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Lewis Museum report aims to improve attendance, fundraising

MuseumsFinanceReginald F. Lewis MuseumWar of 1812

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture has released an ambitious financial turnaround plan designed to resolve within 19 months long-standing problems with attendance and fundraising.

The fixes outlined in the 11-page document include replacing disengaged board members and setting higher fundraising goals. One planned remedy involves scheduling exhibits further in advance, which should make it easier to obtain corporate sponsorship. Also in the works: hanging a big sign on the building's handsome red, black and yellow west facade to increase public awareness of the museum.

In essence, the museum is rethinking every aspect of how it interacts with visitors and the community at large. And it has committed itself to getting the museum back on track by July 1, 2015.

The state has been withholding $100,000 of the museum's current budget until the Lewis could come up with a plan to address concerns raised in several state reports. The deadline was Sunday.

A. Skipp Sanders, the museum's executive director, acknowledged in a telephone interview that putting into place all the recommendations made by the museum's consultant, the DeVos Institute, will be a challenge. But he's confident that they can be achieved.

"If we really continue at the rate we're going now, and if we keep making the connections that we're making, we should be in good shape for fiscal year 2015," Sanders said.

"It's a matter of having a plan, keeping that dialogue happening within museum staff, creating regular benchmarks and taking it one day at a time."

State Sen. Nathaniel McFadden had previously expressed concerns about "an obvious problem that continues to get worse."

But on Monday, he said he was "encouraged" that the museum "is headed in the right direction."

"They've addressed many of the concerns raised .... about increasing the number of individuals who visit the museum and by having a greater diversity of activities and programming."

He said he'll urge his colleagues in the legislature to release the remaining $100,000 of the museum's $2 million state allocation for the current fiscal year.

The new report is the result of an eight-month consultation with the Devos Institute, which teaches arts managers and their boards of directors the business skills needed to run a nonprofit organization.

The recommendations are aimed at beefing up attendance, which has averaged 38,000 annually over the past five years. That's considerably short of the 150,000 initially projected in 2005 when the institution opened.

In addition, fundraising has been lackluster. Starting in 2008, the Lewis has been required to raise $2 million, or half its annual budget, in private revenue — a goal that it hasn't reached. As a result, the state has had to step in and provide additional funds to make up a two-year shortfall of $880,000.

Part of the problem has been a dearth of black professionals with experience in running museums. That's not surprising; it's only in the last 50 years that African-Americans have enjoyed the same opportunities to visit museums that have been afforded to their white counterparts.

That's one reason, Sanders said, that such key positions as development and marketing directors went unfilled for two years.

"In many minority communities, there's a lack of awareness of the breadth of career paths that a person can follow," he said.

The report notes that an area "of special concern" is increasing the board's fundraising prowess. In 2015, the minimum sum that each board member is expected to bring in will be doubled from the current level of $2,500 to $5,000. Eventually, the board will be expected to raise or donate between 10 percent and 30 percent of the museum's annual operating funds.

Samuel Black, president of the Association of African American Museums, noted that black wealth is comparatively recent. For that reason, he said, board members for African-American cultural groups often lack ties to wealthy donors that go back for generations.

"A lot of African-American museums have boards and trustees who just love the institution, but who haven't been trained to operate as a professional board," Black said. "These boards and trustees lack the connections ... that can help them make up for financial deficits."

Also, the museum staff has outlined several strategies aimed at increasing the Lewis' visibility.

"Despite the imposing and beautiful exterior of this building, people tell us all the time that they didn't know that it was a museum," Sanders said.

A new 20-by-40-foot sign is just the start. The staff is completing plans to erect a large banner at Penn Station. In addition, items from the museum's permanent collection were recently installed at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The Lewis also has received a $128,000 grant to help launch a high-profile special exhibition next year on the Star-Spangled Banner, tied to the statewide bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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MuseumsFinanceReginald F. Lewis MuseumWar of 1812
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