Frank Vagnone is revitalizing Old Salem
Frank Vagnone, who has made revitalizing tradition-bound museums his lifework, says he’s having a blast at Old Salem, which portrays a Moravian community as it existed in the 18th and 19th centuries. The portrayal now includes new research into the lives of free and enslaved African-Americans who lived among the European immigrants. That’s the type of edginess that Old Salem Museum and Gardens, the nonprofit that runs the 251-year-old site near downtown Winston-Salem, wanted in hiring Vagnone in March. He was an unconventional choice: Vagnone runs a consulting firm called Twisted Preservation and wrote a book called Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums.
“I remember someone telling me when I got to town, ‘I can’t believe they hired a gay man, because that board is so stodgy,’” Vagnone, 53, says. “Well, my board has been 100% supportive and helped us activate programs more quickly than in the past. And we’ve done this while tightening our financial budget.” Old Salem visits have increased more than 40% since 2011 to more than 400,000, though ticketed admissions make up only half of that total. Revenue from tickets, retail and other programs has been flat at more than $4 million in recent years, while the attraction relies on donations and income from its endowment to stay vibrant. Old Salem has cut expenses by about 10% over the last three years and is tapping less of its endowment, which totaled $34 million at the end of 2015, according to a financial statement.
Vagnone spent his teenage years in Charlotte, later studying architecture at UNC Charlotte and earning a master’s in architectural design at Columbia University. He moved back south after working as executive director of the Historic House Trust, which oversees 23 houses in New York City, including Gracie Mansion, the home for Big Apple mayors. He and his partner, John Yeagley, have retained their consulting business, with Vagnone still making speeches to museum groups globally. “But Old Salem is definitely a full-time job,” he says.
Old Salem’s residents were meticulous record-keepers, giving historians a unique written and photographic view into the slave experience. “Moravians had incredibly difficult conversations on whether to engage in slavery,” he says. By the 1850s, with the waning of church influence and communal living, “Old Salem became like every other North Carolina town, with a considerable number of slaves.”
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