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New York’s Living Museums Facing Cuts

Five-year-old Zivi-Jean Ham and her 18-month-old brother, Jackson, love the Bronx Zoo. Along with their parents, Melissa Munn and Selby Ham, they’ve visited six times already this year, taking the subway from their Upper East Side home in Manhattan. Giraffes, tigers, sea lions, story hour, and a carousel add up to a full day of activities. “It’s an amusement park, school, and field trip all rolled into one,” says Melissa.

But zoos and other “living museums” in New York State are feeling the pinch of budget cuts. They receive much of their funding through organizations like the Coalition of Living Museums (CLM), which provides support to 112 state organizations, including the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the Buffalo Museum of Science. And the coalition, along with New York State’s Zoos, Botanical Gardens and Aquaria Program (ZBGA), is facing a potential 55% cut in its budget in the 2008/2009 fiscal year—from $9 million to $4 million. A decision from the New York State Assembly is due in January 2009.

The difference between “living museums” and say, the Museum of Modern Art, is that the collections need to be fed, watered, or treated to medical care. Just to qualify as a living museum, the institution must have a live ‘body of work’ and also have educational programs opened to the public. And when funds are low, a living museum cannot simply close a wing.

“Unliving museums—I won’t call them dead—can shut down a gallery, but you can’t put the penguins in the basement,” said Lois Carswell, chairman of the steering committee of the CLM. Carswell is also a volunteer at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and runs the annual plant sale. “We need money for fish food and fertilizer. It’s the unglamorous things that keep us going.”

Cuts proposed in the State’s next fiscal year will limit planned exhibitions and environmental educational programs, immediately force staff reductions, and may push some institutions to cut back on free and reduced-price admission hours. Proposed cuts to the current fiscal year will have even more drastic impacts, as living museums statewide have already spent money promised to them last spring on day-to-day maintenance.

“Compost is not a sexy thing to fundraise for,” says Aaron Bouska, Director of Government and Community Affairs at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

The effect for visitors could be drastic. At a time when the tourism industry is seeing a growth in “staycations,” these places need to stay open for business and provide incentives for repeat visits.

New York State’s living museums had at least 12 million visitors in the past year, both first timers and recurring visitors who are fortunate to have these sanctuaries practically in their backyard. “All living institutions in New York State right now are experiencing an increase in visitors,” said Bouska, who noted that the garden has seen a 10% visitor spike from last year. “It’s good for us, but also costs us a lot of money.”

The Mohonk Preserve, New York State’s largest nonprofit nature preserve and a member of the Coalition of Living Museums, has tallied that annual visitors generate more than $3 million in gas, food, and lodging in the surrounding area of the Shawangunk Ridge, a section of the Appalachian Mountains. Tourism also generates revenue in retail benefits such as bike rentals and rock climbing equipment, and provides jobs in the service industry. The total?$18 million, just in the Hudson Valley.

Besides providing jobs and supporting local business, living museums help conserve endangered species and provide education on climate change, composting, and recycling. They also provide an affordable escape—something everyone is looking for these days.

So until the New York State Assembly rules on a final budget, the Hams will continue to visit the Bronx Zoo—and witness business as usual in the monkey house.

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