Waukesha County Museum still has full archive of questions to answer

Chris Kuhagen
The Waukesha County Museum is housed in the old Waukesha County Courthouse. Museum Board Chairman Tom Constable is hoping to get between $9,000 and $15,000 from a community block grant that would analyze the aging building's needs.
Published on: 5/5/2014

There are still many unknowns and questions that have to be answered in the coming months at the Waukesha County Museum.

This list includes finding the museum's next executive director, if the amount of financial support it receives from Waukesha County continues to decrease during the next budget cycle, the plan the museum will come up with to continue to operate with less public dollars, and after a troublesome audit that showed a major deficit what ways the museum can bring in more revenue in a building that needs significant upgrades and repair.

Tom Constable, museum board chairman, doesn't have all those answers yet, but he says the museum, located on the east side of downtown Waukesha, is on the right track.

A learning experience

Central to this success, he says, is the growth of the museum's education programs over the last year.

"Sometimes I think we're too proud," said Constable, who has been serving as the interim executive director over the last couple of months while he continues to search for the museum's next leader. "We don't toot our horn enough."

Constable and Kristen Hoeker, director of education and programming at the museum, boasted last week that there was a 48 percent increase in educational activity for children and adults for the first four months of this year (6,735 people) compared to last year (4,542).

The activities include on-site at the museum with school groups and Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups as well as the museum staff going to off-site locations throughout the county at day cares, senior centers and schools.

After receiving half of what it received from the county in funding in 2013, the museum is having to manage these large numbers with a decreased staff of only four full-time members.

Constable credits Hoeker for revamping the education program three years ago. The program went from just offering a guided tour to an expansive education guide.

"I went through all of the curriculum of all the grades, we listened to the community to see what they're looking for," Hoeker said.

Pricing programs

These positive numbers, however, won't help the museum's bottom line, which saw a decrease in its net assets of $273,000 during the last fiscal year. Constable said it makes about $55,000 on these programs, but added it costs about $100,000 to deliver them.

"We price it not to make a profit, we price it not to break even," Constable said. "The prices we charge don't cover our costs."

Constable said all museums face the dilemma he's facing, but said others like the Milwaukee Public Museum have more high-profile donors and more county support.

Could the museum increase their prices to close the revenue gap?

"There's that balance that we have to find in what the market will bear and what the session is worth," Constable said. "Are we pricing things right or wrong here? I have no clue. We think we're doing the right thing. We think if we increase prices we're going to hurt ourselves."

Other budget matters

The cost of upgrades to the museum is also on Constable's radar. He will make a request for a Community Development Block Grant worth between $9,000 and $15,000 to analyze the museum's issues with its heating, water, electrical and mechanical systems.

"It's not an easy business to run," Constable said.

With the next budget process coming up soon, Constable said he will make a request to continue to receive funding from the county and will present his business plan to the county.

"We're going to sit down and talk about possibilities," Constable said. "And the way we will do that is say 'Here's what you asked us to do, here's what we've done and we've done everything done you've asked us to do.' We've done more."