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Library Board members show frustration over Johnson Collection sale process

December 9, 2011
By Josh Moniz - Staff Writer ( , The Journal

By Josh Moniz

Staff Writer

NEW ULM - Members of the New Ulm Library Board expressed frustration with the City of New Ulm during its Thursday meeting over the method the City has used in its efforts to sell portions of the Johnson Collection. Complaints voiced included dislike of the lack of Library Board involvement and the desire for details on how exactly the sale's revenues would be dispersed.

The Johnson Collection is a collection of 3,000 autographed photographs from famous and historical figures that New Ulm historical figure Fred Johnson collected over his lifetime. Notable signatures in the collection include Benito Mussolini, President William Taft, Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Edison.

The collection was donated to the New Ulm Public Library through the City with a clause that ownership would revert to a surviving heir if it was to be sold. The City has contacted the only known heir, Joan Baeza, and received permission to sell portions of the collection. Baeza stipulated she wanted the funds dedicated only to the Library.

Recently, the City has filed legal actions to remove the clause on the collection, with the intention of making the sale as easy and clear as possible. Baeza responded to the action by voicing concern over the lack of communication and the fact the legal action could allow the City to allocate the funds to other departments.

The Library Board invited City Manager Brian Gramentz to their meeting to answer questions and concerns about the process.

Gramentz started by giving a brief overview of the Johnson Collection's history. He added that he had made a mistake in previously stating the City Council had no determination on how the funds would be allocated. He said he discovered that the Council approved recommendations that the funds go to the Library on Dec. 21, 2010. He also said Baeza has been informed of the information and that she is now satisfied with the City.

Library Board Vice Chair Mary Loetscher said she was upset that the Library Board had not been included in the sales process, especially since the collection was originally donated to the Library through the City.

"I was kind of insulted we were bypassed in the decision process. I know Arts and Collections has made a list of which [autographs] will be sold. But, what if there were some we'ld like to keep?" said Loetscher.

She added she was concerned the City's actions would dissuade donations to the Library out of fear the donations could be reallocated.

Gramentz said he apologized if any feelings were hurt by not involving the Library Board in the process. He explained that it was ultimately the Council decision on how donations are handled because the City owns all assets, while organizations like the Library Board only manage properties.

He said he would be willing to keep Library Director Larry Hlavsa up-to-date on further progress with the sale for the Library Board's benefit.

Loetscher then asked what was the Council's specific plan for delivering the sales revenues to the Library.

"It has to be done in the proper way. If the Council does something like cut the Library budget equal to the amount of the donation, then it's not a true donation," said Loetscher.

Gramentz responded that the allocation was the Council decision and that it had not been made yet. He said the Library could set up a separate, specific fund to hold the sales revenues if they wished.

Library Board chair Dustan Cross asked how the collection had ended up at the City to begin with.

Gramentz said he had limited information about the collection's moves because it occurred before his time and little information of the moves were recorded. He said he didn't know when it moved from the Library to the Brown County Historical Society, but he believed that it had been moved to City Hall during the 1960s to avoid water damage from a leak.

In other business, the Library Board gave a reminder that new members would be needed next year to replace Loetscher and member Kristin Trautloff. Both have reached their term limit on the Library Board.

Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at



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