Museum’s autonomy to provide new beginning
“The museum is going to take on a new beginning because of this,” said the facility’s director, Joe Weickart.
The agreement allows the museum to use the town’s 35-acre parcel of land from Jan 1. 2011, through Dec. 31, 2035.
Except for annual subsidies of $475,000 for the calendar years 2011 through 2014, Amherst will no longer be allocating funding for the museum. Effective next month, the town will no longer employ anyone working there.
Town Supervisor Barry Weinstein had been discussing privatization of the museum since February. Weinstein said he had been working with Weickart and the museum’s board of directors to create the best agreement possible.
“I would like to thank the museum board in understanding that autonomy was the best option in its future,” Weinstein said. “I think everyone at the museum will look at this as a historic moment when the museum was able to throw off the shackles of the town. The autonomous Amherst Museum has been set up to succeed.”
The museum will now have its own insurance policy and be paying for utilities and workers compensation.
The agreement states that if there are any major repairs that need to be made to the museum’s infrastructure within the first year, the town will pay half the cost.
Weickart said he believes the agreement lifts restrictions from the museum because work on museum grounds will no longer have to be conducted by town employees.
“Until now, we couldn’t build or mow the lawn without town workers,” he said. “It was part of the town’s ownership that town employees must do work at the museum. We will now have a lot more freedom.”
While he said the first year of the museum’s autonomy may prove challenging, the facility will succeed.
He said that in addition to funding cuts, the museum also endured a decline in its number of employees. Weickart, the museum director for the past five years, said while there were 16 full-time and two part-time employees five years ago, there have been only nine full-time employees in 2010.
On Jan. 1, when the agreement takes effect, the museum will have a three-person staff. Weickart said that although there is less staff, the museum may now be able to have an outside contractor conduct landscaping as well as seek volunteers to assist in some of the duties previously performed by town personnel.
He said that within the next several months, the museum will be hiring a new clerk/bookkeeper and facilities manager.
“In the past couple of years, our funding from the town had been declining,” Weickart said. “There was only so much we could do with the money we had. Now we are able to make the museum more engaging while still holding on to its mission of education.”
He said the privatization also opens further avenues for grant funding because it is not restricted by the town. Weickart said stipend funds are available to assist the museum in funding and paying bills for a majority of 2011.
Weickart said he and the museum’s board are optimistic that the autonomy will provide a better future for the facility.
“This is a breath of fresh air,” said David Sherman, president elect of the museum’s board of directors. “This is a great opportunity for the museum. There is no reason this community shouldn’t have a significant museum resource.”
In the interests of full disclosure, Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers. He has been the Amherst town historian for the past three years as well as a member of the museum board.
Weickart said the museum, which has 13 buildings on the property, will be unaltered by the town’s agreement.
He said nothing will be removed, but adding exhibits and buildings is a greater possibility now that the museum is not under the town’s control.
“We can update our exhibits and add what we want when we want,” he said. “We will start small, but we are free to plan and do what we want. It’s a new beginning.”
An acquisition Weickart said the museum will soon be adding a 19th century barn, which is behind the former Newman Center, off Main Street and east of Erie Community College’s North Campus property.
Weickart said the structure will be disassembled, relocated and reassembled near the Hoover House on the property. He said the community should understand that the museum offers immense culture and provides a look back at the town’s beginnings.
The Amherst Museum was formed as a department of the town in 1972, and each of its buildings represent the history of Amherst. Weickart said the exhibits are not just items on a shelf or hanging on a wall.
“People should know it’s not a static thing here at the museum,” Sherman said. “It’s a living, breathing thing.”
Weickart said people are able to tour each of the buildings on the museum grounds, and there is a wealth of information that can be gained by visiting the facility.
He said schools from across Western New York schedule field trips at the museum throughout the year and view Victorian dancers and live blacksmith demonstrations.
“We offer tours for students and have space for corporate meetings,” he said. “Students can even learn in one of our classrooms at the museum.”
Weickart also said he hopes to begin collaborating with other area museums, such as the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society now that the museum has autonomy.
“The atmosphere for collaboration and partnership is at its greatest,” he said. “Perhaps now we can work with other local museums.”