Council Approves Annual Budget With No Funding for Museum Center

The Fullerton City Council has approved a City budget for 2021-2022 without any funding at all for the Fullerton Museum Center (FMC). The Museum has been closed since March 2020, and defunded since last year, with all staff, who work directly for the City’s Parks & Recreation Dept., either laid off or reassigned. The Museum has not hosted an exhibition since last Fall’s “The FMC and Me,” a two month benefit show of donated work by artists.

District 5 Council member Ahmad Zahra, who serves on the FMC Board, was the only vote against adopting the budget during the June 1 meeting. Mayor Pro Tem Dunlap was not present.

Prior to the vote, Zahra asked the City’s Director of Administrative Services Ellis Chang about the omitted funding.

Chang responded that following the Museum’s 2020 pandemic-related closing “as part of cost reduction measures it was determined at that time that the museum would be closed, and the 2021/22 budget did not include re-opening the Museum.” She did not otherwise elaborate on how the decision to defund the Museum was made.

Chang continued, “Should City Council like to add back opening museum operations, City Council is welcome to direct staff to look into that to see what is feasible to do within the existing budget and what areas of the existing budget would need to be reduced in order to facilitate staffing and operating costs to do so.”

Zahra pointed out that Council had given direction for “an expedited reopening of the museum” back in April, and that the Museum has an exhibit scheduled to open July 1. “Without having at least one employee to do the day-to-day operations, it would be very difficult to meet that deadline,”  Zahra said.

3rd District Councilmember Jesus Silva asked Fullerton’s Parks and Recreation Manager Alice Loya, who has been the City’s main contact with the Museum’s Board, if she could divert some of her staff to help with the Museum. “Unfortunately, the staff that was working at the museum was all laid off during the pandemic, and we have not hired anybody back,” Loya replied, explaining that Parks & Recreation had only a “skeleton crew of 13 staff,” not enough to cover the Museum. The Department also operates the Thursday night market in the adjacent plaza. Sales from the Museum’s beer garden next to the plaza generate a substantial portion of its budget.

A week after the meeting FMC Board President Janet Buzan said that the Board had hired a curator for the next exhibit, “Have Blues will Travel” from the Blues Museum in Missouri. The Fullerton Museum Center Association’s contract with the City does not allow the Board to directly employ staff, although they can temporarily hire independent contractors. The Board expects delivery of the exhibit in mid-June, but has not yet advertised the show because of the uncertainty over staffing. “We’re finding ourselves knee deep in the day-to-day operations. We are volunteers, we are not museum professionals, we raise money for the exhibits,” she said.

Buzan was even unsure if the exhibit would open by its July 1 target date. “We need to take the time to do it well,” Buzan said, adding that it was better to be a couple of weeks late, if necessary.

She said the Board had put forth its best effort to get the museum up and running at least through the end of the year, but needed to know what support, if any, would be coming their way so they could plan beyond that time. “The uncertainly of all of this makes it doubly hard to effectively plan,” she said.

The Board outlined four different funding strategies in a six page memo sent the Council in late April. The first option calls for restoring the full $ 600,000 plus budget for FMC to operate as it had before the pandemic. A second option reduces the budget to $320,000 for a three day per week operation schedule. If the Council still declines to fund the Museum, the third option calls for deferring a funding decision to the next fiscal year while preserving “the potential for some City annual grant funding in an amount to be determined through negotiations” until July 1, 2022. A final, fourth option states that “If the City Council no longer wants to support the Museum in even a minimal fashion, the FMCA Board will seek a temporary contractual relationship with the City Council, and move to identify viable partnerships and collaborations that would allow the museum to operate in the future.”

The Council’s refusal to fund the Museum leaves it in an operational and financial limbo that hampers grant-seeking opportunities, often crucial for planning exhibition schedules years in advance. An uncertain operational future is not attractive to potential funders, who want to ensure that recipient institutions have a stable operational future.

FMCA has both an active General Fund and an endowment, but no funding for staff. In addition to funds raised through the “FMC and Me” exhibit, the Board was able to raise some money through its gift shop late last year, and received two $5,000 COVID relief grants through the County of Orange, as well as $9,000 from a Fullerton Firefighters Association “Fill the Boot” fundraiser. In November some Fullerton restaurants donated a portion of their proceeds to the Museum in a program called Fullerton Gathers. But the Museum lost $ 50,000 in canceled contracts and other expenses related to the facility’s sudden closure last year, funds Buzan said then City Manager Ken Domer agreed the City would backfill.

In February, members of the Board and FMC supporters urged the Council to reinstate funding and complained that the City had locked them out of the facility and conducted tours with other prospective operational partners without inviting or informing the Board. Since that time, the Council has parted ways with both the city manager and Parks & Rec. director, and has sought improved communication with the Board, but has nonetheless dedicated no city funds to operate the Museum.

During the June 1 Council meeting, Jesus Silva inquired about the $16.3 million in federal relief from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) the City recently received, and suggested that some of that could be placed into the General Fund to help the Museum. Administrative Services  Director Chang replied that the City is still waiting on guidance from the federal Department of the Treasury regarding how the city may spend those funds. Acting City Manager Steve Danley said that, once the City had the guidelines, ideas for how to use the ARPA funds will be brought before council.

Guidelines have since been released, but the Council is not expected to be briefed on them prior to their June 15 meeting, when Acting Parks & Rec Director/Deputy City Manager Christa Johnson is expected to present a more detailed update about the Museum Center, including the funding options presented by the Board.

Board President Buzan said that based on what happens this year, FMC can work on becoming more finically independent in the future. “We hope the Council can give us the gift of time,” Buzan said. “I realize hope is not a strategy, but we are hopeful we can work together with the Council in the short term to solve problems in the long term.”