A museum divided
Springfield’s star attraction has growing pains
On paper, the story isn’t pretty.
Just seven years old, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is on its third executive director. Attendance is down and money is tight.
The institution is not accredited, and American Association of Museums in 2010 found shortcomings ranging from an inadequate disaster preparedness plan to a governance structure with potentials for conflicts of interest. There is tension between the institution and its private fundraising foundation. Not even Lincoln’s iconic stovepipe hat is a given.
Eileen Mackevich, who has just finished her first year as executive director, wears rose-colored designer glasses, but says that she isn’t naïve.
“I came here to pull people together, to find new ways of working to bring out talents that people didn’t know they had, because we’re all doing double and triple work,” says Mackevich, who was born in Philadelphia but carries a faint English accent that hints at her graduate studies in British history. “If I wanted to dwell in the past, I could be mired in the past.”
Shortly before Gov. Pat Quinn appointed Mackevich in December 2010, the American Association of Museums delivered a report that described the museum as “rudderless.” The seven-member Illinois Historic Preservation Agency board of trustees that oversees the museum had been inactive for more than a year, evaluators wrote, and the institution had been run by an interim director, former IHPA%u2008director Jan Grimes, since Rick Beard, Mackevich’s predecessor, was fired in the fall of 2008 after a shoplifting arrest. Staffing was short and union rules cumbersome. Administrators were so pressed with other tasks that they didn’t have time to write job descriptions for open positions to ensure that the best-qualified people would get spots instead of union members with seniority.
Evaluators also found strained relations between the institution and the museum foundation, which has on its 34-member board of directors such big names as former governor Jim Edgar and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. A museum staff member called the relationship between the public institution and its private nonprofit fundraising foundation a “hard marriage,” and discord remains nearly two years later.
“Lincoln and Mary may have had a hard marriage, too, and yet we can see the passion between them,” Mackevich says. “We live in a world where, if there’s not a little bit of friction, it’s not a good thing. There’s nothing more boring than a boring relationship, and this relationship isn’t boring.”
Caught in the middle are a stovepipe hat and other artifacts that came to the museum in 2007, when the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation purchased more than 1,500 pieces from Louise Taper, a Californian who had amassed perhaps the planet’s most important collection of Lincoln relics.
Nearly five years later, some IHPA board members want a written assurance that the artifacts will become museum property when the foundation pays off the Taper debt, which was originally $23 million. It now stands at $13.5 million, according to Carla Knorowski, foundation chief executive officer.
Under terms of a 2007 agreement between the museum and the foundation, ownership of the artifacts, which are loan collateral, was supposed to be transferred gradually and annually as the debt was paid down – if $1 million in debt was paid in a given year, then artifacts worth that much were supposed to be given permanently to the museum. But no title has transferred, and the items instead remain on loan to the museum.
Not to worry, according to some IHPA board members who say they trust the foundation to keep the artifacts at the museum. Other board members aren’t so sure.
Knorowski during a Feb. 6 IHPA board meeting said that the 2007 agreement specifying annual transfer of ownership was in “error.”
Garth Madison, IHPA general counsel, disagreed.
“I would say it’s a clause that the foundation is not currently in compliance with,” Madison said.
During the meeting, IHPA trustee Tony Leone proposed changing the arrangement with a clause stating that the foundation will transfer ownership to the museum when the debt is fully paid. But Knorowski said that the proposal would scuttle refinancing of the loan used to buy the collection.
“Actually, what will happen is, we will not have a loan and we will be in default,” Knorowski said.
Madison told the IHPA board that he didn’t believe that Leone’s proposal would necessarily kill the foundation’s deal with its bank, but the motion failed in a tie vote, with three of the seven agency trustees not present. The issue likely isn’t dead, given that an agreement between the museum and the foundation that puts the Taper Collection on loan to the institution is up for renewal in June.
“I want to make sure, without question, above everything else, that the collection remains with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum,” says Leone, former clerk of the state House of Representatives who owns a bed and breakfast in Springfield. “I don’t know what is in everybody’s heart.”
