"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."