Well, here we are, seven months since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Arkansas. It has had and will continue to have a devastating impact on many sectors, particularly hospitality, tourism and events.
The Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission is tasked with stimulating economic development through tourism and operates Experience Fayetteville, Fayetteville Town Center and the Clinton House Museum. The commission is primarily funded by half of the city’s 2% sales tax on lodging and prepared food, commonly referred to as the HMR tax. HMR activity through July has seen a 20% drop over the same period in 2019.
Where does that leave the Clinton House Museum?
The property, a 1931 Tudor-style home listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is owned by the University of Arkansas. The house was home to H.H. “Scotty” Taylor, the sole owner of the Fayetteville Daily Leader newspaper; Gilbert C. Swanson, credited with the creation of the TV dinner, and Roberta “Bo” Fulbright Swanson, sister of Sen. J. William Fulbright; and Dr. Warren Gifford, longtime head of the university’s Animal Science Department.
It was most notably the first home of President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who were married in the living room in 1975. In 2005, the house was transformed into a museum to commemorate its most influential residents and their dedication to public service.
The museum is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with an independent board of directors. The nonprofit’s day-to-day management, including staff, maintenance, financial processing, operations, and marketing, is carried out by the A&P Commission.
The museum’s current director, Angie Albright, has done a tremendous job during her four-year tenure of boosting museum attendance by moving to a donation-based admission price, upgrading the First Ladies Garden, launching the popular History Happy Hour program and the Atkinson Speaker Series. Currently on display is Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence, a Smithsonian Institution traveling poster exhibition to commemorate the 19th Amendment’s centennial.
She has helped the museum evolve from an attraction model to a museum model, and museum visitors — 70% of whom in 2019 hailed from outside Arkansas — have reaped the benefit of that.
And yet, the cost of staffing, programming and operating the museum at a level of excellence comes with a $200,000 price tag. It is time to ask strategic questions about where we as a tourism organization want to put our efforts moving forward.
I believe the A&P Commission is best fulfilling its mission by taking a supportive role in the museum’s future, rather than the lead role as it has up until now. While there is no shortage of blame to be placed on the pandemic, in the case of the Clinton House Museum, COVID accelerated discussions we have been having for several years.
In the coming months, with collaboration from the museum’s staff and board, I will present the A&P Commissioners with a plan to wind down the Clinton House Museum operations in a thoughtful, intentional way that does not hinder or restrict future possibilities for the house.
I appreciate the A&P Commissioners’ willingness to continue the lease and to fund maintenance on the home throughout 2021. I also appreciate the good working relationship I enjoy with the University of Arkansas and with the museum’s board of directors. Most of all, I am immensely grateful to the Clinton House Museum’s donors who continue to enrich the museum.
I remain committed to success for the museum, even as we work together to redefine what success looks like. Change is often not easy, but as 2020 continues to teach us, change is inevitable.
Molly Rawn is the CEO of Experience Fayetteville, the city’s tourism bureau. The opinions expressed are those of the author.