Community members brainstorm ideas for future of museum

COMMUNITY MEMBER Christina Blessinger speaks with board member Pam Lewis on Monday night at a public forum regarding the future location of the Smith-Zimmerman Museum. Board members wore red T-shirts which read: "I am a board member committed to the future of preserving the past."

Community members were invited to help members of the Smith-Zimmermann board of directors think outside the box at a public forum on Monday night to discuss the future of the museum.

"We want to know what you think the future of the museum will look like," board president Jona Schmidt told an audience of around two dozen people, including several on Zoom.

She emphasized the museum is not being asked to leave the Dakota State University campus, but currently faces decisions which could impact the organization's location. To create a context for the discussion, she provided a brief history of the museum, which was incorporated in 1952.

Schmidt reported an evolving relationship with the state that includes not only the building but also management of the museum. In 1996, the state stopped funding the organization and turned management over to the Lake County Historical Society.

Currently, the building is state-owned, but the collection is owned by the historical society. Operational expenses include payroll, supplies, programming and maintenance. These are covered by member support, investment income and financial support from both the City of Madison and Lake County.

The museum faces three challenges at present. As DSU has grown, the museum's visibility and parking have been affected. The building is currently in need of maintenance, including a new HVAC system.

"The reality for us is we're in a building that is 60 years old and is in need of work," Schmidt indicated.

Finally, the building is no longer adequate for the collection. Museum director Julie Breu said the museum needs room for storage, permanent exhibits, rotating exhibits, educational programming and volunteer work space.

"We're running out of space, but we don't stop collecting," she said, noting that with the new collections policy, they are honing the collection. Items in the museum's collection need to relate to Lake County, be in good repair and help to tell a story related to the county's history.

Breu estimates that at a minimum, the museum will need to double the space in the current facility, which is 7,500 square feet. She noted that at present the archives are overflowing and the collection is not properly stored. Too, the exhibit space is crowded.

"If you're going to do proper exhibits, you need space," she said.

Board member Gayle Cole concurred, using the Pettigrew Home and Museum in Sioux Falls as a point of comparison.

"There's space. You can stand with a stranger and look," she reported.

Breu emphasized that since she has taken over as director, both local residents and individuals from other states have accessed the museum's resources. She has also been contacted about donations.

"There's a need for the resources that the museum has to offer," Breu indicated, adding that she would like to see collaborations with area schools and DSU continue.

"Educational programming is essential," Breu said.

A number of ideas were suggested by those in attendance. Christina Blessinger suggested a downtown location, which Breu said would be "ideal for visibility."

However, others questioned whether any location would be adequate and handicapped accessible. The Egan Avenue building known as Loopy's was mentioned, but it only has 5,000 square feet on the main floor, according to Eric Fosheim, executive director of the Lake Area Improvement Corporation.

Breu liked the historical significance of the building and said it would qualify for grants, such as the Deadwood Fund Grant, if it were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, it would need an elevator to access the second floor which is partially in use.

Board member Deb Reed suggested building a new facility on Washington Avenue, which is becoming one of Madison's primary business districts. Fosheim said the lot north of the VFW is available but said the owner is pricing that for development.

"I don't know if the owner would be willing to do something different for something like this," he said. He explained that sometimes individuals with a soft spot for a cause will offer a better price to a nonprofit.

Dorine Bennett suggested going outside of town, perhaps near Prairie Village. Eric Hortness, executive director of the Greater Madison Area Chamber of Commerce, went one step further and suggested building on the grounds.

Breu said that she had not yet met Faron Wahl, Prairie Village manager, but indicated a willingness to do cooperative ventures.

"They're more hands-on, which is fantastic," she commented. "Parts of their collection you can actually pick up. We could do so much together."

Fosheim, as part of the brainstorming process, also suggested collaborating with the state and building at Lake Herman State Park. He said the museum would give visitors another reason to visit the park.

The Campbell's Supply location was mentioned, but Cole pointed out it is in a flood plain. Building in the industrial park was mentioned, but Fosheim was hesitant to support that idea. He explained the area was developed to create jobs and increase the tax base.

"It would be hard to make the numbers work," he said. "I don't know that it would serve the purpose of the industrial park."

The hour-long meeting was held in the Tunheim Classroom Building on the DSU campus. In closing, Cole encouraged participants to stay connected to the museum and Breu said she was always looking for volunteers.

Schmidt thanked DSU for its ongoing support and said that when the museum vacated the campus property, it would be a win-win.