You ever think that there is a hand in your pocket reaching for your wallet and it is not one of your hands?  Then imagine that the hand belongs to one of the wealthiest or one of the most popular people in town. 

Last week there was a small article in The Times Record.  You probably missed it unless you were studying the pages of Thursdays edition.  This article touted how three local organizations were awarded nearly three quarters of a million dollars.  Along with these grants the organizations all received matching funds.  Although it is not clearly spelled out where those matching funds come from. 

In total, almost $1.5 million.   

These funds were provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  More specifically the monies came from the Museums for America program.  This program and the larger IMLS wields a pretty hefty checkbook to fund programs and those funds come from you and me and everyone else who pays taxes.   

That this organization provides funding for museums and the like is not the problem.  There are a great many interesting places in Maine and nationally that would not be able to keep their doors open without the generous contributions from Uncle Sugar, however there are others that you really must ask if that grant was truly needed.   

The three organizations listed were the Farnsworth Library and Art Museum, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens and the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.  All wonderful places to spend an afternoon or, in the case the of gardens, to spend a frigid evening among the lights during their winter show. 

The question that should have been asked by the IMLS is whether these three organizations needed the grants in the first place.  To answer that question, lets look at some the financial documents of the organizations. 

In the case of the Farnsworth Museum their latest financial documents, which are available on their site, list their total net assets at the end of the year as $28,386,139.  If you looked at the last two years of data, it shows that the museum increased their total net assets by nearly $5 million in that span.  Not too shabby. 

Considering the assets, was it necessary to seek out and accept a grant which is almost $500,000?  I don’t know.  According to the IMLS website the money from the grant will be spent on expanding access to content, sending their staff to national conferences and expanding access to a website.   

On to the Garden.  Their grant is just a whisker under $250,000 which will double to $500,000.  Since 2006, the Garden has received more than $700,000 from the IMLS.  That is before any matching funds. 

The Garden’s total net assets for the period ending in September of 2018 was a mere $24,576,207.  Over the course of that year their total net assets rose more that $3,000,000.  Again, not too bad. 

The Garden plans to use their grant funding on a play space for children, enhancements to their brand-new entrance and a learning center.  It was reported earlier this year in a competing Maine newspaper that the final touches on a $30,000,000 expansion were being settled at the Garden.  Clearly the Gardens are a cash crop but who does not want more free money? 

Then we visit the Museum of Art at Bowdoin College.  The museum will receive almost $240,000 in a grant.  Oh, but don’t forget about that matching fund which will see the total rise to about $480,000.   

For that sum the museum is going to move their collections to a climate-controlled area and have staff to catalog the material.  The staff will also manage a database of their finer pieces.  Must be some database. 

Try as I might I could not find financial documents for the museum.  However, for the college in general, it has been reported in the Bowdoin Orient and elsewhere, that the endowment for the college stands at more than $1,628,000,000.  Yes, that is what more than a billion dollars looks like.   

Clearly, with an operating budget for this academic year which will be somewhere north of $170,000,000 there might have been a few bucks to kick in for the database. 

Each of these three places are good places to visit.  There is much to be learned from visiting these attractions, but at what cost?  When you consider that these are three sites in one Congressional District it seems like small potatoes.  However, if every Congress critter is handing out these press releases then there are 535 potential money pots for museums regardless of how well-heeled they are.  And this is just one relatively small governmental agency handing out bags of cash. 

The question is not whether some place is deserving.  You could make a case that there are dozens of places in Maine that are deserving, but if an organization has the wherewithal to absorb these projects and has millions in assets to leverage those costs, why are they taking this handout?   

Perhaps we should bring means testing to museums when it comes to government funding.  On second thought if we did that what would our politicians be able to pat themselves on the back about? 

Jonathan Crimmins can be reached at [email protected]. 

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