In the News

Dispatch: Thurber, Kelton houses, other small museums work to stay open and relevant amid pandemic


Vintage motorcycles, 19th-century dolls and TV memorabilia are just some of the gems that can be found in the collections of central Ohio’s small museums.

They, along with larger institutions such as the Columbus Museum of Art and COSI Columbus, add cultural value and important educational programs. But the community could lose these unique organizations as they struggle to stay open and relevant amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In November, Thurber House reached a breaking point, launching a $100,000 fundraising campaign to sustain its operations. The Downtown literary arts center, a restored home of cartoonist and writer James Thurber, was able to retain its staff through a payroll protection loan. But program attendance steadily declined when the organization pivoted to all-virtual programming in the summer.

“We did have about 60% of enrollment for (kids summer writing camp) compared to last year, so we were thrilled,” said executive director Laurie Lathan. “But the summer literary picnics were dismal. The attendance virtually for those was down by over 70% for us, and those two programs are our main programs in the summer.”

Sarah Richardt, executive director of the Kelton House on E. town St., decorates the dining room of the historic home in preparation for a virtual tour. The small museum recently received some CARES funding to help with operations. Eric Albrecht/ColumbusDispatch

The fall season has been disappointing so far, with only a handful of people attending virtual author events, according to Lathan, who also said patrons are exhausted by the online offerings.

“A lot of them are saying, ‘We love you, want to continue coming to programs, but we miss the real-life events,’” Lathan said. “Right now, we are solely dependent on contributed revenue to get us through this pandemic.”

Thurber House isn’t alone. Nearly one-third of museum directors surveyed in October by the American Alliance of Museums reported significant risk of closing permanently in the next 12 months. They also reported an expected loss of 35% of total 2020 budgeted operating income.

A week after Thurber House launched its campaign, the nonprofit was awarded a $70,000 grant from the Ohio Arts Council, which distributed $20 million in federal, economic relief funding to arts organizations throughout the state.

Coupled with the organization’s fundraising efforts, the grant will put Thurber House over its goal, but all museums still face hardships depending on the length of the pandemic and availability of a vaccine. For instance, even if Thurber House returns to in-person programming, it may not be able to operate at the same capacity level, given social-distancing requirements, Lathan said.

“Thurber House is the only organization in the region that does what we do,” she said. “We appreciate everything that the community has done for us in the past, and we look forward to continuing our programs and providing more education for kids in the literary arts.”

Youth education programs are also a major offering of the Central Ohio Fire Museum Downtown, which hosts fire safety classes. Following the government-mandated shutdown, the museum re-opened in June with increased safety precautions, but overall attendance is down 60 to 70%, according to executive director Michael Shimko.

“October was a pretty good month for us,” he said. “It was kinda like somebody flipped a switch and people started coming. I think people are tired of being told to stay home and they want to get out.”

However, he said attendance decreased again in November. The museum offers virtual classes and tours, but Shimko prefers to have people see the building, a 1908 firehouse that once accommodated horses.

Shimko also said the museum has been able to stay afloat because of contributions received from the central Ohio firefighters’ payroll deduction program.

“That accounts for about 65% of our budget, which is a pretty good chunk, so we’re lucky,” he said. “It’s kept the doors open. … But we can’t go on like this forever.”

Organizations such as the Ohio Craft Museum near Grandview Heights have found that gift shop purchases have helped with financial sustainability. After re-opening in the summer, the museum saw a new trend among patrons.

“They wanted to purchase (items),” said communications coordinator Kim Nagorski. “They weren’t really here to see the exhibitions, which is different for us. … It was very strange.”

Nagorski added that experiments with virtual exhibitions, social-media advertising and email marketing have also paid off. And they are thinking about adding an e-commerce platform to keep up with sales.

The Kelton House & Garden Downtown also reported a surprising and helpful outcome amid the pandemic; they received even more wedding requests than last year.

“People were looking for a small venue, they were looking for an outdoor venue and they were looking for somebody very flexible,” said executive director Sarah Richardt.

Richardt said people were calling consistently for house tours, and their ghost tours in October also sold out.

“People were so excited to do something in person,” she said.

In late November, the Kelton House temporarily shut down amid the increase in COVID-19 cases, with plans to re-evaluate in December. In the meantime, Richardt is working on its educational tours for students, which have been postponed.

“It’s a huge blow financially to us,” said Richardt, who is working on plans to properly wire the brick building to strengthen its Wi-Fi connection to host virtual tours.

But she is eager to get children back into the building when it’s safe.

“There’s nothing like walking in the museum and smelling it and seeing it,” she said. “You can look at a whole bedroom set, but really what you want to see is the fan on the side table because that’s what you’re interested in. … It’s so great to have that wonderful, positive experience in a museum and I don’t want children to lose that.”