The Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission last week voted 6-0 to “wind down” financial support of the Clinton House Museum.
Operations will continue through 2020, but the group agreed to pay only rent and any expenses necessary to maintain the home beginning Jan. 1, 2021 through the remainder of the lease for the museum, which expires on Dec. 31, 2021.
The house, located at 930 W. Clinton Drive, was the first home of President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton. The couple was married in the living room in 1975.
The commission operates the home as a museum with various exhibits featuring memorabilia from Bill’s early political career, including his campaigns for U.S. House of Representatives and Arkansas Attorney General. The property also includes a First Ladies Garden where the favorite flowers of all 47 First Ladies are planted.
The museum was closed in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but was re-opened with limited hours on Sept. 10.
Commissioner Todd Martin said despite his longtime personal support of the Clintons, he’s come to the conclusion that the museum has become too expensive for the commission to operate by itself.
The group leases the house from the University of Arkansas for $1,300 per month, but has spent between $220,000-$259,000 each year to operate the museum, said Molly Rawn, CEO of Experience Fayetteville. Annual revenues generated from the operation have been about $20,000, she said.
That continued discrepancy, combined with recent shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, led Martin to propose a change.
Martin said for several years, commissioners have discussed the museum’s financial disparity and have tried to help increase revenues through renovations of the property and by hosting special events. He said he met with the museum’s board in August, and was disappointed that the board has not been very active when it comes to raising money.
“There’s just not a strong fundraising methodology in place, and (the museum) seems to be resting solely on the shoulders of the A&P Commission,” said Martin. “I believe it has value and I very much would like to see it go forward, but I’d like to see it in a situation where it’s not dependent on the commission.”
Matthew Petty, who chairs the commission, said it’s not uncommon for museums to be subsidized by public money, but the scale of the commission’s support compared to the museum’s revenues make for an uncomfortable situation.
Petty said he shared the hopes of museum officials in 2016 who felt that the election of Hillary Clinton as president would add a new layer of historical significance to the home.
“I expected that election to turn out differently,” said Petty. “And that was a huge factor in what I saw as the future of the museum.”
In the run up to the 2016 election, museum staff worked to add exhibitions that focused on Hillary.
“We are excited to tell more about the story,” said Angie Albright, the museum’s director, at the time. “It’s entirely possible that our 42nd and 45th president will have lived in this house, and been married…here…to each other. That’s such a unique American thing to have happen, and something we probably won’t see again in our lifetimes.”
Albright said visits to the museum had increased during Hillary’s campaign, and she was hopeful that the museum would become even more popular after Election Day.
“We’ve had to hire additional part-time staff, and folks to work on our guest services process,” she said in 2016. “We saw a big increase after the Democratic National Convention, and if she wins on Nov. 8, we’re going to need to be ready on Nov. 9.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse for the commission, which in June cut about $1.3 million from its nearly $5.4 million budget.
The majority of the commission’s revenue comes from half of the city’s 2% hotel, motel and restaurant (HMR) sales tax. The other half goes to the city’s parks department for parks maintenance.
The budget cut in June included reducing the museum’s operating budget from $240,000 to $185,000 with an expected need of only about $115,000.
Rawn said revenues from the museum this year are so far only at about $4,700.
Martin at first had proposed closing the museum immediately, but Rawn said it’s not as simple as that, considering the museum has received donations for exhibits planned and commitments made through the end of the year.
The museum is currently hosting a Smithsonian poster exhibition commemorating the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment called “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence.”
Rawn estimated that the facility could continue to operate through the year without exceeding the revised budget.
Commissioner Reese Roberts said the group shouldn’t restrict the museum from any possible revenues that could come from fulfilling its 2020 schedule.
Martin agreed, and said he’d be fine with continuing through the end of the year and he hopes the board, the university and anyone else who finds value in the museum will work together to keep the museum running into the future.
“I am not against the A&P Commission being a part of a new model or a solution going forward,” said Martin. “I am simply against us being the sole group trying to move it forward without some significant help.”
“I am interested in actions we can take that will lead to novel conversations about what the future of the house could be as a museum,” said Petty. “We need more voices to be a part of that conversation.”
Commissioner Robert Rhoads said it’s a tough decision to pull back on funding the museum, but it seems clear that it’s the right move at this time.
“I could see us bolstering the museum if there was a lot of foot traffic,” he said. “But supporting the arts when the public is not supporting the arts that you want to support sometimes doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The museum board last week issued the following statement:
We sincerely appreciate the longstanding support the Clinton House Museum received from the Commission over many years. They understand the importance of preserving the Clintons’ legacy of public service.
On September 21, 2020, the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission voted unanimously to approve a motion to decrease funding for the Clinton House Museum for 2020. We understand the vote was made in response to the substantial decrease in tourism revenues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is our understanding the Commission has provided us with adequate time in which to take action to preserve this important landmark.
Our Board is working hard to provide to the Commission a feasible proposal that will enable this historic house to remain accessible to our community and to visitors from across the nation. Working with many people, we are confident we can achieve our goal.
Today’s vote is not a complete surprise. Over the past many months, the administration of the museum, together with several members of the Board, have discussed the economic realities of the pandemic on the hospitality industry. All parties have been especially sensitive to the many displaced workers in our local community. So many people earn their livelihood from restaurants, hotels, and other services.
We are optimistic and hopeful, and we invite members of the public to contact the Clinton House Museum with their ideas and financial support.