Local Museums, So Far, Left Out Of Pandemic Relief Effort
Museums in the Cape Fear region are watching what would normally be their busiest time of the year – summer tourist season – pass them by.
The Cameron Art Museum, Wrightsville Beach Museum, and the Bellamy Mansion Museum all offer online content during the pandemic shutdown, but those offerings come nowhere close to making up for lost revenue.
It couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
"Well, we closed on March 17th, which is just, you know, that would have been tourist season picking up right then."
Gareth Evans is Executive Director of the Bellamy Mansion Museum in downtown Wilmington. His losses?
"About $25,000 a month to 40,000, depending on the month."
Madeline Flagler runs the Wrightsville Beach Museum – which had just completed a capital campaign to restore the building they moved into two years ago.
"Literally, the varnish on the floor was drying as we had to close down. So we have this big, beautiful building with nothing to do."
Flagler says they’re missing about half of their expected annual revenue.
"And the next four months don't look great. So we don't expect in any way to be able to, um, make that up."
The Cameron Art Museum is also looking down the barrel of big losses. Heather Wilson is Deputy Director.
"Every month that we have been closed, we have lost at least $50,000 a month in earned income."
All three say they’ve received PPP money – which was helpful but used up pretty quickly. And so far, there’s no other source of funding.
"I think they have been disproportionately kind of shut out of the relief."
New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple raised the question about helping arts organizations and other nonprofits at an August 10th Board meeting. What he learned, he says, is that museums are not eligible for money from the Coronavirus Relief Fund.
"As always the devil's in the details, you know… there's not a direct line right now in the way the laws are written that you can take that money and do it. There has to be some other angle, and they've apparently figured it out in Guilford and Wake County. So we need more input from them to see how they managed to pull that off."
And while museum directors fight for survival, their museums are shut out of a conversation they should be part of.
The Bellamy and the Wrightsville Beach Museum say they’re well positioned to shine a light on systemic racism and how it has played out in the Cape Fear region over the last several centuries.
"African-Americans were not -- during segregation and Jim Crow -- of course allowed here at the beach, even if you've worked at the beach, you couldn't get in the water, you couldn't be in the water until after dark."
At the Wrightsville Beach Museum, Madeline Flagler says they’re researching new ways to illustrate the roles that African Americans filled. Finding that history, though, is not easy.
"That is always the hardest story to tell because they don’t necessarily have all the photographs. They don’t have some of the stories that are handed down. Their histories are not in the local newspapers. So finding that history is an effort. It is an effort that is absolutely worth doing and the whole story without it is not the story."
That story, the history, says Gareth Evans, is what enables the human race to understand itself and, perhaps, do better.
"The whole point of studying is, well, this is what happened then. And this is the story of these people. This is the building that they were in. And then you draw from that, the mistakes they made, the good things, the bad things and say, all right, we'll never do that again."
It’s not just history museums that illuminate history. Art can be a bridge, says the CAM’s Heather Wilson.
"It’s easier with art, right? We believe that art can open the door to conversation. That's what art does. And art helps us to see our common history and also our common humanity."
All three say they have online programs. The Wrightsville Beach Museum has activities in a box for kids. And all three say one of the best things locals could do to support them – is to join.
But there’s no getting away from what they really want.
"We are desperate for people to come in and see our new exhibitions!"
The Cameron Art Museum has three new exhibitions ready and waiting for visitors to be allowed to walk in the door. They’ve recently posted eight exhibitions online, but, says Wilson, the digital experience simply cannot deliver the depth of some art.
“Being in the presence of great art, you can't facilitate that virtually in the same way. You can't see the brush strokes, you can't see the texture in the sculpture… I'm getting ready to interview an artist who uses antique fabric in her work. So she paints and then she layers this amazing antique fabric. You can't see that when you're looking at it virtually.”
Gareth Evans says local museum leaders are working together to develop plans that would allow in-person visitors.
“Because we have gardens, we can do a lot of this outside, maybe under tents where we would limit the number of people who would come in on the site at any one time, even limit the amounts that might go in the buildings when we get to that point…”
With proper cleaning protocols and mask requirements, Evans is eager for museums to reopen safely and for the tourism industry to get back in business.