Local specialty museums face multiple challenges

Marketing, staffing, exhibits carry costs with which many small operations struggle

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation was created in 1983, but the I.M. Pei-designed building housing its collection did not open until 1995.

Such a time-consuming transition from concept to reality is not unusual for a specialty museum — very loosely defined as any museum that is not a zoo and does not exhibit a large and general collection of art.

The folks involved with Nashville’s specialty museums (also called nontraditional museums) know about waits — and every other irksome difficulty associated with an industry that is poorly suited for the impatient or profit-motivated.

For example, the National Museum of African-American Music was originally visualized in 2001. To date, the Nashville-based entity exists in name and a small staff only.

“You don’t open a museum to make money,” said Joe Chambers, founder of the Musicians Hall of Fame. “For us, it is a labor of love.”

For the past three-plus years, Chambers has quietly toiled to jump-start his museum, which had to close in SoBro to make way for the Music City Center. Now, almost 16 months after finalizing a deal with Metro, Chambers is prepping to reopen in Municipal Auditorium. His new facility will be called Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum at Nashville Municipal Auditorium.

Simply having patrons walk through the door will be a victory for Chambers. Originally, he hoped to open in mid-2012 and then by the end of 2012. Now he is shooting for a “tourist season” unveiling, likely in late May.

“We’ve encountered a lot of delays that anybody does when you are building something — much less something of this scope,” Chambers said.

In 2011, Chambers and Metro held discussions about a lease agreement that involved, among others, the precise wording of the soon-to-be-rebranded auditorium. In July 2011, the Municipal Auditorium Commission approved the lease, which included a provision that after the first year, Chambers’ museum will be required to provide at least $75,000 in revenue to the auditorium for any two consecutive years.

Now a similar partnership has been proposed for the aforementioned National Museum of African-American Music.

In a letter to Metro, NMAAM director Paula Roberts expressed interest in a “central-city” location for the museum, inside the current Nashville Convention Center. Previously the nonprofit had hoped to construct a Tuck Hinton-designed building in the North Capitol neighborhood.

Roberts told The City Paper her team has been “highly involved in evaluating variables that would allow NMAAM’s sustainability and constructing a facility that opens and remains open.”

“Of equal importance, the museum must serve as an exciting destination for visitors from around the world, highlighting the excellence and diversity that exists in music,” Roberts added. “To that end, our area of focus is, and continues to be, that NMAAM open with an economic model that includes endowed income and earned revenue.”

The “economic model” theme can be very challenging for many specialty museums, which, though more commonplace than expected, are often modestly attended. Many operate in the red and feature almost radically focused collections, such as the TuneSeum (dedicated to animation) in Pittsburgh and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

Nontraditional museums are often housed in smallish buildings not originally designed for such usage. Some offer very limited hours, while others are so remote, they could be open 24/7 and still struggle with attendance. There are collections dedicated to magic and motorcycles; the art of Andy Warhol and the bicycle making of the Wright Brothers; the cosmopolitan (jazz) and the earthy (Amish culture).

In short, tinancial viability and successful marketing are key issues for museums large and small.

Jeff Lane, founder of the Lane Motor Museum on Murfreesboro Pike, said even large-scale museums that receive government grants — for example the Country Music Museum and Hall of Fame gets some Metro and state monies — must carefully monitor the bottom line. 

“But when you’re a nontraditional private museum, it’s a little more difficult because of lack of funding, lack of name recognition and the challenge of getting your message out as to why you’re important,” Lane said.

Lane Motor Museum is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It displays cars, motorcycles and various vehicles that are unique or technically significant in the history of transportation — with a special emphasis on classic European autos.

In 2004, the facility attracted about 7,000 visitors in its first full year of operation. Steady progress has followed. In 2011, the museum recorded 20,667 visitors, while the 2012 number increased to 23,643.

Lane said recent chats with other transportation museum owners reveal many saw their attendance marks increase from 2011 to 2012.

“A lot have told me they saw 10 to 20 percent increases in attendance,” he said. “They are happy with that, but don’t quite see why that was. They speculate that most nontraditional museums are not too expensive.”

Cost is, very possibly, a consideration for attendance success. An adult Lane Motor Museum visitor will pay $9 for entry and no parking fee. In comparison, Frist Center for the Visual Arts adult admission is $10, with parking a minimum of $2. Nashville Zoo adult admission and parking are $15 and $5, respectively. For a family of, say, four, the cost differential can be factor.

Mary Skinner, a board member and spokeswoman of the 104-member Tennessee Association of Museums, said factors for success include location, marketing, staff and exhibits. But not surprisingly, funding trumps them all.

“There are public- and private-funded museums, so the question is, ‘Who is going to fund this?’ ” said Skinner, who works full time as community and media relations officer with the Tennessee State Museum.

The museum, which is free to visitors, benefits from being state-funded. But even its government ties do not guarantee a consistent budget increase. The 2012-13 budget was $3.6 million, while the 2013-14 recommended budget is $3.4 million, Skinner said.

Chambers, of the Musicians Hall of Fame, said he is cautiously optimistic visitors will embrace his cultural attraction — before offering a sobering note.

“You’re talking millions of dollars,” he said. “You have to have a building, exhibits, artifacts, employees. It’s an expensive endeavor.”