Sitting ducks? Beloved Eastern Shore decoy museum to move, sparking bitter dispute

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One by one, Brittany Andrew unfurled hundreds of award ribbons for the Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition, sorting and proofing them, before laying them on the floor of an otherwise empty office.

Normally, this sort of preparation for decoy carving’s biggest stage would take place atop tables inside the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, home to the world’s largest public collection of antique and decorative decoys.


But this year, just a month before the contest in Ocean City, Andrew and the rest of the museum staff were locked out, the result of an acrimonious dispute between the museum’s owner, Salisbury University, and the nonprofit Ward Foundation that had operated it since its construction.

Now, the university is severing ties with the foundation and moving the collection from its scenic perch alongside a pond to a new location: a far smaller gallery space in downtown Salisbury.


The planned relocation was prompted in part by a serious failure of the museum’s heating and air conditioning system in July, which caused mold to grow on the surface of several of the delicate wood carvings. But at the core of the university’s decision were a host of financial problems at the museum, brought on by questionable investments and the coronavirus pandemic.

Those problems led the university to cut off the foundation and hire its staff to run the new museum, said Karen Olmstead, the university’s provost.

“It is beyond their capacity to raise money, whether it’s through memberships or through grants, to operate the museum at that level,” Olmstead said. “And it’s way beyond our capacity to support it.”

The university’s decision set off a furor in the passionate community of wildfowl art supporters on Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore, where decoy carving and duck hunting are linked traditions of waterside living. Floated on the water to lure in passing birds, decoys were once crafted from reeds by Native American hunters, and have since evolved into a wooden artistry prized by collectors and outdoorsmen alike.

Judges look over decoys floating in Assawoman Bay during a round of the 50th Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition in Ocean City.

In the battle to keep a traditional folk art alive in the collective consciousness, losing the Ward Museum feels like losing ground.

“We wonder how in the world a very small space in downtown Salisbury is going to reflect the depth and breadth of this thing we love,” said Josh Brewer, a carver whose career began with taking classes at the museum.

The foundation was established in 1968 to memorialize the Ward brothers, barbers from Crisfield whose carvings defined the art form, and to promote interest in wildlife art and conservation. It held its first world championship contest three years later and opened a small museum in 1976 at what was then Salisbury State College.

Outgrowing that rented space, the foundation opened the current museum in 1992 on land fronting Schumaker Pond that was donated by the city of Salisbury. The cost of building the museum hobbled the foundation, though, and it agreed to affiliate with Salisbury University nine years later, selling it the museum and the collection — each valued at over $4 million at the time — in exchange for the school taking on the $1.6 million debt.


The Ward Foundation continued to manage the museum for the university until financial problems resurfaced in the past year and the school decided to end the relationship.

Without the university’s support, the foundation and its carving competition face a precarious future, though foundation board chairman Arthur Leonard said he’s determined to keep them alive.

“The Ward Foundation is committed to the heritage and the artists that make wildfowl art,” he said, “and we’re committed to continue to have the world championship every year even if we do not have the art collection and museum.”

But several of its museum staff members have departed — some to help the university run the new location and manage the decoy collection — leaving only a few.

The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art was built 30 years ago beside Schumaker Pond in Salisbury 30. The museum, known for its collection of duck decoy carvings, is being relocated by owner Salisbury University to a smaller space downtown.

The prospect of losing the Ward competition is almost unthinkable, said world champion carver Jett Brunet. Despite the financial struggles, he wonders why the university abandoned a foundation with so many contributions to the art world, threatening a treasured contest.

“You just stepped on a lot of souls, man,” Brunet said. “You just hurt a lot of people. And artists trying to make a living doing this — you just took their Super Bowl away.”


Museum fans, including volunteers and donors, as well as carvers and collectors, are pushing to rescue the building. Their online petition to “Save the Ward Museum at Schumaker Pond” has garnered more than 5,000 signatures.

“It came as a complete shock,” said John Juriga, a former museum volunteer and longtime member. “There was no transparency from the university, and it had all the subtlety of a drive-by shooting.”

The university, meanwhile, has signed a 10-year lease for the new museum on the ground floor of a shuttered department store downtown, and plans to host an open house in late September, when the Maryland Folk Festival is underway in Salisbury, Olmstead said. The goal is to open fully by year’s end.

That museum will have a different name, since the foundation trademarked the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art. The university hasn’t made a final decision, but still hopes to use the Ward name in some way to honor the brothers whose carvings define the collection, said Jason Rhodes, a university spokesman.

The fate of the picturesque museum building, designed for the collection, is up in the air.