Trustee Shirley Portwood, who voted with Leone, says it’s a case of trust but verify.
“I believe we wanted to have, in writing, clear, that the Taper Collection would remain with the library and museum,” says Portwood, a retired history professor from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. “If that wasn’t explicit, I had some concern that maybe it would be parceled out, or, due to disagreements between the foundation and the library and museum, that it might be that the foundation would claim it as their property rather than something they were acquiring on behalf of the library and museum.”
Sunny Fischer, board chairwoman, voted against Leone’s proposal and says she isn’t worried. She points out that the entire collection is now held by the museum.
“We’re talking about things on paper,” said Fischer, who is executive director of a private nonprofit historic preservation foundation in Chicago. “The museum has the artifacts. … I really have no concern about it.”
Knorowski said she doesn’t believe that there will be an issue with amending the artifact loan agreement due to expire in June so that there will be a written assurance that the museum will get title to the items when the foundation’s debt is paid.
“It’s our intention to do that,” Knorowski said.
The foundation is supposed to provide financial support to the museum, but American Association of Museums evaluators found murky lines of authority and responsibility. For example, in its mission statement, the foundation says that it “fosters Lincoln scholarship through the acquisition and publication of documentary materials.” That’s confusing, according to evaluators who suggested a tweak to avoid undermining the institution’s role.
“A simple fix might be adding the word ‘support’ as in ‘…fosters Lincoln scholarship through the support of the acquisition and publication of documentary materials…’” evaluators wrote in their 2010 report.
But the foundation’s mission statement remains unchanged.
Money dominates discussions about the future of the foundation and the museum, which has seen its budget and staff slashed as the state struggles through tough economic times.
Paying off the Taper debt has left the foundation with little to contribute toward other expenses. And that has created some hard feelings.
The foundation sells memberships that include free admission to the museum. A museum staffer told the American Association of Museums that those free admissions were costing the institution $108,000 a year in lost ticket sales. Evaluators reported that some museum employees had a difficult time appreciating the value of a membership program in light of lost ticket revenue.
Since then, the agreement between the foundation and the museum has been amended so that the foundation now reimburses the institution $6, half the regular adult admission charge, for every foundation member who goes through the door. The agreement has also been changed so that the foundation, which once took 18 percent of donations and grants, now collects no more than 10 percent, and then only with donor permission.
“There was a concern that 18 percent was simply too high,” Portwood says.
Meanwhile, schoolchildren on field trips pay to enter the museum during the spring months, and that strikes some as wrong.
Ed Genson, who until recently was both an IHPA trustee and a member of the foundation board, says the Taper purchase was a mistake that has prevented the foundation from helping with basic expenses so that kids don’t have to pay.
“I knew this was going to happen,” says Genson, a Chicago attorney whose clients have included R. Kelly and Rod Blagojevich. “I was hoping the foundation could concentrate on the museum instead of the Taper Collection. I always believed the Taper Collection detracted from what was necessary. The museum exists without the Taper Collection.”
Taper Collection fans, however, say that the artifacts inspire awe and make sacrifices worthwhile.
“What really captures the imagination of fourth or sixth graders is the hat, with Lincoln’s fingerprints embedded on the brim,” Knorowski said. “Obviously, this is very expensive. It takes austerity and belt-tightening in the beginning.”
Genson and Julie Cellini, both longtime IHPA trustees, were replaced earlier this year by Gov. Pat Quinn but remain on the private foundation board. The governor’s staff said that Quinn wanted “new energy,” but ousting Genson and Cellini from the IHPA board also settled questions about conflicts of interest.
The foundation and the museum are as much business partners as stewards of Lincoln’s legacy. The foundation receives free office space at the museum and is responsible for the gift shop and food services, both of which are run by vendors under contract to the foundation, which contributes about $500,000 a year in profits to the museum. IHPA trustees vote on contracts between the agency and the foundation. As an IHPA trustee, Cellini, on behalf of the agency, signed deals between the state and the private foundation while she also sat on the foundation board. The deals included a 2007 agreement that put the Taper Collection on loan to the museum and a 2007 agreement that gave the foundation office space.
