BACK Taking Steps to Protect Arizona History: Frequently Asked Questions

September 29, 2020

2020 has been a difficult year for all of us and the Arizona Historical Society, like thousands of arts and cultural organizations across the country, has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Because many of you have asked questions regarding the future of the contract management agreements between the Arizona Historical Society and three local museums in Flagstaff and Tucson, we have prepared this document to ensure that you have factual information about these arrangements and the likelihood that they cannot continue given the significant impact of the pandemic upon our operating budget.

You will find answers to the most frequently asked questions below:

What is the mission of the Arizona Historical Society (AHS)?

The mission of the Arizona Historical Society is connecting people through the power of Arizona’s history. Since 1864, AHS has worked to strengthen a feeling of community pride across our state by promoting that history through our leadership, our partnerships and our scholarship. Each year, tens of thousands of Arizonans and visitors enjoy AHS museums, libraries and archives, exhibits, programs, and publications. Our signature National History Day program helps foster a love of history and the value of research, organization and life skills among students from 4th grade through high school. Did you know that we also support nearly 60 rural historical organizations and museums across the state in their efforts to collect, preserve and share Arizona’s rich history through our Certified Historical Institution program?

How has the Arizona Historical Society been affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

It will come as no surprise that, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect upon museum attendance, book/gift shop sales, rentals and other sources of operating income, AHS has been forced to make drastic cuts to our already lean 2020 budget. We aren’t alone in this. A recent survey by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) found that “one out of every three museums may shutter forever as funding sources and financial reserves run dry.” In our case, extended museum closures have resulted in a devastating loss of revenue, compounding an already tenuous financial situation—and the end is not yet in sight. As responsible stewards of Arizona’s history, we know we must do everything possible to ensure that we can continue to preserve Arizona’s history for Arizona’s people.

What is the financial outlook for AHS at this time?

At the current time, AHS is projecting a loss of more than $600,000 for the current year, in spite of substantial cost-cutting measures. Industry trends indicate that once our museums reopen, we should expect significantly reduced visitor traffic. We do not have the ability to sustain losses of this magnitude over the long term.

AHS’ budget and staff have been cut by 50% since the year 2000 yet, during that time, the Riordan Mansion and the Downtown History Museum operations were added to our cash outlay and already thin resources were stretched even further. Performance expectations, however, remain at 2000 levels, and are in fact even greater now than then, as the need to produce a wide variety of digital and virtual programming has grown exponentially. All three of these properties were operating at a loss prior to the pandemic; it just hastened the inevitable.

Which museums and historic properties are owned by AHS?

AHS owns two large museums and a number of historic buildings across the state. These include:

  • Arizona Heritage Center (museum) at Papago Park, Tempe
  • Arizona History Museum, Tucson
  • Pioneer Museum, Flagstaff
  • Sanguinetti House Museum & Gardens & the Molina Block, Yuma
  • Charles O. Brown House, Tucson
  •  Sosa-Carrillo House, Tucson
  • Douglas-Williams House, Douglas
  •  Strawberry Schoolhouse, Strawberry

Who owns the three museums operated by AHS under agreements with their respective owners?

  • Arizona State Parks: Riordan Mansion State Historic Park, 409 West Riordan Rd. Flagstaff, AZ 86001
  • City of Tucson: Fort Lowell Museum, 2900 N. Craycroft Road Tucson, Arizona 85712
  • Wells Fargo Bank: Downtown History Museum inside the Wells Fargo Bank Building, 140 N. Stone Avenue Tucson, Arizona 85701

These museums also hold a special place in the hearts of many local residents and AHS has been honored to operate them under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with each of the owners. Artifacts from our collections are exhibited in two of the three.

When and why did these three owners request assistance from AHS? 

  • Riordan Mansion: 10 years (2010)
    • In January 2010, during the depths of the Great Recession when budgetary considerations forced Arizona State Parks to close multiple sites, AHS staff expressed concern about the possible closure of Riordan Mansion (1904) State Park. Through an Interagency Service Agreement (ISA) AHS assumed responsibility for operating Riordan on behalf of State Parks at that time.
  • Fort Lowell: 33 years (1987)
    • This adobe replica of the commanding officer’s quarters was built by the Junior League of Tucson in 1966 near the site of the original building. The City of Tucson owns and maintains the land and buildings. The current agreement is dated 1987.
  • Downtown History Museum: 20 years (2000)
    • AHS holds a lease agreement with Wells Fargo Bank that was last updated in 2010. The building is owned by Wells Fargo.

