Lots going on during the next three months! Kid Inventor just opened in the Oklahoma Museum Network Gallery. This exhibit features Design, Build, and Test areas where you can (as you might have guessed already) design, build, and test your own inventions. It's a big mess and a lot of fun! In the Terry K Bell Gallery, beginning April 28, we'll feature approximately twenty works by the up-and-coming, nationally-recognized painter and Lawton native, Robert Peterson. Then in June, it's the annual Oklahoma Chautauqua. The morning and afternoon workshops, held in Louise D McMahon Hall, will explore five historical figures: Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Vanderbilt-Whitney, Josephine Baker, Acee Blue Eagle, and General John J Pershing. More information here.
We’ve got plaque! Not on our teeth, silly, but on our walls! In 1998, The McMahon Foundation funded an expansion of the Museum of the Great Plains that created a new main gallery, today’s “E P McMahon Exhibition Hall.” In 2012, The Foundation served as the lead donor to obtain a large grant that renovated the entire exhibit space in the main hall, creating what is now known as the “Donald W Reynolds Great Plains Discovery Center” at the museum, which debuted in November 2015.
In 2003, The McMahon Foundation paid for the renovation of what was once a temporary gallery in the old, original part of the building, which then became a meeting area and rental space at the museum, today’s “Louise D McMahon Hall.” After more than a decade of wear and tear—while serving as a much-needed revenue stream for the museum—The Foundation once again underwrote a renovation of the hall in 2017.
During the Louise D McMahon Hall renovation, we asked The McMahon Foundation to provide wording for plaques to be placed at the entrances to these areas. Visitors see “E P McMahon Exhibition Hall” and “Louise D McMahon Hall,” but many, most, probably don’t know the significance of those names, or the relation of The McMahon Foundation to the museum. So, we hope the plaques will provide our visitors with even more information about the Museum of the Great Plains, The McMahon Foundation, and Lawton, Oklahoma.
The Museum of the Great Plains routinely benefits from many other donations as well. For example, the Terry K Bell Charitable Trust, in 2014, paid for a complete remodel of the museum’s foyer and store, and remodeled a former classroom as the “Terry K Bell Gallery.” In September 2017, noticing a patio area adjoining Louise D McMahon Hall looked a little rough, George and Tresea Moses made a gift to the museum to renovate that space. It’s a popular stop for guests who visit the outdoor exhibits, and now the patio looks better than ever.
As always, we remind everyone of the importance of the City of Lawton to the continuing existence and well-being of the Museum of the Great Plains. Since 1961, the City of Lawton and The McMahon Foundation have, together, played vital roles in the maintenance and improvement of one of Lawton and Southwest Oklahoma’s chief educational and entertainment venues. Thank you, City of Lawton!
Oh, it’s a person? Who? A woman? Well, why would anyone ever name their child that! But then it was 1904….
Mignon, whose name is pronounced like “minion,” was born into an unusual family. Her father was a doctor, her mother a performer, and for a time they lived and traveled in a customized railroad car. The Lairds toured a circuit in Oklahoma, parking for a week or so in a community on a railway siding, where Dr Laird would receive patients. Mrs Laird performed dramatic readings and sang, while Mignon became known for playing the harp and dancing. The family business was similar to a “medicine show,” a type of mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century touring act that coupled entertainment with some kind of medical product or service.
From her childhood, it was almost a natural leap for Mignon to Vaudeville. The name “Vaudeville” applied to a certain type of live entertainment production, a variety show often hosted in local theaters and featuring traveling acts. Many singers, dancers, radio performers, stage and film actors from the 1890s to the 1930s began their careers in Vaudeville shows. Mignon also danced in the New York-based “Ziegfeld Follies,” a glamorous stage production of select chorus girls.
As the Follies, Vaudeville, and other types of live entertainment were supplanted by film and radio, Mignon Laird followed. Later she operated a studio for “stage dancing” and “dramatic art.” She died in New York City in 1984, and her ashes were spread at the Mignon Laird Municipal Airport in Cheyenne, Oklahoma, the site of her family’s former territorial homestead.
Join the Museum of the Great Plains on Saturday, December 23, from 2:00-4:00 for a visit by Santa Claus! He’s brought a sleigh, a couple of reindeer, and a Christmas tree, in case you want your want to take your picture (or see where you are on the naughty-or-nice list). While you’re here, the gallery is open from 10:00-5:00, and admission is only $1 for all ages (children younger than 3 are always free). Finally, check out our Santa-approved museum store for those last-minute gifts. Merry Christmas!
