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State museums need to be business savvy

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

What do Bill Gates, Donald Trump and the director of your local museum have in common?

It had better be a solid business strategy, according to Carol Schweiker, president of the West Virginia Association of Museums, which is celebrating the first West Virginia Museum Week beginning today.

"Museums have to be run as a business," said Schweiker, who is also director of Fort New Salem, located on the Harrison County campus of Salem-Teikyo University. "They have to have a business plan.

"We used to look at them as shrines where you went in and didn't touch anything ... Now, museums are obliged to be a part of the community and reach out to the businesses in the community to see how they can assist one another."

For regional museums, Schweiker said that increasingly means becoming a part of the business community themselves -- bolstering income through store sales or other special services.

At Fort New Salem, a store is a major factor. Managed by paid employees and staffed with volunteers during high-traffic events, the store now produces about one-third of the living-history museum's annual income.

Ironically, the 27-year-old store has become a generator of business activity, as well. A mini-Tamarack, items for sale include locally made leather purses with deerhorn clasps, glass jewelry and art, furniture, baskets, woven items, pottery, paintings, herbal items, honey, candy and toys.

"There are no rubber tomahawks here," said Schweiker. About one-third of her craft suppliers are also displaying at the juried Tamarack.

Because the store is small, Schweiker said there also has been an opportunity to tailor craftsmen's' work directly to what sells, keeping the craftsmen's' costs lower.

"For one wooden-toy maker, we can actually designate what he'll do next year based on what sold well this year."

However, dealing with the new types of paperwork such activities require can be daunting for many museum directors, Schweiker added.

"You have to understand the difference between taxable income and non-taxable income," said Schweiker, adding many directors are also having to become more savvy about managing endowments to maximize their income.

Directors must also be firmly aware of what they can and cannot do as a non-profit entity, and decide how they will handle advertising related to corporate sponsorships.

Figuring out what to take on consignment and what to buy outright is also a challenge, Schweiker said. At Fort New Salem, she has learned to buy toys and candy, which are quick turnover items. More expensive pieces, that must wait for the right buyer, are often taken on consignment, with the Fort tacking 30 to 50 percent of the craftsman's fee onto the price.

Schweiker said area museums are quickly learning what sells to their particular clientele, listing some of the region's museums and their specialties.

The state-funded Prickett's Fort in Fairmont has a store that specializes in history books. But store sales are still a fairly small part of annual income, said Director Richard Brown.

Brown added that as a state park, they are limited to selling items manufactured in the state. That can make certain items, like T-shirts, almost impossible to sell.

In Wood County, Schweiker said Blennerhassett Island HIstorical State Park has a store that excels in reproductions and crafts geared toward the 10,000 to 12,000 children who visit there each year. The recently opened Adaland Mansion in Barbour County has developed a busy meeting- and event-hosting schedule with full catering capabilities on site.

She said Marion County's High Gate Carriage House museum has been particularly skilled at reading local sales opportunities.

"Gardening is a big thing now," said Schweiker, describing how High Gate teamed with a local nursery to do a popular on-site plant sale. She said that is a small-scale version of what larger museums are trying, such as Colonial Williamsburg partnering with a nearby Busch Gardens for tourism packages.

With about 250 museums in the state and tourism becoming one of West Virginia's top income producers, Schweiker sees even more collaborations between regional businesses and crafters and museums in the future.

"We can't just isolate ourselves. You can't close the doors after hours and exist very long."

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403.

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