Historical society cuts staff, plans restructuring

Changes aimed at erasing $1.2 million budget deficit


The Maryland Historical Society, the state's oldest cultural institution, this week announced sweeping staff cuts and a broad restructuring of departments, and hinted that it would scale back future exhibitions as part of a plan to eliminate a $1.2 million operating deficit.

The staff reductions, expected to save between $500,000 and $600,000 a year, involve about a dozen of the organization's 60 employees, including the heads of its museum, publications and marketing departments.

The society's new director, W. Eric Emerson, said the changes were needed to put the institution on a firm financial footing.

Emerson, who stepped into his position July 1, said he hoped to make up the deficit through a combination of staff reductions, consolidation of related departments and increased fundraising. His predecessor, Dennis Fiori, resigned in December to become the head of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

"We have to be more creative in the way we do things," Emerson said. "I'm trying to get the staff to look at new ways of doing things where they can be just as efficient with fewer people."

In addition to staff cuts, Emerson's plan calls for consolidating the society's library, archives and museum departments, as well as streamlining the education, publications and off-site museums components into a single education outreach department.

Emerson, the former head of the South Carolina Historical Society, said the restructuring will result in greater efficiency. "We had various departments that competed for resources," he said. "I couldn't understand why it wasn't all under a single umbrella."

Founded in 1844, the historical society houses extensive collections of Maryland historic and cultural artifacts, and typically presents one major exhibition a year, along with several smaller shows. The current exhibition, The Gardener's Tale, a celebration of the silversmith's art, initially was budgeted at about $300,000. That amount was cut by about $100,000 after the budget crisis surfaced.

In recent years, the society, which has an annual operating budget of about $4 million and an endowment of $18 million, received about $165,000 from the state and $20,000 from the city. This year, the state increased its contribution to $565,000 to enhance the society's educational, arts and other programming. The society also relies upon memberships and private donations to round out its budget.

In 2003, during Fiori's tenure, the society completed a $30 million construction and renovation project on its building at 201 W. Monument St. that doubled its space, updated its infrastructure and reinstalled much of its collection.

For the past two years, however, the historical society has incurred a substantial deficit, said Henry Stansbury, president of the board of trustees. In 2005, the cumulative deficit was about $1.4 million, he said.

The society dipped into the unrestricted part of its endowment fund to cope with a financial shortfall, said Rob Rogers, the society's chief operating officer.

But this year's deficit was significantly larger than expected, Stansbury said. "We knew we were going to have a deficit, but it was couple of hundred thousand dollars higher than we anticipated."

A jump in utility costs, a drop in membership donations and unexpected expenses associated with the search for a new director contributed to the deficit.

"Operating costs have risen 20 percent to 30 percent, plus the transition between directors required search-firm fees, candidate visits and all the costs associated with change in leadership," Stansbury said. The search for a new director cost about $100,000, he said.

Last year, the society sold its storage facility on Centre Street to the Walters Art Museum for $1.5 million, said Rogers. The proceeds from that sale were used to replace the roof on the society's Keyser Library building and make other repairs.

Stansbury also said the society didn't raise as much money last year as it hoped, in part because it lacked a development director. He said a new development director began work the same day Emerson arrived.

The deficit may force the society to scale back some previously scheduled exhibitions. For example, a large exhibition about slavery in Maryland, scheduled to open in February in collaboration with the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, may be downsized.

That show, titled At Freedom's Door: Challenging Slavery in Maryland, had a projected budget of about $800,000, about $200,000 of which was to have been contributed by the historical society. The society has had trouble raising funds for the exhibit, and if it can't raise enough, Emerson said, it may have to offer a smaller exhibition.

The laid-off staffers were told last week that their jobs had been cut. Some expressed anger at the abruptness of the action.

"We're calling it `the massacre,'" says Holly Callahan, who, up until Thursday, worked as a librarian two days a week.

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