A best kept secret: Museum pegs its future to new fundraising drive

HARLINGEN — You may have heard about it, the collection of cigar-box guitars and banjos, all fashioned by homespun craftsmen with more talent than money.

Dozens of these down-home musical instruments — and yes, they really can be played — cover the walls of a room at the Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum.

The exhibit inspires a sense of wonder at how effective human innovation and imagination can be when money isn’t available.

One also concludes those cigar-box guitars pinned to the walls like cardboard butterflies in a collector’s box are a metaphor for the Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum itself.

The museum is embarking on a major fundraising drive to change its own financial fortunes, and hopes to raise $500,000 to renovate buildings and exhibit areas here on the Texas State Technical College campus.

“We seem to be — MMA, TSTC and the museum seem to be — the three best, unfortunately, kept secrets we have in Harlingen,” said Ruthie Ewers, a former Harlingen Chamber of Commerce president who is chairing the museum’s fundraising committee.

As hammering from workmen preparing an upcoming exhibit rings out through the museum’s halls, Ewers has to speak up to share her take on a museum most people don’t even know about.

“Sometimes I’ll say to people, ‘Did you go and see thus and so at the museum? And they’ll go, ‘What museum?’

“It just breaks my heart,” Ewers said.

The museum, although located on the TSTC campus, is not affiliated with the college but instead has a long-term lease on the property, which consists of the main museum building constructed in 1991, the Lon C. Hill Home, the Historic Harlingen Hospital, the El Paso Real or the Stage Coach Inn, and the Historic Museum Building.

Harlingen’s is neither the first nor the only museum to struggle year-after-year to find money to operate.

Some of its funding comes from the City of Harlingen, and museum staffers are quick to say they are grateful for the support of city officials.

“We have a transfer-in from the general fund of $30,000 and the transfer-in from the hotel-motel fund is $70,000,” said Joel Humphries, the city’s director of arts and entertainment. “Each year we get right at $100,000.”

The city has also earmarked an additional $65,000 for the museum’s renovation project, and the Rio Grande Valley Museum Association has chipped in with another $60,000.

For the rest of this story and many other EXTRAS, go to our premium site, www.MyValleyStar.com.

Subscribe to it for only $6.99 per month or purchase a print subscription and receive the online version free, which includes an electronic version of the full newspaper and extra photo galleries, links and other information you can’t find anywhere else.