SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
Amid a recent confluence of financial woes, the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum is basking in the glow of an announcement this month naming it the top history museum of the year by True West Magazine.
“Winning the award puts us in the spotlight,” said Lynn Brittner, the Ignacio museum’s executive director. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime award.”
The magazine named the cultural museum the No. 1 History Museum of the Year in its September 2012 issue. The magazine is dedicated to “preserving the American West” by presenting true stories of Old West adventure, history, culture and preservation.
“The museum has been in theworks for 20 years. To see it in its final glory was jaw-dropping,” the magazine’s executive editor Bob Boze Bell said. He pointed to the museum’s massive oral history collection as one aspect that put it above the “dozens and dozens” of other facilities the magazine considered for the award.
The museum opened last year in a brand new 52,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility.
The award validates the museum’s hard work and its continued high quality, even as it faces the task of cutting operating and maintenance costs in the face of a budget shortfall, Brittner said.
“It’s a boost for the tribe – people are understanding how important this history is to this area,” Brittner said. “I think we’re doing everything right.”
Brittner also expected True West’s recognition to provide a welcome advantage to the museum as it continues to seek grants and other funding in the future.
Such a boost will be especially crucial as the museum works through the shortfall caused by unanticipated expenses and lower-than-expected financial support from grants, foundations and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
Operating and maintenance costs for the museum building and 8 acres of surrounding property add up to $350,000 annually, which is much higher than museum officials were expecting, Brittner said. The museum’s total annual operating budget is $1.2 million, she said, adding that the organization needs to raise at least a few hundred thousand dollars more to make it through the rest of the year.
Since it opened, the museum has raised more than $500,000 through grants and donations, including a recent $150,000 Museums for America grant. But many grants are tied to specific programs and don’t cover operations, Brittner said.
The tribe also contributes $700,000 annually and approved a $1 million subsidy to the museum for its first year, according to tribal documents.
The tribe’s financial support has divided some within its membership. Some argue the museum should be self-sufficient, while others say the tribe’s support is necessary for the museum’s initial years.
“We wanted at least three years to have help (from the tribe). By then we would have our endowment, which would take care of maintenance and operations of the museum,” said Jim Jefferson, a tribal member who has worked on many aspects of the museum since the 1960s.
In a contract negotiated last year, the tribe agreed to provide two more years of funding to the museum.
From her perspective, Brittner said the museum will need continued tribal support.
“Without the tribe or some other partner like the Smithsonian or the Colorado Historical Society, we won’t make it,” she said.