A proposed state takeover of Circus World Museum would endanger fundraising efforts and possibly force the site to close this year, its leaders say.
Since learning that Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget includes a plan to end the state’s longstanding public-private partnership with Circus World Museum Foundation, Inc. and roll the onetime Ringling brothers circus headquarters into the Wisconsin Historical Society, enraged donors have vowed to discontinue their support. Jonathan Lipp, president of the foundation, called the proposed state takeover a “death sentence” that will compromise Circus World’s ability to raise money.
“They basically sabotaged us,” Lipp said. “I’m concerned whether we can even keep Circus World open under the current conditions.”
Steve Freese, the museum’s executive director, said if angry donors pull their support, Circus World may not survive the year. “We think it’s going to put Circus World in danger, long-term,” Freese said.
Walker’s budget would fold Circus World — whose property is state-owned but whose operations are funded by the foundation — into the Historical Society. This would include making Circus World’s staff state employees, funneling the site’s revenue into state coffers, and ending a lease and management agreement between the state the foundation, which has operated the museum for 54 years.
Historical Society director Ellsworth Brown said last week that the move was designed to ensure Circus World’s long-term viability. He was concerned about the operation’s lack of cash flow and asked the Walker administration to step in.
Circus World leaders counter that attendance is rising, and the site is about to gain its footing — unless the volunteers who organize the museum’s summer gala discontinue their efforts in protest.
That event is budgeted to raise $165,000 this year.
Circus World supporters have proposed an alternative to Walker’s plan, a new public-private partnership under which the museum would receive the $1.2 million over two years in state money Walker budgeted to pay 10 staff members but operate independently of the Historical Society as a free-standing agency with an appointed management board. That board would raise funds and build the museum’s collection of artifacts, as the Circus World Museum Foundation has for decades.
Museum supporters have been lobbying state legislators and agency leaders to reconsider the plan put forth by the governor and Historical Society. Freese, himself a former member of the Wisconsin Assembly, has an appointment to brief legislators on the situation next week.
“They don’t realize they’ve got a tiger by the tail, and this tiger fights back,” Freese said.
Brown has said state oversight of operations would clear Circus World staff of administrative responsibilities and provide access to the Historical Society’s fundraising power.
But Freese noted that while the Historical Society’s sites recently have recorded declines in attendance, Circus World’s has risen four years running. He also questioned the Historical Society’s fundraising prowess, given that the Wisconsin Historical Society Foundation’s donations slipped from $6.3 million in 2010 to $2.8 million last year.
“There’s no indication they know how to build an audience,” Lipp said.
Circus World supporters remain upset that they learned of the proposed takeover secondhand and still, a week after Walker unveiled his budget, have yet to hear from the Historical Society regarding its plans for the site.
“There has been absolutely no communication between the Historical Society and the Foundation,” Lipp said. “They’ve told us nothing.”
They also feel stung by the prospect of the state dismissing a board that has acquired Circus World’s 45 buildings, amassed its unparalleled collection of circus artifacts and raised millions of dollars.
“Maybe they want us to go down in flames so they can be heroes,” Lipp said.
Freese said Circus World’s demise would damage Baraboo’s economy, depriving the community of 71,000 annual visitors who spend money here.
“If we don’t open this season, it has huge repercussions on the economy,” he said. “It’s a huge amount of money that might not come to Baraboo.”