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Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2005 05:18 pm

Wanted: More dead presidents

It’s all about the Benjamins as Richard Norton Smith plays financial catch-up at the Lincoln museum

Hopes were high five years ago, when some of the biggest names in Illinois formed the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Foundation. The foundation expected to rake in as much as $20 million a year from donors during its first three years of existence and to have $50 million in the bank by the end of June 2003, according to the foundation’s application for nonprofit status submitted to the Internal Revenue Service in 2000. The money would be spent to promote the Lincoln complex, pay construction costs and fund educational programs, foundation organizers told the IRS, which expedited the application so that donors could start writing checks. Several million dollars rolled in right away. But, five years later, the foundation has fallen far short of its financial goals. Not one dime of private money has gone toward construction costs. In its most recent tax return, the foundation reported raising just $44,722 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2004. That’s less than the foundation reported spending on accountants that year. Fundraising wasn’t much better during the previous fiscal year, when the foundation took in just $219,520. Financial plans submitted to the IRS three years earlier had called for $20 million to be raised that year.
By the time Richard Norton Smith was hired in 2004 as the foundation’s director and, simultaneously, the director of the publicly owned museum and library, the foundation existed in name only. It had no offices or telephone number. “There was no foundation,” says Estie Karpman, who was hired last year as the foundation’s development director. “No energy, no staff, no plan,” Smith writes in an e-mail in response to an Illinois Times interview request. Besides lending his considerable reputation and name to the museum and library, Smith was brought in to help resurrect fundraising efforts.
Judging from interviews and financial records, he has a lot of work to do.
In the beginning, the foundation was supposed to help build the museum and library, which has cost state and federal taxpayers $150 million. In its application for nonprofit status, the foundation told the IRS that part of its mission was paying construction costs. Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the state Capital Development Board, says that state officials once envisioned $10 million in private contributions for construction costs. The state got zero. William Nugent, a former president of the University of Illinois Foundation who was brought in to help with fundraising in the Lincoln foundation’s early days, confirms that helping pay for construction was part of the original plan. He says he can’t say why that didn’t happen. By the time fundraising fell, he had focused his energies elsewhere.
Maynard Crossland, former head of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, is blunt: The foundation never raised money for construction because it didn’t have to. No one held the foundation accountable for its promises. “It became obvious there wasn’t the time to go out and do the fundraising; there wasn’t the staff,” Crossland says. “That’s when the state stepped up and said, ‘We’re going to pay this bill.’ That, early on, took the pressure off the foundation to do that. When Blagojevich got elected, it languished for quite some time. There was no leadership, basically.”
Karpman, the foundation’s development director, says that she can’t say why such an important fiscal mission foundered even as opening day for the museum and library drew near. “I wasn’t here,” she explains. “I can only surmise the board was not as active as it should have been.”
One person who might know is Julie Cellini, a board member since the foundation was formed and one of the earliest backers of the library and museum, going so far as to tour presidential libraries across the nation during the 1990s in search of ideas. Cellini, who is also chairwoman of the board of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, declined via e-mail to discuss the foundation’s fundraising efforts and why they broke down. Instead, she referred questions to Smith and board president Jim Edgar, a former governor, neither of whom were members of the foundation when fundraising collapsed.  Cellini and her husband, William, a longtime Republican powerbroker, have donated money to the museum, which has put the couple’s name on an exhibit called Ask Mr. Lincoln. By the time Karpman was hired last year, the foundation was a mess. One of her first tasks, Karpman recalls, was to get in touch with people who had made pledges to figure out whether they would actually pay and what, if any, strings were attached to their donations. “I didn’t know what these people had been promised in the beginning, so I asked them: ‘What were you promised, and what would you be willing to pay?’” Karpman says. “There hadn’t been any address they could send money to. We’ve been very lucky — everybody’s been honoring their pledges. I must tell you that Abraham Lincoln is probably the best sell I’ve ever had. You don’t have to explain who he is.”
