Tough impact on our museums: Susan Turner, executive director of Terre Haute Children's Museum, explains the financial impact of the pandemic on the museum during an interview at the museum on Wednesday. Staff photo by JOSEPH C. GARZA
Tough impact on our museums: Susan Turner, executive director of Terre Haute Children's Museum, explains the financial impact of the pandemic on the museum during an interview at the museum on Wednesday. Staff photo by JOSEPH C. GARZA
Nobody could have predicted what was coming and would have likely been wrong had they tried in March to guess the length and financial implications of COVID-19 and its associated closings.

Restaurants and bars and near anywhere the public could gather was shuttered and suffered great financial hardship as leaders took steps to curb the spread of the virus.

Susan Turner, executive director of Terre Haute Children's Museum, said she initially thought the children’s museum might be closed for only a short time.

“I was very naive,” Turner said. “Back in March, I thought we might only be closed for a couple weeks or so and we’d get back to business as normal.

“But as the shutdown went on, the impact it was having become more and more concerning.”

In all, the Children’s Museum was closed for three months and robbed of its most lucrative quarter of the year. Reopened June 18, Turner said the public’s hesitancy to gather is still hurting the museum’s bottom line.

Such is the reality for Terre Haute’s museums, which earlier this week put out a joint call for patronage.

While they had hoped the public would be raring to go once the state began reopening, museum leaders said that’s so far not been the case.

“Speculators thought the general public would race back to the museum’s because they were ready to be out and about following quarantine due to COVID-19,” said the Turner-prepared news release. “However, that has been far from the case.”

Fred Nation, executive director of Swope Art Museum, said traffic at the art museum since reopening is down about 30 percent by his estimate. But more than that, he said, it’s preventing groups and field trips from visiting.


“We have programs that might draw 30 to 40 people and now we have none of that,” Nation said. “Nor are we planning any of it for the foreseeable future because groups are, can be problematic.”

The children’s museum has seen a much more stark decline in attendance.

“The first three weeks we were open the numbers ticked up, then ticked down over the following three weeks,” Turner said. “Overall, we’re seeing about 23 percent of our normal visitors.

“And you can’t sustain a business model like that.”

National data collected by the American Alliance of Museums echoes Turner’s sentiment.

Of 760 museums surveyed, 33 percent of museums are not confident they will be able to survive 16 months without additional financial relief, and 16 percent felt they were at significant risk of permanent closure.

In addition, 87 percent of museums have only 12 months or less of financial operating reserves remaining, with 56 percent having less than six months left to cover operations. Of those who have reopened, 44 percent have furloughed or laid off some portion of their staff.

Turner assured the museum today is financially sound, but is wary of the future if things don’t take a marked turn for the better in the next 18 months.

“We hope that whatever plan we come up with to stay engaged with the community and our members is just for the next 12 to 16 months and then we go back to the way things used to be,” Turner said. “Wouldn’t that be great?”

Nation said the Swope, funded by a trust established by namesake founder Sheldon Swope, is in this instance thankful not to rely on admissions to fund the museum.

But the longer the virus wears on, he said, the more fundraisers and exposure the museum will miss out on. It has already had to cancel its largest spring and fall fundraisers.

“In terms of generating real dollars, we have to look at what fundraisers we can still do and how to do them and consider what we might have to do differently than before,” Nation said.

Both the children’s museum and the Swope benefited from the Paycheck Protection Program, an element of the federal CARES Act stimulus package.

Both Nation and Turner would like to see the stopgap program renewed, but said that it will ultimately be the people of the Wabash Valley that see the local museum’s through any financial hardship the virus creates.

How that happens and in what form it takes is in flux as museum directors all look for ways to connect with patrons in-person and virtually.

“We’re being tested but we’ll come through,” Nation said. “The wonderful thing about working in the arts community is that everyone is full of ideas.

“And if we’re open to new ideas and new ways and approaches and relationships, we’ll have the opportunity to let our local community know what a value the Swope, and by extension, all the museums are.”
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