FAYETTEVILLE -- The house where Bill and Hillary Clinton first lived as a married couple from 1973-76 is closing as a museum, at least temporarily while its future gets a reassessment.
Since 2005, the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission has overseen the 1,800-square-foot Tudor Revival-style home as a museum dedicated to the Clinton family and political history. The University of Arkansas bought the house for $249,950 that year, and the commission has leased it from the university since.
However, in September, the commission decided to wind down and close its operations at the museum to save money because of the covid-19 pandemic.
Exhibits planned for next year have been canceled, and most of the staff has been laid off. The lease with the university expires at the end of 2021.
At one time, the museum had four employees -- two part time and two full time. One part-time employee and one full-time employee were laid off after the pandemic hit. The remaining part-time employee will stay on until the end of the year, and the full-time director will be paid through the end of February.
The board of the nonprofit organization behind the Clinton House Museum has expanded its membership from six to 12 positions and will work on a fundraising strategy to become financially sustainable, said Mark Henry, board president. First, the board wants to reexamine the house's purpose, he said.
"We have got to diversify and have an active purpose beyond serving as a museum," he said.
The museum board is responsible for the facility's exhibits and fundraising. The hope is to have the museum open at some point in the coming year, using ideas from the expanded board membership and the public, Henry said.
"If that means being open for special events only with special collections, based upon the status of the pandemic, then OK," he said. "If it also means a broader opening, we're excited to do that."
About 5,000 visitors walked through the museum's door each year from 2017-19. Nearly 1,200 have visited so far this year, but the museum was closed from March to September because of the pandemic. Attendance ticked up from about 3,900 visitors in 2016 to nearly 5,800 in 2017 after the museum stopped charging admission and instead asked for donations at the door.
Since then, educational programming on Arkansas history has drawn hundreds of students for field trips. A speaker series provided distinguished lecturers at the house beginning in 2018. Fundraisers such as the History Happy Hour became popular draws.
The former U.S. president and former U.S. secretary of state married in the living room of the house at 930 California Blvd. on Oct. 11, 1975, in front of a small group of friends. The Clintons lived there from 1973 to 1976 while both taught at the University of Arkansas School of Law. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010, and the street subsequently was renamed Clinton Drive.
The Advertising and Promotion Commission has budgeted $39,365 in museum expenses next year with no projected revenue. The amount includes $15,600 for rent, $10,000 to pay professional landscapers to maintain the First Ladies Garden and $4,600 for utilities.
By comparison, this year's budget included $264,483 in expenses and $24,800 in projected revenue.
Molly Rawn, chief executive officer of the city's tourism bureau Experience Fayetteville, was invited to serve as an ex officio member of the Clinton House Museum board representing the Advertising and Promotion Commission.
The commission is the governing body over tourism in Fayetteville.
The commission's involvement with the museum next year will cover basic maintenance and clerical minutiae such as handling the mail, answering phones and handling social media, Rawn said. The Experience Fayetteville staff may help with a few open-house type events once the pandemic subsides, she said.
More than anything, Rawn said, her role will be to help the museum board make the transition to self-sustainability.
"I am heartened by the fact that we have an intelligent and hardworking group of people committed toward defining a new future for the house, and I'm excited about that," she said. "We don't know what that looks like yet, so there's a lot of ambiguity. But we're definitely headed in the right direction."
Museums across the country are struggling, according to a November news release from the American Alliance of Museums. Roughly one-third of the 35,000 museums have been closed since the pandemic hit in March, and the ones that have opened are operating at a fraction of normal capacity in staffing and attendance. Many are not receiving enough revenue to offset costs, according to the release.
Most of the collections at the Clinton House Museum will be secured at an off-site location. Some furniture and small items will remain, covered with sheets.
The museum's director since 2016, Angie Albright, is looking for a new job.
"I don't want my four years of work to be for naught, so I'm going to be as helpful as I can be because I want to see the place succeed," Albright said. "I think it has a great story."
The final exhibit at the Clinton House Museum, Sign of the Times: The Great American Political Poster 1844-2012, will run until the end of the year. The exhibit showcases political campaign posters in the United States from the past 170 years.
Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free.
For more information, call 444-0066 or go to http://clintonhouse…
Source: Clinton House Museum
Stacy Ryburn can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @stacyryburn.