Saturday February 23, 2013

LENOX -- Despite attendance and revenue gains spurred in part by public fascination with the PBS "Downton Abbey" series, the historic 1901 mansion operated by the Edith Wharton Restoration still has a formidable albatross: $3.6 million in debt owed to Berkshire Bank, payable in full by June 2016.

The Mount’s executive director, Susan Wissler, told The Eagle this past week that she "would love to see" public sector involvement or a partnership with an academic institution. That could ease the property’s debt burden and assure the long-term survival of the scenic 50-acre site in Lenox as a living-history museum and potential open-space recreational site for the public.

"We’d be delighted to partner with the town of Lenox. There is potential, theoretically, at the state level and there might be federal support possible," she said, noting that The Mount is a national historical landmark.

"We are actively exploring on all those levels," Wissler said. "Having narrowly missed foreclosure once, it’s a memory that’s never far."

Wissler emphasized that the nonprofit organization is "in good standing" with the bank. Monthly principal and interest payments are being made and, she said, "the relationship is good." The Mount also owes $370,000 to a private creditor.

"We’ve made tremendous financial strides," she said, referring to the nonprofit’s overall condition, citing a larger, more generous board of trustees. "I continue to be on very good terms with our creditors. But like my brother and sister cultural organizations, we have no endowment. So every year, the challenge of raising ongoing operating funds remains."

Stressing a strategy of tackling the bank debt now instead of waiting until June 2016 "when it’s a desperate situation," Wissler said she is actively exploring equity partnerships "as the way to go."

"I think that makes a lot of sense," she added. "It would secure The Mount’s future, not just for the short-term but for the long haul."

At a recent open meeting of the town’s Community Preservation Committee, which prioritizes projects eligible for community-preservation funding by the town, Wissler mentioned her long-term vision of opening the land surrounding The Mount to the public.

"There’s absolutely no reason why it can’t serve three purposes -- historic site, cultural center, open-space public park," she told The Eagle.

"I think Wharton’s star has probably never been higher, thanks in part to [creator-author] Julian Fellowes and the rise of the ‘Downton Abbey’ mania," said Wissler. The executive director also called last year’s celebration of Wharton’s 150th birth anniversary and a lavish photo spread in Vogue magazine "a huge shot in the arm for us."

"We’ve built up incredible momentum and heightened the public profile of the site," she added.

The Mount has plans to capitalize on public interest in the Gilded Age era spurred by "Downton Abbey," the most-watched public TV series since documentarian Ken Burns’ "The Civil War."

Fellowes received a lifetime achievement award from the Edith Wharton Restoration at a Boston gala last November that raised $300,000 for the organization. Fellowes visited The Mount and later pronounced it "ravishing" and "grand but quite intimate." He also lauded Wharton as one of his favorite authors, mentioning her novel, "The Custom of the Country," as a major influence.

With NBC considering a network series titled "The Gilded Age" that would be written by Fellowes, Wissler said she has written to him offering The Mount as a possible site for future on-location filming.

The nonprofit’s debt load stems from the $14 million property renovation and the $2.5 million acquisition of Edith Wharton’s library from British collector George Ramsden. That spending took place during former Executive Director Stephanie Copeland’s tenure; she resigned in March 2008, when Wissler assumed the post. Ramsden has since been repaid.

"We’ve really tried hard to embrace the community and I think we’ve made huge progress," Wissler maintained, citing The Mount’s hosting of the Lenox High School Prom, community days, and development of year-round programming for the public.

The site will extend its hours this summer, opening it to the public for free on Thursday evenings from 5 to 8.

"We are stretching ourselves to become a year-round cultural institution, going out on a limb and raising lots of money to rehabilitate The Stables," Wissler pointed out. "I feel like we are doing our part as a solid citizen."

"Opening the doors to our neighbors and to the people who will support us through thick and thin is really important to us," added Kelsey Mullen, the public programs coordinator. "We’ve started to think about The Mount beyond the 10 to 5 boundaries."

An exhibition of large sculptures will be installed by the Sculpture Now nonprofit organization at the site from June to October, Mullen noted. Details about upcoming programming will be unveiled next month.

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

By the numbers ...

Some key statistics on The Mount’s finances:

Annual attendance: 30,000 (2012); 27,500 (2011); 29,000 (2010)

Operating budget: $1.7 million (2012-13); $1.3 million
(2011-12); $1.7 million (2010-11)

Contributions (including donations, pledges): $1.6 million (2012-13).

Income: $2,500,000 (2013, projected); $2,050,000 (2011-12)

Expenses: $1,700,000 (2013, projected); $1,426,000 (2011-12)

Total assets: $5,750,000 (2013); $5,345,000 (2008)

Total liabilities: $4,090,000 (2013); $9,130,000 (2008)

Source: Edith Wharton Restoration Inc., audited statements (fiscal 2012); financial reports and projections (fiscal 2013)