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Galena-Jo Daviess County Historical Society faces challenges


GALENA–The past few months have been particularly difficult for the Galena-Jo Daviess County Historical Society & Museum as the board has struggled to keep the 82-year-old society afloat during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the struggle isn’t over.

The society recently took drastic measures, moving from five full-time and six part-time staff to three part-time employees. The pandemic halted museum admissions, led to event cancellations and hurt retail sales.

“It’s a huge decrease, but we felt it was necessary,” said Nancy Breed, who retired June 26 as executive director. “. . .It’s painful to let staff go. . .It’s hard to leave when things are so uncertain.”

The Payroll Protection Program funds from the federal government allowed the society to keep staff on until July 1, but when the dollars were gone, it was time to make reductions. Breed referred to the PPP as “a patch” that allowed the society to organize thinking about the future.

With Breed off the payroll, Jean Matthiessen will step in as interim executive director. The society had candidates lined up in March for interviews but put the hire on hold, well aware this is not the time to bring a new professional into the community with so much uncertainty.

“She’s very capable and willing to step in,” said Breed of Matthiessen, who served as an administrative assistant and will work with Denise Spielman to cover whatever needs to be done.

Even with the staffing reductions and other cutbacks, the society anticipates it will be $47,000 short of breaking even at the end of 2020. Then, with no cash reserves, the society faces the first six months of 2021 with traditionally low reserves and high utility expenses, Breed explained.

Christine Harris, society board president, said the historical society is faced with a puzzle as it is completely dependent on donations. No tax dollars are received. The board has talked about different ways to achieve more stability, including an endowment. Now is a difficult time to pursue that direction, she said, as the budget has been reworked based on a 40 percent reduction in museum revenues.

According to Breed, the board has been meeting virtually on a regular basis, first weekly and now every other week or so. There are committee meetings added to that. There’s definitely a sense of urgency in ensuring the society’s collection is cared for long term.

The capital campaign is on hold as the board recognizes now is not the time to think about new cultural attractions and to solicit donations for such a large project.

The plans that have been completed are at a point that they can be picked up again when the time is right, whether that’s in six months or six years, Breed noted.


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How to help

There are ways that members of the community can step up to help during the slower-than-usual tourism season.

“We are the only ones that tell the whole Galena story,” said Harris.

She referred to the time span of the Driftless, first people, mining, Civil War and women’s history that is detailed in exhibits.

“If we go away, who will take care of that, and if we go away, who will tell the story?” she questioned.

Breed said memberships and one-time or sustaining donations are an option. For those who are interested in more, she encourages them to talk to a financial planner or an attorney to consider adding the society to estate planning.

“The society has policies in place to accommodate gifts in all forms and sizes,” said Breed. “The pandemic and its financial aftermath has brought the society to its knees. We remain optimistic that the community values the work of the historical society enough to lift us up.”

The museum is open, Breed emphasized, on an altered schedule Friday through Monday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Currently, officials are seeing about 40 percent of normal admissions and retail sales. The museum is large enough that people are able to social distance and wear masks. Plans are for the Old Blacksmith Shop to open soon for the season, as soon as all necessary measures have been taken to ensure it is safe for the smiths and visitors.

“People are thrilled that the museum is open,” Breed noted, adding that visitors appreciate that there are fun and interesting things to do while they’re in the area.

The museum gift shop is also open for business and has a variety of Galena-specific items that can be picked up or shipped, Breed said.

Harris said work is underway to establish more of an online presence and to monetize that.

Events help the society’s budget every year–accounting for about 20 percent of revenues–and bring overall awareness of the work the society does. With the home tour, cemetery walk and stair challenge cancelled this year, there is work underway to add a couple smaller events. More information will be forthcoming.

Both Breed and Harris are heartened by the way the board and staff members have stepped up during this difficult time.

“No one can say that we didn’t try,” said Harris.