Minnesota's historical societies are feeling the funding pinch

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 26, 2012 - 9:41 PM

Funding is down, leading a number of cities and counties to reduce hours and staffing.

Tight times have hit local historical societies as their member giving and some government funding have declined.

Most cuts are not as drastic as in Hastings, which this year eliminated funds for its part-time city historian. Other societies, including several in Anoka and Hennepin Counties, have seen member donations drop. The Washington County Historical Society lost half its funding when the county ended its subsidy four years ago.

The loss of the Hastings historian's half-time position may also mean losing some current history if volunteers can't take up the slack, said Dick Darsow, 85, a society member. He and a few other volunteers at City Hall's Pioneer Room clip local newspapers for future residents to study. The history room, which displays 100-year-old books and Dillinger Gang gun battle headlines in the 1934 Hastings Gazette, is now only open 12 hours a week, with volunteer staffing.

The Anoka County Historical Society had nearly a 5 percent cut in its $242,000 budget this year, thanks to less county funds and reduced member and fundraiser revenue, said Executive Director Todd Mahon. The 450-member society is housed in the former Anoka library across Main Street from the Anoka County Government Center.

Minnesota has about 500 historical societies and museums which, like other nonprofits, go through life cycles of popularity and funding, said David Grabitske, outreach manager for the Minnesota Historical Society. He said he attends national meetings of historic association trade groups and Minnesota is regarded as one of the top states for preserving its history.

Despite the tight economy, he said, "The new model organizations would say we need to document the day now so future generations can understand what we went through and why we made the tough decisions we did. We need historical organizations to bring clarity and perspective to those hard decisions."

Most of Minnesota's historical societies -- all 87 counties have one -- were formed during difficult times: the Great Depression of the 1930s and the stagflation of the 1970s, Grabitske noted. He said the key to funding stability is a growing society membership and local connections.

The 200-plus-member Scott County Historical Society has learned that lesson. County funding, representing about 60 percent of its budget, has dwindled in recent years and the society must apply annually for a county grant, said Executive Director Kathleen Klehr.

"Our strategic plan has been to diversify our funding. We get grants, sponsorships, memberships ... and we have a small endowment," she said. "We get out in the community more."

Klehr said society exhibits change more often and are planned to "make emotional and local connections to community."

For example, a just-ended World War II exhibit included taped accounts of area war veterans to "understand the war through local eyes," she said. The effort was paid for with a $5,500 grant from Cargill Inc. The exhibit was so popular that it was extended six months longer than the usual year-long display, she said.

Last year was tough for Edina history buffs. The Edina Historical Society saw its dues and field trip revenue and city donation drop, said Executive Director Marci Matson. But its $70,000 budget was buoyed by a $10,000 donation. That gift more than paid for air conditioning that is expected to increase summer field trips at the society's one-room 1864 Cahill School, she said. And this year city funding, reduced for several years, was increased to $10,000, she noted.

The Hennepin County Historical Society, located in a 93-year-old south Minneapolis mansion, saw its giving drop and membership level out in 2011 after rising for five years, said Executive Director Jada Hansen. She said Hennepin County provides about 70 percent of the $250,000 budget this year, and almost all the rest comes from dues of the 800 members.

"We definitely have felt the impact of the slow economy," Hansen said. She said some members sent notes saying they couldn't give now, but would resume when their finances improved.

In Stillwater, the 750-member county historical society lost half its $80,000 budget when Washington County bowed out four years ago, said Executive Director Brent Peterson.

"We started doing more fundraisers and getting grants from area foundations. We raised membership, museum fees" and trimmed staff, Peterson said. "It's been difficult, but with the strong foundations and membership in Washington County we have been able to survive."

Jim Adams • 952-746-3283

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