hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues November 2019


Brookside Museum seeks funds to stay open

Local history venue for Saratoga County aims to broaden mission



K. Michelle Arthur, the executive director of the Brookside Museum in Ballston Spa, stands near a hands-on exhibit. The museum’s leaders say it may be forced to close unless it can raise $100,000 in emergency funds by March. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


The Brookside Museum, a center for local history in Saratoga County, could be forced to shut down forever unless it can raise $100,000 in emergency funds by March, its leaders say.
The Saratoga County Historical Society, which has operated the museum since its inception in the early 1970s, says it has launched an urgent campaign to raise $50,000 by the end of the year and another $50,000 in the first quarter of 2020.

The funds are needed to keep the museum operating and to reorganize it with a goal toward long-term financial sustainability, said K. Michelle Arthur, the museum’s executive director, who assumed leadership of the institution a year ago.

Volunteers at the museum say Arthur was hired with the goal of straightening out the museum’s financial situation.

“We’re working with stakeholders and local community members to look at everything in the organization to see what systemically needs to change,” Arthur said. “We can’t just go to the community to ask for funding to keep the lights open for three more months, and just come right back again.”

The museum building itself has been an architectural centerpiece of the village of Ballston Spa for more than 200 years. The stately Federal-style building with Greek-like pillars was built in 1792 as a resort hotel and has had many uses over the years, including as a spa, a boarding house and an apartment building. The historical society bought the structure in 1971 and transformed it into its current role as a center for learning about local history.

Although most people outside Saratoga County may not have heard of it, the Brookside Museum houses 30,000 historical items that illustrate how Ballston Spa and the surrounding region evolved over the past two centuries from an agricultural area to a resort community to an economy based on industry and, more recently, high-tech manufacturing and services.
Each year, the museum draws roughly 4,000 children from area schools for educational programming. Its popular Sheep to Shawl program, for example, guides elementary school students through every stage of the process of wool production -- from shearing a sheep to making a shawl.

It also attracts many local history lovers who want a deeper connection to their community’s roots -- people like Donna Dardaris, who started volunteering for the museum nearly a decade ago and now serves on its board of trustees. She describes herself as a devoted fan of the museum.
“I enjoy the kids’ programs as much as the kids do,” Dardaris said.

But she has also been witness to the institution’s mounting financial stresses.


Taxpayer support wanes
Both Dardaris and Arthur said the number of visitors and donations took a hit during the national financial crisis of 2008-09 and never quite recovered. The museum relies on membership and personal donations for roughly half of its budget, and also receives another 20 percent of its funding from proceeds from its school programming.

That breakdown is somewhat by design, as the historical society wants to keep the price tag for its school programming affordable, Arthur said.

Much of the rest of its funding has traditionally come from contributions from local governments, but that revenue stream also has shrunk in recent years. Saratoga County supervisors, for example, opted to end all of the county’s contributions to local nonprofits in 2011 and 2012.
The museum responded to its declining revenue by cutting back on its staffing, but that in turn may have contributed to a loss of state funding. In the past, Arthur explained, the museum had received about 10 percent of its budget from the New York state Council on the Arts. The council ended that funding three years ago, partly because the museum, in an attempt to save money, had been operating without a full-time executive director and had left a curator position unfilled when it became vacant.

John Dichtl, the president of the American Association of State and Local History, said the Brookside Museum is not alone in having to do more in the face of dwindling resources from governmental sources. Dichtl’s organization provides professional support and resources for historic preservation groups across the nation.

“Anecdotally, speaking to directors of state organizations in a lot of different states, and certainly at the county level within the state, that’s a common story we hear, that government has been cutting back,” Dichtl said. “There are exceptions to that, but the rule is that support is becoming harder and harder to get.”

At the Brookside Museum, the impact of the lost funding becomes clear in the annual Form 990 that the Saratoga County Historical Society files with the Internal Revenue Service. The historical society has never had a large budget, and small reductions in donations can lead an outsized impact.

