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Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 12:07 am

Museums close in city

But African-American museum says it’s healthy

 Two museums have closed in as many weeks in Springfield.

Late last month, the Korean National War Museum closed in downtown. Just two weeks later, the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Museum, a fixture on South Seventh Street since 1962, shut its doors.

The GAR museum, which contains Civil War era artifacts, shut down the first weekend in August and remains closed. Reached via email, Kathy Bower, national secretary for the Women’s Relief Corps for the Grand Army of the Republic, said that the closure is temporary. The Women’s Relief Corps, which owns and operates the museum, has determined that staff changes are in order, Bower wrote.

Formed in 1866, the Grand Army of the Republic, widely considered the nation’s first veterans’ organization, ceased to exist in 1956, when the last member died, but the Women’s Relief Corps, an auxiliary organization, lives on.

“Our national convention and leaders determined staffing was inadequate and that credentialed individuals were needed to help usher the museum into modern standards of care,” Bowers wrote in her email. “Our leaders have negotiated exciting opportunities for interns and installation of American Alliance of Museum (an organization that credentials museums and sets standards) curating methods. We are now indeed in the process of transition, and, understandably, the major changes required our temporary closure. We anticipate our museum will reopen in a very short time.”

The Korean National War Museum near the Old State Capitol shut its doors in late July. The museum, which charged no admission, was experiencing financial problems serious enough to threaten continued operations, according to an audit submitted to the Illinois attorney general’s office by the museum last year. The attorney general is now investigating to determine whether donations and artifacts are going toward charitable purposes.

Meanwhile, the head of the Springfield Central Illinois African American History Museum near Oak Ridge Cemetery says that the institution is financially healthy, even though city corporation counsel Jim Zerkle recently said that the organization couldn’t afford to pay $900 per month to lease the city-owned building where the museum is located.

The city council on Tuesday approved a reduction in lease payments the museum makes for the building just outside Oak Ridge Cemetery. Under the new deal, monthly payments are reduced from $900 to $200. When Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath asked why Mayor Jim Langfelder proposed reducing lease payments during an Aug. 8 committee meeting, Zerkle answered, “They simply can’t afford the $900 per month.”

Not true, says Douglas King, museum president.

“We’re doing fine, just fine,” King said. “We didn’t have any issues taking care of that $900 per month lease payment. We had no problems with that.”

The building was purchased by the city in 2009 from Oak Ridge Cemetery funds. Michael Lelys, cemetery director, said the city checked the museum’s finances before entering into a lease for the facility that opened last year and was satisfied that the organization had sufficient resources to pay $900 per month. Lelys said that there have been no problems with prompt payment. The organization’s most recent available financial statement filed with the Internal Revenue Service show that the museum had more than $57,000 in revenue in 2015 and had a fund balance of more than $13,000 at the end of that year.

King said that the museum asked the city to reduce lease payments so that money could be used for other things, not because the organization is destitute. “We started with, ‘Why don’t you just give it to us for $1 a year,’” King said. “The reason was, we could do more with that money to sustain the museum in other areas. It didn’t fall on deaf ears, obviously.”

Although the council approved the lower lease payments this week, the museum has been paying $200 per month since March. Redpath said that the mayor should have asked the city council to approve lease revisions before they took effect. The council, he said, likely would have been receptive, given that the museum is an asset for the city.

“They did it in March, and they came to us in July,” Redpath said. “That’s not a real good way to do business.”

Redpath chuckled slightly when told that King had said that the museum could afford to pay $900 per month while the corporation counsel had said otherwise. “That doesn’t surprise me, honestly,” the alderman said.

After Tuesday’s vote to approve the lower lease payment, Zerkle said that the museum had proposed $200 per month. “He (King) proposed the $200 because of the limited resources,” Zerkle said. “Because they had limited resources, they wanted to use the savings (for other things).”

But King says that the city, not the museum, came up with the $200 monthly payment. Asked whether his memory matched King’s account of the museum proposing a $1 per year payment, Zerkle said “No.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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