City Life Museums cuts long link with Baltimore

January 20, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Seeking an entrepreneurial approach for the 1990s, one of Baltimore's premier cultural institutions has severed a 62-year-old tie with the city government and transformed itself into an independent, nonprofit corporation.

The Baltimore City Life Museums, which operates seven museums owned by the city, last year quietly became a private entity governed by a 30-member board of trustees.

Its 30 employees have been transferred from the city payroll and now work for Baltimore City Life Museums Inc. The board's new president is Frank P. Bramble, chief executive officer of MNC Financial Inc.

The change took effect July 1 but was not immediately announced. According to Executive Director Nancy Brennan, it does not affect the basic missions of the seven museums, which include the Peale Museum and the Carroll Mansion.

But the change leaves the museums better able to carry out their mission, Ms. Brennan said, by enabling staffers to expand their scope of programs and build more sources of income. In the long run, she said, it will make the museums less reliant on city funds and less susceptible to city budget cuts.

It also will help museum trustees move ahead this year with their latest project, a $5.8 million exhibition center planned for construction just north of the Carroll Mansion on East Lombard Street.

"We are the repository of the city's past. We are the keeper of the city's memory. But we are no longer the city's agency," said Ms. Brennan. "We are no longer part of the gray mass of bureaucracy that the mayor has to slice back to meet his operating budget. Now we are much more like a small business."

Privatization of the museums is part of a municipal trend that has been encouraged by City Finance Director William Brown. Other city assets that have been taken over by private operators in recent years range from municipal golf courses to the Baltimore Arena. The museums are the first municipal arts organization to go private.

The oldest components of the city life museums are the Peale Museum on Holliday Street, part of city government since 1931, and the Carroll Mansion, a city attraction since 1967. They were later joined by the H. L. Mencken House, open since 1983; the 1840 House, 1985; the Center for Urban Archaeology, 1986; Courtyard Exhibition Center, 1987; and Brewer's Park, 1989.

The last four are part of Museum Row, a string of attractions along the lower Jones Falls. Attendance at the seven totals about 100,000 people a year, including 15,500 children on school field trips.

Ms. Brennan, director since 1983, said the decision to move ahead with privatization was largely a response to economic considerations.

Until 1983, the city provided at least 90 percent of the museums' operating budget. But since then, private funding grew while the city's capacity to contribute funds declined. By the early 1990s, after years of budget cuts, "every discretionary dollar was gone," Ms. Brennan said. "Then we were cutting staff."

At the same time, the museums' board gained a number of

business leaders who believed the institution should take a more entrepreneurial approach to its operation.

As part of a five-year privatization agreement, the city government retains ownership of the museum properties, which have a combined value of more than $5 million. The museums' trustees retain ownership of most of the contents, and the city and trustees share responsibility for building maintenance.

The city has agreed to pay the museums an annual fee to manage the seven properties and perform educational functions previously carried out by the city itself.

For the first five years, Ms. Brennan said, the fee is expected to be roughly equal to the amount the city allocated in recent years.

For the fiscal year that began July 1, the city's predetermined payment is $800,000 -- slightly more than half the museums' total budget of about $1.5 million. Ms. Brennan said the museums will seek the same amount in each of the next four years, but the figure will be subject each year to city approval.

Then the agreement will be reassessed. "There is an assumption that the city's contribution will have declined in percentage if not in actual dollar amount," Ms. Brennan said.

Meanwhile, the museums' directors will work to raise more funds from other sources, including attendance, individual and corporate memberships, private donations and the museums' endowment.

To that end, the museums received a boost last fall when they raised $975,000 for the endowment. The museums had until the end of last year to match, on a 3-to-1 basis, a $325,000 grant that the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded in 1986. Completion of the fund drive took the endowment to $1.53 million from $169,000.

In recent years, the museums have also raised money through consultation work. Projects included running the B&O Railroad Museum from 1989 to 1991 and advising the Baltimore Urban League on the best way to operate an African-American heritage museum in the Orchard Street Church.

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