Museums ask Baltimore for cash bailout City Life executives decline to say publicly how bad finances are

City already pays $837,000

Sources say institution is having difficulty making loan payment

December 28, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Baltimore City Life Museums, where attendance has dropped by more than half this year, are in such financial trouble that the board is appealing to the city for an immediate infusion of cash.

Contacted yesterday, City Life executives refused to disclose how bad the museums' financial condition is.

Sources, however, say the institution is having trouble meeting payments on its bank loan.

The museums this year embarked on a multimillion-dollar reconstruction of their newest showpiece on South Front Street. In October, the executive director laid off six of the 46 employees to avoid exceeding the budget. Last month, the board ousted Executive Director John W. Durel.

The sources say museum executives outlined the institution's fiscal plight to city officials this month. Another meeting is scheduled for the second week in January.

Currently, Baltimore gives the museums $837,000 of their annual $2.8 million budget. How much more money would be sought is unclear.

City Life, which showcases the life and times of Baltimoreans, is preparing for city officials a detailed outline of its financial problems and what is needed to rescue it.

Overall, City Life Museums have attracted only mild interest from tourists and residents, producing such attendance problems that the nine-site museum did not have enough money to cover operating expenses.

City Budget Director Edward J. Gallagher said the city has financial constraints of its own. "It is going to depend on what the magnitude of their problem [is]."

Marcella Schuyler, president of the City Life Museums board, said she expected the city to offer some help to the institution.

"It is premature to say what the deal is going to be," Schuyler said. "The city is a partner in this, so they don't want to see us close."

To help turn City Life around, the executives are drawing up plans to attract more visitors. For the first time, the board also will get reports on how much money is spent and taken in, sources said.

"We have to question all our assumptions we made in planning," Schulyer said. "Was it realistic and was it sound judgment and thinking? That's what we have been doing in the last two months."

Schuyler said fees from visitors play a big part in covering operating expenses. The museum also pays for expenses with grants, endowments and annual memberships.

Although the number of visitors to the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center has doubled since its $8.4 million addition opened last spring, attendance overall remains about two-thirds behind the museums' goal of 100,000 annual visitors.

While the Blaustein center's opening drew a lot of area residents, a surge in out-of-town visitors was not sustained.

Founded in 1976, the Baltimore City Life Museums are one of the first cultural institutions in the country established to study and tell the history of a city and its residents.

In addition to the Blaustein center, the museums' history campus at Lombard and Front streets includes the 1821 Carroll Mansion, the 1840 House, the Center for Urban Archaeology, Brewer's Park and the Courtyard Gallery.

The institution also operates the Shot Tower on Fayette Street, the Peale Museum and the H. L. Mencken House in Union Square.

Originally owned and operated by the city of Baltimore, the City Life Museums became a private institution several years ago.

"We have a gorgeous facility and an interesting program, and it is basically unknown to the residents of Baltimore," Schulyer said.

Pub Date: 12/28/96

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