Ray Slattery, board president for the Joliet Area Historical Museum, sits in part of the Route 66 display at the Joliet Area Historical Museum in Joliet, Illinois, Friday, December 28, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
MUSEUM THEN AND NOW
2003-2004 (first full fiscal year)
Revenue: $1.19 million
Expenses: $1.2 million
Net: $10,787 loss
Staff: five full time, two part time
2011-2012 (last full fiscal year)
Revenue: $1.38 million
Expenses: $1.38 million
Net: $7,000 loss
Staff: five full time, three part time
Updated: February 3, 2013 6:09AM
A couple from Switzerland was at the Joliet Area Historical Museum one morning last week, making their first stop on a Route 66 tour.
“I love cars. She loves cars. It’s the most mythic road in the world to me,” Jean Pascal Anchise said.
The Joliet museum showed up as a highlight of the trip, Vanessa Rodriguez said, when she and Anchise did some Internet research for the Route 66 tour.
The Route 66 Welcome Center may be the biggest attraction in the museum since it opened in October 2002. It attracts travelers from around the country and beyond, including Beatle Paul McCartney who stopped by in 2008.
Museum Board President Ray Slattery can rattle off compliments he’s heard from visitors to the museum.
Still, the museum is looking for more innovations as it plans for the next 10 years and beyond.
Finances a priority
When Joliet city officials in November questioned whether they should make another 10-year commitment to funding the museum, it was another sign to Slattery that financial independence should remain a priority for the future.
The museum gets $275,000 in annual support from the city. The city council eventually approved the agreement renewal in a 5-4 vote with some members calling for a term shorter than 10 years. But city funding is down $75,000 from where it was two years ago.
Slattery said he understands that government support can change with the fiscal needs of the city. But the museum, he said, does pay off for Joliet.
“It makes the city a destination,” Slattery said. “People come from all over. They spend their money in the city. It has an economic impact. It improves the reputation of Joliet.”
Slattery sat on a bench in a hallway of the museum, talking about its ability to attract people to Joliet and give them a good feeling about the city. Ben Herr just happened to stop by to ask for someone, but he helped to prove Slattery’s point.
Herr lives in Posen and first came to the museum two years ago for one of its rooftop concerts. He became a museum member. He brings family and friends. Herr said he even got a couple of other people to become museum members.
“I enjoy everything about it,” Herr said. “I like the canal exhibit. It’s a nice museum. People ought to come here more.”
Admissions on upswing
They have been coming more, although increasing admissions remains a goal for the museum.
In the first full fiscal year of operation, 2003-04, admissions were 14,500. In the 2011-12 year, 24,000 people came to the museum.
Admissions have been growing in part because of people like Herr.
He first came to the museum not to see the exhibits but for a concert. Even Friday, he was looking for one of the museum staffers to talk about the Ronnie Baker Brooks blues performance coming Feb. 7.
Events more than exhibits likely are the key to future growth for the museum, Executive Director Tony Contos said.
“I believe we’re aware of the fact that museum attendance can flatten out,” Contos said. “People say, ‘I’ve been there already.’ ”
Events, Contos said, bring new people in and bring other people back.
The museum has an annual beer tasting event, which features a presentation about old Joliet breweries and attracts about 350 people from throughout the Chicago region.
“An Evening With the Lincolns” in February 2012 brought people in for a dinner with impersonators of President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln.
A jazz concert was not a big draw, Contos said, but, “The initial people who came in here were all from Chicago.”
One revenue idea for the future, Contos said, is to rent out the museum for more private parties.
“I think we’ve tried to come across to the community as a community museum,” he said. “You can come here and enjoy other events.”