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Former Conner Prairie exec set to raise profile of Indiana State Museum

September 30, 2017
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Indiana State Museum CEO Cathy Ferree said she wants to give visitors reasons to come to the downtown museum more often, rather than letting them wait for blockbuster exhibits. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

When Cathy Ferree started her career as a security guard at The Indianapolis Children’s Museum in 1984, she never envisioned becoming the CEO of the Indiana State Museum someday.

Still, she had her eyes open. And one thing the Indianapolis native saw clearly and quickly is how people—individually and as groups—experienced the museum’s artifacts and attractions.

“I was on the floor, on the front line, every day,” Ferree said. “It helped me understand how guests interact with the exhibits and how groups interacted with each other while encountering those exhibits. It taught me how to marry the needs of a larger audience.”

That experience, said Ferree, will help her usher in an era of change for the Indiana State Museum that will include new permanent exhibits, increased marketing and perhaps most importantly, new programming at the museum meant to increase attendance through repeat visitors.

“We are focusing on providing a consistent and engaging daily experience for our visitors,” Ferree explained. “We are also focusing on new and expanded programming to complement what we are doing with the galleries.

“The rationale behind this is to give our guests a reason to come back again and again,” she said. “We don’t want them to have to wait for a big blockbuster traveling exhibit to provide a reason to come to the Indiana State Museum.”

The strategy is a departure from the museum’s previous path, when it relied on such things as temporary exhibits involving Star Wars, the Titanic and the state’s bicentennial to drive attendance.

“While we will continue to evaluate traveling exhibitions as a part of our guest experience and will continue to bring them here from time to time, our focus will be on the everyday experience,” Ferree said. “The goal behind this is not only to provide consistent engagement with the guests, but you will also see a leveling, consistency and sustainability in our attendance numbers.”

king-tom-mug-ceo.jpg King

At the Children’s Museum, Ferree proved to be a quick study, graduating to visitor’s aid before moving to the exhibit side and eventually becoming associate vice president. After a stint as a founding staff member with the Atlanta Children’s Museum, Ferree joined Conner Prairie in 2008, where she held a number of executive positions. She became Conner Prairie’s chief operating officer in 2011.

On May 1, the 52-year-old Ferree took her new post as the head of the Indiana State Museum, which is in the midst of overhauling its 12 permanent exhibits. Under the leadership of previous CEO Tom King, three were completed last November and two more in March.

Ferree, who has an undergraduate degree from Indiana University and a master’s degree in nonprofit management from IUPUI, will be critical in seeing the other seven to completion. They are due to be finished by the end of 2020.

Bill Browne, the president of the State Museum’s board of directors, said Ferree is arriving at the perfect time.

browne-bill-mug-lg.jpg Browne

“During Tom King’s tenure, we’ve laid a lot of the foundation we needed for growth,” Browne said. “In Cathy, with her operational experience at Conner Prairie and her specific museum experience and fundraising expertise, we think we’ve found the perfect person to lead the State Museum.”

Before King took over in 2010, the museum had four CEOs in eight years, some of whom had little museum experience.

King worked to stabilize the operation—getting the museum out from under the auspices of the Department of Natural Resources, streamlining its board and shoring up financials. The latter included discontinuing a practice of drawing funds from its foundation reserves to meet annual expenses and launching a capital campaign that has topped $22 million, mostly from private donations.

museum-bars1.gifShortly after he came aboard, King—a long-time local executive who was president of the Eli Lilly and Co. Foundation, Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Walker Research—pushed for a new, quasi-governmental structure as a way to address high turnover in the CEO’s office and a lack of fundraising,

Now, King said, Ferree is the right person to take the state museum “to the next level.”

“Cathy has to deliver on the promise,” King said. “I have all the confidence in the world she can do that.”

museum-bars2.gifThe state museum board didn’t conduct a national search to replace King, who turns 75 this year.

“We believed it was important to have someone from Indiana, and really, especially central Indiana who can work with our donor base and understands our mission,” Browne said.

Hoosier through and through

Ferree more than fits the Hoosier bill.

The state museum board of directors, Browne said, hired Ferree to lead the system into the future by “creating dynamic experiences” for visitors at the museum and 11 historic sites. 

One of those sites, the home of Hoosier painter T.C. Steele, holds special meaning for Ferree. One of her family’s treasured photos is of her paternal grandmother with T.C. Steele during a Labor Day weekend visit in the early 1900s. Her great grandfather, who kept a diary his entire adult life, penned an entry about the visit. 

Her paternal grandfather served as controller at L.S. Ayres department store, whose famous tea room is recreated at the museum and whose holiday windows are brought back each year as part of the museum’s Celebration Crossing holiday event.

“Cathy has the background that in many ways makes her uniquely qualified to lead the Indiana State Museum,” said Amy Vaughan, former head of the Indiana Office of Tourism Development, who is now a clinical assistant professor for the IUPUI Department of Tourism, Conventions and Event Management.

