Friday, October 09, 2009

Statement from the Western Reserve Historical Society

Press release received:

Subject: A Statement from the Western Reserve Historical Society

The Crawford Auto Aviation collection is an integral component of the Western Reserve Historical Society and is here to stay. We would like to set the record straight and tell the real story:

The Western Reserve Historical Society has a significant debt burden – due to the ill-fated project known as the Crawford Museum of Transportation and Industry (CMTI), a proposed new high-cost museum intended to house significant parts of the Crawford collection. The CMTI project ended for a variety of reasons in 2004.

Many community and WRHS leaders, including Crawford supporters, were advocates for CMTI. Sadly, when all finally agreed CMTI could not go forward, some $18 million had been spent on its development – creating a significant debt burden for the Historical Society and damaging donor relationships.

In 2007, the Board brought in a new President and Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Gainor B. Davis. She immediately made elimination of the debt a priority. Dr. Davis and the Board of WRHS drew up a plan to eliminate the debt burden and create a stable and sustainable future for the Historical Society. The total debt is approximately $5.4 million with $2.8 million of that due in 2010. The Board set a January 2010 deadline to pay off that portion of the debt.

At the same time, WRHS instituted aggressive budget cuts including staff reductions, pay cuts, increased deductibles for health care benefits, and suspension of the retirement plan match. Variable costs were cut to the bone. Revenue projections were conservative. All told, in the past 18 months we have cut $2 million, 35% of our operating budget. We feel we are positioned to move into a stable future as soon as the debt is paid off. Leading this effort with Dr. Davis is a new CFO who is improving the business methods and making sure we are good stewards of donor funds.

So how to pay off debt? You can’t fundraise for debt. Donors support projects and even general operating – not debt reduction. As with any organization that is fighting for financial stability, or any individual or family for that matter, the Historical Society had to turn to its assets – its collections – to work itself out from under the debt burden.

We have carefully selected those items to be sold from our collections, limiting them to duplicates or those that are not mission-related (more on that later). Selected items are not integral to the collections or the Historical Society’s work and programs. Our collections will maintain their integrity – including the Crawford which will still hold about 150 vehicles.

This is not a route any historical or museum professional wants to take. We know, as well as anyone, that selling collections in order to pay debt is not acceptable under current museum standards (however, given the current national fiscal situation and its impact on museums, some are calling for a review and revision of those standards).

Let us ask you this: what’s the alternative? Would you rather we close our doors entirely?

The belief that the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum is an entity separate from WRHS is baseless. The nucleus of the collection was an unrestricted gift from Thompson Ramo Wooldridge (later to become TRW Inc.) to the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1963. It is a unique and important collection, and a valued part of our educational programming. The Historical Society’s internal operating divisions, the Crawford, the Archives-Library, the History Museum and Hale Farm and Village are simply that – departments within a single entity. The collections in each support and rely on one another. None are financially self-sustaining, and no department or set of collections is more important to our mission than another. Collection assets from all WRHS departments have also been sold over the years in order to reduce the debt. The Crawford is not and has not been singled out.

We recognize that among our assets is our volunteer corps which numbers some 600 people with about 10%, or 60 volunteers, working directly with the Crawford collection. Volunteers are and will remain major and appreciated contributors to the Society’s workforce.

Organizations grow, change and evolve – they must in order to survive. To believe we can and should operate today, with the identical mission as we had in 1867 when founded, or even in 1963, is not realistic. These tough economic times has forced all nonprofits, including WRHS, to narrow and focus their mission. Overly broad missions, trying to be all things to all people, are the death of organizations – especially nonprofits. We should be recognized for tightening and refining our mission – not criticized.

We know what we are and need to be in order to be a true asset to this community – and that means being the purveyor and storyteller of the history of the Western Reserve. That means using our vast collections: our archives, our photographs, our decorative arts, our buildings, our costumes, and our cars and airplanes to tell the WHOLE story – as no other institution in this region is able to do. That means using our cars to teach math and science to thousands of students. And using our Hale Farm & Village to teach about sustainability. And using the history of our steel industry to teach about entrepreneurship and motivate our next generation. And using our library to help people discover their heritage – where they came from – so they can build their own future.

This is the Western Reserve Historical Society, where we take history personally.

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At 10:13 AM, Blogger Curved said...

(Part 1 of 2) Actions speak louder than words. The following has been collected by the Crawford volunteers from documents provided by the Western Reserve Historical Society along with their tax returns (which are publicly available).

