The follow article appeared in ATHM.org on June 14th, 2016. While we don’t have an affiliation with the American Textile History Museum, the Smithsonian Institution or any of its affiliates, we are fans of the work done over the past decades by the museum and were saddened to see it close. We are providing this information for posterity.
Despite its best efforts to identify a viable and sustainable future for the American Textile History Museum, the ATHM Board of Trustees has voted to seek approval from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and Supreme Judicial Court to dissolve the Museum’s 501(c)(3) and permanently close its doors.
“This was an extremely difficult decision for all involved and certainly not the outcome we had hoped and worked for,” said ATHM Board Chair Matthew Coggins. “However, the Board recognizes that serious operational challenges, financial shortfalls, and other circumstances make it impossible to ethically and responsibly dedicate further financial assets to attempt to keep our doors open.”
Operating at a significant deficit for the past two decades, the Museum has been continuously drawing on shrinking reserves to balance the budget. Over the past seven months, the Board has gathered and analyzed extensive data in consultation with the Nonprofit Finance Fund and Laura Roberts Consulting, but has been unable to identify a viable and sustainable business model that would allow ATHM to continue. A fundraising feasibility study indicates that the Museum would likely be unable to raise sufficient funds to adequately support future operations.
Next steps and protection of the collection
All ATHM exhibits, programs, and classes are now closed to the public. In Massachusetts, a public charity can voluntarily dissolve only with the close involvement of the Attorney General’s Office and the approval of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. ATHM has begun that process. Protecting and preserving the Museum’s priceless collection of American artifacts is the priority of the ATHM Board, which is working closely with the Attorney General’s Office to ensure the collection’s long-term stewardship in the coming months.
Continued need for support
ATHM is continuing to gratefully accept funding from individuals, corporations, and foundations to support the thousands of curatorial hours necessary to ensure the proper care of collections as they are prepared to be transferred to other organizations, according to ATHM Interim Executive Director Todd Smith. “We are asking that all who share a love of and concern for America’s history and heritage help us preserve and protect the Museum’s unparalleled collection of American artifacts.”
“Look at all the good we’ve done”
Christopher Rogers, a member of the ATHM Board of Advisors and the grandson of Caroline Stevens Rogers—who founded ATHM in 1960—said that the closure of ATHM will be a sad day, but that his grandmother was a big believer in change when change is needed.
“She’d be the first to cry for a minute for the loss, but then say, ‘It’s been incredible. Look at all the good we’ve done.’”
American Textile History Museum: Q & A
Facing a significant and ongoing financial deficit, the Board of Trustees of the American Textile History Museum has made the difficult decision to seek approval from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and Supreme Judicial Court to dissolve ATHM’s 501(c)(3) and permanently close the Museum. All ATHM exhibits and programs are now closed to the public.
Why is ATHM closing?
In November 2015, facing an ongoing financial crisis, the ATHM Board of Trustees voted to undergo a major transformation for ATHM, recognizing that the Museum was no longer able to fiscally operate under its current format and business model. On January 1, 2016, the Museum’s exhibits closed to the public as the Board and staff focused on identifying a strategic transformation for the future.
For more than eight months, ATHM engaged with Nonprofit Finance Fund and Laura Roberts Consulting for strategic evaluation and business planning, seeking to identify and explore all reasonable options available to the Museum, including downsizing, restructuring, and merging with another organization. ATHM identified a strategic partnership with the Lowell National Historical Park as the alternative with the best potential for fiscal and operational viability. The Park was very receptive to a partnership, and over a seven-month period, ATHM evaluated the financial and operational feasibility of more than a dozen LNHP partnership business models. However, no viable or sustainable business model with a meaningful scope of mission could be identified.
Can’t the Museum just raise more money? What about a “save the museum” campaign?
Over a four-month period, ATHM engaged in a comprehensive feasibility study to assess the potential for increased funding from individuals, corporations, and foundation, both in Greater Lowell and on a national level. The results indicate that although there is tremendous respect for ATHM and desire to see the Museum’s mission continue, those beliefs are not supported by funding commitments. The study indicated that it is highly unlikely that the Museum would be able to raise adequate funds to support a transformation or annual operations.
What happens now?
In Massachusetts, a public charity can voluntarily dissolve only with the close involvement of the Attorney General’s Office and the approval of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. ATHM will be taking the necessary steps and filing the necessary dissolution and financial documents with the Attorney General’s Office and the Supreme Judicial Court.
What will happen to the Museum collection?
The ATHM Board of Trustees embraces its serious legal and ethical responsibility to the Museum’s collection and is working closely and directly with the Attorney General’s Office to ensure the responsible care and stewardship of the collections. ATHM has begun the painstaking process to transfer its collection to other nonprofit institutions, seeking stable, committed organizations able to serve as faithful, long-term stewards. We anticipate this process to take a year or more, during which time ATHM will continue to exist as a 501(c)(3), but will be closed to the public. We will endeavor to share on our website the future homes for the collections as they are relocated.
Are donated collections returned to donors?
When objects are donated to a museum, the donor transfers ownership to the public good. Unless the donor has stipulated that the objects be returned, they will be transferred to other nonprofit or charitable entities for the continuing public good.
What will happen to the Museum’s current location?
ATHM is working closely with The Edge Group in Lowell to prepare for the sale of ATHM’s 65,000-square-foot condominium space at 491 Dutton Street.
What happens to the Museum endowment and other assets?
As part of the dissolution process, ATHM will work closely with the Attorney General’s Office to ensure the appropriate use of ATHM’s remaining assets for the responsible closure of the Museum, including the protection of ATHM’s collection. Any assets remaining following the responsible closure will be transferred to other nonprofit entities.
Was this sudden?
No. ATHM has faced financial difficulty for nearly two decades, since moving in 1997 from North Andover, Massachusetts, to its current location in Lowell. Attendance and revenue have been much lower and operating costs much higher than projected estimates at the time of the move.
In 2005, the Museum voted to restructure the Museum, permanently closing the Textile Conservation Center and selling part of its Dutton Street building for conversion into mixed-use space. The Museum closed its exhibits and galleries to the public and launched a $3.9 million campaign to raise funds for a core exhibit renovation, endowment, and operating costs. The campaign goal was reached and the Museum reopened in June 2009. Despite persistent fundraising and cost reductions, the Museum continued to run at a deficit, drawing on its reserves to balance the budget.
Is it unusual for a museum to close?
The economic crisis beginning in 2008 has had a devastating impact on art, historical, and science museums in the United States. Beginning in late 2008, public and private museums began laying off staff, cutting wages, reducing hours, and, in some cases, closing altogether. Shrinking museum endowments, a decrease in donations, and cuts in public funding have continued to put pressure on the nation’s museums. At least 10 museums have closed in the past year alone, including the Museum of Biblical Art in New York and the Grand Junction Auto Museum in Colorado. The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., was absorbed by George Washington University. Many others are financially at risk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, facing a $10 million deficit, has announced a 24-month financial restructuring that is likely to include staff reductions and reduced programming. And those are just in America. According to the Museums Association in England, 44 museums have closed across the United Kingdom since 2010.