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Circus World wagon pavilion

Rob and Lisa Warren of Madison and their kids Lily and Titus check out authentic circus wagons in July at Circus World. The museum at the start of 2018 began a two-year transition to Wisconsin Historical Society management.

After a successful summer season, Circus World leaders expressed cautious optimism about the future of the state historic site almost one year into its transition to operating under the Wisconsin Historical Society.

“I think we’re optimistic that it will be a good thing for the long term,” said Scott O’Donnell, executive director of Circus World. “It sounds like we should know more about it because we’re almost a year into it. but we’re still involved in the day-to-day operations ... Collectively we haven’t gotten to the end result yet, so we’re hopeful.”

The roughly 60-year-old institution has been state-owned for its entire existence, but before this year it was operated by the privately funded Circus World Museum Foundation.

As part of the state’s 2017-19 budget, Circus World agreed to transfer control of operations to the historical society in exchange for public funds, making it consistent with the other historic sites run by the Division of Museums and Historic Sites.

A two-year transition began Jan. 1, but not everything has gone smoothly. O’Donnell said there have been talks about extending the transition an additional year while figuring out how best to fit Circus World into a centralized state system. He noted the difficulty of molding an institution based on an art form into a bureaucratic model, but he’s hoping to find a compromise and is glad the agreement allowed the five existing staff members to retain their positions.

“Finding that ultimate model of us learning them, them trusting us to be what we know we are —which is sort of experts in the art form that we represent — and once we get to the end of our transition model, it’ll be a model that takes us into the future,” he said.

Part of the difficulty for staff is trying to learn “the labyrinth of all of the state processes and procurements and focus groups,” O’Donnell said, though he doesn’t think visitors to the museum have noticed the change.

Jennifer Kolb, an administrator at the Division Museums and Historic Sites, spoke positively about their progress.

“It’s just a pleasure to work with Scott (O’Donnell) and his staff. They’ve had a great year, and their work is just outstanding,” she said.

At this point in the transition, Circus World has shifted from one main revenue source — admissions and other museum sales, plus donations — controlled by the foundation to three sources. By the end of the process, finances are meant to be centralized under state control, but O’Donnell said he doesn’t know how that will look.

For 2018, earned revenue such as ticket sales still account for the largest portion of the budget at more than $800,000, and the foundation is still managing those for the Wisconsin Historical Society.

But a new funding source, state tax dollars, contributed about $550,000 this year for staff salaries and utilities, which Performance Director Dave SaLoutos said relieved the burden of earned revenue previously needing to cover everything. Total state revenue to the museum was just over $650,000. In the 2019 fiscal year, state tax contributions will increase to $700,000.

“We’re not saying that there aren’t frustrations,” SaLoutos said, “because some days you just want to scream and run for the door, but we are deeply committed and passionate about Circus World, and so in our hearts, we want to do what’s best for this institution.”

The change allowed a modest increase to the marketing and performance budget, paid for with earned revenue, O’Donnell said.

The third source of revenue comes from the museum foundation. It’s required under the budget agreement to independently contribute about $250,000 each year to support operations.

Circus World Museum’s 2018 operating budget totaled about $2.05 million, leaving a small surplus from the total revenue of $2.08 million.

Museum attendance increased by almost 20 percent for the 2018 summer season, with roughly 68,000 visitors by October, some drawn by the popular 1950s-themed Big Top Show, O’Donnell said. While the numbers fluctuate year to year, he estimated an average attendance of 50,000. Next year, leaders are jumping to the 1960s for the summer theme.

The management change has allowed the institution, which includes more than 60 acres between its main campus on Water Street in Baraboo and its train shed, to address deferred maintenance issues. O’Donnell said that work will continue to evolve.

Circus World also gained two new full-time positions — a curator of circus history and a facilities position — bringing the staff up to seven.

Leaders are developing a strategic plan for the future of Circus World, with possibilities such as adding a year-round performance building or an elephant preserve, or acquiring more artifacts, O’Donnell said. Its collection already includes more than 10,000 pieces of original and lithographic art, about 260 wooden circus wagons and over 300,000 photographs.

“It’s an exciting time. There’s lots going on, lots of good,” he said. “We’re thankful for the support of the legislature for recognizing the importance of the state history and heritage — arguably national history and heritage — that we celebrate here daily.”

Exhibits are closed to the public for the winter starting today. It will reopen in March with live performances starting in May.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

Baraboo News Republic reporter