For 85 years the non-profit Oglebay Institute has served as the cultural hub of Wheeling and its surrounding communities. By providing a diverse schedule of more than 350 cultural programs in art, dance, theater, nature, and history each year, OI reaches a vast audience and makes a positive impact on the lives of Upper Ohio Valley residents.
Whether it was during one of our in-school programs, summer camps or dance classes as a youth or one of our art classes, plays or musical concerts an adult, almost everyone in the area has had some experience with what OI offers. You’ve hiked our trails, visited our galleries, danced in our studio, explored our archives and collections, acted on our stages, applauded in our theater, and learned in our indoor and outdoor classrooms.
What you may not know is that OI provides all of these opportunities in our six facilities with a staff of only 24 fulltime employees. How do we offer so much with such a small staff? The answer is the same as it was in 1930 when OI was incorporated to offer cultural programming to a city that had just been gifted Oglebay Park – dedicated, passionate volunteers.
As a short history lesson and a story we love to tell, OI began when 110 families donated $100 each to kick start an effort to offer quality cultural programming and educational opportunities to Wheeling in conjunction with the gifting of Waddington Farm by the Oglebay family to the city of Wheeling. (This is an incredible fact, considering our country was in the midst of a depression, unemployment was reaching 25 percent, and the average family income was less than $1400 per year.)
Our founding members realized the important role cultural programs play in improving the quality of life of a community. Those seed families unknowingly planted more than just their money. They planted a core value in an organization that would thrive for more than eight decades later – the importance of volunteerism in service of the arts.
This past spring served as a shining example and reminder of the valuable role community volunteers play in leading the growth and continued vitality of OI as the Committee of the Museums of Oglebay Institute, whose members graciously volunteer their time and experience to support the Mansion and Glass Museums, celebrated 80 years of service.
There are only 779 museums in the United States accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, which sets the rigorous standards of what a top-notch museum should be. Of those 779, only four of them reside in the historically rich West Virginia. The museums of Oglebay Institute have the prestigious honor of being among those four. (While the Mansion Museum and Glass Museum have separate physical locations, they are classified as one museum by the AAM.) The others are the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia in Charleston, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, National Park Service, and the Huntington Museum of Art. Anyone who has traveled through West Virginia and enjoys learning about its rich cultural history will quickly recognize how many amazing museums are not listed above.
Keeping this accreditation is rigorous, costly, and time intensive. How do we manage it at OI? It is only possible through the dedicated service of the volunteers that serve on Committee.
Museums director Christin Byrum said that without the volunteer committee, there is little chance of maintaining such a prestigious listing.
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“We have been accredited by the American Alliance of Museums since 1972, which was the second year of the program. Achieving and maintaining accredited status means that our museums are operating in accordance with national standards and best practices in the field. We were the first museum in West Virginia to be accredited. That’s really pretty amazing. Having fewer than 800 museums in the United States accredited means that less than 2.5 percent of recognized museums are able to obtain and keep that recognition. Here we are, a small museum in Wheeling, W.Va., which has literally been on that list from the very beginning.”
Perhaps the greatest hurdle that many museums face is the challenge of caring for collections housed in historic structures, while adhering to the AAM’s rigorous standards. Most of the buildings that house museums weren’t designed to maintain optimal conditions for preserving a collection of historical items. Whether it is the museums or any one of the other five facilities OI operates, these types of ambitious initiatives are often the result of fundraising and hours of work put in by volunteers that see the importance of continuing the cultural legacy left by those who have come before.
Byrum added that, in the case of the Museums Committee, it is the willingness of members to raise those needed funds as well as their leadership and guidance that make everything continue to operate smoothly.
“Without the support of the Committee, many of the annual events and activities that take place could not happen. Children’s Day and the Antiques Show & Sale are just two examples. Children’s Day has been and continues to be a tradition enjoyed by generations of Wheeling citizens, and the Antiques Show & Sale, the largest and longest running in the state, just celebrated its 61st year.”
The funds raised through these events support key areas of operation that are critical to maintaining professional standards and practices: collections acquisitions, collections care, continuing education, and professional development for the staff, and internships.
Donna Glass, the current chairman of the Museum Committee, says that volunteerism is about finding the perfect fit.
“There are a lot of great organizations doing really wonderful things, but it’s about finding the right fit for you. If you look at the example of the Museums Committee, you will see a list of names you might never put together as individuals, but as a group, I truly believe we can take on any challenge that is presented to us. Our individual passions and beliefs for preserving the museums and making them better is even stronger when experienced as a group.”
Arts organizations and non-profits in general rely on both individual volunteers and groups like the Museums Committee to protect the mission across generations. Glass says that the perfect marriage is not only about matching passion and mission but also working with the staff to guarantee that the mission is being fulfilled.
“The Museums Committee is there to protect, preserve, and enhance the museums to ensure that they will always be here and to be able to lighten the load of the dedicated staff.”
Volunteers are essential to the operations of not only the museums but also OI as a whole. They can be found sharing their time and expertise throughout the organization: art students assisting with classes and exhibits at OI’s Stifel Fine Arts Center; actors, ushers, and stage hands at Towngate Theatre; moms and dads at the School of Dance who build sets, buy props and sew costumes; outdoor enthusiasts chipping trails and working in gardens at the Schrader Center. Our volunteers add a depth and richness that we would most certainly lack in their absence.
We just wanted to take a moment to say, “Thank You” to each and every one of you that give your time and talents to make OI the very best that it can be.