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Embattled National Women's History Museum Faces Stalled Legislation, Frustrated Backers

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WASHINGTON -- Support from donors and elected officials for a National Women's History Museum appears to have evaporated after a recent Huffington Post investigation revealed a pattern of mismanagement and lack of accountability by the organization's top officers.

Yet, nearly a month after the report, the museum's biggest donor and most high-profile backer said she has received only a cursory response after writing to its board outlining her questions about the project's governance.

Meryl Streep told HuffPost she sent a letter to the NWHM's board soon after the April 8 article was published. "Apart from a cordial acknowledgment from Joan Wages (the museum's president and CEO), I have not heard from other members of the board in response to a letter I wrote outlining my concerns. I am hopeful that the museum's board will set out a vigorous, serious course of action to achieve their goals along a suitable timeline."

The Oscar-winning actress pledged a multi-year gift of $1 million to the museum in 2010, and has paid $400,000 already. It is unclear what she intends to do about the rest of her gift. While Streep may be the most famous backer having second thoughts about the museum, other prominent women who have sponsored the museum also told HuffPost they want answers before they'll offer additional support.

On Capitol Hill, where museum executives hoped a new bill would be introduced this spring to help secure a building site on the National Mall, lawmakers who have previously sponsored similar bills were silent.

A spokesman for Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), chief sponsor of the new legislation in the House, offered a series of "no comments" when asked about its status. On the Senate side, numerous email queries to the companion bill's main sponsor, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, went unanswered.

The unusual quiet from lawmakers, who are trying to stay clear of controversy particularly in an election year, follows HuffPost's report that NWHM has developed only minimal educational programming or connections within the academic community. Internal documents and public records, along with interviews with NWHM staff, board members and advisers revealed little progress after 16 years toward a $400 million fundraising goal -- even as a board member, Ann Stone, sold direct mail services to the museum. In addition, the article cited sources who said board members who questioned the arrangement or sought to recruit independent professionals to challenge Wages and Stone (no relation to story's reporter) were forced out.

Legislation to allow NWHM to buy or lease a spot on the mall has been introduced in Congress five times since 2003. Each time the bills stalled in either the House or the Senate. During the last Congress, conservative critics convinced two Republican senators to put a lethal hold on the bill. Feminist historians also have criticized the museum for being disconnected from the women's history community.

Maloney has given no timetable to introduce a new bill, even though NWHM previously indicated it would be this spring; NWHM has since backed off the spring deadline. Maloney spokesman Ben Chevat offered, "No comment" to numerous questions by HuffPost about the status of the legislation. A bill introduced a year ago in the House lists 68 co-sponsors. A similar bill in the upper chamber was co-sponsored by 23 senators.

It is not clear how many members of Congress still are willing to co-sponsor NWHM legislation. Multiple emails to the offices of all 23 Senate co-sponsors, for instance, elicited zero replies. And, with time running out in the current congressional session and lawmakers shifting focus toward their reelections, the potentially contentious bill may not get to the floor until next year -- if at all.

Wages referred HuffPost to the stalled 2011 bills, which she said are "currently pending," but she did not mention the once-highly anticipated 2012 Maloney bill.

Lawmakers, however, aren't the only ones taking a wait-and-see approach.

Janice Kovach, the Democratic mayor of Clinton, N.J., helped organize a fundraiser for NWHM last spring, and told HuffPost she had planned another event this year. Now, she said, she's waiting for the museum to make the next move.

"Obviously, issues like these are going to impact fundraising, because no one wants to donate money to an organization that's being questioned," Kovach said. "As much as I love the mission, I'm not going to sacrifice my reputation for anything. If it turns out that everything [at the museum] continues to stay the way it is now, that's not going to work for me."

When asked about the current state of fundraising at the museum, Wages emailed that "we appreciate our donors and sponsors who have supported us," and included a generic list of the museum's accomplishments.

Marta Wilson, who owns a northern Virginia defense consulting firm and contributed $5,000 to NWHM when she attended an awards dinner featuring Streep last fall, said she reassessed after reading the HuffPost article. "It's a lot to process," she said. "[Have you] ever had that feeling of 'oh, my word?'"

Wages and Wilson met in mid-January for a "brainstorming" lunch in which the consultant offered to donate strategic planning, results management and meeting facilitation services to the museum. "She seemed very excited about us being a potential volunteer resource," Wilson recalled. "I haven't heard from the organization since."

Although she found Wages "delightful" and "very impressive," Wilson said she hopes to learn more about a project she still considers "worthwhile," but perhaps in need of improvement.

"I agree with Meryl Streep that I would hope to see the organization remediate whatever problems have been uncovered," she said. "I totally agree with Richard West [founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian] that any organization that is going to be successful in the nonprofit world needs the things he mentioned: a clear mission, good programming, and an abundance of money and expertise."

What Wilson has learned, she said, "has piqued my interest. I’m going to be watching."
 
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