Cincinnati Museums Announce Merger

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) and the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) have announced plans to merge the two institutions into one corporate structure.

The Cincinnati Enquirer‘s feature, “Freedom Center Could Close” in December 2011 by Mark Curnutte, and its accompanying articles, were written over several months and meetings with Kim Robinson, NURFC President and CEO, and the Presiding Co-Chairs of the Board, John Pepper and Rev. Damon Lynch, Jr. Curnutte received access to the Freedom Center’s financial records and conducted dozens of interviews, with community stakeholders, scholars, anti-tax activists and more.

The articles painted a picture of an institution striving to connect the dots between preserving the past, educating the present and inspiring visitors to “fan the flame” for a better future for all. The NURFC’s mission is:

We reveal stories about freedom’s heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times, challenging and inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom today.

That’s powerful! And a mission that would receive tremendous community support, right?

Not exactly.

The NURFC has faced criticism for not meeting projected attendance numbers, its inability to connect with the local community and create a sustainable business model, since it opened in 2004. The NURFC has made great progress under the leadership of Kim Robinson, and has cut expenses in light of the decreasing amounts of government funding and private contributions but it hasn’t been enough to close the $1.5M gap in expenses versus revenue. At yesterday’s press conference Robinson said, “We saw a way through to December, but if we didn’t find a solution by January 2013, we would close,” in response to a reporter’s question.

This merger is the solution.

The Cincinnati Museum Center is no stranger to mergers. The Cincinnati History Museum, Duke Energy Children’s Museum and Museum of Natural History & Science were brought together by a series of mergers in the 1980s and 1990s. The Cincinnati Enquirer‘s “Museum Mergers: How Have They Fared” quotes AAM‘s Dewey Blanton saying, “Over the past six months, we’ve probably gotten three inquiries from different parts of the country asking about the success rate of mergers.” The article also features other arts/culture mergers in Pittsburgh, Dayton and Chattanooga.

The NURFC/CMC merger will not only improve the finances of both institutions, it will also create opportunities to reach new donors and develop new exhibits together. While the NURFC and CMC will remain separate 501(c)(3)s with separate missions, together they will reduce payroll expenses by sharing administrative work and eliminating redundant positions. An estimated 15 people could lose their jobs in the merger between the two organizations. The NURFC currently has 34 FTEs, the CMC has 300 FT/PTEs. Kim Robinson will become the Executive Director of the NURFC and report to CMC’s CEO, Douglass McDonald, who will be in charge of the entire operation.

While there are still many details that need to be worked out, this is an exciting time. The synergy between the two organizations is palpable and as John Pepper said, “Truly the proverbial marriage made in heaven.”

My thoughts on the merger?

In December 2011, I wrote a heartfelt post titled, “What Freedom Means to Me.” The NURFC matters. If you read the articles, interviews, tweets, etc. around the news of this merger you will see that both the NURFC and CMC are in agreement:

  • Museums inspire us.
  • Museums are vital to great communities.
  • The mission of the NURFC is vital to our community.
  • Together we can better serve our community.

I’m all for it. The merger will give the NURFC the much needed sustainability to preserve and protect the mission of the organization. It’s unfortunate that several NURFC and CMC employees may lose their jobs, however, without the merger the NURFC could close completely and all 34 FTEs could lose their jobs. Change is difficult, but necessary.

To read “Cincinnati museum merger a model for other cities?” click here.

PRESS RELEASE: Cincinnati Museum Center and National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Take Steps to Join

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