Unprofitable Exhibits, Change in Focus Prompt Concern Over Museum's Future

Museum has lost $38,000 over past two years; president says costs are an investment into future of institution

For the past three decades, the has held exhibits honoring the city’s heritage, like a show about the local dairy industry or the city's football team, the Leghorns.

But in 2008, the museum’s leadership was taken over by Joe Noriel, a 45-year-old former member of the tree and parks committees, who brought a radically new vision to the institution.

Since then, Noriel has launched a massive revamp of the museum, putting on shows on provocative topics such as the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and more recently an “End of Days” series, where academics spoke about the history of Doomsday predictions.

The trouble, say some, is that most of these exhibits have nothing to do with Petaluma and cost much more money than they bring in, resulting in a steady loss of revenue for the museum. In fact, the museum lost $28,000 last fiscal year and $10,000 the year before, according to financial documents, and has used reserve money to make up the difference.

That has prompted worry that the historical museum, , may soon run out of money.

“If you have deep pockets, you can do what you want,” said Susan Villa, who served as the museum president for more than a decade until stepping down in 2008. “But they don’t. And if something is not supported, you can’t go on just spending money.”

Noriel defends the recent shows, including the museum’s first ever Smithsonian exhibit, , as visionary and needed to increase both attendance and membership at the museum. The exhibit cost $25,000, but took in only $8,400 from entrance fees. According to Noriel, about 2,500 visitors saw the show, much less than some of the others the museum has put on.

But to Noriel, hosting a Smithsonian exhibit was as much about creating high expectations as breaking even.

“In my mind, when you’re a business and you’re just starting out, you want to get a reputation, you want to get visible,” Noriel said. “If I’m sitting here with $200,000, but no one is coming through the door, I’m not doing my job...We are always thinking, what’s going to pop?” 

Noriel says he isn’t surprised at the criticism because the museum is taking a radically new direction from the past. But measuring accomplishment based on dollars alone doesn’t paint a full picture, according to him, and he points to increased interest from the community, from more people wanting to serve on the museum's board to increased memberships and attendance.

“People say, ‘What did you make on the Vietnam exhibit?’, but how do you measure the impact of the exhibit when you see a veteran crying or a kid who had a chance to speak with an astronaut (during the Beyond lecture series)?”

Check out a slideshow about some of PHM's past exhibits on the right

Many critics interviewed for the story did not want to go on the record for fear of antagonizing relationships with Noriel and other museum board members. But they also said they worried that Noriel, who doesn’t have a background in museum work, was making decisions based more on splashy content instead of substance.

“Joe thinks it’s fun and exciting, but excitement is not enough and it’s eating through the principal really fast,” said a source familiar with the museum’s financial situation. She also criticized the museum’s decision to allow veterans to enter last fall’s Vietnam War exhibit for free.

“That’s like Disneyland letting kids in for free. It’s your primary audience...it doesn’t work.”

Ted Feldman, treasurer of the board, said the museum is aware of the expenditures and is working to fundraise more money to support its vision, including by having an estate sale this December. The board has also recently adopted policies and budgeting procedures to not use the reserve account. Still, he says, if the museum wants to have relevance for Petaluma residents, it needs to spend money.

“If it’s only an archive to store old things that represent the history of Petaluma, that’s one thing,” Feldman said. “But if we want to offer something to the cultural life of Petaluma, it has to go beyond the historical artifacts.”

Yet there are many in Petaluma who believe that historical artifacts are vital and must be painstakingly preserved. And they are outraged that the museum has already sold some items and is planning on selling more at the upcoming estate sale.

“How are they deciding which items to sell and which to keep?” said another source familiar with the situation. "Some people are so afraid the items will be sold off they don't even want to donate."

Skip Sommer, a real estate agent and local historian who joined the board in July, said that the museum would notify all donors of a potential sale to see if they are in agreement.

“We are talking about small, unimportant items that are duplicates and that we don’t have a lot of room upstairs for (in the museum’s permanent collection),” Sommer said. “It will be a terrific fundraiser and want to turn it into an annual event.”

Part of what makes reining in the museum’s finances difficult is that it operates with little oversight from the city. The museum building is owned by the city, but its activities are only regulated by the board. And depending on who you ask, the board, in its present configuration, is filled with people who have no museum experience and who are more interested in flashy shows like the current pirates exhibit than those that honor the city’s heritage.

“In the old days, the docents could talk about the exhibits,” said Marshall West, a former treasurer of the board who stepped down in 2006, but remains involved in the museum. “Now they can’t get docents to work in the museum because they can’t relate to it…It’s what I call the death spiral, if it starts to go down, it goes down fast.” 

