The USS Kidd Veterans Museum attempted an “experiment” of sorts Saturday night for its annual Spirit of ’45 fundraiser, but it appeared to fall short of expectations.
The Kidd has hosted its “Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive” event since 2011 to honor the Allied forces’ 1945 victory in World War II. But this year’s iteration, held at the American Legion Hall on South Wooddale Boulevard, featured live music, silent auctions, and a performance by On the Air, a USO-style routine by comedians Robert Lynn and Chuck Carson.
More notably, the museum introduced a per-person charge of $30 this year. In the past, admission was free.
David Beard, the museum’s executive director, admitted before the event that community interest in the soiree was not what he had hoped. As of late Saturday afternoon, only 51 tickets had been sold and Beard said he couldn't imagine more than 20 more being sold at the door.
"We're hoping to break even," Beard said.
He said he's hoping that a combination of the ticket sales and profits from a silent auction at the event will keep it in the black.
Beard called the revamped function a test of how the Kidd can attract more attention in the Capital Region, and a representation of the museum’s future vision.
“It’s an experiment. You have to try new things,” Beard said.
A fixture of Baton Rouge’s downtown riverfront since the 1980s, the USS Kidd has long been considered a top attraction for visitors to Louisiana's Capital City. Museum officials say annual attendance has held steady, and the Kidd finished in the black last year by $8,600.
However, a dwindling donor base and mounting maintenance issues — including a heating and air conditioning system “on life support” and a leaky roof — have compelled the Kidd’s leaders to chart a new course to keep the Kidd afloat.
“We manage to pay our bills and keep our lights on and pay our staff,” Beard said. “However, there is a lot of deferred maintenance that we have here that is just not getting attention because we don’t have the money.”
Beard, and the Louisiana Naval War Memorial Commission that oversees the museum, have a few key goals in mind: growing the Kidd’s list of annual donors, finding more sponsors for museum events, and attracting more visitors with new exhibits.
In the past, Beard said, the museum relied too heavily on a small group of wealthy donors who were close with former executive director Maury Drummond, who stepped down in 2013 amid health concerns.
Fundraising issues plagued the tenure of Drummond’s immediate successor, Alejandra “Alex” Juan, who resigned in 2016 and was replaced by Beard.
She blamed the struggles in part on financial mismanagement by her predecessor. Drummond, who denied the claims, died in 2016.
At most self-sustaining museums, fundraising makes up anywhere from 25% to half of the organization’s annual budget, Beard said, but at the Kidd, it’s “hardly a blip.”
“The Kidd never really worked to develop a program of fundraising activities,” Beard said.
Henson Moore, the Louisiana Naval War Memorial Commission’s chairman and a former Louisiana congressman who helped lure the USS Kidd to Baton Rouge, said the museum started an annual fund drive in 2016 to raise more money. The Baton Rouge Area Foundation spearheaded that effort last year, and the Kidd will pick up the slack this year.
In addition, Beard and Moore hope a wave of new exhibits will attract more paying visitors and convince more people to buy museum memberships.
Moore said two big exhibits are on the way: an in-house World War I exhibit to commemorate the centennial of the U.S. involvement in the conflict in 1917 and 1918, and a visiting exhibit on Vietnam War graffiti.
“A movie theater can’t exist showing the same movie over and over and over every day. They’ve got to change movies,” Moore said. “We’ve got to do the same thing.”
Moore has also tried to attract corporate sponsors for future events at the Kidd. For example, he said Lipsey’s has agreed to sponsor the World War I exhibit. Lipsey's is a wholesale firearms distributor based in Baton Rouge.
“We’ve had some good sponsors over the years. But a lot of them we’ve lost,” Moore said.
He said Drummond had a personal contact with people that the Kidd has to rebuild.
Museum officials are also examining the possibility of obtaining some state dollars to help.
State Rep. Franklin Foil, a commission member and a Baton Rouge Republican, said the commission has made some requests through the state’s capital outlay program for dollars, given that the building is considered a state facility.
“We also need to get the state more engaged in helping us take care of the building, which I think we are making progress in that respect,” Foil said.