The Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ont. is asking the city, who owns its building, to forgive their debt, as the non-profit brings in tourism dollars.
The building on Queen Street was purchased by the City of Cambridge in 2020. It was privately owned before that.
“We assume that they would no longer charge us rent because they own the building. So you’re paying yourselves,” Jonathan Walford, the curatorial director told CTV News.
Walford said the museum owes the city $46,433,20 in rent from last year. In a delegation to council last week, Walford asked the city to forgive rent the museum owed and reduce future rent to $1 per year, a model that he said is common in other non-profit museums. He is also asking for the city to help pay for maintenance costs.
“$35,000 a year to cover basic costs like insurance, maintenance and utilities,” he said.
Staff worry if they don’t get their rent wiped, they won’t stay afloat.
“You can’t have debt in the museum – you can’t get grants,” he said.
In 2023, more than 12,000 people attended the museum. The museum does charge admission to help pay to keep the museum running. Staff said being a tourist attraction, brings in big tourism bucks.
“According to TREIM (Tourism Regional Economic Impact Model), which is a method of figuring out how much money you bring into a community, [we bring] over $1 million into the Waterloo Region through tourism,” said Walford. “To charge us for rent that we can’t afford to pay is just killing the golden goose. You will lose that money coming into the region as well.”
Amira Radwan recently graduated from the University of Guelph after taking Art History. She jumped at the chance to work at the museum, through the Young Canada Works program.
“I feel like this is definitely a good starting point for me,” Radwan said. “I like to have a vision and see it come to life.”
Radwan admitted to being surprised when she heard about the museum’s financial struggles.
“I was surprised they had to pay rent for this place,” she said. “Any other places that I worked at that were non-profit or any type of museum or gallery, it’s never been that way.”
Staff said fashion isn’t just about stylish garments – it’s a key to our past.
“If you look at fashion you could see the society it came from, who wore it. What it was doing. What it was saying about women. What it was saying about the world,” Walford said.
No advertising budget
The museum doesn’t have an advertising or marketing budget. They are hoping for help with that through the Muncipal Accommodation Tax (MAT).
“We haven’t seen any money for that yet but it would be lovely,” Walford said.
A few weeks ago the museum took down their exhibit that featured Bob Mackie gowns that Cher wore. The exhibit called “The Bead Goes On.”
“It was well attended but it would have been so much better attended if we could advertise in Toronto,” he said.
This upcoming season they have about 50 different fans from different decades, featured in an exhibit called “Only Fans.”
“It’s literally only fans,” laughed Walford.
Walford said if they can’t get the city’s help, the museum will survive but not at the same location.
“We’re not a small operation. We’re an internationally recognized collection,” staff said.
The museum is set to open for the season on March 15.