Should Georgia jurisdictions fund and operate museums?

3 min read

(The Center Square) — Many local jurisdictions operate museums, pulling money from various sources of public funds to operate them, which raises the question of whether it is a core function of local governments.

“Museums are more than just buildings that house artifacts,” Jon Morgan, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of VentureSmarter, told The Center Square via email. “They are institutions that play an important role in preserving and promoting our history, culture, and arts.

“They function as educational platforms, encouraging learning and stimulating intellectual curiosity,” Morgan added. “They provide a space for community engagement, fostering a sense of identity and belonging. They are venues where people of all ages can come together to explore, learn, and engage with the past and the present. From this perspective, investing in museums can enrich the local community culturally and intellectually, making them a worthwhile consideration for the allocation of tax dollars.”

However, it’s critical to consider the financial implications of operating a museum.

“Operating a museum is not a simple or inexpensive endeavor,” Morgan said. “It involves a multitude of expenses such as maintenance of the building and exhibits, staffing for operations and customer service, curating exhibits which includes acquisition, preservation, and display of artifacts, and not to mention the administrative costs.

“These costs would need to be weighed against other pressing needs in the community, such as infrastructure, education, public services, and more,” Morgan added. “It’s a delicate balancing act that requires careful consideration and strategic planning.”

In Georgia, Smyrna and Kennesaw are among the cities that allocate public funds to museums.

“While funding museums is not a required or core function of county government, we respect counties’ ability to fund whatever services they think best fits their community’s desires,” the Association County Commissioners of Georgia said in a statement. “Counties are still required to fund all their state-mandated services, so museum funding cannot supplant that.”

The Georgia Municipal Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Barry Hersh, clinical professor at NYU School of Professional Studies’ Schack Institute of Real Estate, said the question about whether cities should operate museums “is based on a simplistic and incorrect dichotomy; it’s not a museum or sewer treatment plant.”

“Museums play an important role in providing citizens, including children, a greater awareness of a community’s nature, history, and the arts in general,” Hersh told The Center Square via email. “Along with parks, historic preservation, and libraries, museums are key to defining a city’s unique character, a core asset without which a city is poorer.

Hersh said that municipalities have various funding sources they can turn to to support museums.

“Municipal budgets are complex; including both operating and capital budgets and more,” Hersh said. “In addition to direct funding from its operating budget, cities have properties, borrowing capacity, tax exemptions, eligibility for state and federal tax exemptions and funding such as Community Development Block Grants, and many other ways to support museums.

“However, operating a museum may often be best done by a non-profit organization that can receive tax-exempt donations and operate with greater flexibility,” Hersh added. “Citizens will often provide specific support for a museum, but not a general tax increase, just ask them.”

Morgan said a “balanced approach” could be beneficial.

“Perhaps a portion of tax dollars could be allocated to museums, supplemented by other sources of funding,” Morgan said. “These could include donations from individuals and corporations, grants from government or private entities, and revenue from ticket sales and gift shops. This way, the financial burden on taxpayers is mitigated, while still supporting these important cultural institutions. It’s a way to ensure that the museums have the resources they need to operate effectively, while also being mindful of the financial impact on the community.

“Ultimately, the decision should involve input from the community,” Morgan added. “After all, it’s their tax dollars at work. Public forums or surveys could be used to gauge public opinion and ensure that any decision made aligns with the community’s values and priorities.”