The university says its goal is to keep the museum a public space. It is searching for an entity that can operate it without incurring the losses the Ward Foundation did. Perhaps the Wicomico County government or the school district could find funds to repair the building, Olmstead said.


”There could be gallery spaces, there could be convening spaces, there could be education spaces,” Olmstead said.

Amid the outcry, the university has pointed to the foundation’s troubled financial history. When the university took on the museum, the foundation was overleveraged and desperate for help, said Rich Smoker, a professional carver who stepped down as board chairman last year.

Now Smoker regrets that deal.

“Nobody looked at it from the fact that, down the road, they have the keys. They’re gonna drive the bus, and they’re gonna close the door on you,” Smoker said. “And that’s where we’re at.”

Ryan “Ducboy” Torbett carves a block of paulownia for the body of a decoy while working the demonstration booth at the 50th Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition in Ocean City.

The partnership was generally harmonious until the arrival of what Andrew, the museum’s departing executive director, called a “perfect storm.”

In 2014, the foundation decided to build an addition to the museum, funded by two major donors and a fundraising campaign. But it also took on more debt.


When the space opened in 2018, overlooking a sculpture garden and nature trails, the foundation hoped to use it for educational space as well as for lucrative events. The idea was that wedding receptions, for instance, would support the less profitable uses, such as school field trips.

Then came the pandemic. With more than $500,000 in COVID-19 relief grants, the museum survived — and kept its staff, Andrew said.

At the direction of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, which oversees Salisbury University, the Ward Foundation developed a financial plan, charting a path to become debt-free by fiscal year 2026.

The air conditioning system’s failure shot down those plans last July. With mold damage to the exhibits, the museum closed its doors for cleaning, abruptly halting its revenue from admissions, gift shop purchases and event rentals. Months passed, and following the denial of an insurance claim, the Ward Foundation and the university couldn’t agree on what to do, Andrew said.

The university estimated that replacing the HVAC system and completing a host of other repairs it says the building requires — including plumbing and electrical work — would cost $10 million to $19 million. Olmstead, the provost, said the university won’t pay for the repairs. She noted it already sends about $400,000 per year to the museum, though half comes directly from the state.

Balking at suggestions the museum move, the Ward Foundation presented another far lower estimate for HVAC system repairs. Salisbury University considered that a “short-term fix,” and wasn’t interested, Olmstead said.


But by the end of last year, the foundation board voted unanimously to approve the relocation at the university’s urging, Leonard said.

“Our hand had been forced by them,” Leonard said. “When we agreed to the move, we were still trying to be good partners.”

Male wood duck decoys entered in the 50th Ward World Championship Wildfowl Carving Competition in Ocean City.

Meanwhile, questions swirled about the museum, which had been closed for half a year. Andrew drafted a news release with the university, she said. University officials wanted to secure a lease on the new museum and have a clearer plan before releasing word to the public, but Andrew, frustrated by the wait, clicked “Send” in mid-February.

The response was swift. Museum supporters, some of who had donated sums of money and cherished carvings, felt blindsided. Why hadn’t they been given a chance to save the museum?

“To me, the crux of this is a complete and utter lack of communication,” said Carol Largey, whose late father, Samuel Dyke, was one of the Ward Foundation founders. The museum included an area dedicated to Dyke and was the site of his 2014 memorial service.

The university’s decision not to share the museum’s fate sooner was intentional, said Eli Modlin, Salisbury University’s vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives. Because university officials had made up their minds to take the final step to move the museum, any other announcements about the building or the collection would have been “disingenuous,” he said.


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“We would have been on the same circle that we’ve been in over the last few years, of bringing the Ward to the table and letting them know that they needed to get the financial house in order, and not being able to do so,” he said.

The backlash worsened when the university announced it was severing ties with the foundation, and when museum staffers were shut out of the building, with police and facilities managers changing the locks. The university aimed to secure its property after officials heard items were being moved off site, Olmstead said.

Andrew maintained only items needed for the carving championship, which would be the foundation’s property, were removed. Museum staffers eventually were allowed back on a schedule, and the two parties are sorting out who takes what.

The wildfowl carving competition went off in late April as usual, with ornate carvings filling the Ocean City convention hall. A bald eagle perched atop a piece of driftwood. A life-size great blue heron in flight. Countless mallard ducks with each feather painstakingly chiseled and painted.

But a cloud hung over the competition. World champion carver Pat Godin, who traveled to the show from his home in Canada, worried about his artwork, owned by the university and once displayed in the museum.

“In my mind, when I came to the show, if I won one of those categories, that work was going to the museum,” Godin said. “When I’m gone, people will be able to go in and see what I was doing, what all of my peers were doing, in those years. And now, that’s all in jeopardy.”


Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.