The Fresno Historical Society is fleeing its troubled past in search of a brighter future.
The nearly century-old Historical Society recently laid off half its small staff in an effort to balance the books.
The latest public records reveal modest annual deficits — $25,000 to about $100,000. But the red ink's persistence worried Historical Society leaders. They say they've taken the plunge on a four-part organizational rebirth:
-- Pare the staff to fill budget holes.
-- Hire an executive director, a position vacant for two years.
-- Repackage the historical assets for the digital age.
-- Rebuild the staff and expand the mission as revenues grow.
"We need to transform the Historical Society," says Dan Adams, president of the group's board of trustees. "If we can't create relevance for our content, then we're out of business."
Adds Superior Court Judge Robert Oliver, a board trustee: "We're not your grandmother's or grandfather's historical society. This is a different time."
Adams and Oliver emphasize the Historical Society is not in danger of going bankrupt. They say expenses are falling, revenues remain firm and, perhaps most important, debt is zero. But Fresno's repositories of culture have had a dismal financial track record of late.
The demise of the debt-laden Fresno Metropolitan Museum four years ago, leaving taxpayers with a bill for millions, is the most obvious example.
The Met was doomed by unstable funding and uncertain focus. The Historical Society faces similar challenges.
According to the most recent public records, the Historical Society had revenue of $332,879 in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2012.
The big moneymaker every year is the Civil War re-enactment at Kearney Park west of town. That made $180,305 in 2011-12. Another $100,000 was generated from things like educational presentations and tours at Kearney Mansion (the Historical Society's home).
Adams says the Historical Society gets about $20,000 a year from Fresno County to help maintain the mansion. City Hall's annual contribution dried up a few years ago.
The biggest expense is personnel. Jill Moffat, who resigned as executive director in December 2011 after 12 years at the helm, made $60,000 a year when she left.
The Historical Society had three full-time and three part-time employees. Two full-timers and one part-timer were laid off. Ruth Lang now oversees day-to-day operations.
The Historical Society's financial recovery will depend on better fundraising and better sales, Adams says.
The former is any nonprofit's mantra. The latter remains a squishy concept. For example, Adams says, the Historical Society with its large collection of photographs and documents might find a way to put them online and generate modest fees for their use.
"People aren't consuming information in the ways they used to," Adams says.
The nonprofit needs a brand: What is the Historical Society? According to its website, most of what the Historical Society does "is connected with Valley stories ...."
In other words, just about everything that ever happened here is fodder for the Historical Society.
Its collections include American Indian baskets, quilts, costumes, toys, paintings, manuscripts, photographs, oral histories, books and newspapers. Even old stuff meant to be thrown away by its former owners — ephemera — is saved.
The Historical Society doesn't have its own building. There once were plans to build a museum in downtown's cultural arts district. A site near the old Met was bought, but nothing got constructed.
The land was sold about three years ago, the proceeds giving the nonprofit's budget a temporary reprieve. Adams says the historical treasure in hand is worth saving. He says there's more out there worth collecting. He says it's possible to make sense of it all. "We need someone to guide us," he says.
Adams gives no details about the search for executive director other than to say good candidates have applied. He says a knack for charming potential donors and invigorating public interest is vital.
"It's important to realize money doesn't drop out of heaven," Adams says. "It's going to have to be raised."
The new executive director won't have to come up with all of the ideas. Historical Society leaders think there's a way to turn the Kearney assets — land, buildings, aura — into a destination site serving everyone from ag-based conventions to history-hungry tourists.
So much is up in the air, Adams and Oliver admit. But, they add, the Fresno Historical Society wouldn't be worthy of its charge if it didn't have the immigrant's gumption.
"We're not content to stay where we were," Oliver said. "Just like the people who came here."
If you go
The Fresno Historical Society offers public tours of Kearney Mansion Museum.
When: Friday-Sunday, at 1, 2 and 3 p.m.
Where: Center of Kearney Park
Cost: $5 to enter Kearney Park (run by Fresno County); mansion admission, $5 for adults, $4 for seniors (60 and older), $3 for children (3-12). Free for historical society members and children under 3
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.