From December 9 through January 7, visitors to the museum can view 33 paintings selected by local artist Jay Bonifield for an impromptu exhibition. His work is beautifully abstract, detailed, and colorful, and sure to catch your eye!
Like many people, when you think of "Indian art" you may in fact envision a style that was first popularized by the "Kiowa Five," a group of students who attended the University of Oklahoma in the late 1920s. Their works continue to strongly influence representations of native culture even today.
During the month of November, the museum's Bell Gallery features a selection of original works and prints, ranging from members of the Kiowa Five to later artists painting in their tradition. Although similar in appearance, each artist is notable for their own personal style. For example, see if you can spot the difference between a Woody Crumbo, and, well, anyone else!
We do! Now through March 2018, the museum's OMN Gallery features Backyard Bugs: An Oklahoma Insect Adventure. Get cozy with some familiar creatures in this latest exploration from the Oklahoma Museum Network. Larger-than-life animatronics, interactive exhibits, and living insect displays give visitors a unique perspective on a bug’s life, revealing the fascinating complexities of our six-legged neighbors.
Thank you to the many and diverse people and organizations for their support of the Museum of the Great Plains. We especially appreciate the citizens of Lawton for being in our corner.
We try to keep our head down, nose to the grindstone, and to do the best we can, with little or no fuss, if possible. And yet, we often seem to have a target painted on our backs. It’s frustrating.
Especially when a lot of people talk about our business, but don’t know about our business, and don’t ask us about our business. We’re the subject of some harsh media attention this week, and some things are being said that are not correct. Or, maybe certain people just have an agenda.
As a history museum, we take a long view of things. We think about the past, the present, and the future. We consider how we got here, where we are, and where we’re going. So, a little background.
For nearly four decades, until 1998, the museum was a division of the City of Lawton. Our employees were city employees. The original museum building, a gift from the McMahon Foundation, has always belonged to the city, and still does. But in 1998, the City of Lawton reorganized the museum as a “municipal trust.” That’s a legal entity, and it means certain things. Some of them are that we’re no longer a division of the city; we’re governed by a trust authority, which is a volunteer board of directors; and the staff is employed by the trust. Put simply, we’re a stand alone non-profit organization that provides a contractual service to the city.
Still, to our accountants and our auditor, and the IRS, we’re a “quasi-governmental entity.” But the city has no obligation to the trust employees, and we do not participate in the city’s pension or retirement plans, health plan, or anything else. The City of Lawton is, however, the beneficiary of the Museum of the Great Plains Trust Authority, and in the event the trust fails, all our assets revert to the city.
The museum enjoyed a lot of security as a division of the city, and there were mixed (and some unhappy) feelings about being forced to leave the fold, but we didn’t have a choice. The intention of the city, of course, was not to abandon the museum, but to reposition the museum. The city continues to provide the bulk of the museum's funding, in return for the service the museum renders. The trust also maintains, and has greatly improved, an asset of the city. We leverage our position as a separate organization, with 501(c)(3) status, to obtain grants that are not available to purely governmental entities. So that, in a nutshell, is how the museum has operated since 1998.
We’d have to do more research to go all the way back to 1998, but from 2003 to the present, the City of Lawton appropriated $8,404,544 to the Museum of the Great Plains. For the same period, the museum accumulated $7,718,206 in grants and related contributions, a difference of $686,338. Some people would say that’s a loss to the city of $686,338. Another way to see it is that the city invested $8.4 million in the museum and reaped an additional $7.7 million. That’s a pretty good return for 10 years of services provided, and an asset that has increased significantly in value.
Some of our critics say they like the museum, they support the museum, they want the museum to prosper, that the museum is bigger, better, and serves more people than ever before, but that we’re just not worth the drain on the city budget. Yet the section of the budget that includes the museum totals $91,254,448 for 2017-2018. The city has budgeted $550,000 of that for the museum. There are slick people doing arithmetic lately with regard to the museum, but here’s the calculation: $550,000 divided by $91,254,448 equals .0060271, meaning the Museum of the Great Plains accounts for six-tenths of one percent of that portion of the city’s 2017-2018 budget. Here’s another way to say the same thing, that section of the city’s budget is 165 times greater than the $550,000 allocated to the museum. We’re a fraction of the city’s spending. Is the museum not worth 6/10 of 1% of the city’s discretionary expenses?
