Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Leadership Transition and Indiana State Museum

Museum seeks leader to stem attendance slide

May 7, 2007

The new Indiana State Museum building--a 230,000-square-foot study in glass, steel and limestone--opened in 2002 to blockbuster attendance, with nearly 260,000 of its 614,000 total visitors checking out the exhibits.

Fast forward to its five-year anniversary and the news isn't so rosy.

Leaderless since CEO John Herbst resigned in July 2006, the museum is still at least a month away from appointing a replacement--the fifth person to take the helm since 2000.

He or she will have to figure out how to rev up attendance that's on track to hit a new low in the new location: an estimated 508,500 total visitors and 180,000 exhibit attendees for the fiscal year ending June 30.

And the attendance slump is taking its toll on museum finances. So-called earned income such as admissions, Imax ticket sales and rental revenue amount to just over $2 million with two months left in the fiscal year--$800,000 behind 2006's total.

Even so, state support and fund-raising revenue has remained stable despite having no figurehead to champion the museum's cause, said Tony Nickoloff, vice president of institutional advancement at the Indiana State Museum Foundation.

The foundation is on track to match last year's total of $1.1 million in contributions to support the venue, he said. Corporate sponsorships, in particular, have been strong and are projected to jump in 2008.

State support, which makes up the bulk of the $11.3 million budget, likewise has remained steady at about $7.5 million a year.

Nickoloff said the attendance drop was expected, especially since the temporary exhibits this year didn't include a blockbuster like 2006's "Lord of the Rings" display. Nickoloff said there are plans in the works to lure temporary exhibits in 2009 with the potential to be smash hits.

Still, leading the institution is not an easy task. Governed by its own board of directors, the state-owned facility is part of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and gets operational funding from the government.

But it also has ties to a separate not-for-profit entity, the Indiana State Museum Foundation, which has its own board that aims to raise money to support museum programs. Before the new facility even opened, the foundation raised $35 million for exhibits and an endowment.

Indiana Sports Corp. President Susan Williams, who was the museum's interim CEO in 2003 and 2004, said the job was more like running a large state university--with several boards, lawmakers and other interested constituents to please--than overseeing a traditional not-for-profit.

Leadership lull

Most museum employees are on the state's payroll, but some of the highest-ranking jobs are set up through the foundation in order to keep salaries competitive. Former CEO John Herbst, for example, made $153,000.

He had one of the longer terms of recent history, lasting from April 2004 to July 2006. But it has been almost a year since his resignation to take a similar post at the Indiana Historical Society.

"The search committee is in the interviewing stage, the last stage [of the search]," Nickoloff said. "We would hope that in the not-too-distant future, we'll have selected a candidate."

One observer said the length of the search for a new CEO is within the norm for a national search, but the overall turnover at the position is not encouraging.

"We're looking at a rapid-fire succession of CEOs," said Elizabeth Kryder-Reid, chairwoman of the museum studies program at IUPUI.

Government-backed museums often have a "tangled governance structure," she said, and there's also the challenge of cutting through red tape to purchase and dispose of artifacts, for example--something independent institutions don't have to do.

That's one reason foundation support is important: It provides bureaucracy-free funding. It also helps to diversify the museum's revenue stream, insulating it against cuts in government funding and dips in other income, like admission revenue.

Observers said they're surprised the empty CEO spot hasn't taken more of a toll on contributions.

"Their ability to fund raise has been astonishing to me in spite of the transition in leadership," Williams said. "It speaks to the broad support for the institution and its mission."

Nickoloff credits the stability in part to a strategy developed under Williams and implemented under Herbst. Its purpose was to help the museum maintain momentum after the attendance boom common at new venues.

The museum expected at least a 20-percent to 25-percent attendance drop after the first year, he said, because many visitors don't plan an immediate return trip. But leaders hoped to counter that decrease by bringing in temporary shows to drive foot traffic.

That worked to some extent, especially last year when the museum brought in "The Lord of the Rings," a three-month exhibit featuring paraphernalia from the popular book and film trilogy. The exhibit boosted attendance by roughly 90,000 in 2006, Nickoloff said.

And the constant rotation of temporary exhibits continues, though the museum can afford a blockbuster only every "two or three years," he said. This year's drop in attendance is in line with expectations, Nickoloff said, given the strength of the temporary exhibits the museum hosted.

School funding cuts could be another factor, Williams said, as a drop in field trips has taken a toll on museum traffic.

Going forward

In the next year, museum leaders hope to develop a couple of their own traveling shows, which likely won't be large attendance lures but will help serve the venue's education mission.

One is a partnership with the Department of Natural Resources centered on Indiana ecology and native animal life. The exhibit--including preserved specimens of both existing and extinct animals native to the state--likely will travel statewide.

Staff members are also establishing an exhibit of Hoosier Amish quilts and will be renting a show titled, "Subversive Knitting and Radical Lace."

But there are bigger plans in the works for 2009. Museum officials have a verbal agreement to display "Body Works III," a controversial but popular exhibit of preserved human remains.

Developed by a German anatomist, the exhibit uses a method of injecting plastic in cadavers, allowing certain body systems to be highlighted and explained. The show has drawn some criticism for the way some of the cadavers are posed, but more than 20 million people have seen it during its worldwide tour.

The state museum is also "penciled in" on the list of stops for a traveling exhibit the Library of Congress is developing in honor of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday, said Jim May, vice president of museum programs. It's set to make only a few stops nationwide, mostly in large cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Wish list

Despite the big plans in the works, observers say the museum could be doing more under a strong leader.

Republican State Sen. Jim Merritt said the museum has held its own since moving to White River State Park, but he hopes the new CEO will be aggressive in landing strong temporary exhibits.

He said the Governor's Office and a state commission have done much of the groundwork to lure the Lincoln exhibit, which he said will include the contents of the president's pockets when he was shot.

"We need to put more of a spotlight on the state museum and carry the flag a bit higher," Merritt said.

Others say the museum has a reputation for playing it too safe. IUPUI's Kryder-Reid said any government-sponsored museum has to balance exhibits that celebrate heritage, such as triumphs in Hoosier ingenuity, with exhibits that challenge visitors to explore the darker sides of history.

For example, she said a recent exhibit hosted by the Indiana State Library on Indiana's leading role in eugenics--the forced sterilization of residents deemed mentally flawed--should have been hosted at the state museum.

"There's a perception that [the museum] is so much under the power of the purse strings of the Legislature that they're very hesitant to deal with the more painful sides of our heritage," she said.

And dependence on admissions revenue makes it more of a challenge to "deal with painful topics versus 'Lord of the Rings' paraphernalia," she said.

May said the museum was in talks to host the eugenics seminar and exhibit, but the timing didn't work out. He disagreed with Kryder-Reid's critique, saying museum exhibits do incorporate many sides of history.

He cited a second-floor exhibit on how Hoosiers have interacted, which features a large display on the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana and the pushback against many waves of immigrants.

Portions of that display also tackle the treatment of American Indians when settlers arrived and even try to address the local impact of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks and the issue of religious fanaticism.

"We certainly deal with the negative wherever pertinent," he said.

Source: XMLAr00103.xml
ADVERTISEMENT

Recent Articles by Jennifer Whitson

Comments powered by Disqus