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Despite Two Closures, NH’s Museums Continue to Rebound

Published Friday Jul 5, 2024

Author Scott Merril

Left: Peggy Hennelly-Maniates, executive director of the Wright World War II Museum. Right: Exhibit at the Wright museum (Photos by Scott Merrill)

When the Museum of New Art (MONA) in Portsmouth and the University of NH’s Museum of Art closed in January, some people worried about the state of NH’s cultural institutions and their important role in shaping vibrant communities.

However, there are strong indications that NH’s museums are bouncing back from pandemic lulls in attendance. In 2023, NH is home to 75 museums with 374 employees and generating total revenues of $18.5 million, according to an April 2024 study commissioned by the Northern Border Regional Commission. The study examined NH museums’ contributions to economic development and found they can help drive increases in economic activity for local economies. (See Economic Development sidebar.)

New Hampshire’s museums include those dedicated to art, science, history, and children. They range in size from a room or two containing thought-provoking artifacts documenting a town’s place in history to larger institutions such as the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester—home to masterpieces by Picasso, Monet, and Renaissance sculpture—and the Children’s Museum of NH in Dover, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last year and attracts thousands of children and their families annually.

Peggy Hennelly-Maniates, executive director of the Wright World War II Museum in Wolfeboro, emphasizes the role museums play in bringing people together.

“People don’t get the human story online,” she says. “The multigenerational conversations that are sparked at the museum are incredible.”

As different as NH’s museums are, they all share the same desire to bring history and culture to life, despite ongoing funding challenges.

Museums are heavily funded by donations and grants, along with events, admissions, and gift shop sales.

While most of the state’s museums weathered pandemic disruptions through federal relief programs and investments over the past couple of years, some have not been as lucky as others.

Museum Closures
The Museum of Art at the University of NH closed in January as part of cost cutting measures by the University of NH System due to decreased enrollment. The museum had an annual operating budget of $400,000 and was shuttered as part of the effort to address the UNH’s $14 million budget deficit. Prior to closing, the museum had four employees, including Kristina Durocher, the former director. Durocher is now the visual arts director at the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Durocher says art and culture are important for businesses looking to attract and retain their workforce. “People like cultural amenities,” she says, adding that museums foster communication. “People like moving to culturally vibrant places.”

“One of the things that really upset me about the museum’s closure was the opportunity it created for students coming to the university,” Durocher says. “It’s a loss for students and the state of New Hampshire.”

The Museum of New Art (MONA), a downtown attraction on Congress Street in Portsmouth, closed its doors two days after the Museum of Art at UNH announced it was closing on January 16. The MONA opened in October 2021 and hosted more than 16,000 visitors in just over two years, according to a statement released by the museum in January. The museum also presented six exhibitions featuring local, regional and national artists.

Suzanne Bresette, co-chairperson of the museum’s board, cited “weakening revenue” as the primary cause of the closure in the statement. Bresette goes on to say the museum was unable to secure contributions to support the museum’s programing for the coming year.

“Many of our sister visual arts organizations across the country are struggling with the same challenges,” Bresette says in the statement. “As they and we consider our futures as nonprofit arts organizations, we are hopeful that there may be a newly imagined way forward.”

For academic museums, funding is often largely tied to tuition revenue. Colleges in the northeast have been hit hard by declining enrollment and inflated operating costs that contributed to UNH’s budget deficit and cuts across the university, Durocher says. UNH’s main campus had 13,860 students in 2022, down from 15,479 in 2017.

Michele Dillon, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at UNH, made the difficult decision to close the University’s art museum in January. “It was a very frugal budget without a lot of excess money,” she says, adding her priority was to protect the college’s 17 academic departments in the humanities, social sciences, performing arts, psychology and a range of other subjects. “I didn’t have much time to talk to other people.”

Dillon says the museum is currently being used as a gallery for student exhibitions and student groups and that most of the collection is in storage. She adds that there are no plans to sell the pieces or to repurpose the former museum space.

“I personally value art and the museum along with its cutting-edge exhibitions,” she says. “But at the core of our college are the academic programs. Once I made a commitment to support our academic programs, that didn’t leave too many options.”

Keeping Museums Running
Jeanne Gerulskis, director of the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center in Concord, says some museums and cultural organizations that rely less on memberships and ticket sales and more on donations and grants—or those that have a larger organization in charge, such as a university—tend to struggle financially. “I know what that’s like because we used to be part of the state,” she says, explaining that in 2013 the Discovery Center became a nonprofit after having been run by the state. “Back then it was often hard to plan ahead because the state had a strong role in our budgetary decisions.”

