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Holland Museum makes cuts, faces closure

Failed millage proposal leaves the facility’s future uncertain.

December 12, 2014
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HOLLAND MUSEUM
Holland Museum already has cut days and hours of operation in an effort to stretch funding. Photo by Rachel Weick

To keep the Holland Museum’s doors from closing permanently, the organization is hoping to gain community support as it enters a restructuring phase.

The Holland Historical Trust, the nonprofit organization operating the Holland Museum located in the heart of the downtown area, 31 W. 10th St., proposed an all-or-nothing 0.2 millage on the Nov. 4 ballot for the city of Holland, Holland Charter and Park townships to generate funds supporting daily operations. Due to only passing in two of the three communities, the museum has about three to six months to find alternative financial support or it will be forced to close.

Chris Shires, executive director at the Holland Museum, said the organization relies almost exclusively on external funding and philanthropic donations, so now a solution has to be found or the museum will shut down.

“Most museums receive funding through cities, governments, or an endowment. We don’t have an endowment, we don’t have that steady support,” said Shires. “We have been doing this for a number of years — trying to find the solution here — and it’s not fair to the community. Now is the time we have to figure out what the future of the museum is going to be and move forward with that.”

Following the millage failure, the museum already has had to make changes to maintain its operations, including laying off key staff, reducing hours for full-time personnel, and limiting operating days and hours.

“We have had to make some really drastic cuts, amounting to a little more than a 30 percent cut to our operating budget, and that has been both through staffing and hours. It is just trying to be lean in a time that we need to restructure and plan,” said Shires. “We have shut down two additional days a week and are shaving two hours a day from the days we are open.”

Since the museum’s collection of more than 30,000 pieces requires a level of continued care, Shires said the only place to cut was with staff and hours in order to maintain proper humidity and temperature for the objects and art.

“Our hope is we are able to reach out to our community for bridge funding to get us through a restructuring and planning phase at this reduced level,” said Shires. “It would be about a years’ worth of support to get us through this planning.”

If the Holland Museum is able to gain financial support, the long-term plan is to restructure the organization, looking at how services are delivered and the different ways to deliver those services. Based on both external and internal feedback, including insight from organizations throughout the community, Shires said the goal is to focus on education for both the young and life-long learners.

“A lot of museums, and us included, serve a life as a collecting organization. We wanted to make that shift from being about stuff to being about people and education, and our commitment to the community,” said Shires. “I think it will drastically and dramatically change what the museum looks like over this planning process.”

Despite the immediate financial urgency, Shires said the museum does not have problems with building infrastructure or deferred maintenance, and does not carry any debt.

“We were recently re-accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, which is more or less a stamp of approval that you are following best practices in the field, and we maintain and care for our collections,” said Shires.

“When a museum closes, often there is a lot of debt … we don’t have that. It’s really, in some ways, an odd scenario where behind the scenes we are in very good shape; it just comes to finding money to operate that is a real struggle for us.”

The regional millage proposed on the Nov. 4 ballot would have generated roughly $600,000, which is slightly less than its roughly $700,000 operating budget, to support the museum as it undergoes a restructuring, planning and reshaping phase.

The Holland Museum had gained unanimous support from the different government boards in 2013 to add the proposal to the ballot earlier this year, and they pooled resources amounting to roughly $400,000 in bridge funding to help sustain the organization until the vote. The bridge funding included $250,000 from the city of Holland, $100,000 from Holland Charter Township and $50,000 from Park Township.

“We felt pretty confident with the millage; there was no sense that we would necessarily fail at the polls. It had to be an all-or-nothing proposal, and that was some of the requirements (from) the townships to place it on the ballot,” said Shires. “They didn’t want to be the stand-alone township or organization that was supporting the museum if the other one wasn’t.”

The proposed millage developed after several years of struggling to find a steady, central source of funding for the museum after the economic downturn, shifting demographics and population, and a flood in the city that impacted some of the collections, according to Shires. The city of Holland, a historically strong supporter of the organization, cut its funding in the 2013 fiscal year from $235,000 to $117,000, and then reduced the amount again for the 2014 fiscal year to $89,000.

“So the funding was cut and we needed to find a solution to that steady source of support. A group was formed to study it and eventually raised some funds for bridge support, which was about two years of private funding amounting to $500,000,” said Shires. “It was used over the course of two years to help replace some of the funds that had been withdrawn from the city.”

The city’s proposed 2015 fiscal year budget indicated other private contributions to the Holland Historical Trust Fund reached roughly $300,000 in 2012, more than $690,000 in 2013 and approximately $504,000 in 2014.

“It’s a frustrating situation because, again, there are things the museum has to do to change and we know that. We need to be more relevant to our community,” said Shires. “We failed in Holland Charter Township, and to me … folks in that community clearly don’t see themselves in our museum, as part of our museum. We need to increase that; we need to increase our education; we need to increase our outreach exhibits.”

If the Holland Museum were forced to close, Shires said the impact would be huge and could potentially mean an expensive process to work with the Attorney General to find the best solution for the collection. Items on loan would be returned to their owners, but objects given in public trust don’t always stay in the community due to the level of care needed.

Despite the less than rosy picture for the future, Shires said there is hope the community will help sustain the organization.

“It is more than just exhibit displays and old things. Each one of our objects has a story and each one of those stories tells something about our community,” said Shires. “If things don’t happen, the museum is going to move toward a period where it is going to be shutting down, but we also have a lot of hope and a lot of fire in our belly. We are fighting for this. We are fighting for this museum and we are fighting for a solution.”

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