Founder’s kin fights to stop Higgins Armory’s closure
Plan to close Worcester museum is set for a final vote
Growing up in the 1950s, Clarinda “Rindy” Higgins liked hanging out at the museum that her grandfather, John Woodman Higgins, founded next to his Worcester Pressed Steel Co. But Wednesday, when she returns to the castle-like Higgins Armory Museum on Barber Avenue, it will be to battle the current leaders of the institution. She is making a last-ditch effort to stop the arms and armory museum from closing on Dec. 31 and sending its 2,000-piece collection to the nearby Worcester Art Museum.
“It’s not just about blocking,” Higgins said. “I want a different proposal.”
Wednesday, Higgins and the museum’s other incorporators are scheduled to vote on transferring assets to the art museum, a plan already approved by the boards of directors of both institutions. The deal requires support of two-thirds of the incorporators.
Higgins said her cause has been gaining support, but museum leaders believe she is bluffing. They also say that the only hope for her grandfather’s legacy is striking a deal with the art museum and shuttering the cavernous, steel-and-glass building that has contained the collection for 82 years.
“Is it reasonable to think that the museum can balance its budget?” said Jim Donnelly, the president of the Higgins board. “The answer is no. And this is the time to deal with it.”
And the armory museum is under pressure to shut down. Local foundations have helped the institution balance its budget in recent years, but with an ultimatum that it must come up with a long-term solution, said the Higgins museum’s interim director, Suzanne W. Maas.
The opposition to the Worcester Art Museum plan has baffled that museum’s director, Matthias Waschek. He suspects that a small group of people, including Clarinda Higgins, is behind a “Save Higgins” Facebook page, phone calls, and letters that have circulated in recent days.
“If there is no money, there is no money,” Waschek said. “The Worcester Art Museum has a major endowment. They don’t. The next time they get upset, ask them how much they’ve been giving. The result will be rather sobering.”
The Higgins Armory combines exhibits of helmets, armor, and weapons with family-oriented programs, including birthday parties in which the cake is sliced by a sword-wielding, costumed interpreter. While attendance at the Higgins Armory has been strong – 60,000 people last year – the endowment has always been too low to provide stability, Maas and Donnelly say.
In recent years, deficits have ranged from $500,000 to nearly $1 million, according to tax filings. That has forced the museum to draw on its endowment, currently $2.9 million.
The proposed Worcester Art Museum deal would move the collection into a gallery renovated especially for the prized arms and armor. Also, the endowment and proceeds from a March 20 auction in London, which brought in just over $2 million, would go to the art museum.
It is not clear whether there is sufficient resistance on the board of incorporators to slow the deal. Clarinda Higgins, who lives in Connecticut, has offered the name of only one other voting member supporting her side, Michael Miranda, an orthopedic surgeon in Hartford.
In an interview, Miranda said that the museum’s leadership has “worked very, very hard,” but their alternative to the financial bind is not appealing. “I was kind of excited when Clarinda contacted me and brought new sort of life in a different perspective,” he said.
Higgins’s ideas include hiring a national firm to raise money for the museum; seeking free assessments from architectural firms for what is needed in the building — she says she has several commitments in hand — and creating naming opportunities for something as basic as a new window.
Among her supporters are two museum professionals, brothers who lived in Worcester as boys: Richard Johnson, the curator of The Sports Museum in Boston, and Robert Flynn Johnson, the now-retired curator in charge of the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
In separate interviews, the two blasted the armory museum’s leadership for failing to reach out to potential donors outside Worcester, and for negotiating a deal with the Worcester Art Museum that does not protect the armory building.
“This should be a last resort,” said Richard Johnson. “Instead, the museum took a ready, shoot, aim strategy. The context of that museum is everything. I would sort of imagine it like the Red Sox playing at Dilboy Field instead of Fenway Park.”
“The armory was built specifically for the arms materials,” said Robert Flynn Johnson. “That’s Mr. Higgins’s vision. And nobody seems to want to keep Mr. Higgins’s vision alive.”
That’s not the case, said Maas, who was hired in 2010 to turn around the museum’s flagging finances, and curator Jeffrey Forgeng, who has been at the armory since 1999.
“We’ve been scrambling for years just to keep this from being a train wreck,” said Forgeng.
The museum’s annual budget is now $1.3 million. In 2010, the Higgins drew 16 percent of its endowment to cover the budget and, in 2011, 9 percent, Maas said. The recognized standard for museums is around 5 percent. Recent grants allowed the Higgins to reduce its draw to 4.5 percent over the past year, but the money came with the directive to fix the structural problem.
Mark Fuller, an incorporator whose family foundation provided a $100,000 grant last year, said that moving the holdings to the Worcester Art Museum is the best possible solution. He has told museum leaders the foundation will not again offer money to the Higgins.
“This is not a new problem,” he said. “Unless they were to get a huge increase to their endowment, they would need a minimum of $10 million to come in quickly.”
Raising even half that has proved impossible in the past. A campaign in the 1990s raised $2.6 million for improving the buildings and facilities, and an effort about a decade ago led to an additional $2.4 million, said Donnelly.
The arrangement with the Worcester Art Museum, says Donnelly, will offer the public the best solution. The collection will be displayed just 3 miles down the road in a renovated gallery space. Waschek said it was too early to know the details of the transfer, including whether Forgeng and other staffers will move to the art museum, but one decision has been made.
“At this point, I cannot tell you if we are cutting cakes,” said Waschek. “I will tell you that Helmut, the armored dog — he is going to come and be our mascot at the Worcester Art Museum.”