Loudoun County supervisors gave one of Loudoun’s most storied nonprofits a whiplash ride over the past few weeks, first renewing a funding agreement with the Loudoun Museum and then reversing that decision at their next meeting.
On April 21, supervisors renewed their annual agreement with the Loudoun Museum, agreeing to continue funding the museum with $156,000 a year as long as it meets performance benchmarks set by county staff members.
The museum has received annual funding from the county since 2016, as it sought to reform a troubled organization and board. Since that funding began, the museum has taken major steps—including a new executive director, new exhibits, a new Board of Trustees and new guidelines for the museum’s finances.
That has meant the museum has received funding from the county every year, even after a staff walkout temporarily closed it in 2018. Now, even as the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the museum ordered to close, its staff has continued to provide programming online.
The Loudoun Museum had also asked supervisors to consider an annual 3-percent increase in county funding.
But on Tuesday, County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) pushed supervisors to reconsider that vote.
“I have always supported the Loudoun Museum, and supported them full-throatedly and very strongly,” Randall said. “I think having a museum in Loudoun County about Loudoun County is very important, and I could not have imagined four months ago ever doing this, but when I juxtapose this $350,000 against what our nonprofits are doing, I could not in good conscience think that this is a good use of this money right now.”
Supervisors Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin), Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) stridently opposed the move.
Kershner pointed out that only last month, supervisors declined his motions to amend nonprofit grants in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“On the one hand we decided a month ago that we wanted to stick to the process, we didn’t want to pick winners and losers, and yet now we are picking a loser,” Kershner said.
He also pointed out that it is unclear where that money will now go. Supervisors voted to send that money to nonprofits that met the qualifications for funding in the county’s competitive grant funding process but were not funded, and which are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. However it will be up to county staff members to establish the criteria for deciding what is and is not work related to the pandemic.
Letourneau argued if supervisors want to give more money to some nonprofits, they can just do that—and already have—without taking it from a nonprofit “that has nothing to do with this, and that is just caught in the crosshairs.”
“This is really bad government,” Letourneau said. “This is not what a county like Loudoun should be doing in a situation like this. People look to us because we’re calm, we’re ration, we’re reasonable. You can’t spring… a motion like this to take money away from an organization that we have been working with for as long as I’ve been on the board.” He added, “you don’t treat your partners like this.”
The museum’s trustees do not anticipate it will become fully self-sufficient, pointing out in a letter to supervisors that most museums, including some of the most well-known, receive some level of public funding.
But Loudoun Museum Board of Trustee Chairwoman Sharon Virts said even with that money yanked back, the museum will survive.
“I am disappointed as a board chair that this is happening, but I also understand we’ve got people in this community who are hurting, and I get it,” Virts said.
While only a few years ago the museum was struggling to survive, she said the nonprofit today has enough reserves that the loss of funding would not be fatal.
“We will weather this storm just like many other businesses and nonprofits will weather this storm, and come out of it hopefully stronger,” Virst said. “We’re committed to the Town of Leesburg, we’re committed to the County of Loudoun.”
Instead, she said the museum will fundraise as much as it can from its board members and the community, so as not to deplete its reserves completely.
“Sooner or later, you do run out of reserves, so without continuous fundraising to augment what we’re spending down against the reserve, sooner or later with no income, obviously the organization would run out,” Virts said. “But I’m confident that by continuing fundraising, by hopefully some generous gifts and some support from the community … we will be OK until [the new fiscal year in] July 2021.”
The decisions also call into question whether the museum needs to prioritize its end of the Memorandum of Agreement.
“The county, for example, had goals for fundraising in the MOA for 2021,” Virts said. “… I’m hoping we can meet those goals, but we may not be able to, because it’s kind of hard to fundraise when you can’t get people together, and we can’t maintain operations when we’re forced to closed by the state.”
However, the decision will put a hold on the museum’s plans to raise money for renovations. Supervisors during their budget deliberations had also turned down a request from the museum for an additional $78,000 to support that campaign.
Virts said the museum won’t be able to both raise money to make up for the lack of county funding and launch its capital campaign for the new exhibit.
“We’ll survive this one, but it can’t go on forever,” Virts said.
Supevisors passed Randall’s motion to redistribute that money 6-3, with Buffington, Kershner and Letourneau opposed.