The beleaguered City Museum of Washington has decided to close its exhibit galleries to the general public next spring. The decision, in effect, terminates the museum aspects of the multimillion-dollar project, which has struggled to find an audience and a distinct voice since its opening in May 2003 by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Its lucrative use as a party space, however, will continue.
As a museum, the halls were often empty. By the end of August, the museum had attracted only 36,536 paying patrons, far short of the 100,000 to 450,000 that had been projected.
The museum board notified its supporters that all exhibits will close next April, but the historic building, the original Carnegie Library in downtown Washington, will remain open for public programs and for researchers at the society's library. As long as the original exhibitions are intact, the board decided, school groups can make appointments to see the materials. The one successful function that will continue will be renting out the historic building on Ninth Street NW, opposite the Washington Convention Center, for private receptions and dinners.
"We made the difficult decision to close all Museum exhibits as of April 18, 2005, and to launch a planning process to create a dynamic new Museum that truly engages the public in the rich and fascinating history of the city," Thornell Page and Leslie Shapiro, the co-chairmen of the board, said in a statement. Shapiro said the initial mistake was opening without enough money to sustain the museum's ambitions and advertise its content.
The statement comes one day after the board decided not to host a special event by local artists that was designed to bring more people into the museum by injecting a little irreverence and fun. The museum had agreed to exhibit a collection of "Funky Furniture" by a volunteer confederation of artists called Art-O-Matic 2004. However, some of the themes were considered unsuitable for the museum's main audience of children. The show was scheduled to open this week.
The museum opened 18 months ago with considerable fanfare, supported by local businesses, foundations and residents who wanted a comprehensive place that would tell a different Washington saga. It would detail the history of the local neighborhoods and residents long overshadowed by the stories of people who ran the federal business of the capital. It hoped to be a gateway for tourists whose interest in the city would be whetted by the materials there and who in turn would discover areas off the Mall by themselves.
The museum founders raised $20 million, most of which was spent on the restoration of the building. "It ate up the initial funds," said Sean Duffy, a member of the museum board. Congress appropriated $2 million to complete the work on the building and $1.7 million for programs. The city agreed to lease the library to the museum for $1 per year for 99 years. Several of Washington's best-known philanthropic families gave millions of dollars.
When the anticipated crowds didn't materialize, the museum dismissed 12 of its 28 employees and began to rely heavily on renting out its space for parties and dinners. Those special events raised $415,000 in 16 months, compared with $78,000 from admissions.
"Given the trends in terms of patronage at the exhibits, it wasn't sustainable," said Rich Bradley, executive director of the D.C. Downtown Business Improvement District. "What was sustainable was to keep the facility open, keep the library open and use the glorious space for events. It would serve a purpose in the community. From a financial point of view, this puts them on the right track." Bradley is one of the planners for the museum's future.
From the beginning, the museum faced several difficulties. It charged an admission, which is largely taboo in the broad world of free Washington museums. But George Washington's home at Mount Vernon has a regular fee, the Phillips Collection charges an admission for special exhibitions and on weekends, and the privately operated International Spy Museum charges admission every day. All do well.
The museum is situated just north of the bustling Gallery Place neighborhood and across the street from the convention center, which had 1 million visitors in its first year. Yet the building sits on its own tract of land, surrounded by treacherous traffic, and looks isolated. Visitors, including some members of the board, found the main exhibition about local history confusing because it was organized around themes, such as the fight for home rule, instead of a straightforward date-and-event scheme. A 23-minute film about the city was a little too avant-garde for some visitors and offered little information about the days after World War II, mostly ignoring the end of segregation. The permanent exhibition did win an award of merit from the American Association for State and Local History.
Who the museum serves is also a lingering question that supporters hope will be addressed during the rethinking period. "One of the issues they are wrestling with is, 'Is this Washington the city or Washington the city with its federal undertaking?' Who are you telling the story to? Are you telling the story to Washingtonians or are you telling the story to tourists and Washingtonians?" Bradley said.
On Monday a management consultant started working to help direct the reorganization. Shapiro said yesterday that the board would have to raise money for the planning phase and to close any budget gap the rental income doesn't cover. Another capital campaign will be launched to implement the new plans. Supporters still intend to ask the city for a permanent line-item subsidy of $1 million a year. Discussions for improvements have included opening a restaurant and becoming a stop for tour buses. Those plans "will work if we have the numbers" of visitors, Shapiro said.
Camille Riggs Mosley, a member of the museum's board and the planning group, said the original stakeholders are still interested in the project. "We have called on a lot of old relations and asked, 'Will you ride this out with us?' Most of the stakeholders have a personal story they want the museum to tell, and they are willing to pony up. The way we are reevaluating has given people confidence. If we continued to flounder, then we would be irresponsible," Mosley said.