plan on pursuing more fund raising once public funding is in place, which will “allow us to move ahead with essential plans and programs instead of spending all of our energy on crisis management just to keep the doors open,” she wrote in an election question-and-answer document.
Hanson also said fund raising for operational costs is difficult. “Most people are excited to give money for a special project, but almost no one wants to give you money for operations,” she said. “They want a specific exhibit that can be named after them – they want to see their money going somewhere other than for the person who is answering the phone.”Hanson’s ultimate goal is to follow the stable financial model for museums in this country, as the American Association of Museums determines, with one third of income coming from each of three sources: contributed donations, earned income and public funding.Although the nonprofit’s 2006-07 financial plan states that 64.4 percent of its income would come directly from the special district tax, 10 years later the group hopes that earned income and fund raising and grants will have grown to where the special district tax income accounts for just 33 percent of the society’s annual income.Another harsh reality for the Historical Society is the lack of earned income because of the small population in the community.”The only museums in this country that make lots of money are the ones that may not qualify as museums, like aquariums and other Disneyland-kind of places,” she said. “We charge $6, and our cost per visitor is actually $30, but we’ve got five sites.”It’s not unusual for museums to have a discrepancy like that, which is why there’s a subsidy for most museums in the country. Unfortunately, Hanson thinks the Aspen Historical Society should have sought public funds more than a decade ago to help shore up its growing costs.How the AHS got to this pointIncreasing costs are something that all museums face over time, Hanson said in the process of explaining how the Aspen Historical Society got into this financial predicament. Museums are often started by “little old ladies collecting things and showing people their treasures,” she said.
The Aspen Historical Society was no different, eventually displaying collected pieces of history in Aspen’s City Hall and then a corner of the Wheeler Opera House. But eventually museums begin to more professionally track their collections and archive documents, and they need space to keep all of their artifacts.”I believe that our growing spurts evolved exactly as you would predict with any museum, but at some point, the dedicated people running the museum probably could have rethought the funding and looked for public funds, long before this juncture,” Hanson said. “But that didn’t happen, so with their burgeoning budget they continued to add staff and sites and try to get full funding from fund raising.”They weren’t successful, for many of the reasons Hanson listed about the challenges of fund raising full time while trying to run a tight ship. “You’re a victim of your own success,” she said. “I firmly believe that the missing link for at least a decade has been public funding to help. “In my search for solutions to try to help this place, that was the single thing that kept jumping out.”But aside from this natural growth pattern all museums experience, the local historical society experienced a series of decisions in the 1990s that further exacerbated its economic struggles. In 1993, the then-board of directors decided to look into building a ski museum at the Lift One site, at the base of Aspen Mountain on the north side of town. At the same time, resident Ruth Whyte donated her home in the West End to the historical society on the condition that it be sold and the money spent renovating the Wheeler/Stallard house and grounds.Hanson said the museum closed for two years for a $1.2 million renovation, and the board decided to update the facility with a new, text-heavy exhibit that modernized the inside of the house, rather than restoring its Victorian qualities.In 1999 a new board of directors and a new executive director for the society more aggressively pursued plans for the new museum at the Lift One site and tried to raise money for what they referred to as a “cutting-edge” and “world-class museum.”One more executive director later, Hanson said, the society began overspending and operating in the red. Unfortunately, many members of the community didn’t support the plans for the new museum, and the historical society began losing members while expenses continued to go up.
“There was a group who advocated for this big, new museum, who swooped in and tried to carry the community with them,” Hanson said. “But when they turned around, no one was there.”Because it backed an unpopular project and hired two executive directors with no ties to the community, the society’s board of directors in the late 1990s and early 2000s alienated a large contingent of the Aspen Historical Society’s supporters. By 2002, after burning through those two executive directors in three years, an interim director was back at the helm of the nonprofit. Hanson joined the society soon after, promptly cutting the society’s budget, from more than $500,000 to $300,000, by not replacing staff members who had left the organization, and retaining a skeleton crew. Hanson also helped recruit a new board of directors interested in getting the nonprofit back on its feet, and back in the good graces of the community. In October of 2004 the board sought public funding for one year from Pitkin County and the city of Aspen.”The handwriting was on the wall that we were just not going to survive unless we found a different way,” she said. “The county and city stepped up with an emergency funding packet [a total of $273,000] with the condition that we spend that year finding a permanent solution.”The proposed special taxing district is that solution. Of the $200,000 given to the nonprofit from the county, $60,000 was a loan that the society will repay eventually .”I have great hope, and I am really heartened by the feeling I get that this community really cares, and [the Aspen Historical Society] is a precious commodity,” Hanson said. “That’s why I call it essential – special districts are for essential services. And I don’t think the math works without the public element.”If the ballot measures do not pass on Nov. 1, Hanson said, the historical society may revert to being run strictly by volunteers, and as a result, a number of local amenities such as the Wheeler/Stallard Museum and the Holden/Marolt Museum with either have severely reduced hours of operation or be closed entirely. Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org