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Government Cutbacks and Implications for Museums

The headlines this spring and summer have been full of references to federal and state budget discussions, usually revolving around cuts in funding.  The Texas Legislature just finished its work, and the implications of their budget cuts will soon be rippling throughout city and county governments.  In the culture and arts world, we always watch these events with interest, because they inevitably affect our operations.  What starts out as a cut at the state level trickles down to city and county governments, affecting their ability to pay for basic services.  When city and county leaders have to make choices on where to cut, museums, libraries and parks are always first in line.


For history museums, especially house museums, cuts in public funding are especially difficult to absorb.  Many local sites were originally set up as publicly owned and supported operations.  Unless someone famous was associated with a site, they are important primarily to local citizens, and unlikely to attract many tourists.  When, as has happened in some states, they are either turned loose of public funding or severely cut back, the local community is generally ill prepared to take on the full responsibility for funding operations.  Historic properties by nature are expensive to maintain, and many local communities are just not capable of raising the thousands of dollars annually that is needed to sustain even a small museum operation.


North Carolina perhaps provides a preview of what we might see in Texas.  Following are some quotes from an on-line account (italics mine): 

“The state budget now before Gov. Bev Perdue would force staffing cuts at some state historic sites and museums, likely resulting in shorter hours, reduced programming and increased reliance on donations and admission fees.  No historic sites or museums would close immediately as a result of cuts proposed in the 2011-2012 budget. But the budget lays out additional cuts at several sites in the coming years as well, and says several sites would receive no state funding at all starting in two to three years.”

“Given time, Crow said, many state historic sites might be able to raise more money from their donors, but most would never be able to support themselves, even if they charged admission.  “We have strong public-private partnerships in many places,” Crow said. “But you can’t do that across the board. Many of these sites are in small, remote, rural counties, and while they may have a very enthusiastic support group, they’re not in a position to raise thousands and thousands of dollars. “

(For the full story, link to:

The same story could be written in almost any other state.  In this day and age of reduced public resources, the long-term trend will be less public funding for our museums, and more reliance on private support. 

This will certainly be true in Dallas, where most of the city’s museums are based in city-owned facilities and were set up with substantial city support.  The past decade has seen repeated cuts in culture and arts funding, and last year’s projected 55% cut in city funding was only narrowly averted by a last minute agreement to raise Dallas property taxes.   

This year there will be no such reprieve.  Current indications are that we can all expect to see 25% cuts in funding for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, making the support of our friends and community just that much more important.  Stay tuned to future blog posts on this subject, as we will continue to track trends that will mean continued difficult times for cultural organizations.


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