Claremore Daily Progress

February 13, 2014

Will Rogers Memorial Museum caught unaware by agency consolidation plan

Jim Hartz
Chairman, Will Rogers Memorial Museum Board

CLAREMORE —

We were totally unaware of Gov. Mary Fallin’s proposal to consolidate the Will Rogers Memorial Museums and other state agencies with the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department (OTRD) until the release of her FY-2015 budget book last week.
We were not consulted in advance and have not seen a study to validate the fiscal savings and outline the rationale for the move.
The Will Rogers Memorial Commission, the governing body of the Memorial Museum and Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch, operates both Museums with seven full-time staff, the same number of staff as when the Will Rogers Memorial opened in Claremore in 1938.
Like most state agencies, we have not had an increase in appropriations to continue to operate and maintain the museums at proper limits in the last six years.
Any further reduction in appropriations will severely challenge our ability to maintain the state’s priceless collections at the appropriate level of care.
The assets of the state could be compromised.
Indisputably, the emphasis at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum is the historical significance and educational value of the institution. 
The holdings of the Memorial Museum are priceless. It’s the world’s largest collection of art, archives and artifacts of and about Will Rogers, one of the most famous Americans of the twentieth century.
Seventy-five years ago, the Will Rogers Memorial Commission was established and Betty Rogers made a gift of the Claremore property to the state. 
It has been maintained ever since by the state and the Will Rogers Memorial Commission as stipulated by the deed of gift of Mrs. Rogers after her husband’s death. 
The building was built with $200,000 in state funds appropriated by the legislature in 1937 in the midst of the Great Depression, and in one of the states hardest hit by the extreme economic conditions of the time. 
It was a testament of the love the people of Oklahoma had for Will Rogers and the commitment of the state to collect, preserve and share his life with the world.
The core of the Museums is the collections, most of them gifts from the family when the Memorial Museum opened and in the years since.
Going into this legislative session, the Commission knew we would be facing much the same budget reductions as other state agencies. 
We have already seen our budget reduced by 25 percent in the past six fiscal years.
The Governor’s budget proposal, however, calls for cutting OTRD by 15 percent. Although the details are unknown to us, from what the Governor has proposed for OTRD, it looks like funds available for the Will Rogers Memorial Museums will be far more reduced than the proposed 5 percent we had expected.
We await word from the Governor as to how exactly she believes we can make these cuts and still preserve the state’s priceless assets and fulfill our unique educational and cultural mission. We await the release of the study she prepared when she considered this critical consolidation of agencies. Perhaps it can answer our many questions. 
Jim Hartz is Will Rogers Memorial Commission chairman and a former NBC correspondent and Today Show host. A native Tulsan, he started his career in the Tulsa television market.