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Quilt Museum CEO Says Cultural Destinations Must Pivot to Virtual Programs to Survive COVID-19

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Credit The National Quilt Museum
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The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically reduced the number of visitors to popular tourism destinations in Kentucky, and across the nation. Since the shutdown of most Kentucky businesses and cultural sites in mid-March, and the gradual reopening, museums are among those that have been hit the hardest.  

In the first of a two-part series, WKU Public Radio reporter Rhonda Miller talked with Frank Bennett,  CEO of The National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, about how museums are maintaining a presence during this time of limited tourism.

Bennett is also a consultant to other museums, and has a blog called worldclassmuseum.com

During the conversation, Bennett said the museum follows all the safety guidelines required during the pandemic. He added that Kentucky’s statewide mandate to wear masks has made it easier to keep visitors safe when they come to the National Quilt Museum.

"I do talk to some other museums in other states where the rules are not as regimented as ours, if you will, where they’re not allowed to say to someone you’re required to wear a mask," Bennett said. "All they can do is ask that people wear a mask, so they are struggling a little more with this.”

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Credit The National Quilt Museum
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Frank Bennett is CEO of The National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky.

Bennett discussed the many changes the museum is implementing to build a new audience and survive the challenges created by the pandemic. 

Bennett: We closed when everybody else closed and we opened into a completely different world.

Miller: And you opened again on what day in June?

Bennett: We opened on June 8, when we were given permission from the state to open, we opened that day. And from June 8 to now, we've seen less than 50 percent of what you would consider normal visitation for the museum in the months that we're in. Before the pandemic, in an average year the museum would have seen 40,000-45,000 visitors annually.

Miller: And I assume they come from all over the country and other countries as well?

Bennett: Absolutely. The museum is a global destination art museum. And in 2019, we had visitors from all 50 states, and over 40 foreign countries. 

Miller: Who are you seeing coming in now to the museum? Are you seeing local people?

Bennett: We definitely are not seeing anybody who would have gotten on a plane. We're not seeing any international at all. The number one group that it's been are people taking weekend trips, three-day trips. 

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Credit The National Quilt Museum
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Visitors come from around the globe to The National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. During the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer visitors are arriving and the ones who do visit are required to wear masks and follow other safety precautions.

I've spoken to a lot of these folks. It's people who are tired of being at home, they need to get out for their sanity. They need to get out, get some fresh air and get into a different community. By far it's been the regional visitors, it's been the people between 50 miles away and about 300 miles.

Miller: How is that drop in visitors affecting the budget and the ability to keep functioning? I just wonder how the how the financial end is doing?

Bennett: Not good. Well, it is a struggle. We have some employees that are furloughed. Typically, we have about 20 to 21 people working. Right now we're down to the low teens. And we do intend to bring all those folks back. A lot of them that are furloughed are directly attributed to visitors coming in the front door.

Miller: And so, as far as the budget, I'm just wondering how long  we can be on this reduced visitor cycle until, you know, it's drastically affecting the museum.

Bennett: We definitely are way under what our budget would typically be. And so, what we're really doing is pivoting to more digital experiences. You know, it's really just the time where you have to do things in new ways.

Miller: You are consultant to other museums? What are you hearing about how they're doing during the pandemic?

Bennett: We really are all in this together. We really are. And at this point, people either are going to pivot quickly to putting programming online, new ways to do fundraising because, obviously, you can't do events right now, new things to offer, whether it be online workshops, artist interviews, online exhibits. We need to bring it to where our audience is. And right now, our audience is online. The folks that pivot fastest, and really embrace taking some risks, trying some new things, even some things that are uncomfortable, are the ones that are going to ultimately survive and get through this change. The folks that just kind of hunker down and focus on you know, well, we can't do this or they overanalyze, this is not the time for that. It really is a time to try some things that are outside of your comfort zone. The audience is moving quickly. The world is moving quickly.

Miller: Thank you so much, Frank. It's great speaking with you.

Bennett: You too. Have a great day.

Miller: I've been speaking with Frank Bennett. He's the CEO of the national quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky.

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Note: Next week, in the second episode of our two-part series, we'll look at how some of Kentucky's smaller specialty museums are doing during the pandemic.

Rhonda Miller joined WKU Public Radio in 2015. She has worked as Gulf Coast reporter for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, where she won Associated Press, Edward R. Murrow and Green Eyeshade awards for stories on dead sea turtles, health and legal issues arising from the 2010 BP oil spill and homeless veterans.
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