For half a century, Cave Creek Museum has provided residents and visitors with exhibits and collections full of artifacts that promote the historical significance of the town’s military, ranching, settling and gold mining days.
The museum opened its doors in 1970 and originally started as a grassroots volunteer organization, undergoing changes that led to the addition of new exhibits as well as the establishment of a leadership board of paid staff.
Throughout it all, the museum conducted all its operations in the same adobe building at the base of Black Mountain.
However, the museum’s interim executive director, Susanne D. Johnson, announced the “museum is looking forward to its next move, both figuratively and literally.”
Johnson’s statement, which was emailed to members on Feb. 4, details how the museum has “outgrown” the current location.
The board is investigating sites to potentially build a bigger location to fit all of its exhibits and “significant” pieces it has acquired over the years, it states.
While the board’s “preference is to remain in Cave Creek,” it stated its potential location search has extended beyond the town’s limits into the greater foothills area.
The name of the museum “will not be erased” if it moves outside of the town, it however states.
This consideration was met with intense opposition and scrutiny from residents, members, donors as well as volunteers. Hundreds took to social media to emphasize the importance of keeping the Cave Creek Museum in town.
In the email, she explains the board’s reasoning, saying “affordable land is not available in the commercial boundaries of Cave Creek” to build the bigger, updated museum it’s envisioning.
The museum “desperately” needs more room for exhibits, she wrote, mentioning how many collections are “locked up in numerous remote storage units.”
The constricted amount of space also prevents the board from hosting special events, educational opportunities and fundraising affairs, Johnson wrote, also mentioning how lack of signage has been an issue as the surrounding area has become a residential neighborhood.
Two days later, Board President Vince D’Aliesio sent another email announcement to members to support Johnson’s message and to “quash those rumors” that falsely said the museum made a final decision to move to Carefree, he said in an interview with The Foothills Focus.
“From what I’m told,” many people on social media were “already resigned to the fact that the museum is definitely moving — and that is the furthest thing from the truth,” D’Aliesio said.
The numerous sites the board investigated were located in Cave Creek as well as Carefree, but nothing has been decided, he stated.
“If an opportunity presented itself and it was feasible to do then we would certainly consider it, but it would be at the decision of the board to make that move.”
The board’s decision is dependent on the community’s voice and involvement, D’Aliesio said.
“Ultimately, if the community is against it, then it won’t happen,” he said. “The board would not make that move without the buy-in from the community.”
Staying in its original location is “definitely the number one objective,” but the museum needs the community’s support, he explained.
For this to happen, people need to “rally around the museum” by donating, volunteering, also coming forward with ideas and getting to know the museum, he said.
Paul Diefenderfer, a blacksmith and original member of the museum’s “Dream Team” has been volunteering almost once a week for the past decade.
Diefenderfer and the rest of the “Dream Team” men have put in countless hours to build, paint and maintain various parts of the museum, he said, mentioning how the volunteers collectively worked to get the museum’s stamp mill constructed and operational.
In D’Aliesio’s letter, he states the board met with members of the “Dream Team” over the past six months to determine the feasibility of relocating outdoor exhibits so as not to “disparage the many years of work that our amazing volunteers have contributed to the current site.”
However, when Diefenderfer saw Johnson’s statement online, he said he had no knowledge of their consideration of moving.
“This came as a complete shock,” he said. “I was devastated.”
Diefenderfer said he decided he won’t volunteer again “until they commit to staying in Cave Creek.”
“I just don’t want to waste my time and effort only to see it thrown in the trash. And I hate being in that position because it’s been a love affair and a passion of mine,” Diefenderfer said.
“I can’t control it, but I’m not going to help dig up my own grave either.”
It’s essential for the museum to remain in Cave Creek, he said. Removing the mining artifacts and unique pieces like the gazebo that tell the town’s history won’t be successful anywhere else because there’s no context that shows their significance, he explained.
“It’s ours. It’s our history and it belongs in our own neighborhood. It belongs in our town,” he said. “They can make it work if they just try.”
The museum doesn’t have to move to a bigger and better location to thrive and ensure its longevity, he said.
“It’s a treasure because it exists and they’ve lost sight of that,” he said. “That’s what’s wrong — they don’t see it as the gem that it is.”
This is why Diefenderfer believes the board members should resign, he stated.
“If they’re not committed to staying in Cave Creek, they need to step down and let someone take the job that is,” Diefenderfer explained.
On the same day D’Aliesio issued his statement, a group of five former board members, executive directors and presidents released a collective statement detailing their concerns about the museum’s consideration of moving.
The group of former leadership members, which include Evelyn Johnson, Jo Ann Stuckey, Sue Mueller, Pam Di Pietro and Stephanie Bradley, released the statement to members via email, also voicing their points to the board during a recent meeting.
“For 49 of the museum’s 51 years, it has been a viable, well-known museum in the community and state, with an active volunteer force, enthusiastic visitors, and successful fundraisers,” it reads.
However, “In the past three years, board membership deteriorated, resulting in a revolving door of board members who apparently did not recognize their responsibility to properly govern the museum,” it states.
Upon recent museum visits to the redesigned Pioneer Wing, former board members state the “once interesting space is now stark, flat and virtually empty.
The letter details the background on the museum’s struggles over the years, claiming the board hadn’t done its “governance duty” by keeping the IRS 990s up to date.
The museum was reportedly “on the verge of losing its 501(c)(3) status until Stuckey alerted two board members” of the deadline to file, it claims, noting Stuckey was retired at the time.
It also mentions how the board has no fundraising plans and yet to begin the search for a permanent executive director, a seat that has remained empty since October.
Despite this, Evelyn Johnson, who served as the museum’s executive director for 13 years said she and the others behind the statement respect the position of the board members and what led up to these issues.
“We believe the board members, both elected and appointed have served well, even though they are misguided,” she said, mentioning how they didn’t receive proper training and are dealing with “great distress” and financial strain from COVID-19.
Evelyn Johnson, a Carefree resident, isn’t against the idea of the museum possibly moving but “it needs to stay in Cave Creek,” she said, also mentioning how this is stated in the museum’s articles of incorporation.
The former board members hope appropriate action is taken at the board’s upcoming Feb. 22 meeting to “right some of these errors” so the museum can go back to being a place of pride in the community once again.
“It’s the heart of our history. And it needs the support of everyone to thrive and survive.”
—Staff writer Sarah Donahue can be reached at email@example.com