Journey Museum faces uncertain future

2012-11-22T05:30:00Z Journey Museum faces uncertain futureAaron Orlowski Journal staff Rapid City Journal
November 22, 2012 5:30 am  • 

"You want a museum, you don't want a museum — you got to make that choice." — former Journey Museum board president Chuck Parkinson

The Journey Museum in Rapid City has had a history of unmet expectations since it opened in 1997.

The museum has suffered from poor attendance — attracting about only a tenth of the promised 300,000 paying visitors a year. Its location in a former floodplain north of downtown leaves it isolated from other noted tourist attractions. Marketing has been slow or ineffective; the signage leading visitors to the site is minimal and drab; its brown building has an odd shape; and its leadership is in flux with a departing director.

Those factors, museum officials say, have forced the Journey to rely on taxpayer money to keep it running, despite the fact that 15 years ago, museum advocates promised the museum would be self-supporting.

According to former Journey board president Chuck Parkinson, Rapid City now faces a major choice with the Journey, which mainly houses historical Black Hills artifacts. "They've got to decide whether to support or not support. But don't leave the Journey hanging," he said.

For 15 years, city aldermen have consistently doubted the museum's usefulness and the value of the city's investment in it.

Museum leaders say that hesitant support scares off potential museum donors. Yet, they see some hope on the horizon, especially with new agreements between the museum and the city.

One agreement limits the city-appointed directors on the Museum Alliance of Rapid City, which runs the museum. That could allow the Journey more autonomy to shape its own future, raise its own funds and potentially build an endowment to keep the museum afloat for years.

About 15 years ago, consultant Harrison Price — who famously helped build Disneyland and Disney World — sold Rapid City what Journey Museum leaders now describe as "very, very inflated" revenue and attendance projections.

"He did a great sales pitch way back," said Ward 2 Alderman Ritchie Nordstrom, a liaison from the city council to the museum board. "We're trying to make lemons into lemonade."

Original attendance projections from the 1990s ranged from 225,000 to 340,000 visitors a year, or about 10 percent of the reported visitors to Mount Rushmore at the time, according to a June 2001 report. Attendance never neared that number.

In 2000, 36,100 people toured the museum and by 2007, that figure had dropped to 24,800 a year. Since then, visitation has risen to 30,900.

The lack of tourists and visitors quickly resulted in budget shortfalls, and the museum had to return to the trough of private, corporate and city contributions. From 1997 to 2001, the city subsidized the museum with $97,000.

That year, the city gave $125,000 to the museum to help with the financial shortfall. As a condition, the city took over management of the board. Since 2002, the city has granted the Journey $325,000 each year, mostly for maintenance.

But over the past decade, city aldermen have questioned the city's contribution and this past budget season hinted at a desire to reduce or nix the city's subsidy. Parkinson left the Journey board of directors in September after eight years because he was frustrated with fighting the council every year to retain city funding.

"There's new people who come in every two years who think they know what they're doing, but they don't," he said.

The city witnessed just such a budget battle this summer, when some aldermen challenged city funding for the arts and other community organizations like the Journey. Full funding was eventually approved.

While the city's contribution to the Journey has remained steady for the past decade, the Journey's overall budget has grown from $765,000 in 2002 to $1,062,000 in 2011. That has reduced the proportion of the city's contribution from 42 percent in 2002 to 31 percent in 2011.

Museum leaders say staunch city support makes donors more confident in giving funds. Otherwise, potential donors balk, questioning how long the museum will survive.

More donors would help the museum start building an endowment, a pot of money that can be invested and the revenues of which can be siphoned off into museum programs and improvements. Outgoing museum director Ray Summers said endowments commonly support museums, and building one is the next step for Rapid City

"This museum is very, very young," Summers said. "Endowments happen over time."

Programs to highlight "living history," where visitors can watch an ancient bow and arrows being made, may herald things to come.

On a recent morning at the Journey, bow-maker Marshall Burnette dipped a hair-like lock of fine sinew in colorless warm glue made of boiled buffalo parts. He ran the strands between his fingers, squeezing the excess glue out. A wooden bow rested on the work table. Burnette delicately laid the sinews on the shaft of the bow and pressed them into the wood.

Burnette's teaching exhibit is what museum leaders hope to see more of at the Journey.

Board president Donna Fisher and Summers list several possible improvements: more interactive exhibits and historical reenactments; an area where paleontologists prepare local fossils; an improved website; a better planetarium; even a new tipi to replace the deteriorating buffalo hide tipi.

Summers will leave the director post this spring. A nationwide search for a new director will seek a known fundraiser and marketing expert. Nordstrom said Summers was brought in to "stop the hemorrhaging," but even Summers says a different type of leader is needed. "We need to have a capital campaign," Summers said. "Those are skills I don't really have."

Museum leaders see this as a potential turnaround moment. To get there, much has to be done, leaders say.

Among the ideas: the museum is not a major tourist attraction and needs to be re-branded as a destination for locals; the city needs to wholeheartedly support the museum; marketing and private fundraising have to increase, perhaps by awarding donors spots on the board; adjustments to the name may be necessary; and clear signage on city streets directing visitors to the museum are needed. A financial endowment needs to be built.

"The Journey Museum is starting to make some progress," Nordstrom said. "We're not at the corner ... but we can see the corner coming up."

Contact Aaron Orlowski at 484-7069 or

Copyright 2015 Rapid City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(11) Comments

  1. sodaknyc
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    sodaknyc - November 24, 2012 11:11 am
    Well said PosiPat.
  2. PosiPat
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    PosiPat - November 24, 2012 7:56 am
    Where were the women in your story? Four currently sit on the Journey Board, including the President. No direct quotes or apparent interviews. Two of the MARC partner museum directors are women. No interviews. The Education Director, the Space Science Educator, the Volunteer Coordinator plus a significant plurality of volunteers including docents are women. Like listening to blind men feeling the elephant and thinking they knew the whole picture in the folk tale, you missed a chance at balance, Aaron.

