City Council Funds Museum Center for Partial Year

Following months of uncertainty about its future, the Fullerton Museum Center has received enough funding to operate on a reduced schedule through the rest of 2021. The City will also reimburse the Fullerton Museum Center Association over $ 51,770 for expenses incurred while the facility has been closed. Rather than allocate any funding in its annual budget, passed on June 1, the Council chose to award the Museum $100,000 from the City’s General Fund, enough for the Museum to operate three days per week for about six months.

Except for a fundraiser exhibit last fall, the Museum has not been open to the public since March 2020 when COVID-19 restrictions forced its closure. The Council voted to defund the Museum in the annual City budget it passed in June 2020. In prior years the City budgeted over $600,000 annually for the Museum, with the Fullerton Museum Center Association (FMCA) raising over $160,000 through the popular Thursday night market beer garden, gift shop, and other fundraisers.

The FMCA, whose Board has struggled to keep the Museum alive after its abrupt closure last year, submitted four different funding options to the City Council for their June 15 meeting. The options, first communicated to the Council in a memo in late April, were presented to the Council during the June 14 meeting by Interim Deputy City Manager Christa Johnson.  In her temporary position, Johnson oversees the Parks & Recreation Department, which oversees the facility and its employees, all of whom have now been either laid off or reassigned and  worked directly for that department.

The four options presented to the Council were:

A. Maintain the current City budget that defunded the Museum altogether.

B. Continue to operate as in the past with $600,000 in funds from the City, but reduce operations to three days per week.

C. Grant the Museum $205,000 to operate with no City staff, but enough to hire a full-time director and some part-time staff.

D. Determine some other level of City funding to allow FMCA to operate the Museum based on the amount of the grant.

The Council ultimately chose option D, with no City staff to operate the Museum.

FMCA also had also previously requested that the City reimburse them for over $51,000 lost to nonrefundable fees for cancelled exhibitions—an expense blamed, at least in part, on their inability to access Museum mail for the period of time when Board members were locked out of the facility. The Board also had to spend more than $13,000 to ship a “priceless” item on loan to the Leo Fender exhibit portion of the Museum back to the Roy Acuff Museum in Tennessee, according to Fullerton Museum Center Association Board President Janet Buzan. The reimbursement will come from savings found in the current fiscal year’s Parks & Rec. budget.

Days later, Buzan said of the Council’s decision to grant the funds, “Given the situation, I think it was a good outcome. The thing that is most important now is that we are communicating with Council.” Earlier this year FMCA had complained that the now former City Manager was conducting tours of the Museum with prospective operating partners without including, or even informing, Board members.

Despite receiving only enough money for the next six months, Buzan told The Observer, “We feel confident that we will have funding for the whole year and are going forward with grants. They [the City Council] need to make some decision about how they want to move forward in terms of our relationship as partners.”

5th District City Councilmember Ahmad Zahra, who represents the Council on the FMCA Board, pushed for enough funding for the Museum to operate for a full year to allow for exhibits to be booked years into the future. He also supports the grants that fund them, which would not be funded in the current annual cycle, to be available for the future exhibitions.

“If we can’t book beyond six months, then we may as well not open it,” Zahra said.

Zahra suggested that if a full $200,000 couldn’t be given to the Museum immediately, then at least the Council could commit to a second $100,000 installment at some point in the near future from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds awarded to the City. The Council was unwilling to commit to using ARPA funds without further analysis of how the money is allowed to be spent, however, even though it is commonly understood that the federal funds are meant to reimburse cities for revenues lost during the pandemic. More detailed guidance about how ARPA funds may be used is expected in July.

As a possible source for future funding, Zahra, seconded by the 3rd District’s Jesus Silva, asked that the Council add to a future meeting agenda consideration of an ordinance establishing a City arts fund. Many cities, including neighboring Brea, charge developers a 1% fee that pays for arts programs with funds awarded to city programs and non-profit organizations.

Councilmember Jung agreed with Zahra’s suggestion to add renegotiating the FMCA’s contract with the City, which expires in June 2024, to his Council motion to award the $100,000 funds. The current contract prohibits FMCA from directly hiring employees, although they can contract with personnel on a temporary basis as they have for the upcoming exhibit by contract with a curator. Removing the hiring prohibition would allow the museum to begin building a staff of its own, although Board President Buzan later acknowledged in conversation with The Observer the seriousness and complexity of FMCA taking on that role.

Speaking before the Council during the June 14 meeting, FMCA Board member Harmeet Chana, emphasized the importance of hiring professional staff, saying that volunteers and the Board could not run the Museum by themselves. The Museum’s lucrative beer garden, for example, which is the largest single source of funds raised by the Board, needed staffing to operate.

FMC has scheduled just two exhibitions for the remainder of 2021. The first is “Have Blues will Travel” about the “Green Book” published to direct African Americans to safe lodging during segregation, from the Blues Museum in Missouri. The exhibition was originally set to open in early July but has now been rescheduled to open on July 24. At press time the exhibition shipment had been delayed and was expected to arrive on June 25.

A planned exhibit about the late Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda, who was a longtime resident of Fullerton, has been put on hold for the present time.

Buzan said she hopes the opening, for which the Museum will be booking a live band, will be “a wonderful opening and a welcome back for our members and others who have supported us for all these years,” adding that the community needed something to celebrate.

The Museum’s second exhibition of 2021 will be a collaborative one on the theme of the indigenous peoples of Southern California, a collaboration with Fullerton College, Cal State Fullerton, and other local galleries and museums, and is to open in the fall.

Ahmad Zahra later told The Observer that the Museum Center would not survive without some City support, explaining that ticketing, memberships, and a $100 per member fundraiser suggested by 2nd District Councilmember Nick Dunlap during the June 14 meeting would not enough to fund the institution.

“We need to figure out a way to create a revenue stream outside the general fund dedicated for that particular use, in addition to helping them plan to succeed long term,” Zahra said.

Nonetheless, Zahra is optimistic about the Museum’s future, saying that the Board has discussed how to pursue corporate sponsorship, but recognizes that they need stability to cultivate those relationships. He had hoped for a year’s worth of underwriting by the City, but still thinks the Museum is viable, noting that the Board has hired a grant writer and has exhibits on the way.

Zahra said that arts in the city are a good attraction for businesses. “That is our heritage. Arts and culture. We need to invest in things that will become attractions for people to come and see, and they will spend the dollars in local areas. That is what comes back to our City.”