City Life Museums threatens to close Debt-ridden facility wants public funding, but Schmoke says no

February 20, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Unless the mayor comes through with a cash bailout, the board of the debt-ridden City Life Museums is threatening to shut down next month.

But Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is taking the hard line and has instructed his chief finance officer to refuse to give in to pressure from the museum, Baltimore's chief repository of local history.

"I think I made it reasonably clear that we expected them as a group to raise private funds," William R. Brown Jr. said yesterday.

Nevertheless, museum officials will submit a plan to the mayor today asking for $837,000 to cover part of their $2.5 million debt.

Meanwhile, officials are contemplating selling part of the collection at the museum, home to the famous 14-foot local icon, Nipper the dog. And beginning next week the museum will be closed on Tuesdays and will shut down early the remaining weekdays. Three weeks ago the museum closed its doors on Mondays to save money.

"If the city says it will give no money at all, we will close down," said Sally Zinno, the museum's executive director.

Museum sources say their plan includes a major restructuring of the museum board to give the city more influence in decision-making. The new plan also includes new fund-raising strategies.

Schmoke has rejected two bail-out proposals from the museum. One proposal asked the city for $1.6 million through December 1998. The other proposal asked for $837,000 but apparently lacks features in the new plan.

The mayor wants the museum to stick to a 5-year-old agreement that would have the institution operate without city money beginning this year. Since 1993, the city has subsidized the museum with $837,000 a year, a total of nearly $4.2 million.

"We're saying 'O.K. We have the agreement. We didn't meet it,' " said board chairwoman Marcella Schuyler. "This is yet another sad case of people not having the resources to do what they want."

The museum is in financial trouble because there aren't enough private donations, paying visitors or corporate sponsorships to cover operating costs in a city with 27 other museums, Zinno said.

Schuyler said they have no plans to sell museum collectibles that are from Baltimore or Maryland. Instead, they would sell pieces from elsewhere. City Life officials have discussed selling pieces to local museums first.

Because City Life Museums once was part of the city, it is unclear who owns some of the collectibles, Zinno said.

Critics say that City Life is in trouble because it expanded too quickly.

Last year, the museum embarked on a multimillion-dollar reconstruction of its newest showpiece: the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center on South Front Street.

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

Museum officials said yesterday that all they can do is wait for a response from the mayor and hope for the best.

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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