August 1, 2012

Why pick on Cowtown?

Old Cowtown Museum staff and supporters have cause to question why the city singled out the attraction for a large funding cut.

Old Cowtown Museum staff and supporters have cause to question why the city singled out the attraction for a large funding cut.

Why is the city throwing Cowtown under the stagecoach?

Of the city’s five major cultural sites – which also include the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, the Wichita Art Museum, the Mid-America All-Indian Center and Botanica – Cowtown is the only one facing a funding cut. And the amount of the cut is a whopping $100,000, or nearly 15 percent of Cowtown’s budget.

The city says it has had a goal for Cowtown to cover 50 percent of its operating costs. But it’s unclear why the City Manager’s Office suddenly decided that Cowtown needed to be at that 50 percent level in the next budget.

Last year, Cowtown had a $748,000 budget and earned $261,000 in ticket sales. John D’Angelo, director of the city’s Arts and Culture Department, determined that Cowtown could not reach the 50 percent level through increased attendance and grants; it also would require a large funding cut.

What’s proposed is reducing staffing at Cowtown from seven full-time and six part-time positions to six full-time and four part-time employees. Included in that cut is holding open the curator position.

What’s frustrating to Cowtown supporters is that the museum has been making encouraging progress.

In 2006, the museum faced a large budget shortfall and went through a painful reorganization that included firing its director, laying off staff and reducing its operating schedule. The city took over ownership of the museum from a nonprofit board, and Sedgwick County pulled about $500,000 in financial support.

Since then, museum attendance has been growing between 3 and 5 percent a year – which is pretty good during a down economy. It also has worked to expand its entertainment options.

The city is facing its own budget problems that will require some difficult choices. But the 50 percent goal seems arbitrary, as does the decision that it has to be met next year.

City Manager Robert Layton acknowledged that the Cowtown cut seems unfair.

“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.”

But it sure looks that way.

Cowtown backers hope the city will reconsider its proposed cut and at least phase in the 50 percent mandate over a few more years. In the meantime, the best way for the public to support Cowtown and other area attractions (including Sedgwick County Zoo and Exploration Place, which are facing large funding cuts by the county) is to visit them.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee

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