|By Barbara and Ken Beem
EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio – Time is running out for the Museum of Ceramics, as the Ohio Historical Society has announced it will cut back financial support for this pottery lovers’ mecca, located in East Liverpool. As it stands now, the museum’s last day as an official, staffed site will be May 30, according to Sarah Vodrey, manager of the facility.
The announcement became public in an April 11 press release from the historical society, a private, non-profit entity which contracts with the state of Ohio to oversee nearly 60 historical sites in the state. Because of funding cutbacks from the state, the decision was made to change the museum’s status from a staffed site to a managed one. Under that arrangement, the historical society would provide “a modest subsidy,” according to George Kane, director of facilities management for the OHS, slashing a budget that now provides for two and a half paid staff members to keep the museum in operation. To keep the doors open, community members would have to fill in the gaps, said Kane.
“We have tough decisions all the way around the state,” he continued, discussing Ohio’s economic situation. “We think this museum has the potential for strong support.” A town meeting is being planned to help members of the community keep alive what he called “an important facility.” In making the decision concerning the Museum of Ceramics, which is not the only facility to receive this news this year, he said, “We do not have the capacity to manage everything.” Acknowledging the importance of the landmark, he said, “The state need to understand how important history is to tourism. We’re optimistic that the community will keep the museum open.”
Not sharing Kane’s optimism is Tim Brooks, president of the East Liverpool Historical Society. Relying on the community to make up the shortfall of more than $100,000 a year is “not realistic. Volunteers cannot take over the role that professionals were doing.” He said the loss of OHS’ “talent and resources” was “a shock and a real disappointment,” and he does not like to think of the museum having to close its doors and putting its holdings in storage. In addition to the “amazing collection” on display are “written documents such as potteries’ files and correspondences” that regularly attract serious scholars, he added.
The Museum of Ceramics will probably never be a moneymaker, Brooks concluded: “It’s admittedly not self-sufficient and it’s not going to show a profit.” But he pointed out its intangible worth and hopes efforts to secure funding will be successful. “This is just overwhelming.”
For Sarah Vodrey, the Museum of Ceramics is more than just a place to work. The historic site manager is a sixth generation East Liverpudlian. Her ancestors, Staffordshire potters, arrived in this small river town in 1847. Over the years, they worked in the region’s primary industry and at one time owned their own pottery. Her great-grandfather was among those who founded the East Liverpool Historical Society in 1907, a group that began collecting local wares, displaying them on the second floor of the East Liverpool Carnegie Public Library. His son carried on the family tradition of caring for the town’s heritage, working until his death to realize a Museum of Ceramics. In large part due to the fact that he was once president of the board of trustees of the OHS, the museum opened in 1980 as a managed site, at which time the collection was transferred to a vacant 1909 post office building. The former East Liverpool Historical Society collection was augmented with pieces of local pottery belonging to the OHS. Today, its holdings number in the thousands. Included in the inventory is the nation’s largest public display of Lotus Ware.
Vodrey fears that the six weeks’ notice given the museum is not enough time to raise sufficient money to ensure continued operation. The state owns the building, which is neither totally handicapped-accessible nor air-conditioned – two factors that contribute to the museum’s admittedly “low” attendance, according to Vodrey.
All the same, the museum does the best it can with its limited resources to stay true to its mission. “We are here to highlight the fact that East Liverpool was for many decades the pottery capital of the United States,” Vodrey said. To that end, a letter-writing campaign has been initiated; the governor of Ohio has received hundreds of letters from those upset about the funding decision. “It does not appear that the goal of those letters has been achieved,” she said.
Looking at a worst-case scenario, Vodrey noted that the dissolution of the collection would be a logistical nightmare, as well as a historical shame. She has pledged to do her best to keep the museum open. “I believe this is worth saving.”
She paused. “While there is breath in me, I will keep fighting.”
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or The Friends of the Museum, P.O. Box 60, East Liverpool, Ohio 43920.