Cultural cutbacks

July 31, 2006

Recent decisions by the Maryland Historical Society to cut staff and possibly pare back on exhibits are regrettable and painful. But the organization has little choice if it hopes to erase a $1 million-plus deficit. Belt tightening, as well as aggressive fundraising, will undoubtedly mark its actions for the foreseeable future.

The state's oldest cultural institution, dating to 1844, is a repository of cultural, societal and historic memorabilia, and uses exhibitions, research, workshops, school programs and other outreach efforts to illuminate the past and inform the present. A new executive director, W. Eric Emerson, who previously headed the South Carolina Historical Society, took over July 1.

One of Mr. Emerson's first tasks, however, has been to deal with a $1.2 million deficit, which was larger than anticipated, following a $1.4 million cumulative deficit in 2005. The response, announced last week, from Mr. Emerson and the board of trustees has been a 20 percent cut in the 60-employee staff, proposed consolidation of departments, and hints at cutbacks in some future exhibitions. Perhaps no one - or everyone - is to blame. Were the organization's efforts under the previous administration to expand and renovate its West Monument Street building and reinstall its collection too ambitious? Was the board of trustees vigilant enough in its monitoring of operations?

Whatever the answers, the society is dealing with issues faced by many cultural institutions and relatively small nonprofit organizations: rising utility and other infrastructure costs, fewer membership donations and smaller-than-hoped-for private contributions. The historical society has used some of the unrestricted portion of its $18 million endowment to cope with the shortfall, but it also has to make organizational changes, try to economize on upcoming exhibitions without compromising integrity, and expand its fundraising efforts.

The state, which increased its contribution this year to $565,000 from $165,000, should help out with a larger-than-usual contribution again next year. That would certainly be appropriate to help an organization with such a cultural pedigree that serves the entire state. The historical society is a valuable resource worthy of greater and broader private support. Its true challenge is to convince more Marylanders to invest in their past and the organization's future.

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