Closed museum catches visitors off guard
Brian D. Bridgeford / Baraboo News Republic
With an eye on long-term preservation of summer circus performances and the circus history library, Circus World Museum's board agreed Tuesday to shut down exhibits for the winter and halve staff positions as cost-saving measures.
Wednesday afternoon visitors arriving at the museum found the Irvin Feld Exhibit Hall darkened and the following notice posted on the doors, "As of Dec. 15, 2009, Circus World Museum is CLOSED for the winter. We will open again on May 22 through August 29, 2010 for the performance season."
It was an unpleasant surprise for Necedah residents Bonnie Flegle and Dan King, who said they were visiting Wisconsin Dells and drove to Baraboo for the museum.
"I guess I'm kind of disappointed," Flegle said. "I've never been to Baraboo and that's what I wanted to see."
Rural Baraboo resident Laura Simonds said she made a special trip from her workplace in Portage with the idea of buying CWM-themed gifts for out-of-state relatives. She was disappointed, but also understanding about the museum's situation. "I thought this would be the epitome of a gift from Baraboo, something from Circus World Museum," she said. "I know they're trying to keep things going here at Circus World and I suppose in the big picture this is how they do that."
The new model for business operations was approved unanimously by the Circus World Museum Foundation Board of Directors, said Paul Karch, board chairman. Through 1991 it was routine for CMW exhibits to shut down for the winter, so the decision returns CWM to a previous way of operating, he said.
The museum's staff has been reduced from eight people to three, Karch said, with the board laying off four employees. "The people who are continuing to work there are (Executive Director) Steve Freese, (Performance Director) David Saloutos and (Operations Director) Rob Richard," he said. "All employees are taking a reduction in salary and one of the folks offered that elected not to take (the job)."
Like other non-profit entities, CWM has been hit by the tight economy and must make changes to cope, Karch said. In many ways CWM had a good 50th year in 2009, Freese said. Visitor admissions generated about $850,300 for museum operations, which is a 22 percent rise over last year. It was due to a 17 percent rise in visitors over the summer, he said.
The 2009 Great Circus Parade in Milwaukee helped the museum pay off old debts, Freese said. However, he said the board does not expect another Great Circus Parade to take place soon due to lack of fundraising support in Milwaukee.
Shutting down the exhibit hall for the winter is prudent because it averages only seven visitors a day, as low as two a day in December, Freese said. That contrasts with about 700 visitors daily in summer.
"(CWM's budget) it's going to go from 2009 expenditures of $1.5 million to a proposed 2010 (budget) of $1.2 million," he said. "That's a $300,000 shift in what they're doing."
Both Freese and Karch said they expect the changes will help preserve CWM's major programs.
"We have to put a new (business) model in place that will be realistic in the revenue we believe we can generate and what the site can do in terms of attendance," Freese said.
"It's tight, but with the new organization going forward it will be financially sound," Karch said. Saloutos said he sees the winter shutdown as a necessary step. He will miss the people who worked hard on behalf of the museum and its audience. "We're looking forward to 2010 and keeping our chins up and working to make it better," Saloutos said.
Saloutos said CWM will present another traditional American circus show in 2010 with familiar performers such as Brian Franzen's elephants and tigers, Los Antons acrobats and Jessi, a funny female clown fresh from the Ringing Bros. circus.
Information about Circus World Museum programs, summer performance schedules and an online gift store can be found at circusworld.wisconsinhistory.org.