Mayor Scrima blasts Waukesha County Museum's leadership

Published on: 9/24/2013

Five days before Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas presented his proposed 2014 budget to the County Board, Mayor Jeff Scrima offered his solution to what he calls "sinking leadership" at the Waukesha County Museum.

In an email to Waukesha County supervisors last week, Scrima said the museum should consolidate into the Waukesha Public Library.

"We are saddened that for the last 10 years the leadership of the museum has failed to make the museum more financially independent," Scrima said.

Waukesha County Museum Chief Executive Officer and President Kirsten Lee Villegas said she is saddened by the mayor's remarks.

"We are disappointed that once again we learned of Jeff Scrima's opinions via email and only when his email was forwarded to us by a member of the media after the fact," Villegas said. "This pattern shows an unprofessional method of conducting critical city, county and community planning. It is unusual that the museum has not been contacted about any of these thoughts or ideas.

"His inaccurate characterization of the museum and its leaders ignores the facts and is at odds with the museum's run of successes and upward trajectory over the past several years, including the successful opening of the long-awaited Les Paul exhibit."

At last month's Waukesha County Board meeting, Villegas delivered an emotional plea to the board to provide the same amount of funding — $300,000 — in 2014 as it did in previous years.

Vrakas' budget could include funding for the museum.

Leadership 'rudderless'

Scrima, however, said consolidation "saves (the) County Board money."

"We believe this is a viable solution, and we would like to engage the county in laying out a plan," Scrima said. "It ends up being a win-win for both the county and city through this solution.

"We're able to keep our history afloat and enhance the award-winning library that we already have in the City of Waukesha and keep the museum and artifacts within the city."

Scrima took issue with results from studies the museum has conducted over the last couple of years as it looks to become more of a 21st-century regional attraction.

"It appears the museum is rudderless as they hired consultants to do a study, which would move it out of the city next to the freeway," Scrima said. "They have no money to fund anything like that."

While the studies have explored relocating, Villegas said no decision has been made on moving from its downtown location.

"We have no immediate plans to vacate that building," Villegas said last month. Villegas said the museum is nearly complete with a feasibility study on ways to generate private funding. She said the county's support has helped pay for the study.

Partnership to continue?

Villegas, who took the helm of the museum in 2008, is overseeing the studies, and has been working to make the museum more self-sufficient. She was also instrumental in the new Les Paul exhibit.

To support his assertion that the museum's leadership is "sinking," Scrima referred to a 2003 contract between the county and the museum. The contract was made when the museum took ownership from the county. Through the 10-year agreement, taxpayers still funded some of the museum expenses, at a cost of less than 80 cents per tax bill per year for a total of $300,000.

"Those 10 years are up, and they have not become more financially independent," he said.

Villegas, who wasn't with the museum at the time of the agreement, wants the partnership to continue.

"There was no language in the agreement that the purpose is for the Waukesha County Museum to be 100 percent self-sufficient after 10 years," Villegas said at last month's meeting.

She said the partnership with the county is similar to a national model.

But Scrima said museums around the country are collaborating more now with libraries.

"The world is changing," Scrima said. "Technology is changing, and in order for museums to thrive, they have to be more flexible. It's about bringing history to people in new ways.

"The most-innovative libraries are now moving toward this type of hybridization model — becoming community centers of history, reading and culture."

Not looking to impose

Scrima said a space needs analysis was done at the library earlier this year.

"With what we have available," Scrima said, "we're poised to renovate the current space, and if another collaborative partnership is possible, we could consider expansion, but there are no plans to expand at this point."

Library Director Grant Lynch, however, said the study had nothing to do with the museum.

"We're here if the County Board of Supervisors asks us for assistance," Lynch said. "We're ready to assist the city or county in any way we can on any issue that may come up down the road, museum related or not."

He said the library only offered to be a solution as a way to preserve the artifacts if funding wasn't available for the museum's current location.

Villegas would like to continue to work with many partners in a collaborative way.

"The museum's expert staff and experienced board have an exciting vision plan for the future, developed in conjunction with top industry professionals," Villegas said. "The plan allows for strategic collaboration with many community partners.

"We welcome representatives from the library and City of Waukesha to discuss how they may be able to collaborate with the county museum's sophisticated and thoughtful future development plans."

Up to the county

If a consolidation were to happen in the future, Scrima said the city would make sure the building — a national historic site built in 1893, where the museum is housed — would be filled.

He said interested parties have been in contact with him, including a school and private developers. But because the city doesn't own the building, and with the museum still there, talks have stalled.

Scrima said a decision on the museum is up to the County Board, but added, "How long does our County board want to fund an organization whose leadership is sinking? The County Board deserves to know, and discuss the possibility of, a solution that can and will save the taxpayers money and keep our history afloat."

Lack of communication

Scrima acknowledged that he has not talked about his consolidation idea with Villegas.

"Because the response and the communication we've gotten from the museum leadership has been very poor," Scrima said.

Villegas said Scrima has not communicated well with her.

"We hope Scrima adopts a more collaborative, constructive and methodical approach for managing city government going forward and contacts the museum staff and board about his thoughts directly as we move forward in a positive direction for the community," she said.