Ward wildfowl art museum struggles in snare of fiscal problems

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SALISBURY -- The way an architect designed it, the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art resembles a bird flying over the low shoreline of Schumaker Pond here.

But 1 1/2 years after the $5.3 million museum opened to the public, chronic financial woes -- exacerbated by conflicts between the museum's professional staff and its volunteer governing group -- threaten to clip the bird's wings.

When trustees forced Vaughn Baker's resignation early this month, he became the third executive director to leave the museum since it opened in July 1992. A lack of money has forced the shelving of plans to expand the structure. And a temporary management team is scrambling to find ways to cover a $156,000 deficit and keep the museum doors open.

The museum, which houses a $2.5-million collection of some of the finest antique decoy ducks and contemporary wildfowl art, was supposed to bring national attention to Salisbury.

Named after the late Lem and Steve Ward, brothers from Crisfield who are credited with changing the craft of decoy-making into an art form, the museum boasts a cachet and carving displays no other showcase of its kind offers.

These days, however, expectations of the museum's immediate success appear to have been dramatically misjudged.

"I honestly believe everybody involved thought it would take off like wildfire," said Carlton "Carlie" Adams, chairman-elect of the museum trustees. "We've had somewhat of a rude awakening."

So far, public response has been disappointing. Although more than 30,000 visitors paid to tour the museum last year, nearly twice that number is needed just to cover the building's $115,000 annual utility bills.

Museum membership has been a letdown, too.

When a more modest collection of carvings was housed on the nearby campus of Salisbury State University in the 1970s and 1980s, about 7,000 decoy lovers belonged to the Ward #i Foundation, a nonprofit group that oversees the museum.

The year the museum opened, almost 1,700 supporters decided not to renew their memberships. Today, the foundation has difficulty sustaining membership numbers above 4,000, far below the 10,000 officials estimate the museum needs. Memberships cost from $35 for an individual to $1,000 for "Heritage Club" members.

Again, museum officials miscalculated the impact a new building would have on the public.

"We thought that when people saw this museum, the membership would skyrocket," said Mr. Adams, 63, a retired Pennsylvania Blue Shield executive who moved to the Eastern Shore in 1989 and began doing volunteer work with the Ward Foundation. "It hasn't happened."

Although the museum has an annual operating budget of $1 million, money has been so tight that some months ended with less than $3,500 cash on hand, museum documents show.

With creditors pressing the museum to pay its bills, the 24 trustees were forced last fall to use a promised $80,825 grant from the Maryland State Arts Council to obtain a line of a credit and borrow cash from a Salisbury bank to make ends meet.

And the museum still owes $1.2 million on a construction loan.

State government chipped in $1.5 million to build the museum. The remainder was raised through loans and donations.

Mr. Baker, 50, said that when he accepted the $50,000-a-year job overseeing the facility in November 1992, the trustees who interviewed him never fully disclosed the museum's financial condition.

"I knew things were bad," he said. "I just didn't know how bad."

Cutting costs

He said when he learned the museum had a deficit of about $270,000, he began harsh measures to cut costs. By the time he left 13 months later, he had reduced the deficit by nearly 40 percent.

But in doing so, he said in an interview last week, he made some decisions -- including letting six of 22 paid employees go -- that were unpopular with the board.

"I ended up having to step on everyone's sacred cow a little," he said.

Several trustees conceded that the souring relationship between the board and Mr. Baker may have been in part because of the unusual way board members serve as bosses and underlings to the executive director.

In the Ward Foundation hierarchy, board members perform volunteer work as heads of committees on membership, exhibitions and other promotional aspects of the museum. In that respect, they are supposed to take orders from the executive director.

But when they meet as trustees, they have power over the executive director.

"Some of these guys didn't like the way Vaughn was telling them to run their committees," said one trustee. "They have egos, too, and it put him in a tough spot. They took it out on him later."

Troubles not unique

The museum's problems are not unique in the ever-growing world of nonprofit arts groups, the head of a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm specializing in the field says.

Between 1965 and 1985, public and private financial support for museums and other art facilities nationwide increased to more than $5 billion from about $600 million, said Thomas Wolf, president of The Wolf Organization.

During the same period, he said, "massive increases" in the number of visitors to museums and galleries occurred.

Since 1985, however, the flow of money has been reduced to a trickle, and visitors are declining, mainly because of a slack economy and an explosion of competing museums.

"The last few years have been an extremely difficult era in which to start a museum," said Mr. Wolf. "It's a difficult time to start any new organization, particularly for one that has capital costs."

John Valliant, director of the popular Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, said he has seen drops in attendance and membership during the past few years.

"What has saved us is that we have a very broad-based support," he said, noting that the museum's $2-million endowment has been a crucial source of financial support for day-to-day operations.

With Mr. Baker's official departure Jan. 3, the Ward museum's directors kicked off what could be a crucial attempt to save it from financial problems or bankruptcy.

Mr. Adams was named the unpaid head of a volunteer management group that has begun measures to reverse the museum's misfortunes. The board will seek a new executive director, Mr. Adams said, but in the meantime the unused salary will help offset the deficit.

A new money-raising drive targeting potential corporate sponsors will begin soon, as will a program that will allow businesses to lease museum prints and paintings for use in offices.

Hoping to expand its appeal to visitors, the museum has added a new film on the importance of environmental concerns to the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the region's waterfowl.

State may help

Help from the state may be on the way, too. Paul E. Schurick, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's chief of staff, said last week that the governor intends to earmark money from the state's aid to educational institutions for the museum in his budget.

"The Ward museum is a statewide asset," said Mr. Schurick. "The governor has indicated his willingness to help with their programs."

With renewed efforts to boost membership rolls and balance the budget comes a fresh perspective on the role board members must play in stabilizing the museum, Mr. Adams said.

"I think maybe we experienced a certain amount of burnout after a while," he said. "We let our guard down. I think we were parochial and too local. That's how we came about, but we're too big for that now."

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