Others point to the fact that the museum is now spending more money on advertising, something that used to be paid out of the city's transient occupancy taxes, and closed its gift shop. Another fact that hasn't escaped notice is that Noriel's wife, Natalie, was keeping the museum's books and received $1,150 for it, according to financial statements. Noriel says that his wife does not make decisions about where the money is going and is no longer handling the accounting.

"The only reason she was doing it was because no one else would," he said.  

Noriel invites anybody with concerns about the museum's direction to bring them to the museum's board meetings, he said. And despite the criticism, he feels strongly that the museum has a duty to provide Petaluma residents with thought-provoking exhibits.

"I think we have an obligation to the people walking through here to make a difference in their lives and maybe that's crazy," Noriel said. "People can say whatever they want about me, but that veteran that comes in and tells me that the Vietnam exhibit changed his life, that's what it's about and the second step is how we're going to keep it going."

What do you think about the museum's new direction and its financial situation? Are you worried? Or is this just the cost of the new vision?

Go Occupy! October 06, 2011 at 09:05 PM
I think Skip Sommer hit it on the head when speaking of non-Petaluma artifacts ".....or 2.) An item that is not representative of Petalumas history." That is a good and simple standard; one that seems to be at the crux of this discussion on what events are held at the museum.
bill chayes October 06, 2011 at 09:06 PM
Hey Charlie. Good idea on the Running Fence dress. I'll pass it on to the curator.
Harold October 06, 2011 at 10:53 PM
It's disingenuous to blame deaccessioning of a permanent collection on the cost of storage and then turn around and lose $28,000 in one year on prefab, temporary exhibits that have little, if anything, to do with Petaluma. And it's lazy to blame your collection's "irrelevance" and just go with ... pirates? The president and the board should go, if they are that bored with the collection they have been entrusted with that they don't have the imagination to interpret our own history with it.
Go Occupy! October 07, 2011 at 12:12 AM
You're welcome Bill, I hope they find it. Oh, and nothing personal towards anyone on all this in either direction, it's just that I have a strong opinion on this topic. I actually came on Patch looking for someone local to build a website for us and saw this discussion. Is there a section I'm missing?
John.Maher October 07, 2011 at 12:37 AM
In my opinion, it's disingenuous to post potentially hurtful comments without giving your full name.
L. October 07, 2011 at 09:50 AM
This is disgusting. They should be fired and investigated. When they they were run not as a business but as a public asset they were secure. When they're being run as a "business" they're swirling round the toilet and will need a bail-out. Funny that.
L. October 07, 2011 at 09:58 AM
It HAD a sound financial base. They had a nest egg, perennially popular fund raisers and the fundamentals to seek grants and other museum-industry . Mr. Noriel et. al. are just spending the Museum's money for flash in the pan party spectacles. Mr. Noriel prancing around like Johnny Depp from those Disney pirate movies is a joke! The only pirates Petaluma has had are these jokers. They have wandered miles away from the Museum's charter. They don't know what they are doing and I don't trust their motives or their actions.
L. October 07, 2011 at 10:01 AM
And I don't recall them mentioning Mr. Penry or other Petaluma veterans at the Vietnam exhibit.
L. October 07, 2011 at 10:06 AM
You're not going to get grants when you take the actions that this museum has taken in the past two years. Professionals will just laugh at you. Unless you fib on the grant applications.
L. October 07, 2011 at 10:08 AM
Yeah, I'm just a little queasy when the professional auctioneer and the professional antique dealer say we need to deaccession what are essentially antiques.
Go Occupy! October 07, 2011 at 02:46 PM
At 3:08 am, L. wrote: "Yeah, I'm just a little queasy when the professional auctioneer and the professional antique dealer say we need to deaccession what are essentially antiques." Queasy, eh? I never said that, did I? I most distinctly remember writing "Having said all that, when is the estate sale?" That is not an endorsement of deaccession by any stretch of the imagination. If old things are for sale, I'm there. I don't care if it's the pope having a yard sale on the steps of the Vatican, I'm a buyer and I'll want to be there first....to get the best stuff. I guess a "non-professional" antiques dealer would get there late, say at 2pm when all the good stuff was picked over by...the professional antique dealers and collectors. And, is all this vitriol necessary? Attack the concept of the pre-fab shows but not the people. I'll just bet that after this flare-up, they might be thinking "Hmm... let's drop the pre-fab shows and focus on creating blockbuster LOCAL exhibits from our collection and community."
gretchen paul October 07, 2011 at 04:42 PM