But the lack of fundraising in past years has put the foundation in a deep hole just as it needs real money. Unlike other presidential libraries, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum relies entirely on private money for programs, acquisitions, and new exhibits. “Unlike libraries in the federal system, it was built with public funds and only now is dependent on private money to support temporary exhibits, conferences, acquisitions, etc.,” Smith says. “There has never been an acquisitions fund, meaning that, until now, we have been entirely dependent on contributions of Lincolniana and other items pertaining to Illinois history. Changing this is one of my top priorities. We’re making progress.”
Lincoln memorabilia is pricey. A copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln was auctioned earlier this month for $688,000. By now, the foundation was supposed to have raised at least $50 million. According to its most recent tax return, for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2004, the foundation had slightly more than $8 million in cash and another $2.26 million in uncollected pledges. The foundation’s tax return for the year ending in June was due last week, although nonprofits typically receive extensions from the IRS and don’t file until nearly one year after a fiscal year ends. Through September, Karpman says, the foundation has collected nearly $11.9 million in cash and has slightly more than $5.6 million in pledges due for collection during the next four years. Karpman figures that the foundation will need between seven and 10 years to reach its $50 million goal. The money won’t just sit around generating interest. Rather, the foundation is spending as it goes along. For example, the foundation paid the entire cost of the museum’s $800,000 dedication ceremony last spring, she says. The foundation is also paying for lectures, conferences and other projects. And it’s banking on the enduring popularity of Lincoln — and the museum — to boost coffers. Karpman acknowledges that attendance at most museums declines after the first year or so. “We are hoping to buck the trend,” she says. The foundation is counting on the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, four years from now, to keep museum attendance high and donations to the foundation flowing. “We are lucky — we still have a much wider window of opportunity than most museums have,” she says. “We have a five-year window up until 2009.”
But some skeptics doubt that the museum in its current form can continue drawing big crowds or that the foundation will be able to raise enough money to keep it interesting. Crossland says exhibits in the museum will eventually grow stale, and, when that happens, updates will be extremely expensive. For one thing, each Disneyesque exhibit costs a lot. For another, the exhibits are intertwined to tell a cohesive story so that a change in one area requires changes everywhere. And the government largesse that made it all possible could eventually prove a curse when the foundation asks for private money to keep things fresh, he predicts. “There’s going to be this feeling out there: The government’s paying for it — why should we use our short resources?” Crossland says. “That’s going to be the big nut they’ll have to crack. Without the [private] commitment in the beginning, it’s hard now to say, ‘We need money for all these great programs,’ when everyone’s reading in the paper that the state’s spent $160 million or whatever on that facility. You say, ‘You need me to make it work?’”
But Nugent believes that the foundation, through hard work, can surpass its goal. “I think they need an endowment more like $100 million to do what they need to do — I’m sure they would be happy to have half that,” says Nugent, who’s raised big money for the University of Illinois and held top administrative posts at large universities across the country. “And I think it’s possible — I really do.”
The key, Nugent says, is the museum and library’s status as more than just an archive. From Mobile Bay, where Farragut said, “Damn the torpedoes,” to the Canadian border, which beckoned escaped slaves, the Lincoln era touches so much of America’s past, present, and future that the foundation has a huge reservoir of potential donors — if it can figure out how to tap it, he says.
“I saw the Lincoln library from my very first hour as far more than a physical structure with glass display cases — there’s so much more than just Mary Todd Lincoln’s wedding dress,” he says. “This is a home-plate treasure trove that can be an engine for vital education of what our country’s all about. I think the support is out there. I think there needs to be further clarification of the mission of the Lincoln center — I’ll call it that — and a new level of organized energy.”
That, Smith says, is exactly what’s happening. “In a little more than a year, the [foundation] board has been rebuilt, several million dollars in new commitments has been received, additional millions in old pledges have been paid off, and a friends program is up and running and rapidly expanding,” he says. The museum and library, he adds “isn’t content merely to see itself as a tourist attraction or a research facility.” He talks about tie-ins with Black History Month and working with the NAACP to commemorate the Springfield race riots and the Lincoln-Douglas debates and synergy and “fostering greater public awareness of Lincoln, to be sure, but also of those themes in Lincoln’s America which are by no means limited to his America. “I’m blessed with the ability to do a lot, on multiple fronts, and with spinning off a lot of ideas, some of which actually turn out to be useful.”
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