The Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, the only presidential library in the nation to operate without federal funds, has lost $1.5 million during two years of operation, but administrators say the bottom line should improve dramatically by the end of 1993.
Although the staff has reduced costs, Internal Revenue Service documents filed by the library this month show that the loss was $962,298 in 1992, substantially deeper than the posted deficit of $557,301 in 1991.
Despite the losses, library director John H. Taylor said Tuesday that the facility is in sound financial condition and that a current fund-raising drive has gone well. He attributed the deficits to an aggressive and expensive program to attract visitors and position the library as a public forum for debates about government policy.
"Our board and President Nixon said at the beginning they did not want the library to be a sleepy place that was preoccupied with the past and sold tickets and souvenirs," Taylor said. "Instead, they wanted us to do work that had an impact on the public and the course of events."
The library plans to announce the results of the 1993 fund-raising effort and give an update on its financial condition on Jan. 19, the 25th anniversary of Nixon's inauguration.
Taylor declined to discuss the amount of donations received so far. He said, however, "we are not having a hard go of it. We are exactly where we planned to be. This institution is in vigorous good health."
The $21-million library, which includes the simple wooden farmhouse Nixon's father built from a kit, opened with much fanfare in July, 1990. More than a year later, library officials boasted that paid attendance in 1991 surpassed all other presidential libraries that charged admission.
Nevertheless, that same year, the library also posted a $557,301 deficit on expenses of $3.1 million, according to IRS records. Officials said they took out a loan to cover the difference.
At the time, Taylor blamed the 1991 deficit on promotions, special events and an expensive advertising campaign to attract visitors to the new facility. He vowed to cut expenses and balance the budget in 1992.
IRS forms for 1992 show that the library reduced expenses from $3.1 million the previous year to $2.6 million, but had revenue of $1,627,743, resulting in a deficit of $962,298.
Taylor said the loss reflects costs associated with the library's sponsorship of 15 exhibitions, three nationally noted policy conferences, seven town meetings and seven forums for editors of high school newspapers, as well as other events.
"In short we have been one of the most active presidential libraries ever," he said.
Some presidential librarians say the Nixon library is unique in the country, and that might be the source of the budget deficits. With the exception of the Nixon facility, all libraries for presidents since Herbert Hoover are part of the National Archives, the nation's vast document bank. As part of that system, they receive millions of dollars a year in federal support, which virtually assures their economic survival.
The only other presidential collection that does not receive federal money is the Rutherford B. Hayes library in Fremont, Ohio, which was dedicated in 1916. It is funded by the state and a private endowment. The papers of the nation's earlier presidents are preserved in the Library of Congress.
At the National Archives in Washington, John T. Fawcett, the assistant archivist for presidential libraries, said he believed there were two major reasons why the former President did not seek federal assistance.
In 1974, Congress passed the Presidential Recordings and Material Preservation Act, which allowed the government to take possession of Nixon's papers, including tape recordings, to preserve them for the Watergate investigation.
Those records are still in the government's hands. Without the presidential papers, the Nixon library cannot become part of the National Archives system unless there is an amendment to the law.
"That is a doable thing," said Fawcett, who oversees Nixon's presidential papers. "The law probably is no longer an impediment. At the time, Congress simply wanted to preserve the records for the investigation."
The other possible reason for not receiving federal funds, Fawcett said, was Nixon's apparent reluctance to use tax dollars for the host of expensive perquisites, such as Secret Service protection and office expenses that former presidents are entitled to receive from the government.
Fawcett and presidential librarians across the country said that running a privately funded library like Nixon's would be a difficult undertaking unless there is a substantial fund-raising effort behind the operation. Admission prices and gift-shop sales, they said, do not come close to covering the costs of the facilities, which often have annual budgets of several million dollars.
"I would think it would be risky unless there is a great commitment from contributors or endowments to rely on," said Harry J. Middleton, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum at the University of Texas in Austin. "What Nixon has done is unprecedented, and the unprecedented can often be risky."
Taylor said it has been Nixon's sole desire to run the library as a private, nonprofit institution, a decision that is consistent with his long-held position that government spending should be reduced.
"The other libraries run museums, operate archives and offer public programs," Taylor said. "In each case, they do so with at least $2 million a year from taxpayers. We do all three of those things without the taxpayer."
In contrast to Nixon's total reliance on private funds, the Johnson library receives about $2.3 million a year in federal funds; the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta gets about $1.6 million; and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley receives roughly $2.8 million.
"You can't really compare the Nixon library to the other presidential libraries," Donald B. Schewe, director of the Jimmy Carter library. "His is privately funded, while the others receive government funding. While we operate in the black, profit is not that important. Even if attendance is off we are still going to survive."