Museum of Appalachia faces uncertain future

One of the toughest challenges facing any non-profit organization is surviving its founder. The kinds of folks who create museums, schools, or institutes (or websites) are highly focused, driven, and relentless people. The same characteristics that bring life and success to their creations can make it difficult to hand over the reins of power to their successors or make the sometimes hard decisions necessary to keep the organization thriving.

Metro Pulse’s Mike Gibson has written a great article about the Museum of Appalachia in Norris and John Rice Irwin, its founder. The Museum is one of Tennessee’s treasures; Irwin was named a MacArthur Fellow, popularly known as the “genius” award. His Museum, however, is facing an uncertain future. Irwin has been subsidizing it for years, and now says he cannot write checks for much longer. Even if he could continue underwrite the Museum, he is 77 years old.


Gibson quotes Irwin as saying “. . . there’s not a museum in the country that can survive off admissions alone.” And, later, “I’ve always said I would never ask for money, because I don’t like the idea of asking people to contribute.”

That’s problem Number One. Irwin is right about museums not surviving on admissions alone. That’s why the ones that last enter into partnerships with government or set about aggressively raising money and establishing an endowment that will keep the doors open. It takes a good board of directors to make the latter happen, and that board will want control of the Museum–something Irwin may not want to give up.

It’s just that simple, and just that complicated.

Gibson writes that Irwin’s goal “is to leave daughter Elaine with an institution that’s not only solvent, but capable of continuing growth.”  That’s Problem Number Two.  To succeed, the Museum may have to become a genuine non-profit–not a privately owned museum that doesn’t make money.  Irwin may not have the luxury of keeping his Museum in his family.

I hope Irwin can find a way to keep the Museum open and strengthen it for future generations. As he says about Appalachian people, “The ingenuity of the southern Appalachian people is such that they could do almost anything they set their minds to.”

They still can. And they need to do it. Soon.

This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.

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