Thurber House, other small museums struggle to stay open during pandemic

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Vintage motorcycles, 19th-century dolls, and TV memorabilia are just a few of the gems that can be found in the collections of small museums in central Ohio.

They, along with larger institutions such as the Columbus Museum of Art and COSI Columbus, add cultural value and important educational programs. But the community could lose these unique organizations as they struggle to stay open and relevant amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Following: CAPA leads local recipients of CARES Act grants for the arts community

In November, Thurber House reached a breaking point by launching a fundraising campaign of $ 100,000 to support its operations. The downtown literary arts center, a restored home of designer and writer James Thurber, was able to retain its staff with a wage protection loan. But program participation declined steadily as the organization moved to fully virtual programming over the summer.

“We had about 60% registrations for (the children’s summer writing camp) compared to last year, so we were thrilled,” said Executive Director Laurie Lathan. “But the summer literary picnics were dismal. Virtual attendance has dropped by over 70% for us, and these two programs are our main summer programs.

Sarah Richardt, Executive Director of Kelton House on E. Town Street, decorates the historic home's dining room for a virtual tour.  The small museum recently received CARES funding to help with its operations.

The fall season has been a disappointment so far, with only a handful of people attending virtual author events, according to Lathan, who also said customers were exhausted by the online offerings.

“A lot of them say, ‘We love you, want to keep going to the programs, but we miss the events of life,’” said Lathan. “Right now, we only depend on the revenue generated to help us get through this pandemic. “

Following: Arts leaders applaud state decision to provide federal funding, but it won’t cure all ills

Thurber House is not alone. Almost a third of museum directors interviewed in October by the American Alliance of Museums has signaled a significant risk of permanent closure over the next 12 months. They also reported an expected loss of 35% of total budgeted operating revenue for 2020.

A week after Thurber House launched its campaign, the association was received a $ 70,000 grant from the Ohio Arts Council, which distributed $ 20 million in federal economic relief funding to arts organizations statewide.

Coupled with the organization’s fundraising efforts, the grant will put Thurber House above its target, but all museums still face challenges depending on the length of the pandemic and the availability of a vaccine. . For example, even if Thurber House returns to in-person programming, it might not be able to operate at the same level of capacity, given social distancing requirements, Lathan said.

“Thurber House is the only organization in the region that does what we do,” she said. “We appreciate everything the community has done for us in the past, and we look forward to continuing our programs and providing more education to children in the literary arts.”

Youth education programs are also an important offer of the Central Ohio Fire Museum Downtown, which hosts fire safety courses. Following the government-ordered closure, the museum reopened in June with increased security measures, but overall attendance is down 60 to 70 percent, according to executive director Michael Shimko.

“October has been a good month for us,” he said. “It was like someone flipped a switch and people started to come. I think people are fed up with being told to stay home and want to go out.

However, he said attendance fell again in November. The museum offers classes and virtual tours, but Shimko prefers people to see the building, a 1908 fire station that once housed horses.

Shimko also said the museum was able to stay afloat thanks to contributions received from the Central Ohio Fire Department payroll program.

“It’s about 65% of our budget, which is a pretty good chunk, so we’re in luck,” he said. “He kept the doors open. … But we can’t go on like this forever.

Organizations such as Ohio Craft Museum near Grandview Heights have found that shopping at gift shops has contributed to financial viability. After reopening in the summer, the museum saw a new trend among customers.

“They wanted to buy (items),” said communications coordinator Kim Nagorski. “They weren’t really there to see the exhibits, which is different for us. … It was very strange.

Nagorski added that the experiences of virtual exhibitions, social media advertising and email marketing have also paid off. And they plan to add an ecommerce platform to track sales.

The Kelton House and Garden Downtown also reported a surprising and useful result amid the pandemic; they received even more marriage proposals than last year.

“People were looking for a small venue, they were looking for an outdoor venue and they were looking for someone who was very flexible,” said executive director Sarah Richardt.

Richardt said people were calling regularly for house tours and their ghost tours in October were also sold out.

“People were so excited to do something in person,” she said.

In late November, Kelton House temporarily closed its doors amid rising COVID-19 cases, with plans to re-evaluate in December. In the meantime, Richardt is working on his educational tours for students, which have been postponed.

“It’s a big blow to us financially,” said Richardt, who is working on plans to properly wire the brick building to bolster its Wi-Fi connection to host virtual tours.

But she can’t wait to get the kids back into the building when it’s safe.

“There is nothing quite like walking around the museum, feeling it and seeing it,” she said. “You can look at a whole bedroom set, but what you really want to see is the fan on the side table because that’s what interests you. … It’s so great to have this wonderful and positive experience in a museum and I don’t want the kids to lose that.

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