Over the past eight years, the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport has weathered a lot more than nor’easters. It was closed for a year after a Mother’s Day flood in 2006. After it reopened, seasonal hours were all the cash-strapped institution could muster.
Now, after trying a new approach to exhibits and outreach, the museum is welcoming visitors year-round. Visitation has nearly tripled, from
8,500 in 2011 to 22,300 last year. With a lean $175,000 budget, the museum is happily marking five years in the black.
“It’s tough to convince people to support you if you are not fulfilling your mission,” said executive director Michael Mroz. “When you’ve demonstrated what you can do with the funds, fund-raising can be a lot more effective.”
The Custom House Maritime Museum ranks among many north of Boston that are beefing up programming, exhibits, and revenues despite a slow-growth, post-recession local economy. By investing to build their bases of support, they’re attracting more visitors at a time when museum visitation nationwide has been dropping, a trend that has been occurring for 20 years.
“When we look at our North Shore cultural institutions, we have to give them credit because they are bucking that trend,” said Margo Shea, a public historian at Salem State University. “They’re staying open. They’re hiring. They’re bringing in interesting ideas, and they’re building interesting partnerships.”
Local museums face long-term challenges that run deeper than economic headwinds, according to Shea. They’re competing with big cultural shifts, especially the dominant trend to seek information on the Internet, rather than at brick-and-mortar institutions. In an age when authority isn’t highly valued, she said, traditionally authoritative museums are scrambling to make exhibits more interactive and participatory. It’s an ongoing challenge.
Still, North Shore museums are upgrading and expanding. In November, Peabody Essex Museum in Salem reopened a renovated gallery and a redesigned art and nature center, both part of a $200 million expansion project. Fund-raising has continued uninterrupted on a $650 million campaign now in its ninth year, according to chief marketing officer
Jay Finney. So far, donations from individuals have reached $560 million.
Gloucester’s Cape Ann Museum is closed for renovations this season but is slated to reopen in the summer. The Lynn Museum & Historical Society is closed for renovations in January as it installs new lighting, modifies exhibit space, and gears up for a merger with next-door LynnArts , a nonprofit that promotes cultural activities in Lynn.
To make improvements and enhance their missions, local museums are tapping new revenue streams. The Peabody Historical Society & Museum , for instance, derives some 80 percent of its $400,000 budget from rental income at the Smith Barn, one of the society’s eight properties.
With four propane heaters in place, the barn’s wedding season can run from early spring to late fall. The barn will host some 90 weddings this year, up from an average of about 65, according to treasurer Tom Zellen.
That’s not all. A $20,000 renovation of a function room at the Smith Barn in 2012 is bringing in an additional $50,000 per year. Those extra funds helped support the society’s latest acquisition, the Sutton-Peirson House, a circa 1840 home built by local mill owner William Sutton.
“What museums are trying to do is think of ways to be creative about bringing in money,” said curator Heather Leavell. “If we didn’t have that stream of income [from barn rentals], we wouldn’t be able to survive.”
‘It was either go down fighting or just close the door. Everybody decided, “Let’s go down fighting if we’re going to go down.” ’KATE LUCHINI, executive director of the Lynn Museum
At the Lynn Museum, additional space acquired through the LynnArts merger will soon generate more rental income. But other measures have been necessary in the meantime.
The Lynn Museum temporarily cut back on programs and exhibits a few years ago during the recession and later started investing again to build local support. Tapping a small endowment to add rotating exhibits and hire a full-time executive director required a leap of faith, according to Kate Luchini, who was hired for the post in 2010.
“It was either go down fighting or just close the door,” Luchini said. “Everybody decided, ‘Let’s go down fighting if we’re going to go down.’ ”
Rather than close its doors, the Lynn Museum has turned a corner. It’s become much less dependent on endowment funds, Luchini said, and is on track to retire its deficit as soon as this year.
Entrepreneurial creativity has helped. Function rentals, made possible by a grant-funded renovation in 2011, now account for 20 percent of the operating budget. The city of Lynn also has contracted with the museum to help develop the downtown cultural district.
Not every effort generates immediate cash. The Lynn Museum built up good will in town last fall by waiving the $2-per-student school trip fee for six weeks. The move generated 2,000 local student visits — more than in all of 2012. Now the museum can cite increased visitation numbers in grant applications, Luchini said.
In Newburyport, the Custom House Maritime Museum has increased traffic by rotating exhibits in recent years; it will have five in 2014. Hundreds of local third-graders visit each spring, a tradition that helps boost awareness of the museum among local families, Mroz said.
At the House of the Seven Gables in Salem, a national historic site, total revenue had dropped 22 percent, from about $1.85 million in 2009 and 2010 to $1.45 million in 2011. By 2012, it had climbed back to $1.55 million, and stakeholders were discussing how to further enhance the bottom line.
The museum recently hired a marketing manager, lined up four exhibits to draw steady traffic through the winter, and commissioned a website redesign.
The revenue-boosting theme resonates also at Historic New England , a nonprofit that oversees 36 historic sites in five states. Each of the organization’s 10 historic sites in Essex County is expected to keep an eye out for new ways to serve host communities and generate additional revenue, according to regional manager Bethany Groff. Yet sites are limited by what their infrastructures can handle, and capacities vary widely.
Historic New England’s Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury is able to hold such large-scale events as a summer music festival and 1861-style vintage baseball games. Cogswell’s Grant in Essex generated a few dollars by renting space last year for a pet-friendly gathering of the Bernese Mountain Dog Club of America.
But Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House in Gloucester, has a sensitive landscape that can’t handle lots of events. It hosted a few small-scale weddings last year on a trial basis.
“It’s always a tension when you’re the steward of these incredible properties to make sure they’re used appropriately and carefully,” Groff said. “But we are always having the earned income conversation as well.”
Leveraging unique opportunities continues to pay off for one-of-a-kind museums in this region. For instance in 2013, the American Textile History Museum in Lowell exercised its privilege as a Smithsonian-affiliated institution and borrowed an exhibit on spacesuits from the popular Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Another big hit: A bridal gown exhibit that drew many locals who had donated their dresses.
Offering these exhibits helped increase visitation by 60 percent to around 18,000 in 2013, according to president and chief executive Jonathan Stevens. A multiyear grant and a large bequest helped the bottom line, too. For the first time in six years, the textile museum ended 2013 without a deficit.
“There’s no big whiz-bang answer here” to the challenge of keeping doors open and fulfilling a cultural mission, Stevens said. “There’s no one thing that does it. It’s work. You have to keep at it and let people know what you’re doing.”G. Jeffrey MacDonald can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gjmacdonald.