The Saint Albans Museum, one of the city’s most important cultural institutions, “hangs by a thread,” its executive director told St. Albans officials at a meeting on Monday evening.
Lisa Evans said the museum has been in a deficit for years and needs a multitude of repairs to its 1861 building. There are hundreds of thousands of items in its collection in storage areas that don’t have adequate temperature control, putting those items at risk, she said.
Even if the financial challenges for the local history museum are not new, according to Evans, they have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The museum is usually open from May to October, but after closing in Fall 2019, it didn’t reopen until July of this year.
On Monday, Evans asked St. Albans City Council to allocate $ 25,000 to the museum in the coming fiscal year, up from $ 17,500 this year.
She also plans to ask St. Albans Town for the same amount of money, she said.
Evans told city officials the museum will use its additional funds to finance building repairs, improving its exhibits and running new programs, among other things. Overall, she hopes these improvements will attract new members and visitors.
The museum operates on a budget of $ 175,000, which is the “absolute minimum” it takes to operate the building and pay their part-time salary, Evans said. She is the museum’s only employee and was hired in June after serving as interim director.
“We have done everything we can to cut costs,” she said at the city council meeting on Monday. “Without a real full-time employee on the payroll, we are forced to cut back on the number of events and programs we have been able to run.”
It’s no secret that museums across the country continue to struggle. A survey by the American Alliance of Museums last month found that almost every third museum will be closed because of the pandemic, The New York Times reported, and most of them have not reopened since their original closure.
The Saint Albans Museum relies on 25 regular volunteers to help manage the museum, give tours, and organize exhibitions, among other things, Evans said. She estimates that these volunteers have worked a total of around 3,500 hours at the museum this year.
Volunteers often pay for supplies out of pocket, Evans said. For example, she recently learned that some volunteers have stepped in personally to install a security system.
Evans said donations from the community were crucial in keeping the museum from closing during the pandemic. The museum has received some grants but still needs additional funding to address issues with its aging building, she said.
“We are very fortunate to have such strong supporters,” said Evans, “but this is by no means a sustainable financial model.”
Overall, she said building repairs and upgrades would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. A big problem is that the building is not heated or cooled, so visitors sometimes have to be turned away on days with more extreme temperatures.
Evans also plans to spend money making the museum’s regional history more inclusive. This year the museum created its first-ever local black history exhibition, which is a series of mobile plaques currently on display in St. Albans City Hall.
The other exhibits in the museum mainly focus on the city’s railroad and military history, as well as the history of wealthy white families in the area.
At the meeting on Monday, city officials suggested allocating some of the funds from the St. Albans American Rescue Plan Act to the museum, as well as considering new uses for the third-floor event space, the Bliss Room.
Evans told city officials that she saw funding from local governments as a benefit, but only part of what is required for the museum to be successful.
“This is in no way a handout that we are looking for from the city or the city,” she said in an interview. “The museum can do so much for the community, for St. Albans and for the surrounding area.”