Museum president: We need city's help to survive
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BILOXI, Miss. (AP) - The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art is living on the edge financially, less than a year after it opened.
It's not bringing in nearly enough money to operate, no matter who offers the figures. And the president of the Board of Trustees said this week the prospect of getting major financial support from the city of Biloxi looks dim.
Ohr President Larry Clark said, "We have exhausted grants that were available and the revenue is not enough to cover the cost of operating the museum."
He said his board members have unofficially polled most of Biloxi's City Council in the past several weeks and found "the city is in a pretty severe economic bind themselves.
"They're interested, but at this point they don't have the revenue," Clark said. "So we're pretty much out of money.
"We're going to have to ask them to help us or we won't be able to stay open."
When asked how much the museum needs, he said, "It's a moving target. To be honest, I don't know exactly what the number is.
It would take a fairly substantial commitment."
Those associated with the world-class museum -- which opened in the fall after three of five buildings designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry were completed -- said $400,000 may not be enough.
Clark and Vice President Chevis Swetman both said the museum has cut staffing and hours of operation in recent weeks and worked hard to get insurance costs down.
Electricity alone is more than $8,000 a month.
Clark pointed out Biloxi has opened two large new buildings of its own that will cost money to operate and maintain -- the Biloxi Welcome Center and the civic center -- not to mention a library that will open Monday.
"Yes, it couldn't be a worse time for the Ohr to need money," he said.
Jerry O'Keefe, the Biloxi businessman who secured the architect for the museum and helped kick it up a notch in the art world, has come to the rescue before. The museum bears his name.
This week, he asked members of his family with the O'Keefe Foundation to give the museum $100,000, and they voted Thursday to do so.
"I'm still deeply involved," he said. "We're going to initially put up $100,000 for the operations. It will get us along. I don't know how far that will go yet. It depends on a lot of things. I'm not privy to all the internal workings of the museum. But I know that will help."
And in the meantime, he said, he and others have been working with Biloxi to get money the city promised when the museum opened. Biloxi helped with operation expenses before Katrina, but not since.
O'Keefe said he has put in more than $2 million over the years, mostly for construction. This is the first time he has been confronted with operational needs, he said.
"It's been tight for months. We need the city's support to survive."
The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum began on the coast 20 years ago as a satellite of the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson. It is dedicated to Biloxi artist George Ohr (1857-1918), an innovative potter whose work was better known in New York and Chicago.
It has evolved from a perch in the city library to a campus of its own with $35 million in buildings. Three of the five buildings are paid for and the museum has money in the bank to just about pay for the remaining two -- the center for ceramics and the silver pods that will house Ohr's work.
The museum opened with two galleries and a welcome center.
The budget for operations was $1.9 million, in anticipation the city would provide money on a monthly basis. The fact that it hasn't has been part of ongoing negotiations between the two entities.
The amounts discussed in the past have been in the range of $10,000 a month.
At this point, that wouldn't make a dent in the need Director Denny Mecham estimated to be $250,000 to $300,000.
Mecham said by February, with no money from the city, they saw problems with the operations budget and began cutting. She said they got it down to about $1.24 million.
On the upside, the museum has brought in $515,000 from January to June with admissions ($54,000), sales in the museum store ($115,400), grants, rental space during off hours and major fundraising events.
Salaries alone run $450,000 a year for 10 full-time and a handful of part-time workers, who function without standard health insurance or retirement benefits.
Swetman said there are dehumidifiers required to protect art work and a certain level of staffing the museum must have in the art galleries.
He said the museum is using volunteers in every capacity possible, but at some point there must be a paid employee responsible.
To make ends meet during the first six months, the museum used its $200,000 reserves, doubled its paid memberships and got grants.
Mecham said the $100,000 from O'Keefe might hold them until the fall, when Swetman said a gala is expected to bring in another $100,000.
There's no money for promotions. The museum now closes Sundays and Mondays and opens an hour later each day.
"You can't show a shortfall of $250,000 and not feel desperate," she said.
"We believe we can bring in $1 million in income this year, but we need more than that."
The numbers separated out don't really tell the whole story, she said. "It's not as if we're not making any money. But we're not making enough money without help."
Biloxi Councilwoman Lucy Denton said the city may be able to help with the cost of insurance, janitorial service, security and maintaining the landscaping when it arrives, but as for giving the museum money, the city's not in a position to do that.
"We've had to cut way back," she said. "Put capital projects on hold."
Councilman Ed Gemmill said the museum board members came to the council recently with a scare about not being able to meet an insurance deadline, but was able to work out that issue.
Gemmill said he knows the museum is looking for money.
He said the city is just beginning the budget process and when it gets through with city department budgets, he expects to see the Ohr-O'Keefe on the front row, waiting.
Mecham said it would be very difficult to think about closing, especially with the existing financial obligations, "but it's something we have to consider.
"Nobody wants to say the words, actually. It's too chilling," she said.
She praised a board that has been dedicated and raised close to $40 million over the years. Katrina took some of that money.
Swetman said he will personally talk with each member of the City Council and is also seeking money from large contributors.
It's difficult to convince people of the need, he said.
Mecham said there are huge investments in the buildings, $5 million in state bond money, $6 million from HUD committed to finish the center for ceramics and $3 million from the Knight Foundation for the pods.
Mecham said if the museum closed, that money likely would have to be returned.
All the buildings are essentially paid for, Clark said.
And there would be a substantial cost in closing the museum, he said. Art would have to be returned all over the country, among other things. The buildings would have to be maintained. And the irony is if the museum defaulted, it would likely go back to the city.
At this point, laying off staff to help ease the money crunch wouldn't help much, Clark said.
The museum reduced the full-time staff by one this month.
When asked how close they are to closing, he paused and said, "We're close. We have to have help very, very soon."
Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com