High Desert Museum cuts today to grow tomorrow

The High Desert Museum, buffeted by a drop in attendance and changes in public tastes, told its staff Friday that it’s eliminating 17 positions and boosting reliance on volunteers to rein in costs and better prepare the 22-year-old facility for ambitious expansion plans in coming years.

“These actions are the first step toward a financially sustainable organization,” museum (www.highdesertmuseum.org) President Forrest Rodgers said in an a post-staff meeting e-mail to the museum’s many friends on Friday, citing “our difficulty in closing the long-standing gap between operating expense and revenue.”

“The need to live within our means – and to invest in advertising/promotions, meet our campaign debt obligations, and secure funding for future programs and exhibits – requires a significant reduction in our high fixed-cost structure,” Rodgers wrote.

Rodgers told Bend.com / The Bugle that the meeting with staff “went fine” and explained “the way we here at the museum are approaching this action today,” which cuts the staff of 51 by about a third.

“The (museum) board adopted a preliminary vision for the future last December,” Rodgers said. “We spent the spring and summer putting together a site plan for the future. It involves additional animal habitats, added history exhibits, a focus on more wildlife, more exhibitry oriented specifically for kids.”

“It’s very ambitious,” he said. “We have 155 acres, and we’re only using 55 of them. We have a lot of room to grow. We have big ambitions. In order to achieve those, we really have to focus on operating and living within our means, so we can really devote our resources toward planning for the future.”

And so, Rodgers said, “What we’re really doing here is making some program reductions and staff reductions that in the near term will shrink us, but will allow us to grow in the future, We anticipate the visitor will see no difference. We’ll be relying more on our volunteers, who contributed almost 35,000 hours in the past year. They are excited about the opportunity to get more engaged in what we do.”

It’s not the first time in recent years that the museum has undergone staff cutbacks; in fact, it’s the third such significant reduction in five years. In December 2001, the museum cut 7 ½ positions from the payroll to avert a projected $240,000 budget shortfall in the tourism slump immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks (bendbugle.com/?p=3404).

The museum’s paid attendance has been on the decline, and is projected to be about 69,000, off 20 percent form the prior year, “based primarily on a soft summer season,” Rodgers said. “We forecast our total attendance this year (a fiscal year that bean May 1) will be down to 100,000.” (Total attendance includes members and non-paying guests.)

The museum won’t close, cut back operations or sell its collection, and American Association of Museums accreditation is not in jeopardy, the staff was told Friday. The museum will meet its existing obligations but will, for example, suspend marketing of new commitments for after-hours and facility rental activities, as well as off-campus school outreach programs.

Some remaining staff will take on added roles, while others will shift to new responsibilities, Rodgers said.

A memo to the museum board about “positioning” the facility for the future notes that the High Desert Museum “remains a donor-funded visitor attraction. This year, visitors will contribute just 26 percent of net revenue.”

Also, it noted, “The museum currently has no operating contingency or capital reserve fund, leaving only the unrestricted endowment to meet revenue shortfalls and/or emergency capital needs.”

Rodgers said, “The economic climate for the past three hears have affected both visitor behavior – how they spend their money – and philanthropy. The economic climate influences our (attendance) gate.”

“Also, in the last 10 years, audience interests have changed. People spend their leisure time in different ways,” he said. “Part of our planning process is to shape the museum so it is a more evocative and engaging visitor experience.” (Does that mean specially programmed iPods at the door, Rodgers was asked? He laughed and mused, “That might be all that far away from reality.”)

“We have a high fixed-cost structure,” he said. “Permanent exhibits cost a lot of money. It’s hard to always continually change them. A major part of what we’re going to focus on is interpretation, volunteers, living history.”