Here's your hat, what's your hurry?

ALPLM rids self of foundation

Even before the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum opened in 2005, its foundation created in 2000 has acted as if it owned a place paid for by taxpayers.

When executive director positions for the public institution have come open, the private foundation has paid for searches, then helped pay the chosen person's salary. Six years ago, the ALPLM warned that it might have to close due to lack of money as it launched a probe of contracts covering concessions, the gift shop and catering services that the foundation oversaw. Instead of the state selling tickets, money collected at the door has gone to the foundation, which greeted museum visitors and sold foundation memberships that came with free admission. Over the years, the foundation has realized nearly $79 million in revenue, according to Internal Revenue Service filings, while maintaining that it can't retire debt for stuff that may or may not be genuine.

"(It) is our decision to do what makes the most sense for the ALPLM," the late Tolbert Chisum, then foundation director, wrote in a 2007 email to then state historian Tom Schwartz, 'splaining that once the foundation wrote a $23 million check to foundation board member Louise Taper, since departed from the board, for artifacts including a certain hat, an appraisal establishing worth of artifacts should be none of the public's business. "I see no reason in ever letting it (the appraisal) out to the public, unless we need some publicity."

Publicity came last week, when the ALPLM evicted the foundation from state premises and declared that a new foundation might be formed. The fate of foundation-owned relics hasn't been decided.

The Taper Collection, owned by the foundation and bought from an insider with a loan from an insider (Chisum worked for a corporation that runs the bank that acquired the note in 2012), includes gloves Lincoln carried to Ford's Theater, a cipher book the future president used while learning arithmetic and assorted other treasures aside from a hat with questionable provenance – I think that it is fashioned from pug hair, but who knows for sure. The collection is the largest asset of an outfit with a board that includes bigwigs ranging from former Gov. Jim Edgar to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to Pat Coburn, former publisher of the State Journal-Register to Julie Cellini, an SJ-R First Citizen. They all, I'm guessing, attended Chicago galas where the foundation, having invented the Lincoln Leadership Prize in 2006, bestowed it on such bedfellows as Sandra Day O'Connor, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Steven Spielberg and the Little Rock Nine. Gary Sinise, an actor born in Illinois, won this year. Meanwhile, treasures became hostages as the foundation a few years ago threatened to sell artifacts absent a state bailout, then set up a GoFundMe page that raised $35,000 before being quietly retired.

As with any divorce, property division is paramount, but possession is nine-tenths of the law, and the foundation's relics reside in the ALPLM's vault under an agreement that expires in 18 months. Nothing but shame would seem to prevent the foundation from carting off Lincoln's bloody gloves and Mary Todd's jewelry – the same stuff the foundation threatened to auction when it tried for a state bailout a few years ago – once the agreement expires, but that doesn't seem necessary. The foundation's most recent IRS filing shows that the charity as of last summer had $2.2 million in cash and temporary investments and another $5.9 million in publicly traded securities, which together would nearly cover debt, most if not all for the Taper Collection, of $8.7 million. The Taper Collection excluded, total assets exceed liabilities by $152,000, according to the filing. If necessary to zero out the foundation's books, find a few folks in need of tax deductions to quietly donate a couple hundred thousand dollars contingent on the entire collection being signed over to the ALPLM and everyone goes home.

IRS filings don't contain details, and that's what the ALPLM says it was never able to get from the foundation, which the museum says refused to disclose how it spends and raises money. In a message prepared for staffers, museum brass predicts life will go on much as it always has: "Our in-depth research reveals that the foundation raises very little money for day-to-day operations at the ALPLM. Our programs and services will not suffer without the foundation."

After calling the state unreasonable, inconsistent, threatening, heavy-handed and punitive, the foundation in a written statement last week called for reconciliation with the help of a mediator. That appears to miss the crux. This isn't a marriage where spouses have equal power. A museum foundation should be auxiliary to the institution. The ALPLM doesn't need the foundation nearly as much as the foundation needs the ALPLM, and if the foundation didn't know that until last week, it should know it now.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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