A Museum Works Hard to Find Steady Ground in Milwaukee – It’s Not Easy

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August 22, 2013; Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

Forgive us Milwaukee for trying to make sense of this story and probably doing a less than wonderful job, but as we read it Milwaukee Public Museum President Jay Williams, 62, is retiring from that job after three years and will stay on as chairman of the museum board of directors. The backdrop for his tenure, however, is what is interesting in that it appears to be a collective effort against the odds to save a treasured local cultural center.

Jay Williams took the helm of the museum a short three years ago, five years after the institution faced up publically to its shrinking endowment and four years after criminal charges were filed against the institution’s chief financial officer Terry Gaouette, who transferred about $3.8 million out of the museum’s endowment fund in 2004 and 2005 without getting legally required permission. Gaouette was not charged with making any personal use of the money, instead using it it for normal museum operating expenses, but the quiet erosion eventually came to light and eventually forced a 45 percent reduction in staff.

Williams took the helm 4 years later after a Herculean effort on the part of Dan Finley, another CEO also credited with shepherding a portion of the turnaround. Williams has apparently had his own tough but heroic times. He led the negotiations with two banks which wrote off a $10.8 million in debt and was credited with “impeccable timing” by Stephen Cady, the fiscal analyst for the County who called the debt a “huge albatross around the museum’s neck.”  He also forged an agreement with the county that resulted in $3 million to pay down the museum’s pension debt and continues up to $3.5 million a year in county support through 2022.

The county had every reason to step in if they felt that the recovery plan was a good one. Since 1992 the nonprofit Milwaukee Public Museum Inc. has operated the museum but the building and artifacts are owned by the county. This does not leave an easy road for the museum in that they reportedly based their support on the museum’s continued capacity to raise private money and its ability to meet attendance goals.

The former bank exec.  who will stay on as board chair admits, “Though we are certainly in a more sustainable position, it is not an invincible position.” Williams seems to be unallergic to straight talk, having described the circumstances in the museum’s latest annual report for 2012 as “very challenging.” He cited unanticipated problems linked to the losses related to a blockbuster Cleopatra exhibit and growing pension costs as factors in a disappointing $3.5 million loss that year. “Our future remains fragile,” Williams said at that time, instituting furloughs for top managers, including himself and other cost cutting measures.

As NPQ has reported recently in any number of Newswires, many museums are having a tough go of it right now. The perfect storm often involves shrinking endowments, overspending on facilities, and exhibits that do not pay off despite the best business planning and the need to adjust to the new interests and learning habits of visitors. (Can you spell recession?) This museum is no exception, albeit with a few distinguishing story elements. –Ruth McCambridge