Proposed Ward Museum relocation faces public backlash
Overlooking Schumaker Pond two miles from Salisbury University, the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art stands as a cultural and historical beacon of art and heritage on the Eastern Shore. The museum and art collection – valued over $7 million – are owned through donation by SU which plans to remove the museum from its current location due to an HVAC malfunction in July 2022.
Art donors are concerned about the future of the pieces they gave to preserve the Ward Foundation's vision. Educators fear losing the museum's profound educational impacts on SU and surrounding schools.
Wildfowl enthusiasts and community members voiced frustrations with a lack of transparency about the museum's future, casting doubt on SU's description of the HVAC malfunction's severity and subsequent damage to the art.
History of the Ward Museum
Lem and Stephen Ward, from Crisfield, Maryland, turned bird decoys – a utilitarian hunting tool – into an art form in the 1920s. Wildfowl art quickly gained local and national renown.
The Wards founded the Ward Foundation in 1968 and received honorary degrees in 1972 from what was then known as Salisbury State College. Three years later, their first museum exhibit opened in SU's Great Hall.
Over the next twenty years, the art collection grew beyond the space and the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art officially opened in 1992 to continue the foundation's mission.
The Ward Museum and its contents were 'sold' to long-time partner SU for $1 in 2000.
The foundation made the donation in hopes of preserving the mission and continued mutual benefit between the University and the foundation, according to the original agreement of gift/purchase signed by both parties Feb. 22, 2000.
"The Ward believes that this prior association coupled with current mutual goals assures the continuity of the purpose and mission of the Ward and guarantees financial stability," according to the agreement.
"Whereas, SSU is a well-known and respected community asset with the resources and ability to provide national, and perhaps international exposure and prominence to the art collection of the Ward."
SU and the Ward Foundation enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship for over two decades. The foundation receives financial support from SU – roughly $200,000 each year – to continue operation, while SU freely uses the space for varied purposes. Environmental science classes at the museum were a staple of the agreement, giving students opportunities for hands-on study bolstered by close proximity and connection to nature.
The museum provided space for SU events and hosted field trips and educational programs for local schools, giving the community's youth a meaningful environmental education. Ward Foundation interim Executive Director Brittany Andrew said this community outreach has real benefits for SU.
"All the young local students that we're reaching, they're learning of the university through their connection with us," Andrew said.
HVAC Malfunction and subsequent museum closure
Museum operations ceased in March 2020 due to the pandemic and the foundation struggled to stay afloat despite extended closure, according to Andrew.
The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art experienced an HVAC malfunction in July 2022 which catalyzed closure and relocation from its historic waterfront location.
Andrew said a myriad of contributing factors caused the malfunction.
"The HVAC system's boiler shut off over a hot, humid holiday weekend ... by the time staff realized what happened, the humidity reached a dangerous point," Andrew said.
"The staff person who normally would be monitoring [the HVAC system] just happened to be on vacation."
Andrew said the system was shut down for less than 48 hours, but was since reset and is currently working fine. When surface mold developed on some art pieces, the museum was closed to the public.
"It was all surface mold – nothing was seriously affecting the artwork," Andrew said.
"All of it is fixable, it just takes time. My team was taught by art restoration experts to properly restore the art."
A statement from SU Spokesperson Jason Rhodes communicated a different status: "The HVAC that serves the galleries has not been repaired or replaced and is not currently working," according to WMDT.
Andrew said the exact nature of the boiler malfunction is unknown, but repairs are necessary to ensure the safety of the museum and art. HVAC expert Richard Hottel said the system has five to ten years of function left, though a new boiler would help extend its lifespan.
Hottel's proposed repairs include a replacement boiler and a larger reheat coil – a $200,000 estimate – to increase operating efficiency and lower utility costs while helping curb greenhouse gas emissions.
"If we were given the green light to do the short-term fix, we could be open in ninety days," Andrew said.
Andrew said SU refused this offer with no interest in a "short-term fix." SU's desired long-term fix entails complete HVAC system replacement – estimates ranging between $3 million and $7 million.
"Estimates to replace or repair the HVAC system to the specifications necessary for the continued safety of the collection are beyond the scope of feasibility for the building to continue to operate as a museum," according to a Feb. 28 Ward Museum press release.
"The University is working with the Ward Foundation to move the SU-owned collection to a new location where it once again may be enjoyed by the public while being properly preserved."
The Powell Building at 218 W. Main Street is among proposed locations, but Andrew said no official decisions have been made.
Wherever it moves, the museum's operating space will be greatly reduced. The current waterfront location houses 12,000 square feet of exhibition space, 4 gallery rooms, multiple educational spaces and direct nature access to further the Ward Foundation's mission.
The Powell building has space for one gallery, no educational settings and limited office space. The majority of the art would be stored to exhibition in the gallery.
Wildfowl art enthusiasts are furious that the national beacon for their art form is being reduced to a storefront gallery. Students and community members fear losing a valuable educational space and center for art and culture.
Ward Foundation member and art donor Dr. John Juriga said he is disappointed with the University's lack of transparency and communication regarding the museum's status. In a letter to University President Carolyn Ringer-Lepre, he requested further involvement from the community and members of the foundation.
"The future of the Ward Museum should not be a secretive, strictly financial decision," Juriga wrote. "Please allow the members of the organization and residents of the area to voice their opinions regarding this matter."
The President's office did not directly respond to Juriga's letter, nor The Flyer's emails.
Juriga said the museum is a significant resource for SU students and surrounding school districts and he hopes to emphasize its broader cultural and social significance on the Eastern Shore and beyond.
"The Ward Museum attracts people from locations near and far to experience exhibits, connects them to nature, and allows them a venue to learn from speakers and special events," he wrote. "Art, humanities, and piquing an interest in the natural world—aren't these also some of the goals of Salisbury University?"
Public discourse and vocal disagreement with the proposed move have increased in frequency. Juriga believes the administration did not recognize the Ward Museum's public support system.
Last week, concerned community members responded by starting a petition to "Save the Ward Museum at Schumaker Pond", which garnered nearly two thousand signatures in a few days.
"The university administrators underestimated the significance that the Ward Museum has in the Salisbury community as well as the wider cadre of wildfowl carvers and admirers of their craftsmanship and artistry," he said.
By LIAM MCGINNES
Featured images courtesy of Liam McGinnes & midatlanticdaytrips.com