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Discussion of museumís future to continue

by CJ Carnacchio

November 30, 2011

Three things were made clear last week during the Oxford Village Council's discussion of a proposal to move art exhibits and a for-profit business into downtown's historical museum.

One, the Northeast Oakland Historical Society is dead set against Robb Leland's proposal to move his existing business, ArtCapsule Gallery & Frame, into the museum building and create a new, nonprofit entity to oversee the rotating mix of art works and historical artifacts he wishes to see exhibited on the museum's main floor.

"We are vehemently opposed to this proposal," said Ron Brock, vice president of the historical society. "We are open to any suggestions to improve our service to the community, but we do not want to see him move into this building."

Two, council favors the idea of expanding the museum's days and hours of operation to better accommodate the public and get more use out of the former Oxford Savings Bank building, which has housed the museum for nearly 40 years.

"I think (Leland's proposal is) a very interesting and intriguing idea," said Councilman Tony Albensi. "I think it would be nice to have that museum open more . . . I like the idea. I'm open to anything, mostly to get more use out of that museum."

"I think we need to look at ways to expand the use of that museum," said Councilman Kevin Stephison. "(That) doesn't necessarily mean kicking out the historical museum, but we need to look at some creative ways of bringing in more people, bringing in more revenue . . . if we can."

Three, nothing has been decided, so there's going to be more discussion about the museum's future and possibility of some type of cooperation between Leland and the historical society.

"There's nothing so dangerous that it can't be discussed," said Stephison, paraphrasing a quote from the Broadway musical/film "1776." "Discussion is the process by which politics and democracy works."

"I'd love to sit down together and see if we could work a compromise or another idea," Leland said.

A few weeks ago, Leland submitted a proposal to the village, which owns the museum building at 1 N. Washington St., in which he suggested his business lease some space on the main floor for a sales area/gift shop and the second floor for ArtCapsule's office space.

"I don't think it was really the intent of Oxford Bank when they donated that building to the village to be a museum to have it become occupied by a for-profit organization," Brock told council.

Leland also proposed the creation of a new nonprofit organization called the Oakland County Cultural Center. It's purpose would be to raise funds for cultural events and groups operating in the Oxford area. Leland offered to serve as the center's director for the first year.

This cultural center would have an exhibition subcommittee, which would include members of the historical society, that would take over all operations involving the museum's main floor.

"It's a fantastic gallery space," Leland said. "I just can't say enough about what an impressive space it is."

The main floor would be used to exhibit both art and history displays, each with a particular theme, on a rotating, monthly basis.

"One month it's a history exhibit. The next month it's an art exhibit. Then it goes back to history. And then it goes back to art," Leland told the council.

He proposed that all of the historical artifacts currently housed on the museum's main floor be cataloged and placed into storage. Certain items could then be brought back to the museum and placed on display as part of the various rotating exhibits.

"By no means am I saying that I believe the historical society should vacate the museum building. I don't believe that at all," Leland said. "I would just love to see the works inside exhibited in a fashion that builds excitement for the community; something that can be promoted."

But the historical society viewed Leland's proposal as shoving it aside and ignoring all the time, effort and money its membership has put into the repairing and maintaining the building, such as the $10,000 it spent over the last two years for a new roof.

"We take care of that building. We cherish that building. And we don't want to see someone else move into it," Brock said.

As for the museum's exhibits, Brock said new displays are created and promoted through the Oxford Leader. He cited the Civil War and antique Christmas toys displays as examples.

"It's not just the same thing every day," he said. "We change displays around."

Although the council didn't give Leland's proposal a thumbs up or down, officials expressed their interest in the idea of having the museum open more than it currently is.

Right now, the museum is open year-round from 1-4 p.m. on Saturdays. During the summer, the hours of 1-4 p.m on Wednesdays are added to the schedule.

The museum's set hours of operation are limited because the historical society simply doesn't have enough volunteers to man it.

Brock noted the historical society is looking at possible solutions to the staffing issue such as hiring a person to man the museum on a daily basis. However, if that was done, the museum might have to begin charging admission, something it's never done, he explained.

Brock made it clear the museum is open for private tours and school field trips seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

That was seconded by Ron Rolando, owner of downtown's Great Lakes Mercantile. He and his wife recently made a "spontanous" decision to tour the museum. They made a call to the historical society and the tour happened right away.

"Within an hour, they came out," he said. "If you want to schedule a tour, they'll accommodate you."

Under Leland's proposal, the museum could be open from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sundays from 11 a.m. until 2 or 3 p.m.

ArtCapsule employees would serve a dual purpose by both manning the sales area/gift shop and serving as security for the items exhibited at the museum.

Leland noted his employees would not be there to answer history questions, nor would they attempt to.

"We don't want that at all," he said. "ArtCapsule does not want to be the history expert."

Leland envisions the museum's rotating art and history exhibits would function as "self-guided tours" through the use of placards and brochures. He said historical society volunteers would be encouraged to be at the museum as often as possible to share their knowledge and expertise with visitors.

Oxford resident Suzanne Ardelan, a former member of the historical society's board of directors, stated her opposition to Leland's proposal.

"Does it need to be open more? Absolutely," she said. "Does it need to have another business come in and share it? I don't know. I don't think so. I'm against it."

Oxford resident Bob Scott agreed.

"If you start putting other things in the museum, it's going to take away from the 'museum' itself," he said. "I think it's a bad idea. I'm just sorry there's not more people that are available to work with (the historical society)."

In the end, council decided it would be best for a few of its members to sit down with Leland and historical society representatives to discuss potential collaborative opportunities.

"I think (the museum) is a jewel. But just think where we could take it," Stephison said. "We could take it from a small diamond to a multi-carat diamond and make it really stand out on that street corner."

But taking it to the next level "starts with conversation, ideas and a willingness to look at something that's outside the box," he said.

"I see this as being the first step. We're thinking outside the box. The board has not said yea or nay. We're just simply listening and going this is a great idea."

Councilman Dave Bailey indicated there might be ways for the historical society and ArtCapsule to cooperate and benefit from each other without being housed in the same building.

Leland indicated he welcomes the council members to serve as mediators between him and the historical society "because it sounds like we're worlds apart on the concept."

"The only thing I worry about is we become so intransigent in our views that we can't come to the middle," Stephison noted. "I know today the word 'compromise' is kind of a dirty word in some circles, but that may be the best way to do it."

Village President Tom Benner made it very clear he only wants to help the museum, not hurt it.

"I don't want anybody to think that there's any intention of moving the museum to a different location or closing it down or anything like that," he said. "I would definitely be vehemently opposed to it.

"If there's something that can be done that will help the museum stay open more or benefit you (historical society) folks that are spending your time and energy to keep the museum open and clean and repaired, I'm definitely in favor of (that)."

Everyone seemed to agree that Oxford is fortunate to have it's own historical museum.

"The village should be proud of the fact that we have our own museum," Stephison said. "There are very few communities that actually have a museum dedicated to its history and its development."