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Killing time

The Pioneers Museum has one more year to save itself — or the curtain will fall on some poignant pieces of Colorado Springs-area history

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Time is ticking away. You can almost feel it in the ancient halls, reverberating off the intricate metal bars of the old elevator, graying the faces of the bright wall murals.

One year.

The Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum is home to more than 60,000 objects, from Van Briggle pottery to Ute Indian artifacts. It also holds a library containing rarities like city directories dating to the 1870s and the writings of city founder General William Jackson Palmer. Notes director Matt Mayberry: "There's no other institution in the world that comprehensively collects the history of the Pikes Peak region."

And yet, due to budget cuts, Colorado Springs came close to shuttering the museum. Damn close.

At the last minute, with the urging of Vice Mayor Larry Small, the museum was given just enough to keep its doors open for 2010, so long as it supplemented the city cash by exhausting all available reserves.

The move came after El Paso County commissioners announced they'd pay to keep the museum open. The catch: The city would've had to transfer ownership back to the county, which had basically let the museum rot back in the 1970s. The request peeved many on Council, including Small, who wants the museum to be run by a private foundation, protected from governmental budget meltdowns and political whims.

In 2010, museum staff and supporters will try to create a new way to fund the museum, and keep it open in perpetuity. (This is similar to plans Council made for community centers, pools and other parks assets, though those were only given three months to become self-supporting.)

This all sounds good. But how do a few history buffs find enough cash within a year to keep an institution open forever? Small estimates Pioneers would need up to $1.2 million a year to operate independently, and yet Pioneers is legally barred from charging admission. It has no endowment. Plus, given the economy, this isn't the best time to be asking for millions from other nonprofits.

Charging ahead

On the bright side, keeping the museum open may make it more attractive to potential funders.

An open museum still has community appeal and support, as well as its full collections and some staff. The museum has applied for two small grants — both less than $20,000 — which could fund a planning process.

It's hard to imagine anything too radical emerging.

"Of course everybody hopes for a big endowment, but it would be a big endowment, multi-millions," says Marjorie Westbay, president of the Friends of Pioneers Museum. "Museums are not money-makers; they're not even break-eveners."

Museums are typically funded one of three ways: publicly, by private endowment, or through a public-private partnership. Most folks here are looking at the latter option. Perhaps a nonprofit would take over the operations with some grant and city funding. Maybe a voter-approved parks special district could pay for the museum with help from private donations, or even corporate sponsors.

But is one year realistically enough time to achieve any of this?

"Well," Westbay says, "not really."

One year, however, may be enough time to come up with a plan. If not, closing the museum could be emotionally and financially upsetting.

"You'd still have maintenance in the building," notes Jeff Rosacker, president of the Pioneers Museum Foundation. "There would be utilities that would have to be maintained. There would have to be someone to open the collection for research as needed."

Mothballing the mothballs

Few have spent so much time pondering this place's treasures as Mayberry.

"We museum people take this very seriously," he says, "because it's how you get in touch with the past; it's the tangible evidence of who we are as a people."

There is that plaster of Paris depicting the locked hands of Artus and Anne Van Briggle around a piece of their famous pottery. There is a letter from Abraham Lincoln.

And then there are the smaller voices of local history. Like a 1945 letter from a soldier to his mother. The first part is ordinary, and then the handwriting changes. He starts calling her "Mommy."

He has just found out that World War II has ended.

"His life changed, and you can see it," Mayberry says. "But it also captures when the world changed."

When Council spared the ax, Mayberry was already preparing to mothball the museum. Staff had received termination letters. Some had taken voluntary retirement.

"It was very nice to tell people they're not going to be laid off a week before Christmas," Mayberry says.

But the joy was short-lived. The museum lost three members — about half — of its small staff to retirement, and will need to attract new hires even without any long-term promises.

Grants and outside funding ordinarily used to pay for exhibits, expand the collection, or bring in special events, this year will pay staff and keep the lights on. And since the museum was expecting to close, it didn't plan any shows or invite large groups to tour.

stanley@csindy.com

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