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Commissioner defends near $100K cut to Yellowstone Art Museum

yam funding
Posted at 7:52 PM, Jun 27, 2024

BILLINGS — Dozens gathered at this week's Yellowstone County commissioners' meetings in Billings after they proposed cutting almost $100,000 of the Yellowstone Art Museum's budget share over the next few years.

The cuts would begin with a $46,000 reduction in 2025 and additional decreases through 2026.

Attendees at the meeting showed their support for the YAM and shared why the museum was important for the community and to their lives, including local photographer Larry Bean.

"Being able to see how an institution like YAM inspires people is really quite moving. I mean, I've seen this in my children and grandchildren and colleagues that I work with that the YAM provides inspiration for creativity that helps fulfill us," said Bean.

John Ostlund
County Commissioner John Ostlund listens to a public hearing comment in support of the YAM at Thursday's discussion meeting.

Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund says that the cuts were needed because the county needed to spend more on public safety. In addition, inflation forced the county to adjust its spending, he said.

“They all have a good story to tell. They all produce a lot for the public. We're happy with all of them," said Ostlund about the museums. This is only a fiscal problem. We've got to deal with the reality of inflation.”

Eight hundred thousand dollars of the county’s budget goes toward four local museums: 30% goes toward the Western Heritage Center, 25% to the YAM, 25% to the Yellowstone County Museum, and 12% to Huntley Project Museum, with the remaining percentage to other projects.

The YAM's share will be cut to 15% in two years. The 10 percent share it's losing will be spread to the other museums in Yellowstone County. Two of those museums, the Western Heritage and Yellowstone County Museum, are county-owned and require a higher level of county support.

Museum stats
The current breakdown of how much the museum's receive from the county

“The commissioners have no real obligation to fund any private museums. It's something we've historically done. But as the budgets tighten up, we're going to have to take a look at all those discretionary funds and see if they're needed more appropriately in other places,” said Ostlund.

Ostlund also said that many costs will have to go into making repairs on these museums, like a half-million dollar project to improve accessibility at the Yellowstone County Museum.

"We don't have handicap-accessible restrooms or an entryway. We don't have an elevator handicap-accessible to get downstairs. The stairs are steep, so we have a plan to fix that, and that plan alone is half a million dollar estimate, likely to be higher," said Ostlund.

Jessica Ruhle, the executive director of the YAM, says that the museum is also helpful in improving public safety.

"The commissioners have been really clear that a primary focus for them is around public safety and the care for historical buildings here in Yellowstone County. And so we were really talking about how the museum can be a partner in that," said Ruhle.

Jessica ruhle
Jessica Ruhle is the executive director of the YAM and was pleased with the support the YAM received at the public hearing meetings. "It was great to see."

The lack of money would also hurt the museum's ability to pay for important outreach programs.

"Unfortunately, it's many of our outreach programs that are much more flexible in terms of our annual budget. So it could look like anything from scaling back a particular program, doing fewer of our engagement sessions, or having something that we put on hold for a moment," said Ruhle. "I hope that's not the case, but those are the difficult realities for us."

Commissioners have not made a final vote on the budget. Ruhle hopes the community impact and statements will be enough to convince commissioners to fully fund the museum.

"We know how critically the work we do supports so many other efforts and initiatives from public safety to historic preservation and cultural opportunities in Billings, and we're proud of the work that we do,” said Ruhle.