Economy hits S. Ute center in the pocket

Lack of money leads tribe to reduce hours, staff at museum

Unanticipated expenses and lower-than-expected financial support have come to an unfortunate head for the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum in Ignacio.

The museum announced earlier this week that it would be scaling back operations and reducing staff this summer because of a financial shortfall. The changes, including reduced hours of operation, will take effect later this summer.

Museum staff members did not anticipate the high expenses of running the 52,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art museum, said Lynn Brittner, who has been the museum’s executive director for 13 years. Annual operating costs are about $350,0000, and entry fees alone don’t cover that entire amount.

In addition, financial support from grants, foundations and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe was less than expected, Brittner said.

“These are very difficult times economically,” she said.

Many major grantors are putting more money into food banks and shelters than museums right now, she said.

Since it opened in May 2011,the museum has raised more than $350,000 through foundations, grants, corporate contributions and private donations, according to a press release. But the museum needs to raise a couple hundred thousand dollars more to make it through the rest of the year, Brittner said.

The museum also has $380,000 in an endowment fund meant to provide longer-term financial support, but it needs to be closer to $10 million for the interest to support day-to-day operations, Brittner said.

It’s difficult being in a small town that is off the beaten track for many tourists and travelers, she said.

Despite hitting some financial road bumps, the museum has met its business plan goals and continues to provide a valuable service, Brittner said.

More than 15,000 visitors have passed through its exhibits and classes and, for many, the experience has “changed their perceptions of who the Utes are,” she said.

From a tourism perspective, the museum adds to the richness of the area’s offerings, said Anne Klein, spokeswoman for the Durango Area Tourism Office.

It is a “uniquely Durango” attraction that complements the many culture and heritage-related offerings around the area, Klein said.

An upcoming exhibit this summer will focus on traditional and contemporary baskets, and one planned for this fall will focus on veterans.

Meanwhile, museum staff will continue to seek donations and grants.

“Sustainability is always a challenge,” Brittner said.

ecowan@durangoherald.com