Nearly seven years ago, as the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History was gearing up to show off its new $80 million building to the public, the Great Recession was starting to take its toll on the local economy.
In late 2009, the museum moved into the colorful building designed by Mexico City-based architects Ricardo and Victor Legorreta, described by some critics as dazzling. Almost twice the size as its old home, it allowed the museum to display more of its 200,000-piece collection. The museum had operated out of trailers while the building was being constructed, and as exhibits were meticulously put in place, public anticipation grew.
By all accounts, 2010 was going to be a banner year. While it was a strong year, it fell short of expectations. Since that time, revenues have seesawed and attendance has declined.
Museum officials say they have persevered. Now, as they celebrate the museum’s 75th anniversary this week, they continue to look for new ways to meet its educational mission and community commitments.
“You know what, the last few years might have been tough for us,” said Van Romans, who joined the museum in 2004 as its president and developed the plan that called for the new building. “I’m so terribly proud of where we’ve been and how we struggled. We are looking to the future. This museum has never stood still. We’ve always looked to the future to do some extraordinary things.”
Moving into the new building proved more difficult than anticipated. Exhibits didn’t fit quite right and business models for the museum store and cafe weren’t working either, he said.
Also, within months of opening, the city implemented a $5 fee at a nearby garage where patrons parked.
“That immediately had an impact on our financial well-being from the membership standpoint. Members started to complain,” Romans said.
In 2011, total revenue fell to $9.9 million, down from $11.6 million in 2010, according to its nonprofit financial filings with the IRS. Over the next three years, revenue climbed, and in 2014 (the most recent figures available) stood at $11.4 million, in part because contributions rose $2.25 million, to $6.8 million. The museum also spent $1.5 million less than the year before.
Attendance at the museum, through ticket purchases, events and programs, declined 13 percent, from 758,493 in 2010 to 659,349 in 2014, according to museum figures. During that time, the museum started facing competition from the $185 million Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, which opened in December 2012.
Changes had to be made.
Store operations have been outsourced and the museum now oversees the food service, making each profitable, Romans said. And the museum and city eventually reached a lease agreement for a 200-car parking lot, where the museum could charge its own rates. Next, the museum is looking at the Omni Theater, a big money maker in the past that has not been able to land the best IMAX movies without new digital equipment.
We understood that we really needed to recalibrate and understand our business plan for the museum. I had a trustee tell me at one point that it would take me five years to really understand the building. I’m not sure I believed him at the time. Five years was a long time.
Van Romans, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History president
“We understood that we really needed to recalibrate and understand our business plan for the museum,” Romans said. “I had a trustee tell me at one point that it would take me five years to really understand the building. I’m not sure I believed him at the time. Five years was a long time.”
Now he does.
As the museum gets ready to throw a 75th anniversary gala Thursday for more than 500 people, including many of city’s most influential citizens, the effervescent Romans remains positive.
New initiatives are expected to be announced that are technology-related, including changes to the museum’s 33-year-old Omni Theater.
At the gala, officials are expected to announce a “new experience” that has been in the works for a couple of years, designed to move the museum forward another 75 years and solidify its position as a Fort Worth tourist attraction.
Planning for the future
Alston Roberts, who has served on the museum board for about a decade, the last three as chairman, said the science museum is in the black, having learned a few years ago to start setting aside money for down times. The museum also learned there are times when you need to hold off on purchases and put off doing improvements, he said.
In February, the museum shuttered a satellite location it operated in downtown Fort Worth since 1984 to save money. The museum said the exhibit wasn’t drawing many visitors anymore and the building’s owner, Sundance Square, wanted the prime space back for its own use.
All nonprofits faced challenges in the recession, Roberts said. But because the science museum had a financial plan in place, the board feels good about the future, he said. Significant changes were made to help revenue streams and they’re working, he said.
Everyday you have to plan for the future. You have to focus on financial sustainability. Sometimes you have to tighten your belt. That’s what we did.
Alston Roberts, museum chairman
“Every day you have to plan for the future,” said Roberts, who attended its museum school as a kid. “You have to focus on financial sustainability. Sometimes you have to tighten your belt. That’s what we did.”
A look at the museum’s IRS filings show the museum lost $630,625 in 2011, one of the worst years of the recession locally. The museum released some 2014 figures that show a $2.5 million profit on revenues of $11.4 million. Contributions in 2014 jumped a whopping 48 percent, from $4.6 million to $6.8 million. It included a $1 million gift from Fort Worth’s Kleinheinz Family Foundation that specifically will be used to upgrade technology.
