Why some Yolo residents object to arts nonprofit taking over historic home

Photography by Hector Amezcua, Sacramento Bee

Keeping up the Gibson House is a labor of love.

It takes about a dozen volunteer gardeners to manage the grounds and the heritage herb garden. Another dozen serve as docents, educating visitors on the family who owned the house for about a century. And the historic furniture and knick-knacks all came through donations from Yolo County families.

But love is not enough to keep the historical museum afloat.

Yolo County supervisors voted unanimously in December to give control of the building to YoloArts, a local nonprofit that runs art programs throughout the county and provides gallery space to local artists. County leaders were concerned that the historical museum is unsustainable because of ongoing budget problems.

Since the decision, more than 4,100 people have signed a petition in protest.

“YoloArts could go anywhere, but this is our one historic house museum,” said Jenny Lillge, who is leading the protest effort and serves on the museum board of directors.

Alison Flory, YoloArts’ executive director, said she recognizes that people have put a lot of time, energy and care into the space and are passionate about keeping it the way it is.

“That is one approach, it’s not what we propose,” she said. “It’s just a different model and the county, the Board of Supervisors, supported moving forward and expanding beyond the historical home and moving towards this cultural center.”

She said YoloArts has been interested in finding a larger headquarters for about a decade. When the county asked if the organization would be interested in working out of the Gibson House, she said she felt honored.

YoloArts plans to keep some aspects of the historic experience – at least the first floor and the grounds and some outbuildings – but Flory said she wants to add other arts and culture aspects to draw more people. The outbuildings could be used for studio space or classes. Public art could be placed throughout the gardens. She said musicians and creative writers could also take advantage of the space.

The Gibson family had a music room, so Flory envisions musicians being inspired by the space and the collection of donated musical items, a subset of the more than 11,000 pieces in the historical collection.

The county will kick in about $200,000 over two years for a curator for the collection currently stored on the property. Flory views the curator as an essential piece of the plan, acknowledging that her organization doesn’t have historical expertise. Another $200,000 will go toward improvements to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Opponents are worried that YoloArts will make significant changes to the house and grounds, disregarding history in favor of art.

Purchased as a small wooden house by William Byas Gibson in 1857, the mansion was acquired by the county in 1975. The Yolo County Historical Museum organization formed in 1984 to run the home as a museum.

The historic mansion is maintained as a typical rural home and ranch setting from the late 1800s-early 1900s. The upper bedrooms reflect different styles and time periods, such as Victorian. The 2.5-acre property showcases the development of farming and ranching in Yolo County, according to its website.

Gibson House has sustainability problems, according to county staff. The museum has struggled to balance its budget, fluctuating between small losses and small profits. Staff were concerned that the low salary for museum director James Glica-Hernandez wouldn’t be enough to attract future directors.

The grounds need between $384,000 and $774,000 in maintenance, including upgrades to ensure ADA compliance, according to county staff.

Lillge acknowledged the county’s concerns, but said the Yolo County Historical Museum came up with plans to generate revenue after the county said it was exploring other management options. She said the organization didn’t get enough time to implement them before the YoloArts decision was made.

The Yolo County Historical Museum would have to raise an extra $200,000 through grants, donations and classes to accomplish its goals. The committee that considered which organization should run Gibson House felt the historical museum’s goal was too high to achieve and recommended YoloArts instead.

During the 2015-16 fiscal year, 8,400 people visited the property, but only 300 were museum visitors. The rest attended fundraising events, educational programs or private events, which is by far the largest draw to the house.

Yolo County students traditionally visit the house in third or fourth grade. YoloArts plans to continue that tradition and expand the educational tour options for students.

The problem is that many people never go back, said Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad, explaining his vote to give the space to YoloArts.

“We need to give people a reason not just to go there in the third grade, but to continue to come back and enjoy it,” Rexroad said.

The supervisors have not indicated if there’s a chance to change its decision.

Museum director Glica-Hernandez compared the house to a set of grandparents.

“You know they’re there and you may not call them enough,” but you love them and it hurts deeply when they die, he said. That’s the feeling he thinks drove thousands of people to sign the petition to keep Gibson House as is.

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