In 2010, the organization reported $72,000 in revenue. By 2017, the most recent year for which a Form 990 is available to the public, the organization’s annual revenue had fallen to just below $47,000. But its expenses for 2017 were about $73,000, putting it roughly $26,000 in the red.
“I hate to say the museum was living paycheck to paycheck, but that’s kind of the situation,” Dardaris said. “Things finally caught up to us, and we were in danger of not meeting payroll.”


Sustained by volunteers
John Cromie, who has been involved with the Saratoga County Historical Society off and on since its founding in 1961, said the organization has always had to struggle with small budgets.
“They never have been able to have enough money for an endowment,” said Cromie, who now is part of a loose-knit group of local history fans called the Saratoga County History Roundtable. “It was never flush with cash.”

In the mid-1960s, the historical society struck a deal with the county government to use an old county clerk’s office as its first museum, Cromie said. A few years later, the county wanted to tear down the building that contained that office, and it resisted the historical society’s efforts to stay there.

“We were sort of persona non grata at that point, and we were going to be without a home,” Cromie said.

In the early 1970s, a historical society member loaned the organization $13,000 to buy its current home. Known then as the Aldridge House, the historic structure had fallen into disrepair. The historical society fixed up the building and moved its collection there, and in 1975, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Over the years, the organization has often been largely powered by volunteer labor, with varying levels of paid staffing as budgets allowed. In recent years, the society’s trustees realized that its economic structure needed to be overhauled to ensure a viable financial future, Dardaris said. The trustees consulted with retired business executives through the Saratoga County Foundation to diagnose shortcomings in its organizational structure and develop a business plan.

Last year, the historical society hired Arthur, who had experience as a curator, historical educator and education coordinator. And in the short time she’s been at the helm, Dardaris said, Arthur has made a series of changes aimed at improving the economic situation of the organization. She put processes in place to more accurately monitor funds going out and coming in, spaced out the schedule of fund-raising events for greater impact, and applied for grants that now make up about 10 percent of the organization’s total budget. (Most of the grant money cannot be used for operating expenses, however.)


Saving Brookside
Arthur said the focus going forward is to strengthen and broaden the Brookside Museum’s role, making it as much a community gathering place as a museum.

“We want people to come and use this historic building, which was built for people to gather in and enjoy,” Arthur said.

That instinct may be a good one. Dichtl, while not speaking directly about the Brookside Museum’s situation, said the museums seeing the strongest growth are those that make themselves an integral part of their communities.

In October, the American Association of State and Local History released its first-ever survey of “visitorship” at 1,257 historical institutions across the United States. The survey found that the overall number of visitors at these institutions rose 5.7 percent from 2013 to 2018 (with a dip in attendance of 1.9 percent between 2017 and 2018). Small organizations with an operating budget of less than $50,000 saw attendance growth of 18 percent during that period.

“Institutions that are telling an inclusive story, that are finding ways to engage the communities, to be of service to their communities ... those institutions that are making themselves relevant that way, their attendance is going up,” Dichtl said.

The survey, however, didn’t include specific questions to assess why attendance went up at particular museums.

The “Save Brookside” campaign, launched in late October, is already off to a strong start, both Arthur and Dardaris said. Already, town officials from Ballston and Milton have tentatively pledged to provide one-time funding to help. In addition, the Saratoga County Historical Roundtable has kicked off a simultaneous grassroots campaign to raise funds for the museum.
Museum officials also have also been reaching out to potential large donors, and the conversations are going well, Arthur said.

“We are really delighted and grateful for everyone who has turned out for meetings, for donations, for offers of assistance, be it professional expertise, be it envelope stuffing,” she said. “We are now guardedly optimistic to make it through the first phase.”

At the same time, however, the organization is making contingency plans should that first phase of fund raising fall short. These plans would ensure meeting payroll obligations for hours worked and safeguarding the collection’s artifacts if the museum is forced to close in the coming weeks. It’s a grim but necessary process, Arthur said.

“It’s everybody’s worst-case scenario,” she said. “You’re looking for an ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ moment.”