Between empty halls, cancelled celebrations and lost income, it would have been easy for Owensboro’s museums to become defeated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art and the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum both rallied and quickly accelerated their presence online to pursue a sustainable future for their shared community.
The Owensboro Museum of Fine Art created a virtual tour of the galleries, successfully launched children’s camps online and boosted digital communication with community members. Throughout the pandemic, for example, local youngsters have been virtually submitting art pieces that will eventually be exhibited in the children’s gallery.
“Certainly it has changed how the museum functions and operates,” said Mary Bryan Hood, OMFA executive director. “It’s a good new direction for the museum. We’ve taken advantage of new ways to interact with people.”
The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum now offers a virtual tour to serve as a taste tester for the collections and is exploring ways to bring bluegrass music into people’s homes.
Next month, the Bluegrass Museum will host its first of multiple livestream musical performances with full production. They sampled this new virtual venture while taping a bluegrass concert for PBS in December.
The Bluegrass Museum is currently working with artists to develop concepts to reveal a unique side of the bluegrass universe and its musicians, according to Executive Director Chris Joslin.
“We pride ourselves in being the most important entity for bluegrass,” Joslin said. “This is ground zero for the genre.”
With Owensboro’s unique position as the cultural center of bluegrass, Joslin hopes to attract diverse interest from across the nation with the live streams. Details and tickets will be posted soon to the Bluegrass Museum site and social media.
Through all of this, the museums have not escaped financial hardships — it’s the national trend.
The American Alliance of Museums recently surveyed museum directors and reported “extreme financial distress” across the sector as one third were not confident they could survive the next 16 months without additional financial relief.
About 87 percent of the museums had only one year or less of financial operating reserves remaining, and 44 percent had furloughed or laid off staff positions — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the U.S., reduced its staff from 2,000 to 1,600 since March.
In Owensboro, both the art and bluegrass museums lost several primary avenues of fundraising.
“The negative experience has of course been the loss of income,” Hood said, who added that she was grateful that corporate support for OMFA has not been affected.
The art museum’s “Art by the Stars,” during which community leaders create art with a local artist and then auction it off, was cancelled.
“It generates large sums of money each year,” Hood said.
For the Bluegrass Museum, the hardest cancellation was ROMP, the Owensboro-based bluegrass music festival.
“Losing that financial backing hurt,” Joslin said.
The museum’s visitation, which is largely driven by concerts, educational programming and large tour groups, has been reduced to “probably a third of what it was,” Joslin said.
Both directors suggested the community should feel comfortable visiting. The museums are allowing limited visitors while mandating masks and temperature checks.
Museums’ designs naturally lend themselves well to meeting public health guidelines, according to Joslin, who said the Bluegrass Museum is following all state and federal guidelines.
“It’s easy to maintain social distance,” Hood said. “We certainly encourage the public to visit the museum.”
To offer support virtually, the community can participate during fundraisers or provide charitable contributions.
OMFA’s next fundraiser is the 2020 Bronze Buffalo Paintout, an outdoor painting festival Oct. 8-10 that showcases art documenting Owensboro life. There will likely be changes this year, Hood said.
To support the Bluegrass Museum, Joslin recommended buying a ticket to an upcoming virtual concert or making a tax-deductible donation.
In September, the Bluegrass Museum also plans on offering “micro music” events — 30-minute live performances inside an exhibition that will likely include an instrument demonstration and a historical lesson. The first event is scheduled for noon on Sept. 4 and 5. Space will be very limited.
Both nonprofits suggested they do not want to compromise their missions of education and cultural enrichment and intend on continuing to innovate and expand.
“Hopefully 2021 is going to be a lot different,” Joslin said.
The Owensboro Museum of Science and History did not respond to multiple requests for comment. At this time, the museum is open.