Genson dismisses questions about conflicts of interest as “nonsense” and says any concerns could be addressed by IHPA trustees who are also foundation members recusing themselves from votes. He says that both he and Cellini, whose husband, William, is a political powerbroker awaiting sentencing on federal corruption convictions, were replaced due to politics. He points out that Cellini, who is often credited for getting the museum built, pushed for creation of the institution for years before ground was broken.
“I think it’s a terrible thing,” Genson said. “Julie Cellini built that entire thing single-handedly – you can argue this and that about her husband, she single-handedly gave us this museum. It’s a pity she wasn’t allowed to stay in. I honestly think it was a political thing.”
Cellini, who is the foundation’s secretary, did not return a phone call.
Portwood, however, says that foundation members should not also serve as IHPA trustees.
“Frankly, I couldn’t understand how anyone could not see there was a conflict,” Portwood says.
“I have always felt that you needed to have a separation,” Leone says. “The perfect example is this critical question over who owns the Taper Collection.”
Evaluators from the American Association of Museums saw a problem with the close relationship between the museum and the foundation, recommending that the next executive director of the museum not also serve as director of the foundation, which had been the case with the museum’s first two executive directors. That recommendation was adopted with the hiring of Mackevich as head of the museum.
“American Association of Museums standards recommend a clear and formal division of responsibilities between the governing authority and any group that supports the museum,” evaluators wrote. “The roles of the two boards, particularly where there is overlap, should be further clarified, to avoid any perceptions of conflicts of interest.”
A work in progress
Both the foundation and the institution have seen economic turmoil.
The museum and library had 97 employees when the museum opened in 2005. Today, employment stands at 73. Mackevich is paid $150,000 a year, the same amount that the state paid her predecessors, but she does not get additional salary from the foundation, which had paid $150,000 a year to Richard Norton Smith, the museum’s first director, on top of his state salary and more than $71,000 a year to Beard in addition to his IHPA salary.
According to the most recent figures available from the Internal Revenue Service, the foundation’s take from gifts, grants and membership fees have gone from more than $6.2 million in fiscal year 2008 – a five-year high – to less than $3.2 million in fiscal year 2009, which ended in June, 2010. With the exception of 2008, the foundation during the past five years has never had more than $3.56 million in contributions in a single year, according to IRS records, which also show a decrease in salaries. In the fiscal year ending in June, 2008, at least two foundation executives earned more than $100,000. In the fiscal year ending June 2010, the most recent year records are available, the foundation’s IRS filings show that the top salary was $80,000.
When it purchased the Taper Collection, the foundation set a goal of raising $4 million a year to retire the debt. Mackevich says that both the museum and the foundation hope to get it paid within three years. Board chairman Wayne Whalen is optimistic about getting the Taper Collection out of hock.
“It’s my best judgment we will be successful,” Whalen says.
Mackevich makes no guarantees.
“They’re working very hard on paying off the debt,” Mackevich says. “I would say it’s a work in progress. We’re thinking about how we can ensure the collection stays here and it’s paid off. … Am I worried? Am I diligent? Am I concerned? I’m always concerned about everything.”
Mackevich has a museum to run aside from the Taper Collection, and she has no shortage of ideas for an institution that was once the most-visited presidential library and museum in the nation but was passed last year by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, when the institution observed the 100th anniversary of the Gipper’s birth.
“Yes, our attendance has declined, but not appreciably,” Mackevich says. “Compare it to museums in other cities.”
Mackevich sees room for improvement in catering services and the gift shop. Merchandise in the gift shop reflects what was in the museum when it opened, Mackevich says, not what is in the collection now or what is displayed in temporary shows. She wants reproductions of Civil War battle flags and Mary Lincoln’s silk scarves, and she isn’t afraid to think big. Instead of gold-filled copies of Mrs. Lincoln’s jewelry, Mackevich wants top-quality reproductions and talks about partnering with Tiffany to make it happen. She wants a museum store that’s on par with shops at the Field Museum and Art Institute in Chicago, and she wants an online catalog so that customers don’t have to come to Springfield to spend money.
