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Collections supervisor Martha Melton says Bonniebrook volunteers are gearing up for the 100th anniversary of the Kewpie doll release in 2012.
Collections supervisor Martha Melton says Bonniebrook volunteers are gearing up for the 100th anniversary of the Kewpie doll release in 2012.

Business Spotlight: Rebranding the Kewpie Creator

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The volunteers at The Bonniebrook Gallery and Museum in Walnut Shade have a firm belief that Rose O’Neill, best known for inventing Kewpie dolls early in the 20th century, has a deeper place in American and, especially, Ozarks history.

But selling a 19th and early 20th century artist in the digital age isn’t easy.

“Rose O’Neill was a major suffragist and an author,” says Martha Melton, collections supervisor for The Bonniebrook Gallery and Museum. “She did a lot of interesting things in addition to the Kewpies, and we’re trying hard to rebrand her and re-educate people.”

O’Neill’s signature Kewpie dolls are known for their cute expressions, large eyes and tufts of hair. Her lesser known artwork runs the spectrum from classy females at galas to commercial drawings that were considered cartoons in the day.

Recognizing that Kewpie doll fans are aging, the historical society launched a campaign to show O’Neill’s relevance to Ozarks art history – not just to early 20th century pop culture.

The rebranding campaign prompted the nonprofit Bonniebrook Historical Society to add a $3,000 marketing budget for the first time since it opened the museum in 1993. The museum worked with an $80,000 operating budget in 2010.

Featuring fine art
At the forefront of the campaign is ensuring people are aware of the fine art in the O’Neill collection, which is housed in a newly renovated 2,200-square-foot space. An anonymous donor gave the museum $150,000 to create an art gallery to show O’Neill’s noncommercial pieces to the public. The renovation was completed just before the museum opened for the 2011 season on April 1.

The museum also has been swimming against economic conditions that hit the tourism industry especially hard. In 2010, Bonniebrook gift shop sales were down 27 percent, and tours were down 22 percent, compared to 2009. Revenue last year was $75,000, down from $87,000 in 2009 – an extraordinary year due to the 100th anniversary of the Kewpie drawings, Melton says.

In an attempt to offset the 14 percent dip in revenue, the museum raised its adult admission rates for the first time in 15 years to $8 from $7.  

The museum is open April 1–Nov. 30, and Melton says tours are up 10 percent in April, compared to the same time last year. There were more than 500 visitors to the April 16 open house, up from nearly 300 who attended the open house in 2010. The museum is expecting a 15 percent increase in visitors to roughly 5,000 in 2011.

Re-creating Bonniebrook
The Bonniebrook Historical Society was formed in the 1970s with the purpose of recreating the O’Neill home, which burned to the ground in 1947, three years after O’Neill’s death at age 69.

The 13-acre property, which is leased to the historical society for $1 per year by a private landowner, includes the home, Kewpie museum, gift shop, multipurpose room, fine art gallery, the O’Neill family cemetery and walking trails. The site’s restaurant closed in 2001 and was converted to a multipurpose room.   

In the 18 years since its opening, the museum has worked with a legion of volunteers and no paid staff. There are currently five volunteers on board. A caretaker lives on the grounds in exchange for room and board and a percentage of admissions. “One of our goals is to hire a full-time executive director,” Melton says.

Early last year, a supporter died and left money for the express purpose of renovating the gallery and restoring O’Neill’s artwork. Springfield architecture firm Butler, Rosenbury & Partners Inc. designed the gallery.

“Our job was to design a space that told the story more clearly of Rose O’Neill’s fine art,” says principal Tim Rosenbury.

The firm created four rooms in the formerly open space; two of the spaces are biographical of O’Neill’s life, and two areas highlight pieces from the fine art collection, which is valued in excess of $1 million, according to Melton. The gallery also was outfitted with bright new track lighting and fitted with systems that provide heat and humidity control.

“We were very privileged to work on a project of such cultural and historical significance,” adds Rosenbury, who also is working on the Laura Ingalls Wilder home outside of Mansfield.  

Robin Lowe, director of Missouri State University’s Brick City Gallery, says O’Neill’s historical significance applies across America, but particularly to the Ozarks. “She lived in this area in a time when it was hard to live here,” she says.

Lowe believes O’Neill became obsolete as an artist in her day due to a rapidly changing environment. “She was aligned more closely in the art world with the Victorian age, and the world changed very quickly,” Lowe says.

With 21st century modernism, Lowe hopes the gallery will bring more appreciation to O’Neill’s lesser-known works.

In addition to marketing the fine art collection, the museum is rotating the collection three times a year, hoping to draw repeat visitors. The museum also is placing more emphasis on marketing special events, such as a Fairy Festival in September.

Melton says the volunteers also are preparing for the 100th anniversary of the Kewpie doll release in 2012.[[In-content Ad]]

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