Matthew Johnson can’t emphasize enough the importance of cultural institutions to Fort Myers or any other city.
“It’s absolutely mandatory,” he says. “If you don’t have a cultural infrastructure, you don’t have a community. So it’s vital to have well-funded, high-functioning cultural centers.”
That’s why he backed the efforts a few years ago to combine two museums formerly run by the city of Fort Myers — Imaginarium Science Center and Southwest Florida Museum of History — into a single institution called the IMAG History & Science Center. Remaining on city-owned property, the center is now run by a nonprofit that allows for great efficiency and increases the ability to raise private funding to help support the new combined museum.
“It became apparent we needed a sustainable model, something so that these museums would continue for the long run,” says Johnson, IMAG’s executive director who also oversaw the museums when they were under city control. “It’s a benefit to the city and to the citizens to have this facility up and operating, but it’s more of a benefit to have it operating effectively and efficiently.”
Non-city government management means the museum doesn’t get caught up in bureaucratic red tape when it wants to hire staff or make purchases. Leaving city control has another perk: Earned revenues can be immediately funneled back into the museum to help support its operations and growth.
“In the government model, the revenue all goes into the pot,” says Johnson, 44. “You have your budget for the year, and that’s it. If you triple your attendance in a year, you don’t have any more budget that year. You might get it the next year, but you don’t have it right there to use. Whereas now it’s immediately available to reinvest.”
In the past, about 70% of the funding for the two longtime museums came from the city, about 30% from earned revenue and hardly any from private donors. Since the 2017 merger and privatization, more than 50% of IMAG’s funding now comes from earned revenue like museum admissions and summer camp fees, and private funding has grown to make up about 10% of its operating budget. Public funding now accounts for less than 40%.
We need to make sure our students are exposed to it at an early age. That’s our key role — exposure.’ Matthew Johnson, IMAG History & Science Center
Early private financial supporters include hurricane protection company Storm Smart and local TV station NBC2. With businesses relocating and expanding in Southwest Florida, the museum plans to get in front of even more potential partners. The institution also hopes to benefit from its location, just off of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which Fort Myers officials have targeted for redevelopment.
Johnson, who oversees a staff of some 18 people at IMAG, is planning for a future fundraising campaign for capital improvements and facility growth at IMAG, which welcomes about 100,000 visitors annually. The museum’s 7-acre site (the city’s former water treatment plant) allows plenty of room for that kind of expansion.
Meanwhile, the Rist Family Foundation, backed by Storm Smart Founder Brian Rist, provided the initial funding for IMAG’s latest initiative, a $300,000 project to create a Fab Lab at the museum. Modeled after a concept pioneered at MIT, IMAG’s Fab Lab will be a space where the community can get access to fabrication equipment like CNC routers, 3D printers, milling machines and laser cutters.
That access will not only help entrepreneurs get new businesses off the ground but also introduce local students to the manufacturing careers of the future, an effort Johnson hopes to see local businesses get involved with either through financial or volunteer support. The space is also a way to draw visitors to IMAG outside of its regular operating hours, and revenues from memberships and programs will eventually support its operation.
Construction on the Fab Lab is expected to begin in January, with an anticipated spring opening.
“We need to make sure our students are exposed to it at an early age,” he says. “That’s our key role — exposure. Then they will see it as an opportunity and continue to explore the formal education needed, whether that be trade school or university, to be ready for those 21st-century jobs that we know are going to be available.”