The museum has had huge backing from the community since it was started by a group of teachers as the Fort Worth Children’s Museum. It moved to its current spot in the Cultural District at 1600 Gendy St. in 1954 and changed its name in 1968. Forty years later, it rebuilt its facilities and in 2007 renewed a land lease with the city, working out a 30-year lease for $1 annual rent.
A year ago, Romans sent a letter to the city manager’s office asking for $2.5 million in funding. The request was turned down. In the letter, Romans said that despite the museum’s efforts, it still had a $988,000 gap between income and expenses. The reason, he noted, was “because of the $1.9 million it gives back to the community in free or discounted programs.”
Some of that programming is with schools, and includes the 21st Century Learning Academy, a five-day program for third grade to eighth grade teachers to learn about Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, to use in their classrooms. In 2014, the museum started a 30-week program with Morningside, Carroll Peak and Briscoe elementary schools that uses its Museum School curriculum. And it offers 20 family nights to the schools, allowing families to visit its permanent exhibits.
“The city did turn us down and that’s OK, because they have a lot pressures on them and we understood,” Romans said. Instead, he said, “We’ve become entrepreneurial in a way that is exceptional for museums around the country. We rely on the community as a whole. We’re not endowed by one foundation; one family. So it is more of a challenge.”
Museums struggling across U.S.
The Museum of Science and History isn’t alone in its struggles. According to the American Alliance of Museums, despite seeing increased attendance numbers between 2009 and 2012, museums nationwide experienced stagnating and declining budgets.
Financial sustainability is a top concern for museums, but at the same time they want to be recognized for their educational value and service to local education, said Laura Lott, president and CEO of the alliance, a Washington-based advocacy organization.
While we’re encouraged when local governments support their museums through a dedicated tax or budget percentage, overall government support of museums isn’t where it needs to be, and private donations can’t always be counted on to fill the gap.
Laura Lott, American Alliance of Museums president and CEO
“While we’re encouraged when local governments support their museums through a dedicated tax or budget percentage, overall government support of museums isn’t where it needs to be, and private donations can’t always be counted on to fill the gap,” Lott said. “To survive, museums have to cut costs, boost earned revenue and embrace new business models and partnerships.”
In Fort Worth, the museum has held off on some preventative maintenance and is asking employees to take on additional tasks. Moreover, staff goes over financial statements monthly. Romans says they are as tight as they can be without compromising programs.
At 75 years, the Fort Worth museum is older than 77 percent of the American Alliance of Museums members, Lott said. There are about 850 million visits to American museums annually, she said.
850 million Annul visits to American museums
“Among our history, science and multidisciplinary museums, the average age is closer to 60 years,” Lott said. “Clearly, the Fort Worth museum has long been a valued institution in its community. The museum has an enormous reputation for early childhood education and has a preschool that has been part of the museum for over 60 years.”
Technology key component
Although reluctant to release too many details before the gala, Romans said technology changes are in the works.
With the help of a trustee who is underwriting the salary, the museum is hiring a chief technology officer from Chicago. The person has done work at the famed Adler Planetarium, among other things, Romans said. In Fort Worth, his goals are to bring technology to exhibits unlike anything the museum has ever seen, Romans said.
Romans said the museum has had the capacity to develop technology, but didn’t have the talent.
The Omni theater will also undergo changes, Romans said. Once the cash cow for the museum providing 80 percent of its underwriting, the Omni now covers only about 20 percent of the museum’s expenses.
He declined to say what that will entail and how it will be accomplished, but museum staff is “studying all of that right now. We’re looking at all kinds of things; its viability and its return on investment. We’re going to try to go digital. By modernizing it, we’re going to have a great big screen, one of the largest in Fort Worth probably. But we also want to continue all the IMAX content that we show. No one’s going to miss anything.”
Technology is key for museums, Lott said.
“We’ve seen the rise of iPhones and apps, which has opened up new ways for museums to engage visitors and enhance the learning that happens in the museum,” she said. “More museums than ever are digitizing their collections.”
Romans said the museum is also investing in its own exhibits. He said the public has been asking that some of its more popular exhibits be put back on display and they are responding.
“We are going to see some amazing things,” said Whit Smith, a Fort Worth businessman and museum board member. “This is such an important institution to Fort Worth. We’ve taken some hits, but the future looks bright.”