Mackevich talks about collaboration and reaching out to new audiences. Soon after her arrival, she organized a meeting of representatives from the chamber of commerce, Lincoln Land Community College, high schools, the Memorial Medical Center Foundation and other groups that have not had much involvement in the institution to ask what they wanted to see in the museum. The local Indian-American community is also on Mackevich’s radar, and the museum last fall held a reception in observance of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. She sees a chance to partner with Hispanic groups. After all, she notes, Benito Juarez, a reformer known for bolstering democracy south of the border, was president of Mexico while Lincoln was in the White House.
Her targets range from low to high brow. In one of her first meetings with IHPA trustees, she proposed organizing evening pub crawls through downtown Springfield that would end at the museum, where young folks not accustomed to history lessons could soak up culture. She wants a Halloween event at Lincoln’s Tomb. An exhibit on Civil War weaponry and medical care dubbed “To Kill and To Heal” is scheduled to open this month.
“That’s what she has to do,” Genson says. “I’d rather have Eileen go around trying to further this agenda or that agenda than sitting on her ass doing nothing. Some of it will work, some of it won’t. She’s inventive. She works her ass off. She has an idea a minute. She has a reputation as a prodigious fundraiser. She begs – in an extraordinarily exquisite way, she begs.”
But Genson is a realist.
“The (IHPA) board right now is treading water,” Genson says. “They have no money to spend – it’s like manning a boat that has a leak. To say there’s all these affirmative programs we’re going to be involved with is nonsense. … It’s just the fault of the economy. It’s nobody’s fault.”
Mackevich is a former radio talk show host who founded the Chicago Humanities Festival and headed the national Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission that organized observances of Lincoln’s 200th birthday. Unlike her predecessors, she has never before run a museum.
Accreditation is one goal.
While the museum hasn’t formally applied for accreditation from the American Association of Museums, such status would bolster the institution’s status and prospects.
“It puts you in the elite group of museums that’s acknowledged by professionals in the field as having best practices in preservation, publication and research,” says Harold Holzer, a Lincoln scholar and author who is a senior vice president at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was once a candidate to be the presidential museum’s first executive director. “If you’re doing a show and you want to borrow a major work of art, generally in the art world, museums will lend to accredited institutions and are reluctant to do so if they are not.”
The 2010 assessment by the American Association of Museums showed that the institution isn’t ready. Among other things, the museum and library lack a disaster preparedness plan to ensure the safety of the collection, evaluators found.
While priceless relics such as the Gettysburg Address are safe, the institution doesn’t have a comprehensive plan in the event less-iconic documents get wet from a flood or burst pipe, says Tom Schwartz, former Illinois state historian who now heads the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in Iowa. Ideally, museums should have a plan for everything and know what can be laid out on tables and dried with fans and which pieces should be freeze-dried for more involved restoration. And that generally means having a restoration firm on retainer, Schwartz said.
“The question is, there’s a cost involved,” Schwartz said. “That has always been kind of the rub, especially with the state’s precarious financial position.”
Mackevich says she is “fairly comfortable” with what she’s been told about safety and security, but says a disaster plan is “very important.”
“It’s sort of like security at the airport: Nobody knows how important it is, but you have a sense that doing that is important,” she says. “I think we ought to take the best advice we can get, because it is part of accreditation.”
Accreditation isn’t at the top of Mackevich’s list, but it’s a goal. She can’t say when she’ll get there, but says that she wants to conform to the highest standards in the field.
“I want to say that we are moving to deal with these issues that are important in terms of accreditation,” Mackevich says. “You read some things that we had to do, and we’re doing them slowly and sure. We’re not going to be the gazelle. … But I want to reach for the stars. And I know that we can.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.