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When it comes to public arts funding, RMSC is the elephant in the room 

click to enlarge A full-sized replica mastadon in the Expedition Earth exhibit at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

ROCHESTER MUSEUM AND SCIENCE CENTER

A full-sized replica mastadon in the Expedition Earth exhibit at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

When conversation among leaders of Rochester’s arts and cultural organizations turns to funding from Monroe County for operations like theirs, it is often done in hushed tones so as to not disturb the elephant in the room.

That would be the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

There isn’t much in the way of county funding for the arts in and around Rochester. But of what the county offers each year, more than two-thirds of it goes to RMSC. For years, that figure has been $900,000. 

The museum’s outsized portion of the county’s arts funding has been a staple of county budgets for so many decades that even the longest-serving heads of cultural institutions around town don’t have a handle on why.

Now, amid a pandemic that has dealt a severe financial blow to arts and cultural groups across the board, some are asking why.
click to enlarge Hillary Olson, an Ogden native, is the chief executive officer of the Rochester Museum and Science Center. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Hillary Olson, an Ogden native, is the chief executive officer of the Rochester Museum and Science Center.
“I’m sure people say it when I’m not in the room,” said Hillary Olson, the president and chief executive officer of the museum. 

“But when I am in the room, I’ve been very open about it,” Olson said. “I have to take the time to explain the fact that we are a quasi-public institution.”

Sort of. Kind of.

RMSC is a private, nonprofit educational institution chartered by the state Board of Regents and overseen by a board of trustees. The museum is public to the extent that all chartered museums are “public trusts” and hold their collections for the public benefit.

RELATED: If Rochester is a 'City of the Arts,' why don't we fund the arts?

But the museum was once a public institution, like a library, whose expenses were shouldered entirely by the public.

Founded in 1912 as the Municipal Museum of Rochester, the museum was fully owned, operated, and funded by the city.

By the 1960s, though, that arrangement had become financially unfeasible for the city, which was spending about $350,000 a year on the museum, according to news reports of the day.

The Rochester Museum and Science Center was founded in 1912 as the Municipal Museum of Rochester, a public museum. - ROCHESTER MUSEUM AND SCIENCE CENTER
  • ROCHESTER MUSEUM AND SCIENCE CENTER
  • The Rochester Museum and Science Center was founded in 1912 as the Municipal Museum of Rochester, a public museum.
To save the museum, city and county officials in 1967 took what they called “a metropolitan approach” to the problem. They struck a deal to make the museum the nonprofit it is today and its costs “borne equitably throughout the county,” according to a county resolution adopted that year.

Under the agreement, and according to news reports, the museum would change its name to the Rochester Museum and Science Center and the county would foot the bill for two-thirds of the cost of operations and the city would pay for the remaining third.

Three years later, though, the city tapped out and the county agreed to assume all the costs associated with the museum that year, a figure that was reportedly $586,000.

What was not clear from news reports or County Legislature records was whether the county agreed to pay all the museum’s costs in perpetuity. The Legislature’s resolution, passed in August 1970, only authorized the county to pay for the city’s share that year. The county even floated a bond to cover the extra expense.

Either way, the county’s annual contribution to the museum steadily climbed until it peaked at $1.8 million in 1989. From there, it declined to where it is now.

Olson said the museum’s archivist couldn’t locate any contract RMSC might have with the county, but noted that museum officials have understood the spirit of the deal to be that the county would bear the museum’s expenses.
RMSC Executive Director Richard Shultz wrote that, "Historically, there has been a special relationship between the taxpayer and our organization," in an essay in the Democrat and Chronicle on Nov. 5, 1993.
  • RMSC Executive Director Richard Shultz wrote that, "Historically, there has been a special relationship between the taxpayer and our organization," in an essay in the Democrat and Chronicle on Nov. 5, 1993.

“The county is responsible for the care of our collections,” Olson said.

Indeed, when the county proposed a fourth straight year of funding cuts to RMSC in 1993, the executive director at the time, Richard Shultz, wrote an essay accusing the county of “running away” from its obligation to the museum.

But his essay, published in the Democrat and Chronicle, never explicitly outlined the obligation. The closest it came was in describing that the city and county had agreed to “share support of our expenses” and that the city backed out in 1970.

“The collections of which the RMSC Board of Trustees is and staff are custodians,” Shultz wrote, “. . are the property of the body politic — the general public — and this seems to suggest an established bond between the RMSC and the taxpayer.”

The county’s contribution to the museum bottomed out at $900,000 in 2004.

Today, that figure accounts for about 12 percent of RMSC’s expenses, according to the museum’s tax filings. The museum makes up the rest mostly through federal and state grants, program service revenue, and investment income, the tax filings show.

“We were essentially a city organization for so long and then that transferred to the county,” Olsen said. “At some point, the county began backing down on its funding for us, and that’s been pretty painful.”

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.
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