Here’s another point, the city has reduced the allocation to the museum for three consecutive years. In 2015-2016, the city allocated $595,833; in 2016-2017, $575,000; and this year, $550,000. For the same period, the museum’s operating budget went from $778,600 to $805,576. We lost nearly $46,000 but increased spending by $27,000. So not only did we cover the gap of $46,000, but we added another $27,000, for a total of $73,000. Is it magic? No, it’s increased efficiency and other revenue.
The last time the city funded the museum for less than $550,000, by the way, was in 2008-2009. Interestingly, our budget then was $671,600. So the city provided 82% of our budget in 2008-2009. The city-funded percentage ten years later is 68% of the museum's budget. We’ve decreased our reliance on city funding by 14% over ten years.
During the last fiscal year, 2016-2017, the museum generated an additional 31%, $255,408.11, of its total revenue, to cover operating expenses. More than half the additional revenue, 50%, came from ticket sales; 22% from membership sales; and 22% from store sales. That’s the magic of how the museum gets less money from the city, and yet offers more to visitors.
The other stick we’re currently being beaten with is the former “free Sunday” program for citizens of Lawton. People don’t understand why we discontinued the program. Again, it’s a reality check. We have to make money in order to pay our expenses. We reopened in November 2015 with a vastly improved public space. The response has been that our membership has increased by 350%, and ticket sales have increased by 136%. This additional revenue has allowed us to continue to run a break-even operation. Reintroducing one, two, three, four, or five free days each month will simply decrease our ticketing revenue and discourage memberships, neither of which the museum can afford.
Unfortunately, this has been framed (lately) as a taxpayer question: If the citizens of Lawton pay the taxes that fund the museum, why should the citizens have to pay a fee to enter the museum? Our question is, if the city reduces the amount of taxpayer money allocated to the museum year after year, what’s supposed to fill the gap? Something has to bridge the deficit.
For example, say the city gives the museum $10. Then, say a citizen, a taxpayer, visits the museum for free, when a ticket would normally cost $10. Now that citizen has received $10 in services for his or her $10 in taxes. But now, say the city gives the museum $7.50, and a citizen visits the museum, a service that would normally cost $10. The museum is left with a $2.50 deficit. If the museum cannot operate at a loss, as most businesses can’t for very long, there’s a problem.
That’s our only argument. The city can decide to fund the museum at whatever level it chooses. Elected officials allocate taxpayer money, and those officials answer to the citizens. Both the city administrators and the elected officials have to operate within the constraints of a budget. If they can’t afford to fund the museum at a certain level, that’s just a reality we (the museum) have to accept. But it doesn’t change what it costs to operate the museum. We can cut corners, increase efficiency, do everything we can to control museum expenses, but ultimately we have to generate enough money to break even. If we lose funding in one area, we have to compensate in another.
Either way, the citizen is paying, but it isn’t fair to say the citizen is “paying twice” to visit the museum. Less of your money is being given to the museum to start with, and then you’re making up the difference when you visit. And if the city gave nothing to the museum, the trust would go out of business, and the city would save 6/10 of 1% of its annual discretionary expenditures, and the citizens would be left without a museum. If the city gave every citizen of Lawton (all 97,017) back a portion of this year’s $500,000—which does not include the $50,000 in hotel-motel funds provided by non-residents—each citizen would get $5.15. That “refund” wouldn’t happen, of course, but it’s another way to look at taxpayer investment.
Before a few critics accuse us of using wild, round numbers, or fault us for pretend-this or pretend-that examples, we would ask them to be more precise (or refrain) as well. We post our individual ticket prices on our website, DiscoverMGP.org, along with group rates, and our membership rates. Ten dollars ($10) is the top rate we charge. Someone gave an example where a family of five would pay $10 each, or $50, to enter the museum. The typical family is a range of ages, with other possible discounts, and pays less. The same family can buy a $75 membership—that’s an average of $6.25 per month—and visit all 362 days a year that the museum is open to the public at no additional expense. If you pay anything at all for other types of family entertainment, the museum is a bargain.
If you’re a citizen of Lawton and your support the museum, we encourage you to call your council representative. If you don’t know who that is, there’s a map on the city website. Just visit www.lawtonok.gov/departments/city-council for more information. If you have suggestions for us, please comment here. And thanks for listening to our rant.
Elmer Thomas Park is a great location, but occasionally we just can't compete. This Saturday, July 1, "Freedom Festival" will take place in the park. Most of the area will be reduced to pedestrian traffic, and the parking lots will be full. So, we're saying "uncle" and closing the museum on Saturday. But if you're in the neighborhood, enjoy Freedom Festival, which begins at 11am and ends after dark with a great fireworks show. More information here.
From time to time, we'll post info here about what's going-on at the museum.