At 10 a.m. every day, a chorus of tiny voices fills the lobby of the Mesa Southwest Museum.
The children rush up to stare at the fossilized bones of a Tyrannosaurus bataar, standing tall at the center of the room.
They walk over to Dinosaur Mountain and witness a flash flood. They sit in the original cell of the old Mesa jail. They learn about the Navajo people.
Some 40,000 schoolchildren visit the downtown museum every year. All told, the museum hosts more than 160,000 visitors a year.
Now, there’s a very real possibility that the museum will have to shut its doors, leaving the fate of its 60,000 artifacts uncertain.
The Arizona Museum for Youth, on Robson only a short walk away, is facing the same possibility. Both are on the list of recommended cuts Mesa may have to make if tax proposals on the city’s May 16 ballot fail.
According to the city’s list, if a proposed property tax fails, hours at both museums will be significantly reduced and programs will be cut. If a proposed sales tax also is turned down, the museums could be closed as early as September.
The City Council will discuss the list of potential budget cuts during a meeting Wednesday and could adopt it.
Nothing will be finalized, however, until the two tax votes are completed and the council adopts a budget this summer based on the results.
If both measures fail, the city will be forced to cut a total of $25 million in ongoing expenditures. If the sales tax passes and the property tax fails, that number would drop to $11 million.
The threat to the two Mesa icons, in existence for more than 25 years, is a real one. While the Mesa Chamber of Commerce is lining up to support passage of the tax proposals, Property Owners In Opposition to Question 2 has funneled roughly $5,000 into a grass-roots campaign to defeat the measure.
“To me, the museums represent the past and the coming together of the present of Mesa,” said Dave Richins, a Mesa resident and the executive director of the West Mesa Community Development Corp.
“You have the history of Arizona. You have the history of the Indian culture. You have dinosaurs. You have a special exhibits that highlight present issues.”
Museum officials and national museum experts say closing the two museums would pose specific and costly problems. You don’t just turn off the lights and lock the doors. And it’s unlikely that artifacts and art collections can be given to other institutions quickly.
AIR CONDITIONING NEEDED FOR PROTECTION
The Arizona Museum for Youth would need about $75,000 a year to keep the lights and air conditioning on to protect things such as computers and special electric tools, said executive director Sunnee Spencer.
While the youth museum does not own permanent collections, its design staff has created many props to accompany displays. There is a giant space ship. An igloo. A bee hive.
For an institution such as the Mesa Southwest Museum, which houses 60,000 artifacts and serves as a repository for federally owned collections, the situation only gets stickier.
The museum’s director, Tom Wilson, says electricity, temperature control, insurance to protect the collections, repairs, maintenance, contractual items such as security monitoring and offsite storage of collections, will cost the city $93,000 a year.
Many of the museum’s artifacts require regular maintenance to prevent deterioration. Navajo rugs, for example, need to be be unrolled and then rerolled in the opposite direction every four to five months to keep the fibers from breaking down, said Gerri Green, the museum’s development officer.
The museum needs pest control. Temperature control. Humidity control. Acid-free storage.
Federal collections, including bones of mammoths, camels and horses that were unearthed in local communities, have been permanently entrusted to the museum’s care. It’s not known what would become of them, although chances are the federal government would take them back, said Jerry Howard, the museum’s curator of anthropology.
The museum also has three buildings, one on Macdonald that was conveyed to the city from the federal government and designated for museum use only. Since the agreement states that the building must be used for museum purposes only, the city likely would be unable to use it.
YOUTH MUSEUM USES $19 MILLION ANNUALLY
Since 1987, Mesa has invested $19 million in the Arizona Museum for Youth, Spencer said. A figure for the Mesa Southwest Museum was unavailable, although it is several years older than the youth museum.
The youth museum has obtained national recognition for its unusual approach to teaching young children about art and has become a destination point for roughly 90,000 visitors a year, about twothirds of whom are children. Mesa schools incorporate the museum’s exhibits into their curricula.
On a recent weekday, children filled the museum’s art galleries, learning about the Inuit culture through professional sculptures, masks and paintings gracing the walls and showcases.
The children made their own masks with paper and crayons. They also could perform Inuit stories with handmade puppets on a small stage.
The closing of these two cultural icons also would be unusual, even on a national level, museum experts say.
Municipally owned museums make up only a small percentage of museums nationwide. According to a 2003 survey by the American Association of Museums, 6.9 percent were city-run while 69.4 percent were private nonprofits.
The association said it’s rare for one of the city-run facilities to close — especially in a short period of time.
“Never in my 20 years here have I known a governmentowned institution to close because the funding was eliminated for it,” said Ed Able, president of the association.
“Museums are community trust organizations and we consider this a commitment to the public.
“To close them can destroy the viability of the entity in the long run and destroy the investment that has already been made in the institution,” he said.
When they do need to close due to a lack of funding, a government will usually work with private groups over an extended period of time. Such a transition cannot happen overnight.
“There are ways of dealing with financial challenges,” Able added. “But it can’t be done in a precipitous manner without totally compromising public trust and responsibility.”
RESIDENT’S VIEWS ON CLOSINGS VARY
While virtually no one wants to see the museums close, residents have different views about how important it is to keep them operating at current levels.
Bob Hisserich, co-chairman of the Property Owners In Opposition to Question 2, does not think there’s a strong chance of the museums’ full closure because he believes the sales tax is likely to pass.
A more likely scenario is failure of the property tax proposal, and therefore a reduction in hours — something that he feels is not detrimental to the museums or the city.
“Let’s pretend the museums do have to reduce hours,” he said. “Let’s say that instead of eight hours a day, they are open four. . . . If you really want to go to the museum, you’ll go there when it’s open.”
City officials said they are well aware of the liabilities surrounding closing both museums. Should the museums face closure, they may have to look to privatization to keep them afloat, City Manager Chris Brady said.
But privatizing the museums could also be a challenge. Mesa Southwest Museum’s endowment from the Southwest Museum Foundation is only $250,000 right now, and it would take roughly a $10 million endowment to keep it at status quo, Wilson said.
The Arizona Museum for Youth does not have an endowment, and would need a similar amount to operate at current levels.
Ironically, the year 2006 has been declared the “Year of the Museum” by the American Association of Museums — a time that is meant for communities to celebrate their cultural institutions — not close them, Spencer added.
“It looks like they are moving in the wrong direction as far as crafting the concept of a modern city with amenities such as an arts center, museums and libraries,” Wilson said. “It is not a healthy thing for the community.”