GOLDENDALE, Wash. – The Maryhill Museum of Art sits on the eastern edge of the Columbia River Gorge, bordered by the river on one side and highway 14 on the other. Wind turbines spin in the distance. They aren’t just generating energy. They’re also generating income. And at a time when art museums across the country are making massive cuts, extra money has helped Maryhill stay afloat.
The museum leases a portion of its 5,000 acres to wind developer Cannon Power Group. There are 15 wind turbines on Maryhill’s property.
Colleen Schafroth is the museum’s executive director. She says leasing the land has allowed Maryhill to expand its operating budget and begin construction on a new wing.
“That operating budget we knew when we were thinking about the new wing would have to increase by a certain amount, which meant our endowment needed to grow by a certain amount. And that has been particularly difficult to raise money for,” she says.
The museum has leased its land for almost two years. Schafroth says it’s provided a revenue stream between 230 to 250,000 dollars a year. That made a new expansion possible.
Museum curator Steve Grafe walks through the expansion’s skeleton. Polished concrete and steel beams mark the beginnings of the new wing.
“So this is going to be a little alcove. I think we’re going to have a sculpture in there. And then this will all be finished with sheet rock. All the openings that you see will have glass in them,” he says.
The new wing will allow the museum to add new areas for workshops and educational events and build more efficient storage space. Grafe says an average of 5 percent of the museum’s 20,000 pieces are on display at any given time. That’s everything from arrowheads to antique chess sets to Faberge. The rest is kept out of sight to better preserve it for generations to come.
Back inside the museum, a dehumidifier blows in one of the current storage areas. It’s a small room with paintings lining metal shelves.
“As stuff is stored now, we’re looking at the edge of the frame. And the goal in the new building is to have great big sliding racks, where we can look at all of the pictures face on. Right? A curators dream,” Grafe says.
The museum will start tearing down walls this November. The expansion project will cost 10 million dollars. Schafroth says that would have been a hard sum to gather without the help of wind power.
The turbines have reversed Maryhill’s fortunes. According to its 2009 return filed with the IRS (pdf), the museum lost $882,111 after expenses in 2008. But in 2009, when the wind project started making money for the museum, it reported revenue after expenses of $2.57 million.
The museum’s turbines are about a mile down the road. Millionaire Sam Hill had originally purchased the property in 1907 to found a Quaker agricultural community. When that didn’t pan out, the museum took shape. Schafroth says Maryhill does still hold on to the ranch.
“And that always brought in a little revenue, but anybody who’s in farming knows it’s not the biggest chunk of money ever. But undoubtedly it did help the museum. The wind power just made it all that more beneficial,” Scafroth says.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, the Maryhill Museum of Art is the only non-profit museum in the United States with a wind power lease. Maryhill’s turbines are part of a larger project in the area that will produce enough energy to power 250,000 homes per year.
Schafroth says the museum is fortunate to have this new revenue stream. But she says she’s ambivalent about how the turbines change the landscape.
“At night when their little red lights sparkle, it’s kind of an amazing sight to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve always loved fireworks so much. It just seems like it’s this little piece of energy in the sky,” Schafroth says.
She says some people may dislike the idea, but turbines are a measure of human progress. And people have impacted the land for centuries.
“On the other hand, there are times when I’m driving through, and I think, ‘Oh.’ It does make a change on the landscape, a change I have looked at for 20 years,” she says.
Schafroth says is excited by all the changes coming to Maryhill, made possible by wind energy. As the museum re-opens next spring, visitors will have an entirely new experience.
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