Mayor gives city museum reprieve, but with strings $1 million over two years would have to be matched

March 07, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

The debt-ridden City Life Museums won a conditional cash reprieve from the mayor yesterday that will prevent the institution from closing.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he will give the museum $1 million over the next two years but only after the museum can raise an equal amount from private and business donors.

The news comes a week after the museum officials laid off seven employees, drastically reduced operating hours and closed some exhibits to stem a growing $2.5 million debt.

"City Life is on the road to a very healthy recovery," Schmoke said yesterday.

The mayor may be looking on the optimistic side. The museum is far from getting out of debt, and finding enough donors to give $500,000 this year and $500,000 the next could be daunting.

"The challenge is enormous," said Francis A. Contino, chairman of the museum board. "There is no doubt about it."

Part of the reason the museum is in financial trouble is because it has been unable to raise enough private money in a city with 27 other museums. Museum officials said private donations are up but did not disclose the figures yesterday.

"The amount of the funding is all new to us," Contino said. "We are going to rally the board to digest the information and then get on with the business of raising the funds."

He said he would target corporate and foundation committees and explore reduced-rate memberships.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Contino said.

For months, the nine-site museum has been pleading with the city to give it nearly $1.6 million to stay afloat. But Schmoke refused, saying that the museum, which showcases the life and times of Baltimoreans, needs to manage its money better.

After the layoffs last week, museum officials reduced the hours of another worker this week, leaving 19 full-time staff members.

The Shot Tower on Fayette Street is closed indefinitely.

And the H. L. Mencken House in Union Square will open from noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays only, while the Peale Museum on North Holliday Street will open from noon to 4 p.m. Sundays only.

For five years, the city has subsidized the institution, which it once owned and operated, with nearly $4.2 million.

City Life Museums, mainly on the eastern edge of downtown, cannot pay its operating expenses because visitors have been elusive. Museum officials say the institution is too far from the harbor to attract large numbers of tourists.

Though attendance is increasing, the museum draws only about 35,000 visitors a year, far short of its goal of 100,000.

Its financial problems surfaced in October when Executive Director John W. Durel laid off six employees. In November, the board replaced Durel with Sally Zinno, who is interim director.

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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