Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is fighting with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, a separate entity that helps provide financial support.

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Can’t we all get along?

What a stupid question! Of course not.

The latest evidence of the astounding capacity of individuals — or groups — to go to war comes from — of all places — the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

The library’s Springfield home became the functional equivalent of Fort Sumter last week when a simmering behind-the-scenes dispute broke out into open warfare between those running the library and those running the separate library foundation.

Everyone remembers Fort Sumter, S.C., right? That’s where in 1861, the South fired on a military installation held by the North. It marked the beginning of the Civil War.

Even though separate entities, the library and the foundation are joined at the hip by their mutual interest in one of the outstanding presidential libraries and museums in this country.

Those who have an interest in history who haven’t visited the library really should do themselves a favor and go. It’s a draw for both tourists interested in the exhibits and historians trying to track down the particulars of Lincoln and his presidency.

But acrimony is not new to the institution.

It was conceived in controversy. Way back when, former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, a reform Republican who targeted corruption, conducted a lengthy filibuster concerning the library on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Among other things, he complained about potential insider dealings related to its planned construction and prominent Springfield political insider William Cellini.

Now the acrimony concerns the relationship between the library, a state-run entity, and the foundation, a separate organization that raises money for the library and buys Lincoln-related memorabilia that is displayed in library exhibits.

The two entities have separate boards made up of all the best people. But they’re apparently at cross purposes over the extent to which the foundation should share the details of its financial operations with the library.

Each side lawyered up — always a bad sign — as part of their effort to negotiate an acceptable agreement.

The result was not pretty — the library ended its relationship with the foundation, and the foundation decided to “temporarily suspend our discretionary financial support of the library.”

It was more than just a breach on paper. The foundation said it was “shocked and dismayed,” not to mention “puzzled and disappointed,” when the library “unilaterally moved to evict the foundation from our offices.”

Library board member Steve Beckett, an Urbana lawyer, described the dispute as “sad.” He said the library wants to know more — and is entitled to — about the foundation’s financial activities.

“I feel some responsibility to follow the money,” he said of the foundation’s fundraising as it relates to its support of the library.

However reasonable that may sound, foundation board member Nick Kalm characterized the library’s actions as “inconsistent, unreasonable and threatening,” charging that the library has spread “misinformation” about the foundation.

Noting that the foundation’s support of the library has amounted to “more than $42 million” since its inception, the foundation blasted the library’s “heavy-handed and punitive tactics.”

The foundation’s formal relationship — its “memo of understanding” — expired March 31. While open to more talks, the foundation said it will wait until the library’s new executive director begins work in June and then participate only with “the assistance of an impartial mediator.”

While stating that it will “entertain meaningful proposals from the foundation,” the library said it is interested in seeking a “new foundation to support the presidential library and museum’s mission.”

The split is just the latest library controversy.

In November 2019, Alan Lowe, then executive director of the library, was dismissed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker after he loaned library artifacts, including a copy of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, to a Texas-based museum for $50,000.

An inspector general’s report examining the arrangement said the items were not to be rented.

At the same time, the foundation spent $25 million on Lincoln artifacts including a hat that was supposed to have been worn by Lincoln. But subsequent studies of provenance of the hat, valued at more than $6 million, have not confirmed that it was, in fact, Lincoln’s hat.

Both events, particularly the hat controversy, have raised temperatures between library and foundation backers and contributed to the current hard feelings.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

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