Mainers scramble to save Revolutionary War general's museum
By LAUREN ABBATE | Bangor Daily News, Maine (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 13, 2018
After years of operating at a financial loss, the General Henry Knox Museum has launched a "calling all angels" fundraising campaign to keep the museum open for another year.
With a Jan. 15 deadline to raise $150,000, the museum's board members are scheduled to meet Jan. 18 to determine the fate of the museum, whether that means closing the doors for good, or trying to figure out how to make the museum profitable.
As of Tuesday, just less than half of the $150,000 fundraising goal had been meet.
"I don't think anyone on the board wants to close the museum, but we have to get our ducks in a row," board chairman Peter Ogden said. "We have to be realistic about our ability to do things for the near term. And I think that's what we're trying to drive at, is it's time to change the game plan."
The Knox Museum sent a letter to members and donors in mid-December, announcing that the museum needed to raise $150,000 to stay open as planned for the next year. Ogden said the short notice results from the board's realization that if the museum could not continue as a self-supporting entity, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands would not maintain it because the building is a replica, not an original artifact.
"It became kind of a crisis mode for us," Ogden said.
The Thomaston-based museum "serves to honor the life, times, and military service of patriot, soldier, founding father, and statesmen, Henry Knox," according to the museum's mission statement. Knox rose to prominence during the Revolutionary War as an officer in the Continental Army. Knox later served as President George Washington's secretary of war, before retiring to Thomaston where he built his estate, Montpelier.
The Knox Museum is a replica of Montpelier that was built in the late 1920s using the plans Knox drafted for the original Montpelier.
The large white mansion has sat prominently on the corner of Route 1 and Route 131 in Thomaston for decades, benefiting from generous donors, but the museum has never been financially viable on its own.
The inability to make the museum profitable prompted the state in 1999 to transfer ownership of the mansion, and the collection it housed to Friends of Montpelier, a nonprofit group that continues to run the museum.
"It's a wonderful place, people learn a lot of things about history. The group has done an amazing job, and they can't make it work," Bureau of Parks and Lands director Tom Desjardin said. "We couldn't make it work, and that's why we gave it away, hoping this group would."
While the Knox Museum carries no debt, Ogden said annually the museum operates on a deficit. Money from financial gifts has gotten them this far, but that money has slowly been running out and the museum does not generate enough funds on its own through admission fees to fill the gaps.
In 2015, the museum operated at a net loss of about $132,000, with just over $400,000 in expenses and about $273,000 in revenue, according to the most recent Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service. The previous year, the net loss was just under $96,000.
From 2013 to 2016, the museum's board members contributed their own money to try and chip away at the deficit, Ogden said.
Ogden rejects the notion that fiscal mismanagement has caused the museum's problem. Rather, he contributes much of the problem to the high cost of maintaining a nearly 100-year-old building, while trying to make revenue on a traditional house-museum financial structure.
The museum is open, Memorial Day through Columbus Day. Ogden said utility costs have been brought down as low as they can be, but the museum must be heated year-round to protect the collection.
Ogden said it can't simply charge more for visitor admission, because a higher admission fee might deter more people from visiting the museum.
"You never make enough money with people coming through the door to keep an old house going," Ogden said.
In recent years, the Knox Museum has tried to diversify its programs to attract more people to Montpelier. Last summer, the museum partnered with the Maine Military Historical Society Museum to bring a exhibit of military weaponry spanning centuries to the Knox Museum. In 2016, Ogden said about 13,000 people visited Montpelier to see the Moving Wall, a traveling half-size replica of the Vietnam War monument in Washington, D.C.
Renting the building for use by local business gatherings and weddings adds some revenue.
Desjardin commends the Friends of Montpelier for the "tremendous" work they've done to offer valuable programming and keep the museum going. But the state cannot take back responsibility for the building. If the building were actually Knox's original home, the state would be obligated to keep the museum going, even at a financial loss.
On Jan. 18, board members will consider several proposals for how to address the museum's financial situation. Closing the museum is still on the table, but Ogden said he feels this is becoming less of a possibility. Instead he thinks board members will be more inclined to adopt a plan that would aim to get the museum's expenses and revenue more in line with each other.
Ideally, Ogden said the group wants to establish an endowment.
"We can't keep doing this every year," Ogden said. "We know we can't."
If the museum were to close, the deed would revert to the state. In that event, Desjardin said the state would try to place the museum's items at other state historical sites.
"We cannot give up that history," Ogden said. "The more we're open, the more we're spreading this story around."
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