Gerulskis says the Discovery Center is doing relatively well financially and that its number of visitors is up 5% from 2019. But she says costs have increased. “As far as our net goes, we’re not a lot better off than before the pandemic but our reach has improved,” she says. “It’s called nonprofit for a reason. Move some money here, move some there. We’re lucky though; a lot of nonprofits don’t have a good revenue stream.”

Currier Art for Vets Studio (Photo Courtesy of the Currier Museum)

Bruce McColl, director of engagement at the Currier Museum of Art, where he oversees education and fundraising, says smaller institutions without legacy endowments like the Currier or the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College tend to struggle more, though federal and state support during the COVID pandemic was helpful. Karen Graham, interim director and COO at the Currier, says “we’re fortunate in New Hampshire that we received so much support from the state government through the Cares Act and invested wisely.”

She says the Currier is currently surpassing its 2019 numbers of visitors and managed to keep all of its staff. “We used that money wisely whereas for others it was like pennies from heaven. Some saw this as a windfall and they started living as if that was their income stream.”

One recent surge of income for the Currier came through donations for its veterans’ programs and its art and wellness program. “We completely redid our classroom space and made it high tech so that we could offer programming both on site and online during COVID and thereafter,” Graham says. “We’ve been able to continue to build on our attendance and our programming.”

Meghan Doherty, director of the Museum of the White Mountains, located on the campus of Plymouth State University, says the museum’s budget includes funding from the University of NH system, grants, donations, and memberships.

Doherty, who grew up north of Berlin, came back to NH after spending time in Kentucky where she served as director for the Doris Ollman Galleries at Baria College. “When I first started here in January 2022, we were definitely still in a COVID moment,” she says, explaining that the last two years have seen an audience rebound for its lectures and that visitors to the museum are up.

While not back to pre-pandemic levels for visitors and memberships, Doherty says the museum has been building momentum with exhibitions and its continuing lecture series, which serves as a gateway to the community.

“We continue to have more people coming through the door, more classes coming, and more people coming to our lecture series and events,” she says, adding that the long-term goal is for the museum to be self-sustaining. “We’re not there yet.”

This summer’s exhibition, Doherty says, in keeping with the interdisciplinary spirit at Plymouth State University, is called “Of Baskets and Borers.” It focuses on the past, present, and future of Indigenous basketry in the White Mountains and Lakes region.

There are many facets required to keep museums running, says Hennelly-Maniates of the Wright World War II Museum. “One thing people don’t realize is that we’re all funded differently,” she says, adding some museums receive federal and state funding. “We don’t receive state, federal or local funding. We have to pursue the dollars through grants, donations, our gift shop sales, sponsorships and admissions.”

The museum’s season runs from May 1 through Oct. 31 and is open seven days a week. Starting in June, the museum will be hosting an exhibit marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France. The Wright Museum has set up a replica of a Quonset hut where soldiers were briefed before heading into battle. A video explains what that experience was like.

“One thing that museums are always up against is engaging multiple generations in different ways,” Hennelly-Maniates says. “We’ve put out a variety of different ways, such as touch screens and videos, to engage people.”

She says the pandemic forever changed people’s expectations about museums and how they present information to the public. “During the pandemic we had to invest in presenting to the public digitally. Our lectures were held over Zoom,” Hennelly-Maniates says, adding the experience of physically coming into a museum can’t be fully substituted digitally.

Durocher says the language around nonprofits needs to change for them to be sustainable. ”We say ‘we appreciate your donation,’ but we don’t call it what it is. It’s an investment in community,” she says. “We don’t use that language for cultural organizations and maybe we should because we need the business community to show up and invest in these cultural organizations.”

In a world saturated with images and information, McColl says simply putting people in a gallery with beautiful objects that are handcrafted and handmade can speak powerfully to people. “That situation is so fundamentally different than the usual experience in the world, and it’s also becoming more and more of a draw for people.”

The Economic Multiplier Effect of NH Museums
The April 2024 study, “Museums and Economic Development in New Hampshire,” commissioned by the Northern Regional Border Commission, notes money spent at local museums have a multiplier effect on the local economy.

As new dollars and/or jobs are injected into the local economy, those inputs drive additional increases in economic activity. Economic developers refer to this as the “economic multiplier effect.” 

Average economic multipliers for NH museums include:

  • Each new dollar of output by museums generates $ 0.74 in additional economic outputs.
  • Each additional $1 million of economic output generates 12 NH jobs across all industries.
  • Each additional dollar paid to museum workers in NH generates an additional $ 0.80 in wages paid to workers in other NH industries.
  • Each additional museum job in NH generates 0.46 additional jobs in other industries.


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