There’s no telling how many people came in the back door, but 123 visitors walked through the front door of the Mendocino County Museum in Willits on Friday night to show their support for keeping it open during the budget crunch. Supporters included Mayor Saprina Rodriguez, Third District Supervisor John Haschak, the Willits Chamber of Commerce, staff, volunteers, and local arts and history enthusiasts. There was even an impromptu concert featuring flute, kazoo, harmonica and guitar by musicians Malakai Schindel and Kyle Madrigal.
The event, partly a behind-the-scenes tour of the archives and part business mixer, was co-hosted by the Museum and the Willits Chamber of Commerce
The county just hired a new curator three weeks ago, a few months after Karen Mattson’s promotion to Museum Administrator. Lindsay Dick, who has a masters degree in Museum Studies and came to Mendocino from Oregon for the curator position, doesn’t even have a badge with her name on it yet. “It’s a lot of detail work,” she said. “It does sound like anybody could be it, but you have to be specialized. You have to know how to take the pests and how to help mitigate them, and keep them at bay…you’ve got to have the skills to do that.”
Deb Fader Samson is the Director of the Cultural Services Agency, which includes the museum and the libraries. She believes she has reason to believe that closing the museum won’t save any money. County estimates for museum operations are half a million dollars a year, with $20,000 of revenue. But, “during one of the times when the museum wasn’t being staffed at its fullest, we wound up having a roof leak and a lot of the textiles got ruined,” Samson Fader said. “It cost over $370,000 to make the repair, and then do all of the mold remediation…If you shutter the place, and nobody’s here to watch that, that could happen again.” Fader Samson added that she does not believe the museum saved any money on staff by being closed during the pandemic because the staff was redirected to other tasks.
Volunteer Brent Walker was stationed in between a display of fancy hats from an early 20th century Ukiah milliners’ shop and the wreck of Judi Bari’s bombed car. He’s one of the people working on getting the Friends of the Museum group underway again. “Covid kind of slowed us down a bit,” he acknowledged. “But we’re now at the point where we’re ready to branch out and get out in the community, and we’re looking to hear from people who are interested in being involved.”
The backgrounds of the volunteers are as varied as the collections themselves. Volunteer Scott Ferleman knows all about the history of McNamee’s General Store, which was the center of commerce in Fishrock for well over seventy years. He’s proud to be known as the “Tool Guy” around the museum, due to his own work history. His first job was disassembling a merry-go-round, which led to building roller coasters and other equipment for amusement parks. As soon as he retired, he said, “The first thing I did was come down here to the museum and say, I’d like to spend more time in here and volunteer.”
Willits Mayor Saprina Rodriguez said the Willits City Council is planning to take up a resolution at its meeting this Wednesday, asking the Board of Supervisors not to close the museum. “The fact that they would even consider cutting this at all is disturbing,” she said. “And then without having done a proper analysis of what the savings would be to the county.”
Rodriguez says she’s been receiving torrents of messages from worried constituents. “Knowing that Visit Mendocino is going to receive more money in Transient Occupancy Tax than had originally been budgeted,” she said, “there might be some hope that they would put some money forth to save the museum.”
Lisa Kvasnicka, president of the Willits Chamber of Commerce, says the museum has the support of the business community, too. “Tourism is huge,” she said. With covid, “We’ve been without a lot of the commerce from tourism…a lot of doors have been closed, a lot of businesses have been lost. But people are out and about, and they want to see what’s out there. This museum gets a lot of tourists.” With events right across the street at Recreation Grove, Kvasnicka added, “I think it’s a win-win for the city. And I think we have support. I think it was shown tonight, by the numbers.”
It’s unclear how much peril the museum is actually in. Supervisor John Haschak has come out as a strong supporter of keeping it open, and Supervisor Dan Gjerde said he thought it would be “a bit radical” to shut it down. An unknown amount of cannabis tax may appear in the county’s coffers on May 31st.
Schindel and Madrigal made their thoughts clear, as Schindel set aside his flute for a few moment to urge the Board of Supervisors to “keep this vital piece of our heritage alive!”
The budget hearings, which are open to the public, are on June 7th and 8th.