The Museum’s Private Parts
P.G. moves to transfer museum operations to Packard-influenced foundation.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
The city of Pacific Grove has owned and operated its Museum of Natural History for almost a century. But soon a private entity, the Museum Foundation of Pacific Grove, may take over operations.
That could be a huge relief for city leaders struggling to fund the free institution. “Without the foundation stepping forward, the museum closes,” says Lori Mannel, the museum’s directing manager.
But a few residents worry the public-private partnership could disenfranchise the people who love the museum most. “I think the people of P.G. will lose their connection to the museum,” says Esther Trosow, who worked at the museum for more than 15 years.
On April 29 (past the Weekly’s deadline), the P.G. City Council considered a non-binding letter of intent to turn museum operations over to the foundation. The city would lease out the facilities and collections, contribute about $150,000 per year and remain responsible for maintenance and insurance.
The foundation, meanwhile, would run the exhibits and programs for 15 years, beginning July 1. Museum staff would keep training Butterfly Sanctuary volunteers but would no longer be responsible for the Point Pinos Lighthouse. The foundation would employ museum staff, but admission would remain free.
Foundation board president Jason Burnett, son of Monterey Bay Aquarium founders Nancy and Robin Burnett and grandson of Silicon Valley billionaire David Packard, has fond memories of playing on the museum’s whale statue as a kid. “Hopefully kids will continue doing that,” he says.
But Trosow isn’t comfortable with the heavy Packard influence. Mannel once worked for Hewlett-Packard, and Burnett is a David and Lucile Packard Foundation trustee.
She views with some suspicion the city’s decision two years ago not to levy new taxes or fees on the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which sits partly on P.G. property. “I think this is a quid quo pro for taking the tidepool lease and admissions tax, which were potential revenue generators, off the table,” she says.
Soon after, the city reduced its annual museum support. In June 2008, the City Council approved the idea of a new charitable foundation to take financial control of the institution. That fall, the Packard Foundation gave the city more than $230,000 to set a new course for the museum.
The Packard grant will run out this summer, but it may be renewed if the partnership goes through. Without private support, according to the city report, the museum won’t be able to maintain its regular hours.
In Trosow’s view, the city shouldn’t even consider the public-private proposal. “A more prudent plan would be to close the museum some days,” she says.
But Burnett, a Carmel-by-the-Sea resident who spent nine years with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says he was recruited to the Museum Foundation because of his environmental background. “The board will be a part of the [museum’s] financial well-being,” he adds, “and hopefully I can assist through fundraising.”
He says he’ll recuse himself from Museum Foundation board discussions involving the Packard Foundation, and vice versa.
Mannel describes the Packard grant as philanthropy with few strings attached. “The museum would have closed last year without the Packard money. They’ve done nothing but provide a bridge to where the museum can be financially stable,” she says. “We have so many more programs and activities and richer exhibits because of the funding.”
4/30 UPDATE: The City Council approved the letter of intent to transfer museum operations to the Museum Foundation by a 5-2 vote last night.