Ferree has wasted little time making her mark.

vaughan-amy-mug-iupui.jpg Vaughan

In her first five months, she’s created new positions—including a vice president of programming to complement the vice president of exhibits—and separated out the duties of development and fundraising from marketing. She’s also hired a handful of key executives, including former local advertising and public relations pro Amy Ahlersmeyer, who came over from Conner Prairie to become the state museum’s new chief marketing officer in mid-August.

Ferree also doubled the state museum’s annual marketing budget to $500,000 and is ratcheting up fundraising efforts.

Steep challenge

Ferree has a somewhat steep hill to climb, local hospitality officials said. The state museum has an annual budget—at about $11 million—that is considerably lower than other local attractions, including the Children’s Museum and Indianapolis Zoo. It also has a marketing budget—even after being doubled—that is less than half of what those organizations can afford.

museum-factbox.gif“There are so many high-quality attractions in downtown Indianapolis and within White River State Park. There’s just so much competition,” Vaughan said. “The state museum does have a bit of a lower profile than the zoo, Children’s Museum and Conner Prairie. That’s going to be a challenge for the state museum.”

While $500,000 won’t buy much television time—especially in pricey markets like Chicago—Vaughan is “cautiously optimistic” that it’s enough for Ferree and her staff “to make a difference.”

Fort Wayne-based Liechty Media will help with media planning and buying.

“Today with digital media and targeted advertising, you can do quite a bit with that,” Vaughan said.

Ferree called the funding increase for marketing “a significant first step.”

“We want to grow that over time,” Browne said. “We want to work closely with organizations like [Indianapolis Downtown Inc.] and Visit Indy to continue to grow and maximize our marketing footprint.”

It’s not inconceivable, Browne added, that the state museum could double its marketing budget again “in the next few years.”

Ferree said she wants to use the increased marketing funds “to invite people in more consistently as opposed to opportunistically” just when the museum has special attractions.

But, hospitality officials admit, the state museum may have to increase attendance and raise revenue to increase its marketing budget substantially.

“It is a bit of a chicken-egg scenario,” Browne said. “But we’re committed to increasing the profile.”

Upping earned revenue

Museums, zoos and attractions often bring in more money from government grants and funding and other donations than they do earned revenue from things like ticket, merchandise and food sales.

The Indiana State Museum has depended on non-earned revenue for 80 percent or more of its annual operating budget in recent years.

For its current fiscal year, earned revenue is projected to reach $2.1 million. While that would be a nearly $322,000 increase over the previous fiscal year, it would only account for 18 percent of the museum’s annual budget. The state, by far the museum’s biggest donor, is set to kick in $8.3 million for the fiscal year that began July 1.

While Ferree said the museum’s “strong statewide influence” justifies the state’s funding, she has her sights set on increasing earned revenue. Ferree and her staff have a goal of more than doubling earned revenue to $4.3 million in five years. She’s also aiming to double non-governmnetal fundraising—to $2 million—in that same time period.

In the museum’s fiscal year that ended June 30, it registered attendance of 662,000. That was up about 1,000 visitors from the previous year. The 11 historic sites, which are scattered around the state but under the direction of the state museum, had about 389,000 visitors, down from about 410,00 the previous year—a year bolstered by activities associated with the state’s bicentennial celebration.

Ferree doesn’t yet have a goal for future attendance, but wants to weave the museum in Indianapolis into the experiences of the 11 historic sites and use those sites to help drive more traffic to the state museum. She also wants to increase the number of out-of-state visitors to the museum.

Out-of-state draw?

Ferree doesn’t have data on the percentage of the museum’s visitors who currently come from outside Indiana. But King estimated the amount at about 20 percent.

gahl-chris-mug Gahl

Visit Indy Vice President Chris Gahl called the state museum, including its numerous meeting spaces and two dining options, “an important attraction for corporate, convention and leisure travelers in downtown Indianapolis.”

“The Indiana State Museum is a driver for us because of all the ways a visitor can experience and interact with the museum,” Gahl said. “It offers shopping, dining along the canal, the IMAX Theater and blockbuster exhibits along with meeting space.”

While Gahl said the state museum “is perfectly placed” along the canal in White River State Park and “very inviting,” he admits it has remained a “hidden jewel.”

Vaughan thinks with new leadership in place, the state museum is set to take off.

“When I heard Cathy Ferree and Amy Ahlersmeyer were coming to the state museum, I couldn’t wait to see what they were going to do,” Vaughan said. “What they have done at Conner Prairie from a programming, marketing and visitor experience standpoint is amazing.”

Vaughan pointed to Conner Prairie’s Create Connect, an exhibit that encourages hands-on play and experimentation, and the multi-level Treetop Outpost as two examples of the engaging attractions that flourished during Ferree’s tenure.

“Cathy and Amy have proven they can take a museum and turn it into more of an experience,” Vaughan said, “and that’s what I expect at the state museum.”•

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