It’s relatively easy for museums to get wealthy art patrons to help buy a Renoir, build a sleek new wing or finance a sure-fire blockbuster exhibition.

But “there’s no way to romance a donor to pay for toilet paper, the light bill or paper clips,” said Patrick Houlihan, director of Highland Park’s Southwest Museum.

Those items are the “least attractive, least fundable” needs of any museum, Houlihan explained. But they’re just as vital.

If the Reagan budget for fiscal 1987 (beginning Oct. 1) goes through, Houlihan and other museum officials nationwide will have to woo private contributors more ardently than ever for the unglamorous essentials.


Without congressional intervention, however, the Institute of Museum Services might be dismantled. The IMS is the only federal agency to supply operational support of up to 10% of budgets for art, historical and scientific museums, botanical gardens, planetariums, zoos and aquariums.

Support is expected from Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Appropriations interior subcommittee, who has said that the current $21-million budget is needed “to perpetuate” the agency. The counterpart Senate subcommittee is likely to follow suit. Hearings on the Museum Services budget begin in Washington today.

President Reagan has tried to eliminate Museum Services since he took office. Now, under the pressure of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-balancing law, the Administration is proposing $330,000 for fiscal 1987, essentially leaving IMS just enough money to go out of business in style.

Last year more than 600 institutions received operational support from the agency. Its national grants range from the $75,000 given the County Museum of Art to the $5,000 awarded the Olivas Adobe Historical Park in Ventura.


The 10-year-old agency, which may fund anything from a zoo study of the Asian small-clawed otter (at the Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens) to preservation of art and historical treasures, also has programs for conservation and museum assessment.

The eradication of the IMS would mean “disaster, absolute disaster,” the Southwest Museum’s Houlihan said. The museum received $67,530--about 7% of its $950,000 annual operating budget--in IMS operating support for fiscal 1985. The grant helped pay the electric bill.

Houlihan said he has also used the funds from three IMS grants to pay staff salaries. “What happens in many museums (without sufficient operational support) is you have huge, important, valuable collections being neglected because the curatorial expertise is not there.”

In California, 32 organizations received operating support grants from the IMS for fiscal 1985. In an informal Times survey of 21 of them--from the San Diego Historical Society to the Carter House Science Museum in Redding--all objected strongly to phasing out IMS and said their institutions would suffer.


Smaller and emerging institutions, however, would be hurt the most.

Charles Hilger, director of the Art Museum of Santa Cruz County, a young museum of contemporary art, said loss of Museum Services funding “would be an incredible blow to those museums on the threshold of becoming fully operational, those past the first blush of congratulatory start-up support.

“Without the IMS,” Hilger warned, “those museums will go by the wayside, or at least not have their programs realized.”

Hilger’s 5-year-old institute has a tiny, 180-piece permanent collection supported by a $170,000 budget. Like several institutes surveyed, Santa Cruz receives state, municipal, corporate and private support. But the $12,270 the museum got this fiscal year enabled it to afford its only full-time curator.


Kit Gillem, director of the Oak Canyon Nature Center in Anaheim, views a possible IMS phase-out with “great alarm and concern.”

Oak Canyon is a 58-acre oak woodland chaparral and animal reserve. Gillem received $14,000 from the IMS last year, which was used to support the reserve’s $157,000 budget. The funds were used for such programs as self-guided nature tours, field-trip instruction packs for teachers, scout troop leaders and camp counselors and school visits by naturalists.

“We wouldn’t be able to fund these projects any other way,” Gillem said. The center now serves about 15,000 schoolchildren annually, he said, and with the 1985 grant, “we’ll be able to reach about 25,000 more children a year.”

Lorraine Ramsdell, acting director of the Community Memorial Museum in Yuba City, noted that loss of Museum Services funding “would have a terrific (negative) impact” because the money helps pay one salary of the two staff postions at the local art and historical museum. “We would really be scrambling for funds.”


Ramsdell noted that the two staff members, with volunteer help, do everything from painting murals to “our own housecleaning, vacuuming, dusting . . . and yes, cleaning toilets.”

Marcia Howe, Redding’s Carter House Science Museum director, said the demise of IMS would mean more than a direct dollar loss. Recalling funding help received in 1979 and 1980, she said: “We figure we were able to generate $5 (in private and city funds) for every $1 of IMS money we received. Also, our city’s budget is getting tighter because of federal budget cuts, so (an IMS phase-out) will probably really slow our growth.”

Stephen Goldstine, chairman of the California Arts Council and director of the San Francisco Art Institute, which received $7,801 from the IMS last year for exhibitions, said: “I think the IMS has at least as good a chance (for survival) as it had before, because it’s so tiny, but I don’t think there’s a lot of thought behind dropping all these programs.”

Larger institutions, which received the top IMS grant of $75,000, would also face their share of woe.


The Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco, which include the California Palace of the Legion of Honor and the M. H. de Young Museum, serve about 3 to 4 million visitors annually. Although federal government grants constitute only about 5% of the museums’ $11.2-million budget, the action could mean a “reduction in public services, in staff, or both,” said F. Whitney Hall, chief administrative officer. “I see the dismantling of the IMS as one step in the eventual elimination of all federal assistance to the arts, and that’s a tragedy.”

The California Academy of Science in San Francisco, which had about 1.5 million visitors last year, houses one of the world’s 10 largest natural history museums. Executive Director Frank Talbot said dissolution of IMS could have repercussions felt far beyond the city limits.

“Most museums like ours are doing a national job,” Talbot said, “looking after large collections used by scientists all over the country or housing the bulk of the nation’s treasures, whether they be in the art, natural history or anthropology world.

“Most of us,” he went on, “have very large collections of material from vanishing rain forests, for example, things important to international scientists in order to understand the evolutionary relationships of life on Earth. One had hoped the IMS would be a national method of supporting these institutions. . . . “


Pamela Jenkinson Leavitt, press officer at the County Museum of Art, said last year’s IMS grant will pay for establishment of a computerized-pricing system in the museum’s shop. The money is “a small drop in the bucket” next to a $20-million budget, she said, but in the past, IMS funds have paid for additional staffing and for maintenance and display of permanent collections.

Craig Black, director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, which holds 15 million natural historical specimens, raised the question of the national budget. “What has been done to bring inflation under control in the last seven to eight years has assisted nonprofits in an enormous way,” said Black, whose museum runs on about $13 million a year. “And I’m sympathetic to the need to do something about our budget deficit.”

At the same time, he noted, “it’s important to have a program of federal support that serves institutions across the country. Federal support is an indication to the local public that indeed you are providing programs of excellence to your community. It’s a stamp of approval and helps us in raising funds locally.”

Richard Esparza, executive director of the San Diego Historical Society, which last year received its fifth IMS grant ($57,651), said an IMS phase-out could “cause us to reduce our level of service to the community.


“To ask us to take a 4.3% cut (like other domestic agencies in fiscal 1986) in view of Gramm-Rudman is fair,” he said, “but it’s unfortunate to single out one agency for complete disbanding. That’s not the solution.”

Times Staff Writer Judith Michaelson contributed to this story.