Ward wildfowl art museum struggles in snare of fiscal problems

January 16, 1994|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

SALISBURY -- The way an architect designed it, the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art resembles a bird flying over the low shoreline of Schumaker Pond here.

But 1 1/2 years after the $5.3 million museum opened to the public, chronic financial woes -- exacerbated by conflicts between the museum's professional staff and its volunteer governing group -- threaten to clip the bird's wings.

When trustees forced Vaughn Baker's resignation early this month, he became the third executive director to leave the museum since it opened in July 1992. A lack of money has forced the shelving of plans to expand the structure. And a temporary management team is scrambling to find ways to cover a $156,000 deficit and keep the museum doors open.

The museum, which houses a $2.5-million collection of some of the finest antique decoy ducks and contemporary wildfowl art, was supposed to bring national attention to Salisbury.

Named after the late Lem and Steve Ward, brothers from Crisfield who are credited with changing the craft of decoy-making into an art form, the museum boasts a cachet and carving displays no other showcase of its kind offers.

These days, however, expectations of the museum's immediate success appear to have been dramatically misjudged.

"I honestly believe everybody involved thought it would take off like wildfire," said Carlton "Carlie" Adams, chairman-elect of the museum trustees. "We've had somewhat of a rude awakening."

So far, public response has been disappointing. Although more than 30,000 visitors paid to tour the museum last year, nearly twice that number is needed just to cover the building's $115,000 annual utility bills.

Museum membership has been a letdown, too.

When a more modest collection of carvings was housed on the nearby campus of Salisbury State University in the 1970s and 1980s, about 7,000 decoy lovers belonged to the Ward #i Foundation, a nonprofit group that oversees the museum.

The year the museum opened, almost 1,700 supporters decided not to renew their memberships. Today, the foundation has difficulty sustaining membership numbers above 4,000, far below the 10,000 officials estimate the museum needs. Memberships cost from $35 for an individual to $1,000 for "Heritage Club" members.

Again, museum officials miscalculated the impact a new building would have on the public.

"We thought that when people saw this museum, the membership would skyrocket," said Mr. Adams, 63, a retired Pennsylvania Blue Shield executive who moved to the Eastern Shore in 1989 and began doing volunteer work with the Ward Foundation. "It hasn't happened."

Although the museum has an annual operating budget of $1 million, money has been so tight that some months ended with less than $3,500 cash on hand, museum documents show.

With creditors pressing the museum to pay its bills, the 24 trustees were forced last fall to use a promised $80,825 grant from the Maryland State Arts Council to obtain a line of a credit and borrow cash from a Salisbury bank to make ends meet.

And the museum still owes $1.2 million on a construction loan.

State government chipped in $1.5 million to build the museum. The remainder was raised through loans and donations.

Mr. Baker, 50, said that when he accepted the $50,000-a-year job overseeing the facility in November 1992, the trustees who interviewed him never fully disclosed the museum's financial condition.

"I knew things were bad," he said. "I just didn't know how bad."

Cutting costs

He said when he learned the museum had a deficit of about $270,000, he began harsh measures to cut costs. By the time he left 13 months later, he had reduced the deficit by nearly 40 percent.

But in doing so, he said in an interview last week, he made some decisions -- including letting six of 22 paid employees go -- that were unpopular with the board.

"I ended up having to step on everyone's sacred cow a little," he said.

Several trustees conceded that the souring relationship between the board and Mr. Baker may have been in part because of the unusual way board members serve as bosses and underlings to the executive director.

In the Ward Foundation hierarchy, board members perform volunteer work as heads of committees on membership, exhibitions and other promotional aspects of the museum. In that respect, they are supposed to take orders from the executive director.

But when they meet as trustees, they have power over the executive director.

"Some of these guys didn't like the way Vaughn was telling them to run their committees," said one trustee. "They have egos, too, and it put him in a tough spot. They took it out on him later."

Troubles not unique

The museum's problems are not unique in the ever-growing world of nonprofit arts groups, the head of a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm specializing in the field says.

Between 1965 and 1985, public and private financial support for museums and other art facilities nationwide increased to more than $5 billion from about $600 million, said Thomas Wolf, president of The Wolf Organization.

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