Museums are doing some soul searching

When the Sentinel’s editorial board meets with any kind of organization — whether it’s a nonprofit, a government agency or a citizens advocacy group — we’re usually the ones asking the questions.

Supporters of the Museums of the West threw us a curveball Wednesday. Instead of pitching an idea or defending a controversial decision that would have prompted probing questions, they simply asked for some input.

Because the Sentinel’s editorial board so often advocates for a community vision, a handful of supporters bluntly asked if and how the museums fit into our vision for the community.

Clearly, there’s some soul-searching occurring as the curators of the region’s history look to the future. The basis of this angst boils down to a simple problem: lack of money for the dynamic things the museum must do to be perceived as a vital component of the community’s cultural tableau.

The museum operates on a yearly budget of $1.4 million, $375,000 of which comes from Mesa County. That amount used to be $550,000, but county commissioners have gradually chipped away at the county’s annual subsidy. The museum receives funding based on a 1974 ballot question allowing it to be funded up to 1 mill, but county commissioners have since determined what percentage of that mill the museum actually receives. The erosion of funding has affected its educational offerings and other programs and services.

An appreciation for the value of a museum is part of this county’s heritage. Board members recounted that former Commissioner Kathy Hall essentially secured an election win on a “Save the Museum” platform. But with money short, they’re considering everything from pursing a ballot measure for a small tax hike to fund operations to consolidating campuses to spearheading a scientific and cultural facilities district.

“I think we’re in the hearts of the community,” said board member Ed Gardner. “The question is, how do we get into their pocketbooks?”

The Museum of the West, operated out of the C.D. Smith building on the corner of Fifth Street and Ute Avenue, has a number of challenges including a location next to Whitman Park, a gathering spot for the city’s vagrants.

Yet, the three museums (Dinosaur Journey in Fruita and Cross Orchards on Patterson are the others) contribute to a $16.2 million impact on the local economy, according to a 2014 Colorado Mesa University study.

The museums have a lot going for them, but in some cases lack the marketing schemes and inviting physical flourishes that drive visits. The board needs help looking for the proper direction for the future.  There are a lot of pieces to their puzzle, many of which are dependent on the leadership of our elected officials.

We’ve often noted a lack of beauty and inspiration in Grand Junction and advocated for an expanded arts and culture scene.

We’re glad to be part of a conversation that yielded several promising suggestions. But one way or another, the museums have to capture the community’s support. The board is well aware of this and they’re asking the right questions. Unfortunately, they can’t be answered in a boardroom.


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