Creative Programs Help Shelburne Museum Weather Economic Storms

Strategy: Be Creative (More with Less), Enhance Your Product, Know Your Customer/Product

Type of attraction: Arts Organization, Museum/Historic Site

Summary: “Have good staff and invest in creative programming,” says Stephan Jost, director of Vermont’s Shelburne Museum, succinctly summarizing the museum’s extraordinarily successful effort to not only survive but thrive in a difficult economy.

“Have good staff and invest in creative programming,” says Stephan Jost, director of Vermont’s Shelburne Museum, succinctly summarizing the museum’s extraordinarily successful effort to not only survive but thrive in a difficult economy.

Located outside of Burlington in the picturesque Lake Champlain Valley, the museum got its start in 1947 through the vision of Electra Havemeyer Webb, a pioneering collector of American folk art.  To create a place to share and expand her collection, Webb brought 20 historic buildings from New England and New York to the 40-acre site including houses, barns, a meeting house, a one-room schoolhouse, a lighthouse, a jail, a general store, a covered bridge, and the 220-foot steamboat Ticonderoga.

“She said she wanted to create a museum where ‘learning is a pleasure not a burden,’” Jost says. More than 60 years later, Webb’s dream is thriving. With an annual $5-6 million budget, the site hosts 120,000 visitors during six months it is open each year and has 157 employees in summer, 55 in winter.

“Today we have 150,000 works of art in collection – ranging from a trivet to a Monet,” Jost notes. The museum’s website (www.shelburnemuseum.org) describes the site’s treasures: Impressionist paintings, folk art, quilts and textiles, decorative arts, furniture, American paintings, and an array of 17th-to 20th-century artifacts. Shelburne is home to the finest museum collections of 19th-century American folk art, quilts, 19th- and 20th-century decoys and carriages.

So how did Shelburne Museum succeed in having what Jost terms “solid” years in 2009 and 2010 in the midst of an economic downturn?

“Unconventionally,” Jost says. “The senior staff and I decided we had a fork in the road. We could either reduce staff or everybody could step up and cut departmental budgets and keep staff on board. The other thing we did was decide we would not have a hiring freeze. Now is the time we can improve the quality of our staff as positions are filled because there are great applicants.”

With a strong commitment from the staff, the next step was to increase programming to attract new audiences and return visitors. “Museums have a huge problem with people thinking ‘If you’re going to do something, I know what you’re going to do,’ so we try to do things that surprise people,” Jost says.

The result has been 10-15 news programs and exhibitions each year. Planning focuses in three areas. “One is broadening audiences – attracting new visitors with programs like a motorcycle show,” Jost says. “Second is to reaffirm our existing audience. Our average visitor is a 56-year-old woman coming with a friend, so our Tiffany exhibit targeted that group.”

The third category is what Jost humorously refers to as “nerdy.” “I tell the curators to go as deep and obscure as they want. For example, one exhibit was called ‘Quilts by Florence Peto.’ From the 1920s through the ‘50s, she was the first major collector of American quilts and was Electra Webb’s advisor for quilts. Shelburne Museum was the first museum to show quilts as an art form and now we have a collection 800, 19th century quilts.”

The legacy of exhibitions took another turn recently with an exhibit of 50 quilts made by people who are taking care of loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease. “We are also training our education staff to give tours to people with Alzheimer’s,” Jost says. “We offer a program that has been very well received called ‘Morning at the Museum’ where caregivers can bring their loved ones to enjoy a tour and an outing.”

With a clear vision, a committed staff, outreach to returning and new audiences, and an endless array of new programs, Shelburne Museum continues to live out Electra Webb’s original plan to make learning a pleasure. “We are not trying to recreate life from another era,” Jost says. “We are trying to be of this time and this place.”

For more information visit www.shelburnemuseum.org; contact Stephen Jost, sjost@shelburnemuseum.org; 802-985-3348, x 3387.