Go Charlie! Vitriol: Unnecessary. Positive Forward Thinking Action: Necessary! Gosh guys, just from the looks of this thread everone wants nearly the same thing - with the help of a kind unbiased mediator (not kidding) I bet the museum could soar not only into a state of profitability (isn't that what everone is cranky about?) but to a place where one is excited to go to the museum (remember being a kid and seeing "real" Indians making a fire?!) - think: Carson City Museum....within this ultimate visual world we live in (& fast paced) we've lost quite a bit - slowing down & roaming through a thought provoking place like a museum is a delight & a respite for many. Change is critical as we are able to absorb so much - tho' it's a bit bigger & better funded - how fantastic & exciting it is to venture over to the De Young - most museums do as some of you have suggested - there is that steady historical place, sometimes slowly revolving & evolving but constant, always there for those young & old who want to visit Petaluma's beautiful history - yet the thrill of seeing a new artist (local?!), eating local food on the museum steps (Petaluma grown organic anyone?) & as Charlie suggests, Yes! to a museum gift store! Oh the treasures one could create from all those duplicative milk bottles! The list is endless here folks! By the way, one of my clients has a trunk which we just opened from 1878 - complete w/ a wedding dress - let's get on it!
Gisele Rue October 07, 2011 at 04:47 PM
I think it is great what Joe Noriel is doing with our museum. I take my daughter and her friend to the different exhibits, which they would never be able to see if Joe didn't bring them here. Every time after seeing the exhibit they go upstairs to see and review Petaluma's history. I think the different exhibits bring different people in that would never come to the museum, or even know it was there. These interesting exhibits are bringing people back to the museum over and over again, I think it gets rid of the "been there, done that, why go again" type of attitude.
Go Occupy! October 08, 2011 at 01:52 PM
Hi Gretchen! Yes, great ideas. So, how about real Miwok Indians making a fire and cooking organic food on the front steps of the museum (or in the back) like is seen on the mural on the Old Shanghi bldg? Or build a replica Chicken Pharmacy storefront & interior & have fake chickens for kids to take inside for a "checkup"? (Have an animatronic giant chicken be the doctor- word would get out about THAT!), Celebate our Chickens for gosh sakes! Just think, if $25,000 was spent on a giant animatronic chicken, it would still be there pulling in visitors and cash. My point is to build the museum back up with the same drive & energy that is being put into the pre-fab exhibits that have no Petaluma connection, but with a Petaluma connection. That can be done if the focus & energy is shifted & restructured by celebrating Petaluma's events rather than celebrating events that happened elsewhere. Like Pirates. Here's another thought, if these Pirate, etc. events continue, stage them at the fairgrounds with a sponsored "By the Petaluma History Museum" logo on the billboard. Might bring in more money due to the busier location and then use that money to fund LOCAL events at the museum site.
Frankie2011 October 08, 2011 at 04:52 PM
First of all, I personally have never seen or heard of any "exhibits" being "advertised" for the museum. Whatever happened to outreach programs? You need a program event coordinator with good ideas. One idea I have would be showing the historic Petaluma, and the current Petaluma, i.e. arts, politics, developments, etc. all under one roof networking with other Petaluma establishments that "make" Petaluma what it is today. Have a nice little bistro "Petaluma style", past and present. Recruit students from high schools to volunteer. Create a docent program to help them learn the fundamentals of running a museum, being responsible, etc. Have fundraisers for critical needs in the community - Come up with "other" critical needs that are NOT ADDRESSED. There's many social service organizations that duplicate services offered. Come up with other real needs to make Petaluma better. Check out other museums in the country and see what they are doing and how successful are they? Could it work for Petaluma today? Thanks for allowing me the time to share. Network, Network, Network.. WORK TOGETHER !
Nick Hoffman October 10, 2011 at 07:01 PM
I sent a letter to the editor with more detail, but I'm glad people are coming to see the exhibit I put together AND walking upstairs to see the local historical artifacts as well. Many of the people that are walking up those stairs might not be doing so, if they hadn't walked IN to the museum to see the pirates in the first place.
Karina Ioffee October 10, 2011 at 09:10 PM
Hi Nick. Who did you send the letter to? We haven't received anything...Please send any correspondence to karina@patch.com
LongTimeLocal October 12, 2011 at 02:33 AM
Um, L. did you actually go inside? There was a very prominent section devoted to Mr. Penry. I think you simply like to complain. Go in, see for yourself, but I suspect you would prefer not to know the facts of the matter. Your personal attacks are uncalled for. Why don't you volunteer your time rather than presenting this very bitter persona.
LongTimeLocal October 12, 2011 at 02:35 AM
For goodness sake L. what has Skip's profession got to do with anything anyway, and he's not an auctioneer. He's a very well informed long time Petaluman who frequently writes articles about the history of the town and is passionate about history. I guess more facts you'd prefer not to know.
Petaluma.Pete October 12, 2011 at 03:39 AM
Diversity breeds enlightenment. Hang in there Joe.
Go Occupy! October 12, 2011 at 03:46 AM
