“We’re really excited about the opportunity to broaden our scope and reach and to do that with very enthusiastic partners,” said Erin Carlson Mast, the foundation’s CEO.
The split challenges both organizations. The 17-year-old museum, a state agency whose exhibits need some costly updating, loses its primary outside fundraising affiliate. And the private foundation loses its direct tie to the official library celebrating one of the nation’s greatest presidents, a connection that has been key to its pitches to donors.
The backstory to this split is a museum-worthy historical saga, replete with tenuous scholarship, shaky institutional governance ethics and one recent museum director sacked for, essentially, lending the Gettysburg Address to Glenn Beck. In 2020, the library and museum fired the official state historian who wrote the 2019 report chronicling the story of the supposed Lincoln hat’s dubious provenance.
The Lincoln library “is viewed nationally as, you know, ever-troubled,” says Harold Holzer, a prominent Lincoln scholar and past leader of the national Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. And that’s a shame, he added, because “the ALPLM has a fantastic collection for research or for display.”
The library-foundation breakup won’t help that reputation. “As someone who works in nonprofits and education, it’s surprising and somewhat inexplicable to me that an association between an institution and its foundation partner should be terminated,” says Holzer, a longtime Metropolitan Museum of Art executive who now directs the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York City.
On the horizon is another big potential fight. As the foundation pointedly noted in a news release announcing its new direction, the loan to the library of its Taper Collection, which includes many extraordinary Lincoln artifacts and also the hat, ends in October.
“Our goal is still to make the artifacts available for the public, including the people of Illinois, to enjoy,” Mast says. “How we get there is what we need to figure out.”
Library officials, meanwhile, insist the collection’s rightful place is in their museum, alongside its own highly regarded holdings. “What they’ve told their donors, what they’ve told us, is the collection will be here,” says Christina Shutt, who took over as executive director of the library and museum last June.
The squabbling between the organizations—which have shared missions and some personnel since the foundation’s founding in 2000 and both worked in the ALPLM’s buildings—confounds observers.
“We just couldn’t get anyone to play nice,” says state Rep. Terra Costa Howard, D-Lombard, who tried to use her background as a family mediation lawyer to achieve reconciliation as the two sides were breaking up last spring. “It was so acrimonious and they had such bad blood at that point.”
Foundation leaders talk like the jilted partner in a long-term marriage, finally getting the message that it was over, while their library counterparts say it had to end because the foundation would not “provide meaningful transparency.” The foundation responds that its publicly available federal tax filings provide all necessary transparency.
As this all was heating up last spring—when the foundation says the museum locked it out of its offices after the two groups failed to reach a new working agreement—both sides produced position papers and testified before the Legislature in terms that made the rift clear.
Looming large in the background is the stovepipe hat, the supposed Lincoln artifact now known to be of dubious provenance that the foundation acquired as part of the Taper Collection. The collection was purchased for $23 million from Louise Taper, a foundation board member at the time.
As the 2019 report by former state historian Samuel Wheeler spells out, the hat was sold to a downstate antiques shop for $1 before it was appraised at more than $6 million when the foundation bought it at the urging of library officials in 2007.
Wheeler declined to be interviewed, but his take is clear. “My research convinced me that senior officials at ALPLM had repeatedly weaponized the stovepipe hat against the (foundation), as part of a power struggle dating back to 2012,” Wheeler wrote. “The same tactic was being employed throughout 2018 and 2019.”
Wheeler’s report spells out that the hat’s validity as a Lincoln artifact is unproven, but also emphasizes that the historian wanted to do more research before releasing his findings, including examination of the hat by garment experts who could at least determine if it was of Lincoln’s era. He wrote the 54-page research “Status Update” under orders from ALPLM officials, he says, and he was fired within seven months.
The library says it can’t comment on personnel matters, but spokesman Chris Wills said “his research into the hat had nothing to do with his departure from the ALPLM.”
Lincoln scholar Holzer included “the loss of a really good Illinois state historian,” Wheeler, in his list of woes besetting the institution.
Some of the others:
Rick Beard, who headed both the library and the foundation at the time, was fired by both after three arrests in 2007 and 2008 for shoplifting. Beard declined an interview request.
Another former director, Alan Lowe—who did not return a call—was fired in 2019 after the state Office of the Executive Inspector General concluded he had improperly lent the library and museum’s most prized artifact, a Gettysburg Address copy handwritten by Lincoln, to an organization associated with Beck.
In exchange, “Beck had promised Lowe he would fundraise” to help retire the outstanding debt incurred by the foundation to finance the Taper Collection purchase, then at $9 million, the historian’s report says. Beck’s group ended up contributing just over $50,000.
That debt is also a huge remaining issue. The foundation owes just over $8 million on a loan that is due in October, foundation officials say.
Library director Shutt says: “If the collection is paid in full before Oct. 31, then that collection becomes property of the state of Illinois and the people of Illinois, as it was always intended to be. If they somehow chose to wait and pay it off in November or some other time, it would be disappointing and a total violation of our trust.”
But the foundation doesn’t have that money and, indeed, has been struggling to pay off that Taper Collection loan for years, foundation head Mast says. What seems a more likely possibility is that the foundation will renegotiate to extend its loan terms as it has done in the past.
Mast insists that having a new, clear path forward, with the troubled library relationship behind it, strengthens the foundation, allowing it to focus on new partnerships and its annual Lincoln Leadership Prize, a key fundraiser that has gone to four heads of state since its founding in 2006.
“We have the opportunity now to lead our own projects, in addition to supporting places like the Lincoln home,” Mast says.
The library has started its own membership program and is doing its own fundraising, Shutt says, and she is not looking back, either: “I came to my own conclusions that moving forward without the foundation was in the best interests, particularly at the ALPLM.”