Circus World vs. State Historical Society: Time for a divorce

Jonathan Lipp would like a divorce. Not from his wonderful bride, Susan, of course, but from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

In what has become a dysfunctional relationship at best, and an acrimonious one at worst, Lipp and other members of the Circus World Museum Board would like Circus World disconnected from the Historical Society, which currently owns it.

The relationship apparently has been fraying for awhile, but the final tear came when Gov. Scott Walker announced in his proposed biennial budget that in addition to providing state aid, Circus World formally would be rolled into WHS.

Suffice to say, this was not welcome news for the Baraboo museum's board, which has accused the Historical Society of a hostile takeover attempt, and distorting information about its financial condition to justify it.

Last week, the Circus World Foundation Board voted to authorize former lawmaker Steve Freese, now the museum’s executive director, to take Circus World’s case to the Wisconsin Legislature. In truth, Freese informally has been lobbying lawmakers for weeks, and the issue is likely to be resolved during deliberations on the proposed state budget.

Cinderella story?

It’s more than an interesting little fracas with claims and counter-claims, and even accusations and counter-accusations, because the future of a revered Wisconsin and global institution could well be at stake.

At the moment, the Circus World Museum operates the Baraboo site, but the museum's buildings, grounds, and collections (including those colorful wagons) are owned by the state.

Ellsworth Brown, director of the Historical Society, has said publicly that he has a fiduciary responsibility to report the museum’s shaky (his words) finances to the governor, and denied the society had a role in crafting the controversial budget provision.

Lipp has a different take on things. Namely, that after the museum board approached the governor seeking public financial support, the society intervened in what amounted to both a money and a power grab. The Walker budget contains $500,000 in state aid for the Historical Society, money Lipp said would be better allocated directly to the museum.

“To the society, Circus World has been Cinderella,” claimed Lipp, CEO of Full Compas Systems in Madison. "Now Cinderella has a dowry, and she's suddenly sexy."

As for Circus World's finances, Lipp acknowledges the challenges the museum has faced since the annual Great Circus Parade ended in 2003, but added that the board has worked hard to nearly dig out of debt, completely paying off a $500,000 line of credit and operating with no line of credit since July of 2010. What's more, since 2006, Circus World has been able to raise attendance at the Baraboo site by 31%.

There is also back-and-forth about the condition of the museum's artifacts and other relevant issues, but Lipp says every claim made by the Historical Society can be refuted. While this has yet to be discussed with the museum foundation, Lipp said the board has received documentation that the Historical Society intends to cancel its lease and management agreement with the museum this fall and hire its own staff to operate the Baraboo site.

 

Whomever one believes, this fact is indisputable: The two sides can no longer co-exist, so it's time to break up their 54-year public-private partnership. Rather than fold Circus World into the Historical Society, the state should provide it with at least half of the proposed $500,000 subsidy and maintain its current staff of volunteer employees. Having state employees do very specialized work is ill-advised – where would they find a wagon master? – unless the current museum staff is willing to work for the state. Lipp believes not.

If it’s not yet time for a divorce, it’s certainly time for an intervention. Lipp and other members of the board worry that the controversy casts such a pall over the 2013 summer season, Circus World probably can't wait for July 1 (the date the new state budget must be in place). He’s worried about losing existing staff, raising funds to subsidize the season, hiring performers who have other options, losing the artifacts on display that it doesn’t own, and the potential impact on tourism spending in Baraboo.

Tourism is the operative word here. One of the museum board’s tasks is to convince lawmakers to split Circus World from the Historical Society and create a new department or put it under the auspices of the state Department of Tourism. Lawmakers should work on a short-term solution to save the forthcoming season; the best long-term option is to move the museum to the Department of Tourism, where it truly belongs.

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