Nick, I'm sure that it is a wonderful show, and no doubt you spent a lot of time and effort to put it together. I know first hand how much energy goes into such events. However, some of us are still trying to get our heads around what pirates have to do with Petaluma in even the broadest sense. I doubt any of the ire is actually directed at you personally, I think what is up here is that people are taken aback that our local history is being put on the back burner to these "blockbuster" exhibits. And, it just sounds wrong that people have to walk upstairs to get a look at their local history AFTER they have taken in your show. Like an afterthought: "Thank you for attending, the bathrooms and local history exhibits are located at the top of the stairs and don't forget to tip your waitress." But hey, get me real gnarly pirates coming up the Petaluma river and taking out a heavily armed Chris Craft yacht in the basin with their cannons...and I'm there. Want to see it! And would want my great grand kids to see it in 50 years as a show at the museum because it would be our local history.
Harold October 13, 2011 at 12:07 AM
The only "enlightenment" I got from the Pirate exhibit is that someone has a big boy crush on Johnny Depp. And that enlightnement cost me $5 in what used to be a great, FREE local resource.
LongTimeLocal October 13, 2011 at 03:22 AM
Harold, May I ask how you expect anything to be free? Even if nothing but static Petaluma exhibits were presented, how would that be done free? The Petaluma Museum is a non-profit and does not receive any grants from the city or the like. It is entirely volunteer run and there are costs associated with just keeping the doors open. In an ideal world, yes, it would be great if it were free, but we live in a city that has NO money to spend on the arts or culture. A fee, whether you like it or not, and a modest one at that, is a necessary evil; it's either that or close the doors and then there is absolutely no museum for anyone. Think on that, and don't suggest that 'someone' should apply for grants etc - who would that someone be? How would you run a free museum without any money and not going bust fast.
Harold October 13, 2011 at 11:15 PM
And Petaluma Pete would be your legal name, correct?
Harold October 13, 2011 at 11:35 PM
Actually, John, the museum provided free entry for years via fundraising, city support, membership fees and volunteer work. And yes, they certainly did receive grant funding in the past. As other commentators have pointed out, any problem the museum now has in obtaining grants is due to the fiscal irresponsibility of this current board. Also, that "modest fee" is justified by these new, frivolous expenditures - prefab, irrelevant exhibits; piano rental; paying one's wife to do the work of the treasurer; I'm assuming costume rental? If you find our local history "static," i.e. boring, blame yourself for being easily bored.
LongTimeLocal October 14, 2011 at 12:22 AM
So come on by and show the PMA folk how it's done. Volunteers always welcome and embraced.
LongTimeLocal October 14, 2011 at 12:33 AM
Harold, before the changes there were under 300 members = $7500-8000 per year, which won't even pay the PG&E. That situation is now improving with over 700 and growing but that was not the situation with past Presidents and Boards in place - it was dying fast. You may have noticed the recession has dried up grants across the Board, and there is no City funding for any exhibits. The Presidents wife is not the Treasurer (she did some bookkeeping as a favor at way under cost). The people involved are volunteers and not full time paid professionals, and since you don't have any idea what the actual facts are, you're just throwing around insults. You, sir, with all due respect, are currently part of the problem - why not attend a meeting or two and help by becoming part of the solution.
Go Occupy! October 14, 2011 at 03:05 AM
Long time local- Lighten up and quit saying that anyone you don't agree with...is part of the problem. Might be a problem for you and those at the museum but the hoi polloi are actually allowed to have a voice in this debate.
Harold October 14, 2011 at 08:39 AM
Grants have not "dried up around the board," there are always grants available from the IMLS, NPS, NEH/NEA, etc. You're trying to imply the only other revenue is membership dues, which is (a) not true and (b) even if it was true, all the more irresponsible of the board to spend $38,000 on a pirate shrine if they're only guaranteed $8000 a year and can't cover their PG&E.
LongTimeLocal October 14, 2011 at 07:14 PM
Harold, Please read the article closely. Nobody has spent $38K on a pirate shrine so please maintain a little decorum. As a volunteer I can tell you that this particular exhibit is alalready heading into profitability, and much of the 'loss' was upgrades to infrastructure, which are still in place and a one time expense, to allow any exhibit to be presented well, whether it be local or broader. Much as you would like to think there has been no change to grants, this really is the case. People are simply not giving, the ultimate source of many grants, and the budgets of the NEA etc have been slashed. Another NP I am involved in, and was part of the 2012 Grant application from the NEA (many hours of volunteer time involved, and many late nights so it's not an easy task) for example, has still not been decided and that was put in place in February. We don't anticipate hearing anything for another month or two best case, and fully expect the total amount to be reduced by some percentage in line with their lack of funds. When and if this comes through, a part of that 2012 NEA grant would actually flow to PMA as the idea is to host part of the overall in the museum (and it's one of local interest). I am not making this up - I do know something of this. This recession has hit everyone very hard, and, if money was that easy to obtain via grant, the PMA would jump at the chance.


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