With ‘dark days’ behind it, Conner Prairie gets back to business

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Conner Prairie CEO Ellen Rosenthal calls them the "dark days" for a reason.

In the 2-1/2 years following a 2003 management overhaul orchestrated by Earlham College, the Hamilton County attraction was mired in uncertainty over its future and an increasingly bleak financial outlook.

Fund-raising plummeted from a high of $860,470 in 2002 to a low of $92,365 in 2004, and an ongoing operating deficit–ostensibly the reason Earlham fired then-CEO John Herbst and dismissed the museum's board of directors–ballooned from nearly $500,000 in 2002 to a total of $3 million from 2003-2005.

Now the skies are brightening.

A year after the college struck a deal with state Attorney General Steve Carter that gave Conner Prairie its independence and control of investments worth $105 million, museum leaders are eager to put the past behind them.

The newly appointed–in many cases, reappointed–board has proposed a balanced budget for the first time in years, and a broad-based committee has started work on a strategy for the museum.

"It feels like we've been in a foxhole together," Rosenthal admitted, flashing a smile that had been missing in action during the worst of the dispute. "Everyone is eager to see Conner Prairie blossom."

Still, there's plenty of work ahead.

Outdoor history museums nationwide are grappling with rising costs and falling attendance as they compete with an increasing array of entertainment options. The added strain on already-tight budgets has forced even venerable institutions like Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg to cut staff and programs.

"At some level, they are competing with Hollywood, amusement parks–all the different things people are doing with their spare time," said Steve Lubar, director of Brown University's John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization and a former museum curator. "Even if they create something great and new to attract visitors, they only get two or three years out of it and then they have to do something else. … It's a tricky business right now."

That seems to be the case at Conner Prairie, which has seen attendance drop 16 percent from a high of 194,000 in 2001–not long after adding an 1816 Lenape Indian camp and 1886 rural crossroads to its existing historic areas.

Starting over

Museum leaders hope the strategic-planning process helps them find ways to reverse that trend, but they have a more immediate concern to attend to first: rebuilding a fund-raising program that all but fell apart as former supporters waited out the management dispute.

Even a nine-figure bank account isn't enough to sustain operations without outside support. Consider the financial realities: Conner Prairie will get 57 percent of its $9.1 million budget from the endowment in 2006–and that won't even cover the $5.5 million earmarked for payroll and benefits.

The rest has to come from somewhere.

Although the deal to free Conner Prairie was announced with much fanfare last July, it took time to finalize the details. The two entities created to oversee finances and operations were granted tax-exempt status in late fall, and Earlham officially ceded control Dec. 30.

Board members–including several directors dismissed when the college cleaned house in 2003–put fund raising near the top of their to-do list even before they took over, said Berkley Duck, chairman of the boards for both the Conner Prairie Foundation and Conner Prairie Museum.

"We were determined to present a balanced budget," said Duck, who also led the ousted board. "And we knew a key piece of that would be contributed revenue."

Working with Greenwood fund-raising consultant Johnson Grossnickle & Associates, the board set an ambitious-but-realistic target of nearly $564,000 for this year. At the end of June, gifts and sponsorships amounted to about $333,000.

"It doesn't happen overnight," Duck said. "We're basically starting from scratch."

"A lot of people moved on in the last 2-1/2 years," Rosenthal echoed.

There are obstacles, to be sure, not the least of which is the notion that Conner Prairie doesn't need the money because of its $105 million endowment. While board members are trying to correct that misperception, they also must erase any doubts that might have surfaced as a result of the very public governance dispute.

"There's a little bit of a wait-and-see attitude," Duck said. "Some potential donors may look at what we went through–which was traumatic beyond belief–and ask themselves, 'Did the [resolution] leave behind a viable entity?' That's a fair question. The answer is yes."

Indeed, the Conner Prairie experience seems to be as strong as ever. This month, the museum won an award of merit from the American Association for State and Local History for its "opening doors" initiative, where interpreters make an effort to engage visitors in their stories.

"They've really thought a lot about how guests can connect and interact with history," said Susan Funk, vice president for education and public programs at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. "Conner Prairie is very highly regarded in the field."

"They get people involved," agreed Brown University's Lubar, who visited Conner Prairie while in town for the American Association of Museums convention last year. "I got caught up in the story of the schoolteacher [in 1886 Liberty Corner], what she was teaching, what her life was like, what her problems were. It turned into quite an experience."

Fresh dreams

Nevertheless, just where the organization goes from here remains to be seen. Museum leaders had started work on a five-year plan when Earlham lowered the boom in 2003; now they're charging ahead and asking for help.

A 35-member planning committee has drawn at least a dozen participants from the community, and turnout was strong at a series of forums held this spring. Such input is crucial, said Ken Bubp, the museum's strategic planning director.

"We've taken the opportunity to take a step toward the community," he said. "We want to be out there, showing that we're paying attention to what folks think of us, what dreams they have for us … so we can plan something vibrant and exciting and new that allows us to re-engage people."

That's a universal goal among living history museums, said Mystic Seaport's Funk. The old-school institutions are increasingly thinking about new ways to deliver their messages.

"We're thinking about whether people need to be on-site or whether we can appeal to them through our Web sites or other media," she said. "The success of any museum is not only measured by how many people come in, but how many connect with the information we're providing."

The new Conner Prairie is still figuring out how to measure success now that it controls its own destiny. Under Earlham's control, the only gauge was financial, Duck said.

"Certainly, economic stability is one criteria," he said. "But what is there beyond that? Should we be looking at raw numbers or the quality of the experience? … Before, there was tension between the two objectives. Now we have a collaborative effort to do both."

This summer, the museum introduced a daily children's program that draws on the popularity of its adult-oriented Murder on the Prairie series. Children participating in Historic Crime Scene Investigation make their way through the historic grounds, talking to interpreters to gather clues to solve a mystery.

Festivals and special events are another way to draw visitors. The Indiana Festival attracted about 6,000 people this spring, and about 2,500 turned out in rainy weather for a Civil War re-enactment.

Tripping the turnstile more often can't hurt. Improving attendance–and revenue–sends a message about Conner Prairie's role in the community. And that ultimately could help leaders make a case for community support.

But don't expect new facilities without new money.

"We have to be very careful about growth," Rosenthal cautioned. "If we're adding staff or putting a new burden on facilities, once the initial [attendance] spike is over, we'll be left with increased costs but not increased revenue."

"We don't want to leave any problems for future generations," Duck concurred.

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