Me and Lady Mary

A few weeks ago, I joined a friend to see an eagerly anticipated movie–Downton Abbey. It was exactly what I thought it would be–a soapy drama with fabulous clothes and British accents. But there was this one moment that caught me totally off guard, and it had me stifling back sobs and wanting to cheer at the same time. If you run a museum, you may know what scene I’m talking about.

It’s right before the King and Queen’s visit, and Anna is Lady Mary’s room helping her get dressed. Here’s my rough memory of the conversation:

Lady Mary: “Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth carrying on.”

Anna: “You mean Downton Abbey?”

Lady Mary: “Yes. When I was out in the rain moving chairs. And then planning this party. And worrying about the roof. Is this how I want to spend my life? It’s just all so difficult.”

Anna: “But Downton is the heart of the community. We’d be lost without you.”

Sound familiar, fellow museum people?

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It had been a rough weekend. Earlier in the month, we had made the decision to close one of our signature houses, the Blum House, due to ongoing deferred maintenance issues. It had been at the top of our priority list for years, but our fundraising efforts just weren’t going anywhere. With it’s fancy metal-shingle roof and elaborate gingerbread, the costs were staggering. It wasn’t an easy decision, but we also needed to bring attention to the immense deferred maintenance needs both at DHV, as well as at all city-owned cultural facilities. We believe in transparency, so after the board voted, we sent out the announcement in a very systematic way: first to staff, then the full board and city partners, then e-newsletter subscribers, and then social media. All of those groups responded the way we anticipated–sadness and concern. Except social media. We were getting a beating. Some very vocal folks couldn’t believe the estimate we put out there–$650,000. Some blamed us for not taking care of this city-owned structure, but didn’t really fault the city. Others thought we shouldn’t be asking for help, since their tax dollars already took care of everything. I could go on. It was a very long weekend.

Blum

So it was under that weight that I went to see Downton Abbey. It was a relief to turn off my phone for a few hours and not think about roofs and rotting wood. But then Mary started talking about roofs and the enormous task of keeping a place like Downton functioning, and it came flooding back. Suddenly, I understood Mary in a very different way. Perhaps we’re more alike than I realized, though I have yet to find any sort of wealthy suitor, much less husband.

Of course, throughout all of the online drama about the Blum House, things were happening behind the scenes. There were those that spoke up in our defense. There were two reporters that reached out to us to get the full story. Their articles are here and here. I spent over an hour on the phone with one reporter, and the result was an article with the headline: DHV Executive Director: “Maintenance is not Sexy.” Always fun to see something I’ve been casually saying for years in a headline! A few old friends reached out and asked how they could help. We’re getting to know a few new friends. Meetings and conversations are happening, not just about restoring the Blum House but how to get more support to DHV.

As Lady Mary also knows so well, old buildings are expensive to maintain. They were built and established when ways of funding them were far different. After all, the entire show is about how to adapt the business model in rapidly changing times to keep the estate going. And you can say the same about my museum career.

Yep, Mary, it’s exhausting and often thankless work. But in the end, it’s worth it. Most days.

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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.