Close the doors of a small museum and bad things happen fast. Close the doors at the sharp end of an expected busy spring season, and bad things happen even faster. Financial dominos, once set so perfectly in circular harmony for spring though summer cash flow, tumble in unstoppable clicks of ruin.
We spent over two months putting together a new spring fundraiser. And that doesn’t include the brainstorming time to develop a sprawling 500 person event from scratch. It took weeks of emails to just nail down the best date. It was to be one of those special days that generates a fresh line of followers and supporters. A calendar highlight born to become a spring tradition. The support would generate a cash kick in the pants to match the size of our well established Fall Pig & Oyster Fest. We were within one week of launching ticket sales.
The event is gone, the revenue is gone, and all the salary, supplies, time and development energy gone as well. The post event benefits evaporate along with the cash. The good will developed in the community, the memberships, the social media followers, , the news agencies sharing stories of a hardworking nonprofit’s recent success. Gone. Our story is repeated hundreds of ways across the county.
And that’s just one of the massive losses the crisis brings. Being on the Virginia Beach boardwalk means you add another wool blanket, stoke the smoldering embers, and wait the drawn out winter for the tourists to return. This year, of course, they didn’t come back. When we are able to re-open, we can’t predict how many will return. Many of the tourists we usually see have lost their jobs, or worse. For museums, we are all minus the admissions, gift shop sales, and little thank you’s guests put in the donation jar. The lack of cash flow brings us to a stand still. That means we can’t bring on new interns. We can’t recruit and expand our volunteer programs. We can’t offer programs. We have no hope of expanding very needed paid staff.
Make no mistake; the life-ring dollars provided through the government’s stimulus grants are embraced with unprecedented gratitude. These dollars, though, are certainly not enough to save most small museums. The funds grant us only the smallest of transoms to escape the financial inferno. But squeezing our struggling selves through the too narrow window is only the first step. Immediate reinvention is paramount.
This horrific time is not going to end soon. The movie cliche, generic “All Clear” everyone seems to be waiting for will never be sounded. And once we can get back into our buildings, we won’t be stepping over the barbed wire into a landscape that resembles anything recognizable as business as usual. Many studies, such as one from Harvard, agree that social distancing will be a way of life through at least 2022. That means for continued public safety we’ll be restricting the amount of people in the museum, and in our small space gift shop.
It’s a very dangerous time for any small institutions not funded by large endowments. Small museums like ours are just that; small. Most of us are cash-cow, fundraising for every small step we take nonprofit’s that must be active and open to create opportunities for new investment and continuing donations.
And let’s take an even deeper breath to remember COVID – 19 comes at a time when many historic or cultural centers have already seen declining numbers. The magnificent Mariner’s Museum, a Hampton Roads historic anchor, dropped their admission to only $1 a couple of summers back. That’s because no one was coming. This is one of the premier maritime centers on the east coast of the United States. And they had to make admission a buck. We went through a summer of folks actually yelling at our admissions desk staff because of our $5 cost. We could see the same folks at the nearby oceanfront bar dropping $15 on a margarita. We answered the apathy with one dollar admission last summer. Though the yeast for rising attendance, the resulting bake is decreased revenue.
The trend for museums both large and small is opening other revenue streams to compensate for front of the house losses. Open a website or social media feed from a local nonprofit and you will quickly find portals for renting the place. Prominently displayed will also be a long calendar listing of events.
The Virginia Beach boardwalk is a perfect example in microcosm. At 12th Street, and at 24th Street, in the midst of massive corporate hospitality development, stand two small museums; The Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum, and the Virginia Beach Surf & Rescue Museum. The former housed in a beautifully preserved 1895 cottage, the latter in an original 1903 Life-Saving Station. Both nonprofits do what they do best; teach history. We don’t spend the majority of our time doing that anymore. The current market place has us working on parties, special events, wedding rentals, anniversary celebrations, corporate hospitality, and a host of other happenings that keep our seasonal calendars in constant motion.
All of our vital event income streams share a common denominator; lots of people gathering in our small spaces. That income isn’t going to return anytime soon. If we go down this road too quickly, we’ll find the macadam quickly turns to dirt, choking us all in the dust of predicted second and even third waves of viral infection.
This horrific pandemic will continue to take many lives. Too many lives. And as the killer also takes our livelihoods, we face losing something more valuable than all the money. If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose our culture.
Our small museums, our little pieces of perfect architecture open more than doorways to the past. We are community centers as much as educational institutions. We offer a rare clarity of the culture and the humanity that came before us. It is never an over statement to voice we are the last bastion of cultural treasures that offer a chance to gather for something other than quarterly profits. Our history connects us. Connects our endless curiosity of where our thoughts, our traditions, our very culture originate. Many, many families in Virginia Beach have direct ancestral connections to the crew members that once served in our building.
We preserve these places because our culture is rooted in these places. We preserve these places so our children can grow from these roots.
Now picture these places gone. Picture your children growing up without culture. Without history. Without museums. Museums, both large and small, are facing total collapse.
When you make your donations to museums and culture, please know that you are not just covering losses that have already accrued. You are preventing the terrible losses that may occur, and will occur, without your help. This recession, this depression the COVID horror of death is producing will be unlike any other. It’s hard to fathom, but we are now in a time when it is not unimaginable that many of our valuable cultural institutions will be bulldozed.
Be very aware that cash rich developers are already imagining this.
And diesel is cheap.