Posted on January 19, 2011
An op-ed by Jessica Meadows Hammett, Executive Director of the Ava Gardner Museum
On an icy day early in 2010 when schools and other businesses are closed, the Ava Gardner Museum greets weary travelers off of I-95. These visitors are like so many others: they’ve seen the billboards advertising the conveniently located Museum, only 1 mile off of the Interstate, and they’ve come to see for themselves. Perhaps expecting something less from a Museum located in a town of less than 20,000, the visitors exclaim over the number of artifacts and costumes on exhibit, and how attractive the collection is displayed. They stay for an hour, purchase some souvenirs from the Gift Shop and go across the street to The Grill for a warm, Southern meal. They probably stop for gas on their way out of town, on the way back to New York, for a visit to Florida, or points between.
These visitors are not exceptional; the Museum welcomes 12,000 just like them every year. They come from all 50 states and countries worldwide, including Canada, United Kingdom, Spain, France, Japan, and Brazil. And each of these visitors bring with them money that impacts the local economy. For every traveler that visits the Museum, there are stops at the gas station, meals at local restaurants, stays at our hotels, and visits to the Outlets that account for over $2.2 million in spending dollars in the local economy.
When the new Ava Gardner Museum opened in Downtown Smithfield in October 2000, many local residents said it wouldn’t last. “No one will remember who she is in 20 years,” was uttered by more than one nay-sayer. But even in an economic downturn, the Ava Gardner Museum managed to increase the number of visitors last year by 8% over the previous year.
For the 2010-2011 year, the Town of Smithfield cut a third of the Museum’s funding, representing an 8% loss in the annual operational budget (the Town of Smithfield owns the Ava Gardner Collection and is therefore entrusted with its care). As the Museum faced an economic shortfall, the Ava Gardner Museum effectively utilized both traditional and social media to market the Museum to new audiences and younger generations. With the addition of new items in the Ava Gardner Museum Gift Shop and the launch of an e-commerce site, gift shop sales have increased by 25%.
Other celebrity museums have not fared as well.
Like so many other businesses and organizations in recent years, several celebrity museums have been forced to close their doors. After 31 years of operation, the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, NV, closed in October 2010 to focus its monetary contributions on the Liberace Foundation. The board of directors cited the economic downturn and the decline in the number of visitors as the reasons the Museum was discontinued.
Six years after moving off of Route 66 in California to Branson, MO, the Roy Rogers Museum was another casualty of the economy, closing in early 2010. With tourism down all over the country, Branson, MO, a family vacation destination, has been impacted significantly.
Even National icons aren’t immune. In a recent NBC Nightly News report, the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA, is facing increasing challenges to stay open. Attendance at the Museum has steadily declined in the past three years in concert with the struggling economy and as Stewart's contemporaries withdraw from bus tour participation.
Most people don’t realize, but there aren’t really that many museums dedicated to a specific celebrity. For a country as star-obsessed as we are, only a handful of venues pay tribute to icons of the silver screen and the like. And with current trends, it looks as if there will be even fewer in the future. Meanwhile, the Ava Gardner Museum has managed to grow in the past few years due to proactive marketing and the creation of new revenue streams.
In 2011, the Ava Gardner Museum celebrates 30 years in Smithfield. That’s 30 years of bringing visitors into Smithfield, NC, sharing the story of North Carolina’s most famous daughter, and affecting the local economy in a substantial and significant way. Benefiting from a convenient location, passionate fans, and local support, it looks like the Ava Gardner Museum will be open for another 30.
The Ava Gardner Museum is located in downtown Smithfield, at 325 E. Market Street and more information may be found on the museum website, www.avagardner.org or by calling 919-934-5830. The museum is open Monday-Saturday, 9am-5pm and Sunday 2pm-5pm with admission of $6.00 adults, $5.00 seniors and groups and $4.00 children.