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Finding wider audience for historic heroine

When Susan B. Anthony stumped for one of the many issues she kept close-suffrage, temperance, civil rights-she traveled on a shoestring, leaving her finances in the hands of those who supported the cause.

Before speaking engagements, Anthony would print the handbills herself; afterward she would take a collection, hoping to gather enough for train fare to the next town. For years, the museum dedicated to preserving Anthony’s legacy and the Rochester house she lived in has operated the same way.

That is what Deborah Hughes wants to change. The Susan B. Anthony House executive director, 50, has plans to grow membership through outreach to people affected by Anthony’s less heralded crusades such as nursing reform and lifelong health.

For an organization that has operated on annual revenue of less than $500,000 and has four full-time and five part-time employees, financial growth is the forerunner to other plans. Hughes aims to add on to the house-both its physical space and programs-and build its national stature.

The Susan B. Anthony House has an obligation to provide a more complete story of Anthony’s work, using the breadth of collections it has gathered from across the country and, in some cases, from within the walls of the 150-year-old house.

"A lot of people are telling her suffrage story now, but our challenge is to tell it more fully and deeply," Hughes says.

Her calling
Hughes was not looking for a job in 2007 when a friend passed along a notice of the opening at the Susan B. Anthony House. She was working as an interim pastor at Third Presbyterian Church, a position she had held for almost three years, but she says the museum job felt like a calling.

The committee charged with selecting an executive director initially placed her resume in a pile for applicants deemed to lack experience, but her background was substantial enough that some members argued to keep her in the mix.

She had never been head of a non-profit organization but did have experience in organizing volunteers during her work in churches and some background in fundraising because of a position with Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.

Her interview sealed the job offer.

"She came in and blew our socks off," said Thomas Argust, trustee emeritus and member of the search committee that selected Hughes. "She was very well-informed about Susan B. Anthony, and her knowledge of history was remarkable."

Hughes knows something about callings. While she was a senior at the University of Oregon, she met with an adviser to sort through credits she had accumulated while changing majors a handful of times. The adviser pointed out that she had taken almost every course the religious studies department offered.

Hughes, who at that point had not decided what to do after graduation, went on to attend a Presbyterian seminary. After completing seminary, she was offered a job by a Baptist church in Michigan.

She was surprised to be offered a position outside her denomination, but she approached it with an open mind. She interviewed and became deeply involved in the work, eventually transferring to New York City for a job involving death benefits with the American Baptist pension board.

"It was very fulfilling work because the organization had a nice endowment and could help families that had been living in the parsonage to be able to move on and into their own homes," Hughes says. "It was great to be able to meet with them and present a check to help them start their new lives."

As she moved throughout her career, Hughes harbored a desire to return to Rochester. She had lived in the city off Browncroft Boulevard as a child before her family moved briefly to Fairport and then left the area for Oregon when she was 10. Though she had left Rochester as a girl, the city had made a deep impression on her.

"I really missed the intellectual environment, the arts and culture here," Hughes says. "I still remember my first trip to Strasenburgh Planetarium and a class field trip we took downtown to open our own bank accounts. I must have driven all the other kids in Oregon crazy, talking about how great Rochester was all the time."

Instead of fading away like a lost part of her youth, Hughes’ connection to Rochester grew stronger as she went through school. During seminary she was fascinated with the spiritual history of Western New York, where the histories of spiritualists, Mormons and Quakers were intertwined.

She also felt a connection to the area’s progress in civil rights. She was a child during Rochester’s 1964 insurrection-she says it is not appropriate to call it a riot-and saw how the city tried to improve urban conditions afterward.

"As a kid I was really impressed and fascinated by how people responded, and when the same thing happened in Detroit, people just packed up and left the city," Hughes says.

She now lives in the city again; she bicycles, plays racquetball at the downtown YMCA and enjoys water sports in the summer.

Museum history
But for the sign in front noting that it was Susan B. Anthony’s house, there would be little to set the museum apart from the other houses on Madison Street. Just outside downtown, the tree-lined residential street off West Main Street is part of one of the oldest intact residential areas in the city.

That part of the city had been a major transportation hub, near a train line and a company that built canal boats. It was within walking distance of the major sleigh lines that operated during an era before streetcars. The house Anthony shared with her sister Mary was not part of the Underground Railroad, but a nearby house was.

Hughes says she is glad the museum is part of such a vibrant and diverse city neighborhood. In the 2000 census, the average household income for the area was $18,000, but Hughes describes it as a safe place where neighbors look after one another.

"The people here are very proud, and they even print T-shirts that say, ‘History lived here,’" Hughes says.

For Hughes, there is no better place than Madison Street for people from within and outside Rochester to see the city’s history. Around the corner from the Susan B. Anthony House is the newly opened Frederick Douglass Resource Center, and in a park between the two is a sculpture that depicts Anthony and Douglass conversing over tea.

The house became a museum almost by accident, Hughes says. After Anthony’s death in 1906 and sister Mary’s death the following year, members of the suffrage movement advocated for making the house a monument to the work. But the family decided to sell it and use the proceeds to support the campaign for women’s suffrage.

The house was occupied by a family until 1945, when the Rochester Federation of Women’s Clubs asked whether it could designate the house in some way.

"They asked the owner if they could put a sign up, and the owners happened to want to leave, so they said that it was for sale," Hughes says. "The group that wanted to buy the house didn’t want people knowing that it was them buying it to make a museum, because they were afraid it would raise too much attention and drive the price up, so they used a third party."

