SOS for Chawton's horses
By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 2 2017 01:00PM
Although the Shire horses of Chawton House Library have been dispersed to new homes, the local campaign to reverse that decision apparently lives on. The latest development: An online petition calling for the horses’ restoration, which was posted at Change.org last week, had drawn more than 500 signatures as of last night.
The petition, created by a group that calls itself Save Our Shires (SOS), says the decision by Chawton trustees to rehouse the four horses and lay off their two human supervisors “treated the local village community with disdain” and “violated one of [the library’s] guiding principles.”
The Chawton House Library mission statement, available on the website of the Charity Commission for England and Wales, lists among the library’s aims “creating and maintaining a working manor farm of the late eighteenth-century at the property,” which was owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight. But Chawton House is better known as a research library housing a valuable collection of early English writing by women.
As I’ve written before (here and here), Chawton’s trustees have explained the elimination of the Shire horses as a cost-cutting measure necessitated when Sandy Lerner, the Silicon Valley multimillionaire who founded the library, announced that she was withdrawing her ongoing financial support.
A look at Chawton’s financial statements for 2015, the most recent year available, makes the problem clear: According to the records, a family foundation run by Lerner and her ex-husband donated more than £459,000 (about $615,000) to the library in 2015 – nearly 61 percent of Chawton’s £754,000 ($1 million) in income that year. Meanwhile, maintaining the Shire horses (see the last page of the statement) cost more than £47,000 ($63,000).
In its petition, SOS asks supporters of its cause to boycott the library as a tourist destination and to refuse contributions to the fundraising campaign launched over the summer to replace Lerner’s contributions. Although no one can fail to regret the departure of Chawton’s beautiful horses, it’s hard for me to see what end is served by an effort to starve a cash-strapped cultural institution of needed funds.
The 2015 financials do indeed tell a story. This was the penultimate year of Sandy Lerner's patronage and income = £649,689, the vast majority of which was donated by SL's Foundation, yet OpEx = £707,511 so the charity was trading at a loss. The trustees did no contingency planning to mitigate the potential loss of their major income source nor to manage their trading imbalance. The Shire Horses cost 6% of total expense. Staff costs accounted for 53%, including Dr Gillian Dow's salary of £71,465 paid directly by SL's foundation. Any commercial restructuring agent managing a client in a financial crisis would slash the largest cost items first, invariably salary, in an attempt to restore financial viability. In short, firing Dow would have paid for the horses for @18 months. On the other hand culling CH's ineffectual marketing would have sustained the horses for far longer. In 2015 the cost of raising funds was £184,322. Once SL's donation of £459,187 is deducted from total income of £649,689 we are left with income of £190,502. Further deducting other grant income of £78,785 & investment income of £21,827 none of which incur any marketing cost means that the £184,322 of marketing expense potentially raised £89,890 = a loss of £94,484 a sum that would have supported the horses for several years.
Inept decisions such as these have led us in SOS to combat the inept financial decisions made by CH's trustees. As a consequence of their poor judgement we have no compunction in seeking to deny their access to funds & we urge you to comply. We have no issue with the House surviving as a beautiful example of Regency architecture but take real issue with the CH's trustees financial competence. We seek to deny them access to funds because they will squander them. Once this inept set of decision makers has been replaced, and the horses restored to the Estate we are happy to lend our expertise in fundraising to a cause that is currently hopeless.
MT-B on behalf of SOS
Thanks for the additional detail on your point of view! I'll be very interested to see how this shakes out long-term.
MT-B's comment is wrong on so many counts - from irrelevant facts such as Chawton is an "example of regency architecture" (it is late Tudor/Jacobean) to the assertion that "Any commercial restructuring agent managing a client in a financial crisis would slash the largest cost items first, invariably salary". No - you take out the obvious loss-making elements first. Saving money by firing staff doesn't alter the fact that the shire horses cost money the House obviously cannot not afford, and merely postpones the inevitable. And in fact subsequent events have seen Gillian Dow take a sabbatical and improvements to the marketing for a house that has only been fully open to the public in the last few years.
To an outsider like myself, I was very sorry to see the horses go, but they are not central to what Chawton House is about. The SOS campaign seems vindictive and unpleasantly personal - and damaging to the future survival of the House. Deborah's last sentence is spot on.
Thanks for commenting!