Over the last two years, we have witnessed attacks on our arts, cultural and literary institutions with the most recent being Bayou Vermilion District’s Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park. Elected officials and stacked boards have continued to take control over budgets, narratives, and above all institutional stewardship of the public trust. We have experienced wave after wave of frustration; we have experienced some wins. It can still leave you feeling battered and bruised and tired. But I came here to say we can always do more — there are no dead ends when it comes to advocacy.
And let’s be honest, we all saw David Cheramie’s resignation coming. While we should be outraged, we also shouldn’t be surprised. Employees have been leaving Vermilionville (and BVD) in droves and voicing concerns over its financial sustainability, toxic work environment and looming threats of retaliation, all contributing to mismanagement.
I and other current and former Vermilionville staff have watched this continual downfall for years due to inaction on every level. I don’t have a solution for this, only that every administration is temporary.
But I do have an idea.
Save the artisans. Save the village.
I pride myself on the work I have done and how I have tried to impact Lafayette through my career as a museum professional. I served in multiple roles at both Vermilionville and the Hilliard Art Museum since I moved here in 2012. When I oversaw Vermilionville’s village, I had one way of thinking — the artisans are your focus, they were here before you, they will be here after you, they are the reason people visit, and ultimately why you have a job.
I have watched countless tour groups walk through the village gates. I have watched them wait patiently outside of a home for their turn to engage with the artisans. I have listened to them recount their stories about the artisans who left an impression on them — the musician who couldn’t speak French in school, the spinner who could effortlessly create thread from cotton bolls, the blacksmith who knew everything under the sun and would pour with sweat from it, and that fiddler who was oh so charming — all in the name of entertaining education. We would field calls from schools in the fall months to reserve tour guides for the spring peak season. We would apologize as we told those who called in March that we had limited availability as we were hitting our capacity every day. Can you imagine sitting in the village in period clothing, talking to people for weeks on end, getting paid just above minimum wage? And guess what — they love(d) it. They take pride in passing on their knowledge, traditions and folklore from our Acadian, Creole and Indigenous cultures.
“Museums in the United States are grounded in the tradition of public service,” reads the the American Alliance of Museums’ Code of Ethics. “They are organized as public trusts, holding their collections and information as a benefit for those they were established to serve. Museums rely on the public and are one of the most trusted institutions in society, therefore they need to maintain the highest level of accountability and transparency.”
Vermilionville is one of the few accredited institutions by the American Alliance of Museums in our state. (Trust me, this is a big deal. It takes years of hard work to meet their standards.) The Alliance has recognized the work completed by Vermilionville (credit to Annie Mahoney and Maegan Smith) and the values the institution, its staff and governing bodies uphold when it comes to maintaining public trust. But it’s up to us, the public, to hold them accountable and demand transparency. Make sure they know we won’t stop watching and fighting.
As we get ready to watch another battle unfold, I ask each of you to keep your focus on the employment of the artisans, no matter the cost. Because when you save the artisans, you save the village. They have been there for three decades. They are the reason people visit from around the world. They drive Vermilionville’s visitation and therefore our local economy. They bring life to the village and our shared history. They have survived multiple CEOs, museum directors, boards and mayors, along with their administrations. We must ensure they remain employed through this transitional period. They are the voice of the village and what brings it to life. Without them, Vermilionville would no longer be a living history museum. It would simply be a composite site of buildings with interpretive panels.
Write letters to your City and Parish council members. Write letters to your favorite institution’s City and Parish council representative. Or call. Or email. Take it to your state and federal representatives. Attend commission meetings! (Psst, BVD meetings are the fourth Wednesday of every month.) Let the lieutenant governor know that museums and their employees have more than just an economic impact but an educational one too. Remember to keep it short, to the point, and always tell them your zip code. Also, here’s some data from the American Alliance of Museum’s Museums as Economic Engines Report to help with your argument.
- $562 million is the total financial impact museums have on Louisiana’s economy.
- 8,307 jobs in the state of Louisiana are supported by the museum industry every year.
- $349 million is the annual income and wages Louisiana museums provide to state residents.
- $141 million in tax revenue is generated by Louisiana museums.
- 89% percent of Americans believe museums provide important economic impact.
I also ask that you find an artisan who has worked (or is one of the few to still work) in the village. They’ll tell you what it means to them. If you have trouble finding one, find me, I’ll help connect you. You can also visit the village. Let’s amplify their voices and their stories. We need to ensure they remain the face of Vermilionville. Without them, the village will lose its voice.
p.s. If admission is an issue, you can check out a free pass to five local museums from any public library branch as if you were checking out a book. See the library’s circulation desks for more information.