House museums hit hard times

Hemingway, Wright attractions saw revenue shortfalls of 80% this summer

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting Illinois just as spring began, local house museums found themselves in desperate times. Typically, spring and summer are the busiest seasons for both tourists and fundraising for the Hemingway Birthplace, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio and Pleasant Home. 

This year, stay-at-home orders shuttered the house museums, and social distancing guidelines, on top of tourists wary of travel, curtailed the number of visitors who were able to visit this summer. 

Decreased revenue from ticket sales has led the local organizations to get creative with their fundraising efforts.

On Sept. 28, the Hemingway Foundation announced a fundraising campaign called – to make no mistake about its purpose -- "Help Us Keep the Doors Open" for the Hemingway Birthplace Museum, 339 N. Oak Park Ave.

Keith Strom, the foundation's executive director, said in a press release that the campaign is directly tied to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic during which state-mandated closures for most of the spring and summer had a severe economic impact on revenues.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, meanwhile, was forced to cancel its largest annual fundraiser, the Wright Plus Housewalk, this spring. In May, the trust laid off 25 percent of its workforce. 

Faced with steeply declining revenues from tours at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, 951 Chicago Ave., and purchases at the gift shop, the trust sent out its annual appeal out in August, roughly two and a half months early. They also doubled their planned fundraising goal to $200,000. 

Tom Gull, director of development for the FLW Trust, says that generous donations from board members and others helped them in the spring, but the trust is still looking to raise roughly $160,000 by the end of the year.

While both the Hemingway Foundation and the FLW Trust applied for and received some aid in the wake of pandemic, it was not enough to make up for the lost revenue. John Berry, chairman of the board of the Hemingway Foundation, said that revenue dropped close to 80 percent.

 "From April to August in 2019, we had revenue of $92,662," he said. "In 2020 for that same period, it was $16,786. You can't sustain that."

The story was the same at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, according to Gull. 

"This summer compared to last summer, we're operating at about 20 percent of what we normally do," he said.

While tourist traffic is picking up at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Gull reports that they have reduced tour sizes from 18 guests to eight. Roughly one-third of their volunteers have not felt ready to return to lead in-person tours.

Berry said that tourists from outside the Chicago area are the biggest visitors to the Hemingway Birthplace, and says the international interest in both Hemingway and Wright brings a lot of tourist dollars to the two house museums. 

"About 30 percent of our normal annual visitors are from outside of the USA," Berry said. "I think those numbers are similar or higher at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio."

The problem is not limited to Oak Park. House museums across the country rely on foot traffic for ticket sales, and the stay-at-home orders followed by sharply diminished travel wreaked havoc on the normally busy summer tourist season. 

Berry points out that the for-profit Hemingway museum in Key West, Florida laid off 50 percent of its staff in August. 

"They do a huge amount of business with cruise ships," Berry said. "Their revenues fell about 80 percent, like ours."

Both the Hemingway Birthplace and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio are members of the At Home in Chicago consortium of house museums, and Berry says that all 20 member homes saw steep declines in revenues this summer, and all of the home museums are preparing for a rough winter. Berry noted that house museums in northern climates typically see a large drop in attendance during the winter.

Oak Park's Pleasant Home, 217 Home Ave., is also a member of the consortium. Pleasant Home Foundation President Raeann Spencer says that like all other homes, Pleasant Home was forced to close for a few months, but is now offering free, self-guided tours on Thursdays and expanded paid docent-led and behind-the-scenes tours by reservation. 

Spencer said the foundation, which operates the museum, lost revenue due to lack of tours. However, Jan Arnold, executive director of the Park District of Oak Park, which owns the property, notes the pandemic hasn't threatened the livelihood of Pleasant Home. The upkeep and maintenance of the home are funded through the park district, not through ticket sales.

Berry says the Hemingway Foundation is hoping that the April 2021 PBS airing of a Ken Burns and Lynn Novick biopic on Hemingway will provide a big bump in interest in the birthplace. 

"We'll certainly try to leverage that into a renewed interest into Hemingway in 2021," Berry said. "With this [fundraising] campaign, we're trying to make sure we make it 2021."

Within the first week of the campaign, the Hemingway Foundation raised roughly 20 percent of its initial $75,000 goal. Berry says Hemingway Foundation members continue to think outside the box in terms of fundraising to keep the lights on. 

The Michigan Hemingway Society reached out and offered to help, and Berry says the foundation is reaching out to others as well, including Hemingway scholars, friends and other Hemingway sites. 

"We are trying to mine these contacts," Berry said. "We still have a lot of fishing lines out in the ocean, but we'd be very happy if someone made a large donation."

As they look ahead into fall and beyond, Berry says he can't help but look to the past. 

"We're all in this together," he said. "We don't have a choice but to try to work a way around this pandemic. It's like nothing we've ever seen. We do have a story on our website about the 1918 flu pandemic and how that Hemingway basically sheltered in place in the center of France with Hadley."

He notes that the flu pandemic killed a lot more people, but says that for our generation, this pandemic is a new phenomenon.

"It's all new to us," Berry said. "We're hoping that by April, our visitor numbers will begin to come back up. The virus will determine how and when we can reopen."

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