A short lesson on bonds

Usually, bond packages aren’t the spark of lively internet conversations. But a few things on the proposed November bond package (namely Fair Park) are causing quite a stir. Without weighing in too heavily on one side or the other of the Great Fair Park Debate (I feel like I’ve done that here and here), I thought I’d tell you a story about one very tiny, like 0.0002 per cent, piece of the puzzle.

Dallas Heritage Village has been in a management agreement with the City of Dallas for over 40 years. The Park Department owns the land (we were the very first city park) and takes care of basic grounds care and trash. The Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) owns all of our buildings and provides modest operating support, to the tune of about 20% of our annual operating expenses. They also pay all of our utilities.

In return, the Dallas County Heritage Society (or DCHS–our legal name) interprets the buildings and provides educational programming. We also must raise, through a variety of means, the rest of our operational expenses. Our budget hovers around $1 million annually. We are not City of Dallas employees, but employees of DCHS. The museum is governed by a Board of Trustees, and they’re the ones that hired me as Executive Director.

One challenge that has been growing over the years is deferred maintenance. If you’ve been to DHV, you know that some of our buildings are in much better shape than others. Though the city does provide funds for maintenance, it’s only about $50,000 annually. For over 30 historic structures. That bear the wear and tear of 20,000 school kids annually, plus all of our other visitors. These funds essentially cover emergency repairs to plumbing and HVAC, porch repair, pest control, and maybe one or two larger projects annually. Quite simply, it is not enough.

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The building currently keeping me up at nights–price tag for full restoration? $650,000.

OCA has been chronically underfunded for years. It was the last line item in the City’s budget to be restored to pre-recession levels–and yet, before the recession the Arts District wasn’t complete. Therefore, the same amount of money is being spread among more organizations. And meanwhile, the deferred maintenance bill grows–not just at our organization, but at city owned cultural facilities everywhere.

According to our management agreement, it is the city’s responsibility to maintain and care for their buildings. A promise was made when all these buildings were moved to DHV that the City would care for them, so endowment funds weren’t raised. For years now, we’ve actively raised funds so that we can tackle some of the big projects–to make sure none of these historic buildings are lost after being saved all those years ago. In fact, over the last 5 years, we’ve spent over $700,000 on various deferred maintenance projects. Of those funds, only $164,500, or 24%, are City of Dallas funds.  Sometimes I wonder what we might be able to accomplish as an organization if we didn’t have to devote so many resources (both time and money) to caring for these city-owned buildings.

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This roof had massive hail damage in 2009. In 2015, the city paid for its repair (along with two other roofs damaged in that storm.) Why did it take so long? In cost-saving measures, the city essentially self-insures their buildings. And since we don’t own them, we can insure them ourselves. In the meantime, the leaking roof caused major plaster and ceiling damage. $20,000 later (money we raised), this building is about to reopen as The Parlor, a preschool play space.

Which brings us to the 2017 Bond Package, currently up for debate. In that proposal, we have a line item for $200,000–to primarily go towards roof repair. Roofs and foundations always have to be fixed first or else you’re just going to have to redo repairs again. This rather modest amount represents a huge leap forward for our deferred maintenance list.

Throughout the city, there are many management agreements. It’s important to remember that no matter who is the manager, the city remains the owner. This bond package is an important step forward in making up for years of neglect. Frankly, I know exactly how I’ll be voting in November. And I’m really looking forward to heading to the polls.

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Partly Cloudy: Museum Success Stories

The black clouds are all around us, and sometimes it seems that the history museum world is doomed. Historic house museums are dying. Major debt looms. Buildings are crumbling. Audiences are aging. Staff are running away as fast as they can. Government support is yanked. And here I sit, just over 2 years into leading a history museum. While there are plenty of days where my outlook is partly cloudy, I also know that we need to make some significant changes to ensure we make it another 50 years. There are days when that seems absolutely daunting.

After reading article after article on history museums in peril, it was positively delightful to run across two separate articles of success stories–history museums that seem to changed their course for the better.

I’ve been following the Atlanta History Center for quite some time. They’ve been doing some interesting things programming-wise, and during my educator days, that was what I cared about. A few years ago, my former boss Gary happened to sit next to AHC’s brand new director at a conference.  I remember Gary saying “It’s the strangest thing–they’ve made a board member ED.  That never turns out well.”  A few years later, Gary was heading to Atlanta to check them out as a possible model for his big Summerlee report.  This article, “How the Atlanta History Museum is Changing the Future” talks about some of the changes, as well as some very extraordinary fundraising (which is what I care about now.) I’m thinking I need to visit Atlanta.

I first visited The Mount about 10 years ago. I have a thing for literary historic sites, so Edith Wharton’s home was a must-see when I was in the area.  I remember being intrigued that they were doing an interior designer showcase (a lot of people don’t know that Wharton also published on interior design and landscape design). I also remember taking an illegal photo out of her bedroom window.  Wharton did almost all of her writing in bed, so I felt like it was important to capture that amazing view.  Of course, photos were illegal in the home.

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Not a bad view, right?

But I’m thinking that if I visited today, I might be able to get away with a few more photos. Shortly after this, a lot of the major historic house museums were faltering. The Mark Twain House in Connecticut was facing bankruptcy. The Mount had gone into major debt to acquire Wharton’s personal library. A lot of people were beginning to wonder: if famous people’s homes can’t be sustainable, what hope does the small not-at-all famous historic house museum have? This Q&A with ED Susan Wissler is a fascinating look at what it took to turn her organization around–and pay off a pretty massive debt.

Both of these stories have a few common themes. AHC relaxed some of their rules, started asking visitors questions, and began to have a bit of fun with history. I adored this quote from ED Sheffield Hale: “You know, history’s gossip just dressed up, if you think about it. I mean, it’s just what happens to people and it’s inherently interesting. It’s unexpected because people do the darnedest things, right? You can’t make it up. It’s there. Let’s just go find it.”  At The Mount, they took down the velvet ropes.  They’re reaching out to the community–half of their visitors come from their home county. They expanded programming options–and started having fun with history. One great quote from Wissler: “One of our greatest strengths as an organization has been the ability to quickly evaluate what is in front of us and make decisions in the moment. I don’t mean to suggest that a strategic plan is not a valuable planning tool, but having the dexterity to course-correct in real time is critical to a small institution. This agility is what allowed us to pivot past obstacles and, if necessary, reverse course and redirect resources with minimal internal disruption or loss of opportunity.” I feel much better about our own two page strategic plan now!

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A legal photo of The Mount

Those of you that know me know these are things I passionately believe in–community involvement, creative programming, and accessibility. Though we have a long way to go to completely right the financial ship at DHV, these stories make me feel a bit better about the direction we’re heading.  My gut instinct has been that if we make some of these internal changes (like focusing more closely on the visitor experience), the money will follow.  And these stories show that it can indeed follow. Perhaps the sun is beginning to break through the clouds.