    It's not all about spreadsheets, attendance counts and politics. It's about serving the community, sharing local heritage, sparking young scientists and welcoming out-of-town visitors, too. You didn't describe how The Journey, in cooperation with YFS and local service clubs, sponsors annual Christmas Teas for more than 400 Head Start kids every year. No one told you what it's like to guide herds of school kids on annual tours. No one mentioned gardeners, caterers, costume makers, exhibit and event decorators, fund-raisers, workers with children and teens—women and men, mostly retired professionals, who give about 12,000 volunteer hours a year.

    If you had asked us, you could have given your readers balance. Trust me, you owe The Journey Museum another story, Aaron.
  3. beaker
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    beaker - November 23, 2012 5:52 pm
    Lots of things are nice to have, but if the money isn't available, then economic reality sets in. I've been to the Journey before, I think they do a great job with what they have to work with. Unfortunately the crappy location combined with a local economy that doesn't really support this type of thing does not provide an environment where a place like the journey will flourish (or break even apparantly).
  4. sodaknyc
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    sodaknyc - November 23, 2012 8:29 am
    @ PEM - Where did you learn to do Math? With 31k visitors a year to the Journey, the investment from the City, to cover the cost of building maintanence is $10.50 per visitor, not your posted $10.5k. Still not a great number, but it is definately decreasing, as the museum moves forward.

    What the City needs is an overall cultural development plan that connect the Journey, Civic Center, Dahl, Main Street Square and Performing Arts Center. A plan that builds on and embraces the value of the arts to economic development and tourism.

    As of January 2012, Rapid City, SD is home to 227 arts-related businesses that employ 1,327 people. These arts-centric businesses play an important role in building and sustaining economic vibrancy. They employ a creative workforce, spend money locally, generate government revenue, and are a cornerstone of tourism and economic development. (Americans for the Arts)
  5. Rowdy
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    Rowdy - November 22, 2012 6:42 pm
    Yet another waste of my hard earned money by the government. Enough already.
  6. Revelation
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    Revelation - November 22, 2012 12:13 pm
    A couple of things that people should know. First, the City owns the museum's building. With that in mind the City has to pay for it's upkeep even if it was vacant. Some of the history on the location includes the fact that there were board members who resigned over the decision to put it where it currently is located. Also, the Journey is a great museum---people who have never been there before really enjoy it. The problem with drawing locals is that the exhibits don't change much (part of that is due to factors outside of the Journey's control). I think they should market both coasts and they will bring in people from out of the area. I don't think the Journey will every be fully self-sufficient but most museums aren't. However, they can draw more people and have a bigger impact on our economy. I believe with some of the changes that are in the works, they will.
  7. Mumblety
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    Mumblety - November 22, 2012 11:26 am
    Only in South Dakota would people actually sit around debating whether or not a museum is a "good" idea- I'm ashamed of the Journal for running such a skewed story that glosses over the many positive contributions that the Journey Museum has made to the community over the year in favor of rehashing the same tired arguments made year after year.

    Have any of the carrion crows who show up for these annual debates about the museum ever even visited the museum on their own, or is it just more fun to snicker at those who would work to preserve the cultural and geologic history of the Black Hills?

    I'm thrilled to see that Main Street Square has panned out and has become a tremendous success, in spite of all of the negative things said about it initially. If only those who pitched in to make it a success would take a moment to recognize why the Journey Museum is of paramount importance to the community, perhaps it would have a chance to flourish.

    If you read this story and have questions about whether or not the Journey is worth having, I challenge you to go with your family or at least look to see what sort of family programming is being offered there before dismissing it. A museum is an important part of a thriving community; it requires work to sustain it. Try chipping in instead of tearing it down.
  8. PEM
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    PEM - November 22, 2012 8:38 am
    A classic example of a celebrity board throwing good taxpayer money after bad. The math is simple. the cost per visitor is $34,300 , the city subsidizes each visitor $10,500. The cost to the citizens of RC is larger considering the effective use of the money elsewhere - such as crime prevention, youth support, family planning ..... The city should stop future contributions.
  9. snowflake
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    snowflake - November 22, 2012 8:03 am
    The public was vociferous in stating the Journey was planned to be built in the wrong place, primarily because it would have little public exposure. If you aren't going there, you aren't going to know it's there. Simple. But no, the big boys called in some high priced expert who told them it was a great location, and now the big boy are trying to blame the expert. It is too bad common sense is dead. Now the taxpayers pay for their bull-headedness year after year.
  10. South Dakotan2
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    South Dakotan2 - November 22, 2012 7:25 am
    15 years of failure, lies and outright fraud. Time to end taxpayer support of the Journey Museum.
  11. Elizabeth
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    Elizabeth - November 22, 2012 6:51 am
    LOCATION!!!! Throughout the years, I have personally visited the museum two times. It is the location. We just forget about it because we seldom see it. It is NOT advertised around town. Once in a while, we see an ad on TV, but if one is not an avid TV fan, those are also missed. When the Pioneer Museum was in Halley Park, I visited that at least two to three times a year with my children and with people who visited me. It was a wonderful experience. AND, even though it also was not advertised much, we drove by it constantly and knew where it was. Tourists just are not aware that it is tucked away just a short distance from the main part of the city. Perhaps it could be added to the electronic billboard owned by the Rapid City Civic Center. Or maybe added to one of the other electronic billboards around town. It is not financially feasible to MOVE the museum, but certainly more advertising could somehow be put into the budget. I mean, the Town Square gets more attention that the museum!!!!
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