Quell the doom and gloom. Hope is finally on the rise again at one of Mobile’s most essential museums and the source of the optimism is the same as the trepidation.
In early May, the Gulf Coast Exploreum announced a new partnership wherein the city of Mobile took ownership of the building housing interactive STEM (teaching science, technology, engineering and math) exhibits, freeing up short-term capital funds for the institution. The city previously owned only the land.
Sold for just $1, the building at 65 Government St. — including an IMAX Dome theater and exhibit space inside a historic fire station — now becomes a literal asset to the city in addition to a metaphorical one. It’s valued at approximately $15 million.
The city previously slashed the Exploreum’s performance contract along with those for a number of other cultural entities. In December 2014, the Exploreum asked the city for more funding.
“Previously, we got $617,000 and $214,000 of that was for us to pay the utilities,” Executive Director Jan McKay told Artifice. “Last August we were zeroed out of the budget but the mayor came back and put some money in for various nonprofits. So what we ended up getting this fiscal year was that $147,000.”
The Exploreum announced it would lose staffing — four full-time positions and eight part-time positions — in the wake of the cuts. Now with the city assuming some costs and freeing up funds, will more of those jobs return?
“That’s possible. It’s a goal but as of right now we lost a half a million dollars so we’re still not going to be back to where we were,” McKay said.
Their budget has fallen from $4.6 million in 2007 to $2.1 million today.
“We have tried, and true corporate and foundation support that has stepped forward in the last eight months gave us additional money to keep us going,” McKay said. “We’re building a corporate partner program that we’re going to be launching in the next couple of months, too.”
Immediately, Artifice thought of recent tussles at the city-owned History Museum of Mobile between its board of directors and the mayor’s office. Would this partnership result in organizational changes, processes for employee hires or board selection that would stir similar rancor?
“No, not at all. In fact, the lease agreement specifically states the Exploreum board and staff and leadership will run the Exploreum, that the city does not control the operations,” McKay said. “The city and the board negotiators were very clear on that from the beginning. The only difference is that the building is being leased from the city now instead of us owning it and the rest stays exactly the same.”
Founded in 1976, the nonprofit initially was housed in a modest facility next to Midtown’s Bragg-Mitchell Mansion, but it built and moved to its current lavish home in 1998. By their account, The Exploreum is consistently recognized as one of the top tourism attractions in Alabama, serving 25,000 school children and with an average annual attendance of 150,000 visitors from an area encompassing Alabama, Mississippi and Northwest Florida.
“What we earn — 46 percent of our income — is through memberships, turnstile, IMAX theater, café and gift store and rentals of the facility,” McKay said. “The rest is grants, gifts, sponsorships and private donations.”
McKay said the money from the city is 8 percent of their budget. She also mentioned $16,000 from the county, plus a $12,000 state tourism grant for a two-day film festival on July 11 and 12.
“We’re ecstatic but we still have to put a comprehensive fundraising plan in place,” McKay said. “Well, it’s in place but we still need to work it.”
The director emphasized how easy donations are through their website. She also mentioned a special giving club called the Archimedes Society. Rest assured, no bath time epiphanies are involved.
Recent international news headlines nod to the Exploreum. Elon Musk’s successful Space X tests are the link.
“ It’s a fantastic new exhibit created for the Exploreum by NASA opening at the end of this month called Journey to Mars,” McKay said. “With that we’re going to have a moon rock on exhibit just for 10 days in June.” Sponsored by AM/NS Calvert, the Mars exhibit runs for three months.
How important is the Exploreum? It goes beyond tourism.
A Pew Research Center report from February 2015 underscored America’s underwhelming performance in STEM fields, compared internationally. This region and this state particularly fall at the bottom of national metrics.
By high school ACT tests, Mobile County results are deplorable. Only 13.17 percent and 15.86 percent of students met acceptable standards in math and science, respectively.
Artifice would bet there would be no shortage of tales on superstition and athletic exploits from those same kids, though. Or pop culture’s minutiae.
So why is this discussion in a space normally reserved for arts happenings? It concerns a museum, first of all.
Also, humanity can’t truly progress unless we walk hand-in-hand with art and science. Critical thought requires both.
Science tells us how to do something; art tells us whether we should or not. Science without art bears no conscience or wisdom. Art without science bears no knowledge or reason.
Every wonder this reality has is revealed in science. It takes art to fully reveal appreciate it.
When we discount their power, we hobble our potential. We shackle our own future.