RICHARDSON: Look in the mirror

June 8, 2014 

When I was a young lad, my mother used to give me a couple of bucks, and I would take the bus across town to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. If not there, my destination was a little farther down Exhibition Boulevard to the California Museum of Science and Industry (now California Science Center). I spent hours looking at the exhibits and participating in the activities. It was a different world that helped spur my imagination and mold me into an adult.

My first trip to the museums was on a class field trip. Do they still do those, or have field trips gotten lost in the vice of fiscal austerity and test teaching? I hope not, but I fear the worst.

That’s why when I first heard the news Mayor Robert Reichert was planning to zero out the paltry county subsidies of $500,000 total for the Tubman African American Museum and the Museum of Arts and Sciences, where I served as president of the board, I was distressed. I’m still distressed.

I’m not mad at the mayor. I’m not mad at the commission. I’m not mad at the leadership of the museums who had come to rely on the meager amount to make ends meet. I am mad, though, at the person I see in the mirror each morning. I realized that although I’ve supported programs at the Tubman, I don’t think I’ve ever been a member. While I’ve been a member of the MAS, I had let that membership lapse. Shame on me.

Both museums can claim a regional impact. They attract visitors from all over the world, thousands of them, many from Middle Georgia, a community of more than 386,000 people. However, the Tubman has but 200 members, and MAS has 2,884. Think about that for a minute.

The Tubman could cover the cut in county funds if 5,000 people in Middle Georgia paid $50 for a family membership. MAS would need an additional 3,846 family members at $65 each. There are membership levels at both museums that range higher and lower. Still, if that were to happen, only 3 percent of the population in Middle Georgia would be members.

That is not to say the museums shouldn’t receive public support from the government. Atlanta’s Cultural Affairs Department under Mayor Kasim Reid is expected to hand out grants to 70 arts organizations that will, they say, attract 2.8 million visitors. In Savannah it’s the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. It plans several festivals, runs several camps and supports other arts organizations. In Columbus, Recreation and Culture received more than $21 million, 8.1 percent of the budget, and the city has two golf courses.

In Macon, before consolidation, funding for the arts was in the budget line item “Culture and Recreation” but it was zeroed out in 2013 when recreation was taken over by the county. Bibb County allocated, under “Culture, Recreation, Beautification,” $1.7 million, with the bulk of that, $1.3 million, going to support our libraries.

I’m not going to create a false dichotomy here and play the museums against libraries or the senior center or some other department. Vital functions should not be in competition for public dollars, but every community has to decide what is vital and set priorities.

For some residents, lowering taxes is their No. 1 issue. They couldn’t care less about museums, senior centers, libraries or recreation. In a perfect world, I guess, cities and counties would only have to budget for law enforcement, courts, fire protection and garbage pickup. Problem is, the communities we are in competition with for economic development understand that quality-of-life expenditures help attract new businesses and support tourism, one of the largest industries in our area.

The wounded museums will survive. They will either have to shorten hours, close or solicit exhibits of lower quality. They’ll have to raise admission prices, and given the poverty rates in our community, that will lock the museum doors for many.

I don’t have a solution, but Thursday I made sure that guy in the mirror -- now a member of the Tubman and MAS -- did his part. Who’s looking at you in the mirror?

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at crichardson@macon.com. Tweet@crichard1020.

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