Although she has been involved with Genesee Country Village & Museum for decades, Elizabeth Wehle still is learning about the full scope of her new job as its president and chief executive.
“I wasn’t coming in completely blind, in the sense that I had been around the museum for nearly 45 years,” she says, noting her grandfather, John L. Wehle, planted the initial seeds for the historical village in Mumford, some 20 miles southwest of Rochester, in 1966. “Pretty much every day, I say, ‘I didn’t realize this was going to be a part of my job description,’ but that is part of the adventure and what makes it fun.”
Wehle, 44, who is known as Becky, joined the museum as interim president and CEO in July 2016, after working in the University of Rochester advancement office for nearly 20 years. As the person overseeing an annual operating budget of $3.6 million, she has made a big impression on those who selected her for the top post.
“We thought Becky would be passionate, and we thought she would bring some good management skills, but I think she has surpassed our expectations in terms of energy and humility as she goes into this,” says Gayle Stiles, the museum chair, who worked alongside Wehle as a volunteer for more than a decade. “That has been very refreshing. She is proving to be a really good leader.”
When Wehle was appointed to the job on a full-time basis this spring, she immediately viewed the organization through a different lens. The view from the top, she discovered, is quite different.
“What surprised me was the level of involvement and commitment of the staff,” she says. “I knew they were a great group, but when you serve as a board member, you often don’t realize what goes into those days when 1,200 school kids visit at a single time.”
The organization has some 30 full-time staffers and 250 volunteers. It ranked No. 10 on the most recent Rochester Business Journal list of cultural attractions.
Having served as a volunteer museum board member for more than 20 years, Wehle had a good idea of what she wanted to tackle in her first few months on the job.
“I knew that we needed to focus on marketing, which will drive general awareness of the museum, drive attendance and ultimately drive donations,” Wehle says. “We did that last year. Aimee Lewis came on board as our public relations and marketing consultant, and we put more effort into refining the messaging in our advertising, making sure we were participating in community events, and building bridges with the towns around us.”
Their hard work made a difference, as museum attendance in 2016 increased by 5,000 compared to the prior year.
“That was promising,” Wehle says, noting nearly 92,000 people visited the attraction last year. “It would be great to be at 100,000 at the end of next year.”
With 68 buildings and 600 acres of land, Genesee Country Village & Museum is the third-largest living history museum in the nation. There are no plans for expansion, however, since simply maintaining the existing infrastructure is a big challenge. The popular Octagon house, for example, is slated to receive a new roof, gutters and paint. Preserving this important piece of history will cost $125,000, but those involved say the expense is worth it.
“You couldn’t re-create this museum now,” Wehle says. “So many examples of architecture that are here were just torn down. We hope people will realize that this is not something that you could re-create. We need to take care of what we have now because it was a tremendous gift to our community.”
Many regular visitors to Genesee Country Village & Museum have a favorite building, and Wehle is no exception.
“It’s like asking which is my favorite child,” she says, “but I am partial to the Livingston Backus house, which is the big white house on the village square. The story behind that, to me, embodies why the museum is here.”
The Livingston Backus House, built in 1827, is the only building on museum grounds that originated in the city of Rochester. In the 1950s, amidst the urban renewal craze, the house was set to be torn down and replaced by a skating rink. Fortunately, members of the Rochester Historical Society had the foresight to take the house apart and store the contents in a warehouse in the hopes it would find a new home.
For Wehle, though, the house’s appeal does not end there.
“In 1996, the house suffered a fire,” she says. “The kitchen and the back part of it caught fire in the middle of the night, and it was rebuilt. This is the little house that could. It’s had such a tough life and it’s still there and it looks beautiful now.”
The next generation
Wehle’s trailblazing grandfather died in 1993, while she was a senior studying political science at Middlebury College in Vermont. She has fond memories of time spent with him, and a good sense of what he was trying to accomplish.
“We lived next door to each other in Scottsville,” she recalls. “We would come to the museum every time there was a special event. I do wish I had more time to ask him some questions, like, ‘What was he thinking when he did this?’ and ‘Why did he add this building?’”
Her grandfather’s presence at her workplace remains steadfast. The John L. Wehle Gallery houses 750 pieces of wildlife and sporting art, most of which he collected. She describes the art as “one of the world’s most outstanding collections of its kind.”
The gallery also houses a 3,000-piece collection of clothing from the 1800s.
“Everything from kid’s clothes to women’s clothes, shoes, hats and undergarments,” Wehle says. “It is wild. Even if you are not a big historic clothing fan, (it’s fascinating) just to look at the craftsmanship that went into these and think about where someone would have worn them.
“It’s not just the women, either. It’s the men, as well. The wool pants, the long sleeves. I think, ‘I’m glad I wasn’t born then, and I am glad my job here does not require me to wear a costume.’”
When Wehle is not at the museum she devotes time to her family.
“I have two kids, a 13-year-old daughter, and a 15-year-old son, and most of my time when not at work is spent with them and all of their activities,” she says. “We like to travel. Last June, we went to London and Paris, so they have pretty good lives.
“We go on trips throughout the year and explore museums and other parts of the country. They are very willing to check out other museums. They are my benchmarking assistants.”
Wehle also serves on the board of trustees at Allendale Columbia School in Brighton. Her children attend school there, and she did as well.
“I’m a lifelong Rochesterian and have very deep connections to the area and the institutions our family has been a part of for a long time,” she says. “Whether working or volunteering, I choose to spend my time trying to make the area great not only for visitors, but also for people who live here.”
That Wehle is such a good multi-tasker does not surprise Lewis, who leads the museum’s revitalized public relations and marketing efforts.
“Becky is one of those people who is able to somehow take on a gazillion tasks at one time and complete them all on time and do it well,” she says. “She works at the speed of light and that’s one of the reasons I love working with her. She just keeps on moving. And she knows a lot of people.
“I have hardly encountered a person in Rochester who doesn’t know Becky in some capacity,” Lewis says. “The connections she has in Rochester—and the reputation that she has—is so positive, both in terms of being a businesswoman and a genuinely nice person. The museum is lucky to have someone with both qualities.”
Travis Anderson is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
Name: Becky Wehle
Title: President and CEO, Genesee Country Village & Museum
Education: Middlebury College, Vermont; bachelor’s degree in political science, 1994
Family: Children, Henry, 15; Eliza, 13
Hobbies: Traveling with her children, visiting other historic sites
Quote: “I choose to spend my time trying to make the area great not only for visitors, but also for people who live here.”
(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email email@example.com.