How does AHS support each non-owned museum?

AHS provides direct financial support to these three non-owned museums from operating funds realized from AHS-owned museums. Resources have been allocated as necessary to supplement both finances and staffing, and all three are supported by the AHS administrative team, including accounting, human resources, facilities, procurement and marketing and communications.  All three are included in AHS promotional materials and advertising.

Why are we considering returning these three non-owned museums to their owners at this time?

Actions must be taken now to preserve our state’s history for the people of Arizona for years to come. Like many businesses and organizations, we are facing extremely difficult decisions about our future. As we work to preserve Arizona’s history, we must take steps to protect the museums and historic properties that we own and for which we are responsible. The museums and priceless artifacts that we care for belong to all Arizonans.

Returning the three non-owned museums to their respective owners has been discussed by the AHS board for several years, but consensus on how to move forward was difficult, in part because of the strong community connection to the properties. Unfortunately, the dramatic impact of COVID-19 closures has accelerated the need to take action. Operating revenues from admissions, programs, school tours and gift store sales have been eliminated, while most costs — salaries, utilities, and facility maintenance—remain constant. There is simply not enough money to protect employee jobs, maintain AHS-owned facilities and operate the three non-AHS owned properties. To put it simply, AHS will be unable to reopen these three facilities even when COVID-restrictions are lifted. Change is never comfortable, but out of change comes new solutions. Therefore, the most appropriate course of action appears to be to return the properties to their owners now to allow them time to find ways to keep the museums operating.

AHS remains steadfast in our dedication to collect, preserve, interpret, and disseminate Arizona’s history by connecting people through the power of Arizona’s history. Preservation is at the very core of that mission, and we pledge to focus our resources on the historic sites entrusted to our care: Sosa-Carrillo House, Charles O. Brown House, Douglas Williams House, Strawberry Schoolhouse, Sanguinetti House Museum and Gardens, Molina Block, Pioneer Museum, and of course our flagship museums, the Arizona History Museum and the Arizona Heritage Center.

What happens to the artifacts inside the three museums If AHS returns operations responsibility to their respective owners?

Riordan Mansion: The artifacts inside Riordan Mansion are part of the home. They are owned by Arizona State Parks and will continue to be cared for by them.

Fort Lowell Museum and Downtown History Museum: Most of the artifacts inside these museums are owned by AHS. These will be returned to the collections inside the Arizona History Museum in Tucson. Artifacts from these collections may be available for loan or exhibit at AHS and other museums. Earlier this year, we loaned several dozen objects to Pima County for display at the Southern Arizona Heritage and Visitor Center. 

How will AHS continue to support, preserve, and share Flagstaff and Tucson history?

The AHS Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff will continue to share northern Arizona history through exhibits, programs, and outreach. Last year, in partnership with NAU’s Martin-Springer Institute, Pioneer Museum opened Resilience: Women in Flagstaff’s Past and Present which highlights the stories of Flagstaff women and non-binary people who faced extraordinary challenges. Before the pandemic, panels from the exhibit also traveled around Flagstaff to the Murdoch Center, NAU Cline Library, Flagstaff High School, the Flagstaff Library, andCoconino Community College.

Through artifacts and exhibits, the Arizona History Museum in Tucson shares stories from 19th century Arizona to the aftermath of January 8, 2011, when the Tucson community came together to grieve, comfort and heal. The Arizona History Museum is also home to the Tucson Library and Archives, which makes precious artifacts such as letters, photographs, and manuscripts available to historians and students conducting research on Arizona history. 

The Sosa-Carillo house in Tucson is one of the historic properties owned by AHS. The nonprofit Los Descendientes Del Presidio De Tucson operates the Mexican-American Heritage and History Museum from that historic building, preserving the rich heritage and history of the Old Pueblo. 

How can you help Arizona State Parks, City of Tucson, and Wells Fargo?

At the August 14 State Board of Directors meeting, many members of the public generously gave their time to participate in a public process that sent a resounding message of support for the three non-owned museums. We are grateful for their voices and join in encouraging the owners of these sites to work with community partners, supporters, and concerned citizens to find solutions that will allow them to continue to operate those properties under new agreements.  

If we haven’t answered your questions, please contact [email protected]

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