July 26, 2012

Wichita’s Old Cowtown Museum gets its funding cut in city budget

Times are tough, but the Wichita city manager’s proposed budget for next year still caught officials at Old Cowtown Museum by surprise: a $100,000 cut for the living-history museum.

Times are tough, but the Wichita city manager’s proposed budget for next year still caught officials at Old Cowtown Museum by surprise: a $100,000 cut for the living-history museum.

That represents just under 15 percent of the operating budget for a museum that has struggled with its finances for the past six years.

None of the city’s four other major cultural sites – the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, the Wichita Art Museum, the Mid-America All-Indian Center and Botanica – are scheduled to receive funding cuts.

“I was meeting last week with other museum directors, and they all asked, ‘Why are they singling out Cowtown?’ I don’t know,” said David Flask, the museum’s director.

“If times are tough, why aren’t all the museums taking a fair share of the cut? Why is it all coming from me?”

City Manager Bob Layton said the recommendation for Cowtown to receive less money initially came from John D’Angelo, director of the city’s Arts and Culture Department.

“John’s goal is to get Cowtown in a position where it supports itself,” Layton said. “What we are hoping is that they can find additional revenue to help make up the portion cut – such as through grants from foundations and other outside funding resources. We are hoping attendance will continue to increase through marketing.”

In the past six years, Cowtown has overcome financial problems and low attendance while redefining its mission – how it should educate and entertain its visitors while preserving frontier history and artifacts. The living history museum aims to give visitors a taste of what living in Wichita was like in the 1870s.

In 2006, the museum switched from being owned by a nonprofit board to being owned by the city. It also is shifting from a budget of $1.3 million to $748,000. Of that $748,000, the city provides $487,000.

Last year, Cowtown earned $261,000 through ticket sales, fundraising benefits, rentals, donations and other funding. City administrators want Cowtown to fund half of its operating budget, about $370,000.

The museum attracted 42,436 visitors in 2011, up 5 percent from 2010. Flask said the proposed budget cuts will mean fewer rotating display exhibits and fewer living history interpreters.

“This will have a huge impact,” he said. “We are one of the few institutions that have showed consistent growth, despite being cut. It is to the point any further cuts will reverse that growth and reverse the potential of income we can make.”

‘Cowtown is unique’

The city has roughly $3 million to spend on local arts and cultural groups. Of that, more than $2.6 million goes to fund the five major cultural sites with ties to the city: the Historical Museum, the Art Museum, the Indian Center, Botanica and Cowtown.

Other proposed budget cuts include taking an additional $128,554 – or about 4 percent – from the city’s overall cultural and arts funding.

The city’s cuts come as Sedgwick County also proposed cuts for some its attractions, including reducing funding to the Sedgwick County Zoo by about $256,000 and to Exploration Place by $112,405.

Layton said Cowtown was the only museum among the five major city museums considered for the cut.

“In hindsight, we probably should have looked harder at some across-the-board goals for all museums that receive city funding,” Layton said. “It wasn’t meant to pick on Cowtown or isolate them.”

Cowtown has a staff of seven people. Soon, there will be six. Before the budget cut was announced, curator Amy Loch resigned and is scheduled to leave within the next few weeks.

D’Angelo said he feels comfortable making the recommendation. By holding the curator’s position open for 2012 and part of 2013, reducing part-time help and anticipating future contributions, he thinks the museum can meet the goal of providing 50 percent of its own funding.

“There are some museums that get more subsidies from the city, and some that get significantly less,” D’Angelo said. “Cowtown is unique. It has always received additional funding.

“Obviously, there is a desire to get them to 50 percent subsidy. The only way I can do that is reduce the funding; it is the only way the math works.”

City Council member Janet Miller, whose district includes Cowtown, said the funding cut was in keeping with the agreement Cowtown’s board made when the city took control in 2006.

“I am sure it will pose a challenge,” Miller said. “But when the city agreed to take responsibility for that entity, it did so with the understanding that it would work with staff and volunteers to help get it back on its feet and transition to a more self-sustaining or self-supporting organization.

“This is a step in that direction.”

Before 2006, Cowtown usually received $300,000 in funding from the city and $500,000 from Sedgwick County. When Wichita took control of Cowtown, the county stopped its funding.

Sharon Fearey, who served on the City Council when the city took over the operations of Cowtown, said she thinks the proposed cut is too harsh.

“I would say over the last year, Cowtown has brought more national publicity to Wichita than any other museum,” Fearey said. “I am not saying I would put it above the others, but there has to be some policy decisions made here about how we make our museums strong and take any personal decisions about them out of it.”

There also is some concern the budget cuts may affect the museum’s accreditation. Cowtown is scheduled for re-accreditation in 2015.

Dave Crockett, Cowtown’s board president, said he understands the city is facing some difficult choices.

“Everybody is reconciled to deferring things and tightening belts,” Crockett said. “But we are disappointed that Cowtown was singled out for the sacrifice at a substantially higher level than virtually any other facilities in our division. Nobody else shared the burden.

“We will move forward the best we can. … I don’t think it is an immediate accreditation threat, but it does take the wind out of our sails.”

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