Many well-meaning journalists covering Colonial Williamsburg’s latest troubles have bought into CEO Mitchell Reiss’s narrative that “history is dead,” therefore — so his reasoning goes — CW’s problems are part of a general trend among museums (from art to living history) that he must heroically combat, rather than ones of its, or his and his board’s, own making.  In the absence of other readily available data, the journalists have tended to rely on 2014 articles and 2012 reports as proof of a field in trouble (see NPR’s Sarah McCammon’s otherwise fine piece as an example). Of those commentators without a financial stake in the current establishment, only Peter Galuzska in the Washington Post has gotten it completely wrong (I’m not sure how cutting African American programs but adding a shooting range, a skating rink, an inflatable octopus, and craft beer tastings are opening CW “up to a more diverse America”– the Wall Street Journal nailed this one). But we in the field know that things have changed in the last three years, given the efforts of many practitioners to better understand the business of public history, religiously reading “Know Your Own Bone” (check out Colleen’s terrific new resource website) and following along with Ruth Taylor (Newport Historical Society), Frank Vagnone (Old Salem), Richard Pickering (Plimoth Plantation), Gary Sandling (Monticello), and Kat Imhoff (Montpelier) as they move their institutions, and the field, forward.  And, more to the point, the data actually is there, if you know where to look.

So it’s more instructive and useful to examine the matter in terms of metrics, rather than empty — and largely unprovable — assertions about motivations behind visitation numbers and donation levels. Let’s look at how CW compares with similarly situated institutions based solely on the data, and what it really means. To me, as I prepare students to work in public history and advise major donors (and solicit them), a most useful figure is fundraising efficiency. It’s a nicely simple indicator, and terrific as a diagnostic measure: How much money does it cost an institution to convince a donor to give them $1? The implications are clear, and accurate. Institutions that donors do not know or, worse, in which they do not have much trust, take more convincing, which costs money. Or, when donors have given up on your institution, you have to find new donors, which also costs money.  Institutions that have a clear mission and an institutional culture that projects it, build donor confidence, along with a solid brand, thereby making the donation pitch much less expensive, all things considered. Based on its most recent IRS I-990, how does CW stack up against its peers and the field as a whole?

The average for museums across the country is 14 cents to raise every $1. It costs Mount Vernon 17 cents, Monticello 9 cents, Montpelier 9 cents, Strawberry Banke 8 cents, Plimoth Plantation 7 cents, and the American Civil War Center at Tredegar just 2 cents.

It costs CW 24 cents to raise every $1. Among American museums, only Mystic Seaport‘s 25 cents is higher. That also means that a quarter of every dollar donated to CW goes to raise the next dollar, not to programming or anything else.

It’s directly a measure of what we call donor confidence, a precious commodity. Once gained, it’s something to defend at almost any cost. Once lost, it’s almost impossible to get back, and, sorry Reiss, doing things like siphoning tens of millions of dollars from the non-profit endowment to mask for-profit losses isn’t going to help much with that.  Keep in mind, the massive financial losses in the hotels, golf courses, and other for-profit properties have little to nothing to do with the work on the Foundation side, even if the Foundation is bearing the brunt of covering those losses (they even fired the director of conservation and effectively shuttered the research library — pretty tough to run a history site without those folks, although a current staffer tweeted that those cuts were merely “unfortunate.” One suspects he enjoys continuing to collect a paycheck.).  For example, the Foundation had to rent the Kimball Theater, essentially from itself, for all programs (and without a discount from the normal rate).  That’s one way to use non-profit money to underwrite a for-profit venture.  Again, look at the data — the Foundation, strictly speaking, has always been able to cover its own costs.  The eye-popping deficits have been caused by the for-profit ventures.  But mix them together and, suddenly, it’s an issue for the entire museum field?  Um, no.  The problem is less that CW’s historical audience stopped going, it’s that the ones who were going stopped sleeping in its expensive hotels.

That leads us to look at CW’s “Working Capital” number. That’s how long, based on existing assets and current trends, a museum can last. CW’s number is now 6.6 years (less than the eight that’s been reported).  Several years ago it was twice that.

How does CW stack up against the sector in other categories? Take a look for yourself by digging through Charity Navigator.

The problem is not general. It is not the public history or museum field. It is just CW — and its leaders.

7 thoughts on “Damn Lies and Statistics: Why Colonial Williamsburg’s Collapse Isn’t Part of a Trend in Public History Sites

  1. Thanks for this. I suspected something was structurally amiss at CW but your analysis that the for-profit ventures are cannibalizing the mission is very useful. It’s a cautionary tale for non-profits who hope to solve their financial problems with restaurants, etc.

    1. That might be exactly the point. Leaving Mystic to the side, which has its own issues, what sets CW apart is the size and scope of the for-profit and how they attempted to manage it when it went south. It’s not like others don’t — or shouldn’t — have a for-profit side for added support. And CW’s brand was once the gold standard.

  2. Taylor I agree with some of your assumptions. As a former CW Hospitality Employee who was let go two years ago, I do not believe the hotels and restaurants were so unprofitable, if you look at just bottom line house profit. The Foundation had so much overhead, (HR, Marketing, Maintenance, etc) that was charged to each division, making it look like everyone was unprofitable. In addition each division overpaid for the above because everything was centralized and certain services, such as Marketing were ineffective as little was done to promote the hotels, they just promoted the overall brand.

    I don’t understand how the Kimball Theatre can lose 700k per year, except as you indicate Kimball was overpaying rent and programming back to CW. This appears to be an accounting trick to close or outsource certain businesses.

    It is true CW was not good at managing the business side and museum side, but the hotels, restaurants, and resort were build to take care of all the visitors and donors visiting.

    I only wish the best for CW and while I do not agree or believe all the numbers publicized, I hope history will live on and become more interesting at CW for generations to come.

  3. Taylor, thanks for a most interesting article. One request, please. Change the color scheme on the comments so there is more constrast between the text and the background. They are unreadable on my phone. Thanks.

  4. CW’s mailings look expensive, are multi-paged, full of extraneous ‘gifts’, and boring. Many of us experience history through objects and few institutions have more exceptional objects than CW. What a campaign could be built on their present holdings.

  5. Maybe the management team at CW should go on a learning field trip to Ft. Ticonderoga to see how a privately funded history venue does it. Fort Ti seems to be focusing on enhancing their interpretations and expanding the depth of their presentations. I cannot comment on their financial status as of late, but when I attended as a visitor in the 2000’s they were well attended.

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