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PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MUSEUM IS: ILM cultural institutions face perilous economic hardships from COVID

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The Cameron Art Museum seeks more engagement with and support from the community. Courtesy photo.


It’s been two months now since restaurants and retail have been allowed to reopen in the midst of COVID-19, according to Governor Cooper’s executive order. Yet, the arts and culture sector is continuing to get battered, despite being a $2.12 billion industry in North Carolina. Theaters, music venues and museums haven’t been cleared to welcome the public into their spaces again, even at half capacity. Monies lost are adding up rather quickly, especially for some museums reporting upward of 50% revenue loss to date.

“Earned income makes up about 82% of our revenue with memberships, donations, and grants from organizations and businesses making up the rest,” according to executive director Gareth Evans from the Bellamy Mansion Museum. The museum doesn’t receive local, state or federal funding, so they depend on visitors and memberships to keep them afloat. Their budget for the 2020 fiscal year was slated to be a little more than $299,000; as of July 31, Evans is reporting an earned income loss of more than $140,000. Should the museum remain closed through 2020, Bellamy could possibly lose 90% of its revenue.

This is a common theme nationwide, according to the American Alliance of Museums, which polled 750 museum directors in June. The survey found a possible one-third of museums are in peril to shutter by fall. Nationwide, it detected 726,000 direct and indirect jobs come from museums, which contribute $50 billion to our national economy. Museums that weather the economic storm are doing so by finding ways to cut costs, including laying off staff, despite help from the Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Plan (PPP).

“Most part-time positions were furloughed,” says Jim Karl, executive director at the Children’s Museum of Wilmington. “Our limited full-time and several part-time resources were retained, possibly due to PPP funding we received. However, at this point, that has been exhausted, and we are forced to use loan funds to keep some fundraising support going.”

The Wilmington Railroad Museum also had to lay off staff, as PPP only covered one salary and a little overhead. “Even with this assistance, we are still operating at a significant loss every month,” executive director Holli Saperstein details. The museum has lost $135,000 of its projected $180,000 in revenue because of COVID-19. “95% of our funding comes from our visitors paying admission or joining us as a member. The other 5% comes from small grants for projects and donations from the public, including our Holiday Light Show. We are truly a visitor and member-funded museum.”

Thankfully, museum volunteers have stepped in to help assess ways to reopen the railroad museum safely and securely when the time comes. Saperstein praises them, calling them geniuses for their problem-solving skills. “For example, our wonderful model train layout in the back is now operated with foot pedals versus push buttons. This reduces risk and is a lot of fun. It is like stepping on the accelerator of a car to make the train go!”

Cameron Art Museum is tracking a $50,000-a-month loss, so far equaling $300,000 since March. They’ve had to cancel fundraisers, concerts, programs and classes. Heather Wilson, deputy director for CAM, admits the current situation isn’t sustainable, especially with a shoestring full-time staff covering multiple jobs, after 75% of their part-time staff was let go. CAM, too, doesn’t receive government funding or backing; it’s all reliant on community support.

“CAM’s income is 33% earned income, 53% contributions, and 14% endowment income,” Wilson tells. “If the pandemic were to continue as it is for another six months, without the help of our community, we may not have staff to run the museum, curate exhibitions, care for the collection or design and implement programming. As we all know, any museum is the people.”

The Lower Cape Fear Historical Society, which runs the Latimer House, has lost 30% to 50% of their income since they can’t open for daily tours and had to cancel fundraisers. Though numbers don’t lie and can be dreadful reminders of how deep the pandemic has impacted them, manager of operations, Jessie Labell, is taking this downtime to foster stronger connections.

“I am choosing to look at being closed from a positive perspective,” she says. “We have been reassessing the programs we offer, the history we interpret, and our operational procedures so that we can adapt to a world that may very well be governed by this pandemic, as well as make our site’s history more relevant and relatable to our local communities. We are developing new virtual programs, as well as building a community-based project on the importance of the African American experience within historical interpretation. Now that we are closed, we are able to dedicate more time and focus to these important changes.”

In fact, virtual offerings have been the only saving grace for most local museums. Though forced to cancel three primary fundraisers to account for $130,000 of funding, The Children’s Museum of Wilmington increased its online educational programs, including storytime and activity ideas. The Wilmington Railroad Museum lost out on hosting school field trips and summer fundraisers, and an expanded exhibit on how African Americans helped create the railroad. Yet, they have leaned heavily into social media updates with videos, railroad facts, archival antique photos and by hosting bi-monthly storytime. Bellamy lost at least 25 events, like their spring tea and summer jazz concert series, plus rentals of the museum for events and weddings, all revenue that really takes off in the height of tourist season. They had had to pivot their focus on updating and expanding their website to include a new distance-learning page to help educators.

“We’re part of Preservation NC, so we’ve been able to launch statewide online lectures, the Shelter Series, with strong attendance,” Evans says. “Online programs are a new line of engagement which we’ll most likely keep.”

Likewise, CAM has moved all of its exhibits online through its #ConnectWithCam platform. They have launched eight virtual exhibits to date, plus offer online classes, and they host weekly Facebook Live programs, like Mediation Mondays at 11 a.m. and their kids’ program, Art Explorers Thursdays, at 10 a.m. They also hold Member Zoom meetings once a month that feature talks with artists and curators.

“We have published two books of lesson plans for teachers and homeschool educators that are tied directly to core curriculum, and are working closely with New Hanover County Schools to provide enriching virtual tour experiences for students,” Wilson says.

To support the cultural, educational, historical and artistic health of our community, consider donating or purchasing a membership to one of the following Wilmington institutions. Any and every amount helps.

Click below to donate to…

Battleship North Carolina

Bellamy Mansion Museum of History and Design Arts

Burgwin-Wright Museum and Gardens

Cameron Art Museum

The Children’s Museum of Wilmington

Latimer House, Poplar Grove Plantation

Wilmington Railroad Museum

Wrightsville Beach Museum of History.

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