After layoffs, museum forges onBy Susan Bush
12:00AM / Thursday, December 09, 2004
BENNINGTON, Vt. — Officials of the Bennington Museum cut the museum's full-time workforce by 20 percent last week through a layoff that cost three employees their jobs.
The move eliminated an assistant museum gift shop manager, a maintenance worker and a marketing and public relations coordinator, said Executive Director Richard C. Borges during a Friday interview in which he stressed that museum activities will remain intact and no further layoffs are planned.
Borges said the move reduced the full-time staff from 15 to 12. The museum now employs a total of about 27 full- and part-time workers. About 200 people volunteer at the site as well, Borges said.
The remaining staff will tackle the responsibilities of the laid-off workers, Borges said. He said museum officials cut the three jobs out of financial necessity.
"This is not a catastrophic kind of cut, but it is one we would rather not have made," he said.
The local landmark has shown a $200,000 deficit for the past two years, and Borges said attendance has been at the lower end of the yearly average of 40,000 to 50,000 visitors. In 2003, the museum hosted about 42,000 guests.
"And this year, it looks like it will be about the same, which I take as a good sign," Borges said.
He emphasized that he believes tourism is on the rebound nationally, and that locally, the town seems poised for an economic upturn. But a positive future could not conquer financial woes of the recent past, he said.
Museums nationwide have faced financial stress since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the U.S. Pentagon, Borges said. A tourism decline that followed the attacks contributed to revenue loss.
"It's common knowledge that across the country, cultural institutions and museums are experiencing financial challenges," Borges said. "Of the museums, 93 percent are facing financial challenges, and of those, 43 percent are facing serious difficulties. We are taking action now to avoid becoming part of that 43 percent."
Strategies go beyond job cuts, according to Borges, who was in attendance during Sunday's Festival of Trees "Sugar Plum Day" children's event at the museum.
The festival is scheduled to end today [Dec. 9] with a gala event and a silent auction, with proceeds benefiting the museum. Borges said he is always surprised by the number of local people who admit to having never visited the museum, adding that events such as the festival should appeal to local residents.
"Every square inch is covered with holiday decorations, and it's really beautiful," he said. "For our part, we are working to attract local visitors. There are a number of things that we plan to implement."
The institution's genealogical library remains a top attraction, and access is available through the Internet. The popular Grandma Moses Schoolhouse, the actual schoolroom attended by the famed artist, is destined to become a children's center, Borges said.
"This is our next big project. This will become a children's center themed around Grandma Moses," he said.
He noted that during a November forum focusing on community input, "It kept popping up that we need to do more for children."
He said museum officials are determined to erase a "dusty" museum image, and three forums are planned for early 2005. The first is expected to target area educators, the second is planned as a discussion with business/civic leaders, and the third will be dedicated to the general public, he said. Forum dates are not yet scheduled.
"The community has ideas and we are listening," he said.
A capital campaign targeting the museum's endowment fund will begin sometime within the next two years, Borges said. A financial goal has not been set, and planning is in the early stages. The endowment fund is at about $3 million, sparse compared to many museums, Borges said. Fund revenues are generated primarily through donations and bequests.
Gallery spaces are already undergoing changes. A "Regional Artist Gallery" that hosts six-week exhibits of selected artists’ works was introduced, and diverse artist mediums will be showcased during exhibits.
"We believed this gallery was a wonderful opportunity to support our area artists," Borges said. "There will be very different things in here."
Plans include a change for the museum's original one-room site, he said. The structure once served as a Catholic church and has remained much the same since the museum opened in 1928.
"It's had its run, and now we can think about other uses," Borges said. "I'm hoping to see the space open for traveling exhibits."
The "Military Exhibit Room" re-opened earlier this fall after a three-month hiatus. The room's lighting and painted walls were updated, and informational writing was improved through larger text and additional changes. Computer kiosks were installed at the museum entrance and in the "Pressed Glass Gallery." The gallery was redesigned to better display glass collections, including 252 goblets. An on-going museum inventory has led to a pleasant discovery, Borges said.
"We are discovering items we didn't know we had," he said. "We believed that we had about 40,000 objects, and it appears that we may be closer to 80,000."
Attendance at the "sugar plum" event appeared encouraging. Families arrived at the museum prior to the 1 p.m. opening and by 1:45 a long line of children waited for admission to children's activities, including a climbing wall, hands-on puppet shows and a visit with "sugar plum fairy," Lauren Chapman, 15, of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and Santa Claus, who bore a notable resemblance to museum curator Michael Chapman.
"These events are very important to us," Borges said. "And the museum is very important to the region."
Additional events scheduled for December include a Dec. 11 holiday candle-making project. A full schedule of events, including costs, is available at the museum or by calling 802-447-1571. Museum information, including hours of operation and admission fees: www.benningtonmuseum.org.