The house became a national historic landmark in 1965, the first one in Rochester and now one of two, along with the George Eastman House. For years the house was run by an all-volunteer organization, until in 1992 the board of trustees decided to hire its first executive director.

Campaigns to expand the museum’s programs and revenue have gained momentum since the transition from an all-volunteer organization. In 1997 it raised $1.4 million to purchase two adjacent properties and build a visitors center. Hughes says there are more plans to expand, allowing the museum to take in larger tour groups and accommodate an annual audience of 20,000, up from the 8,000 it receives now.

"We want to make the site more accessible for more people," Hughes says. "We would add more room for bathrooms and our collections, as we’ve had three acquisitions this year. But we want to stabilize our ongoing budget before we work on any building plans."

Growing the museum
The museum has close to 750 members today. Within five years, Hughes wants to reach 20,000. Doing so would give the organization the funding it needs to expand programs, but that would not come without a cost itself.

"In the last year we had an aggressive campaign to increase donations and membership, and what we learned about membership growth is that all we have to do is ask and people respond," Hughes says. "But we found that we spend about as much as we make, and that’s a stretching point for a museum like ours."

Hughes says the Susan B. Anthony House is seeking $600,000 in grant funding for a program to attract new members, a plan that would raise $1 million. The plan would focus on Anthony’s influence on history outside of her suffrage efforts.

Nursing will be one of the main points of attention, Hughes says. In 1902, when Anthony was 82, she made a speech at a state nursing convention that laid the groundwork for legislation to standardize the profession. The following year the Armstrong Act passed in the state, first establishing the term "registered nurse" and standards that went along with it.

The museum has formed the group Nursing Friends of Susan B. Anthony, hoping to further share her connection with the profession and reach an audience of thousands of potential members, Hughes says.

"There is so much depth of Susan B. Anthony and her connections locally and nationally, and we’re just beginning to tap into that," she adds.

The outreach will extend to the elderly, since Anthony was a proponent of healthy living and exercise. She walked her nine-block neighborhood every day and ate oatmeal at a time when it was seen as a peculiar meal. Hughes says she hopes to get an article into the magazine AARP about Anthony’s lifestyle, opening the door for more potential members.

Anthony’s life, as displayed in the museum, is also used as a model for women recovering from addiction.

"We’re trying to reach out to the court-mandated treatment programs to get more people in," Hughes says. "When they come and see that this national hero lived in a neighborhood that looks like theirs, it means a lot. She wasn’t wealthy at all, despite what many people may have thought."

The program has become an asset to the neighborhood, says Dawn Noto, president of the Susan B. Anthony Neighborhood Association. Hughes has been an important part of organizing the groups in the Madison Street area to make it safer and more focused on self-development.

Using Anthony’s legacy to better the lives of residents is a big part of that, Noto says.

"That program wasn’t at the house before (Hughes) came, and it makes it such an inspirational place," Noto says. "She has made it so the house isn’t just about history, but a place where people can take motivation for today, and it’s very powerful."

The push to increase membership comes at a time when attendance for house mu-seums is on the decline nationally, Hughes says. Smaller museums do not tend to make much from admission fees to begin with, she notes, so increasing membership is more necessity than luxury.

Hughes has pushed the growth plans with a tight focus on how to present Anthony and the museum to a national audience. She worked with a group of public relations and advertising experts to understand and define the Susan B. Anthony House brand.

"That’s just one of the things that is great about her skills," Argust says. "She’s been here a few years and has already made her mark in a number of ways."

Timing is also important. The Susan B. Anthony House relies heavily on its annual birthday celebration to raise money, following the tradition Anthony set in turning her own birthday into a fundraiser for suffrage. This year marks the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, and the birthday celebration will feature a one-act play to commemorate its passage.

The event normally raises 10 percent of the museum’s operating budget. Thirty tables already have been sold for the Feb. 10 event, which draws close to 1,000 people.

Aside from the push to increase membership, Hughes is leading an initiative to expand the museum’s collections. The house is filled with donated objects that Anthony used herself-such as the bed in her room or the black dress she was famous for-and others with a connection to the Anthony family.

It also has an extensive collection of letters by Anthony, a prolific writer. The museum recently acquired a collection of 150 letters from Anthony and her family, including her father’s letter about meeting a man named Fred Douglass and investing in a newspaper he was trying to start.

Not all the letters have been donated. A few years ago, an employee was talking about how the old house held many surprises, reaching up between the cracks of a closet’s wallboards as he said it, in a joking gesture. He pulled back a letter, intact and hidden there by Anthony herself.

Hughes says the discovery epitomizes the museum’s mission. So much history of the suffrage movement and Anthony’s life is within reach, needing just the proper channels to reach a wider audience.

"The story we can still tell about Susan B. Anthony is so broad and rich," Hughes says.

Deborah Hughes
Position: Executive director, Susan B. Anthony House
Age: 50
Education: B.S. in religious studies in church history, University of Oregon, 1983; master of divinity in biblical studies, Colgate Rochester Divinity School, 1987; certificate in fundraising management, the Fund Raising School, Center of Philanthropy, Indiana University, 2003
Family: Three sisters
Residence: Rochester
Activities: Biking, racquetball, water sports, reading
Quote: "There is so much depth of Susan B. Anthony and her connections locally and nationally, and we’re just beginning to tap into that."

1/22/10 (c) 2010 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail rbj@rbj.net.

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