By STEVEN WALTERS
Monday, April 29, 2013
It’s the only state budget fight that involves elephants.
Circus World Museum’s cash-flow problem has triggered this emotional debate:
Should the Circus World Museum Foundation that has run it, and whose members have raised money and written personal checks to keep it afloat for about 54 years, continue to do so?
Or should the historical treasure in Baraboo—once called Ringlingville because it’s where the Ringling Brothers Circus began—be run by the Wisconsin Historical Society?
Steve Freese, executive director of Circus World, feels like he was mugged by Ellsworth Brown, director of the State Historical Society. In a WisconsinEye interview, Freese accused Brown of launching an empire-building sneak attack to gain control of Circus World.
Unbeknownst to Freese, museum foundation members and Baraboo-area residents, Brown got Republican Gov. Scott Walker to include in his 2013-15 budget a provision that Circus World will be taken over by the State Historical Society starting later this year.
Walker’s budget would hire 10 workers to run it and give it $1.2 million in state aid over the next two years.
Circus World Museum would be the 12th historical site operated by the society, which has lost 17 percent of its staff over the last decade. The State Historical Society owns Circus World Museum, whose assets are valued at more than $60 million, but it has been run by the foundation since the 1950s.
Freese said he knew nothing about Brown’s coup until Walker’s budget became public in February. Others agree.
“The city was not given any inkling of the pending change in management of Circus World Museum prior to seeing it appear in the governor’s budget and hearing about it in the news and from the foundation board,” Baraboo Mayor Mike Palm said in a letter to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.
“I, as mayor, called Ellsworth Brown a week after the budget announcement and requested a meeting to obtain information concerning this change in management,” added Palm, who said Baraboo-area residents spend “thousands of volunteer hours” each year helping Circus World.
Palm said his “unofficial tally” has 90 percent of Baraboo-area residents wanting to keep Circus World out of the hands of the State Historical Society, which he said does not have a “local presence.”
Circus World has major financial problems, however.