CLIFTON PARK, N.Y. — A long-brewing financial problem for the Saratoga County Historical Society has motivated board members to reach out to the county‘s municipal governments for help.
After routinely closing out its fiscal years $10,000 to $20,000 in the red, the deficit appeared to be expanding. Seeing that things were going from bad to worse, board of trustee members, organization supporters, and volunteers agreed to take action.
The county historical society is headquartered at the Brookside Museum, 6 Charlton Street, Ballston Spa. The late 18th-century structure is home to the historical society’s collection of farming implements as well as the home base for its programming. The museum has one full-time staff member, director Michelle Arthur.
“It’s not that we’re hugely deep in the red,” Arthur said Monday. “The real problem is we’ve been there for many years, and we’ve just been pushing it forward to keep us going. We’ve never quite been stable. It’s been grit and determination and finding some way to just keep going. But it’s reached a point where we have to rethink things and come up with a more sustainable business strategy.”
The board of trustees and the museum want to get enough funding to hire two more professional staff, a curator and a marketing person. The curator would not only curate the collection, but assist with programming. The marketing person would put the museum, its role in the community, and the historical society itself front and center with the public and do the required fundraising.
Saratoga County Historical Society is chartered by the New York State Board of Regents and incorporated as a nonprofit. It does business as the Brookside Museum. The collections and the building are a subset of the county historical society.
Where the museum has had a lingering deficit of $10,000 to $20,000 for a number of years, this year Arthur and board members noticed it had grown to nearly $40,000.
Rather than just skirt the edge of the problem and continue on as in the past the board has agreed to finally meet the funding problem head-on. To do that board members are making appearances at local town board meetings explaining the situation and seeking one-time donations to put the museum on more solid footing.
Originally the goal was to get $50,000 in donations this year and a like amount for next year. With donations from the towns of Ballston and Milton of $20,000 each and promised donations from supporters Arthur said the first phase of the goal has been met.
“We’re going to all the town boards, and we’re going to the county,” she said. “We want the county to work with us. They stopped funding us and all nonprofits eight years ago. We lost $10,000 in funding that we had every year for our budget.”
Arthur said the museum lost state funding at the same time as the county’s cutback due to policy changes at the state. In the meantime expenses for the museum have increased, and one reason for that is the state and federal labor department’s changes to minimum salaries.
“The only municipalities that have continually given us support over the years are the towns of Ballston and Milton and the Village of Ballston Spa,” Arthur said. “But we’re not just a Ballston Spa museum even though the museum is here. We give programs at school districts throughout the county. We are a county-wide institution.”
To drive that point home Saratoga County Historical Society board trustee Dave Dittmer made an appearance at the Clifton Park Town Board’s Nov. 18 meeting. Dittmer, who lives in Clifton Park, discussed the museum’s financial situation and asked the town for financial support.
As part of his presentation, Dittmer noted the museum’s connection to many in the Shenendehowa School District community through its popular Sheep to Shawl school program, a program that is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
“Since our founding as a non-profit organization, we have worked on a shoestring budget and frankly, it’s a failing position,” he said. “We are at the point of having to consider closing our doors because we just can’t continue to afford to operate. That is regrettable.”
Dittmer said when the community heard the news of the museum’s financial position there was a groundswell of popular energy to find a way out. Very quickly $13,000 was raised from individual donations. However, he added that the museum had lost more than $30,000 in state and county grants in the past few years.
“In parallel with raising $50,000 by year’s end and another $50,000 in early 2020 we are getting a new business model and hiring a professional fundraiser,” he said. “We are looking to get the historical society on an enduring and professional footing.”
Dittmer asked for a small, long-term donation from the town that will seed the new business model. The town board reflected on the request, but took no immediate action.
As part of board members’ questions, it was revealed that the historical society’s total budget varies between $150,000 and $200,000 annually.
To help change the business model Arthur, the museum director, said the historical society has reached out to SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, and written a grant to a private foundation to fund professional assistance.
“The response from the community since the news of our situation came out has been an overwhelmingly positive,” Arthur said. “They weren’t fully aware of our plight. There’s been good grassroots support and the municipalities have asked the tough questions, as they should.”
To learn more about the museum, its gift shop, the Artisan’s Market or to donate to the Save Brookside Museum effort go to www.brooksidemuseum.org.