Statement of Facts

Between 1990 and 2007 the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) used over $7 million of proceeds from the sale of cars and airplanes from the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum to fund spending by, and for the exclusive benefit of, the other segments of the Society, namely Hale Farm, the History Center and the Library. In this same period, a similar amount was raised from the sale of collection items from the non-Crawford collections of the Society; however these proceeds were used for the exclusive benefit of these non-Crawford collections.

In 2006 and 2007 the Society repeatedly told Crawford supporters that the sale of $1.5 million of items from the Crawford collection to pay down the Society’s bank debt was necessary to put the Society on a sound financial footing. They are saying the same thing today except now the planned Crawford sales are even larger. The Society repeatedly urged Crawford supporters to tell the past and potential Crawford donors that once these items were sold, the Crawford would be required to sell no more items and that the sins of the past would not be repeated. Sound familiar? The Society sold Crawford airplanes and cars, and took the Crawford operating surpluses in those years to pay off $2 million of debt the Crawford had not created. The Society also used $1.5 million from the sale of non-Crawford items to reduce a portion of the debt the non-Crawford segments had created. However, the Society was breaking their promise even while they were making it: over $2.5 million in new borrowing was taken on in 2006 and 2007 to fund spending by the Library, the History Center and Hale Farm. In July 2009, speaking through its Chairman, the Board finally acknowledged this broken promise as “deplorable management” but refused to correct the resulting unfairness.

Spending by segments of the Society other than the Crawford has been funded by bank borrowing that now totals $5.4 million, including the over $2.5 million in new borrowing noted above. The Society plans to take and sell more items from the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum to pay off $2.4 million of this $5.4 million bank debt run up by the other segments of the Society. The Society claims the remaining $3 million will be paid off with proceeds from the sale of items from the Society’s other collections. However, only Crawford collection items for sale have been specifically identified by the Society. The specific items from the other collections the Society has sold or yet may sell are being kept a secret by the Society.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger Curved said...

(Part 2 of 2) Actions speak louder than words.

The Society’s CEO says the Society “is filled to the rafters” with collection items belonging to the Library and the History Center to the point where they are running out storage space. The Library boasts of having over 6 million collection items and has been declared to be worth well in excess of $50 million dollars by the Society Vice President who oversaw a twenty-fold increase in the Library’s holdings over the last twenty years. There are over 20,000 items from the Society collections, primarily the History Center, and 10,000 linear feet of Library collections stored at the Macedonia facility alone. However, only the Crawford has all its rapidly disappearing collection items described on the Society’s website. The Society refuses to identify the items it holds in other collections. The over 50 cars and airplanes from the Crawford collection that have been sold since 2005 or that are presently for sale represent a 20% reduction in the number of items held by the Crawford. This decimation is termed a ’culling’ by the Society. The Society refuses to tell you what is held in its other collections, but you can be sure they haven’t been “culled” by 20% in the last four years.

Earlier this year the Board of Trustees of the WRHS was asked in a letter to rescind their decision to sell yet more Crawford collection items and to return to the Crawford the $7 million unfairly taken from it. The Board responded by essentially saying “while your facts are right we are going to deny your request -- not because it’s fair but simply because we can.” As noted by its Chairman, the Board took the position that there are not individual components to the WRHS and therefore no part of the Society could be said to be carrying a disproportionate share of the debt reduction burden. However, when convenient the Society will report separately what each of its component parts has done in the last year. You see, the Society uses the handy fiction that it has no individual segments only when it comes to the unfair dismantling of the Crawford to benefit the rest of the Society.

At 8:29 PM, Blogger Mark Tebeau said...

The beauty of the internet is that anyone can post their opinions anonymously and claim to speak the truth. I would urge anyone happening onto this post that they should judge the words of "curved" with the critical eye accorded to people who are unwilling to take public responsibility for their words.

From the perspective of a professional historian and practicing public historian, I would remind readers that WRHS is acting within the bounds of American Association of Museum guidelines and their actions are well within the bounds of professional practices at museums.

Moreover, the Crawford is NOT and has NEVER been the entirety of the WRHS. As part of the institution's broader collections/divisions, the health of "the Crawford" cannot be understood apart from the health of WRHS itself. If there is a tragedy here, it is perhaps the failure of CMTI, but that is another question and another story. That, however, is another story.

Any museum professional will tell you that collections in museums grow, contract, and change over time; their integrity is position both physically and temporarily in relation to broader cultural, institutional, and economic contexts. To imagine otherwise reflects a parochial view that is neither in the best interests of the Crawford Collection, the Western Reserve Historical Society, or the full preservation of Cleveland's historical resources.

I am happy to sign this comment.
Dr. Mark Tebeau
Associate Professor
Department of History
Cleveland State University


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