Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blogs Galore Four

Sometimes . . .

. . . the Universe just knows what to say, lets you know you're not alone. Marlow Hoffman wrote a great post, Will Work for Food: Curatorial Position and Cake Preferred
for the Western Museums Association blog. It speaks about the challenges of finding employment in the museum sector. I hear you, Marlow, I hear you!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Museums in the Twitterverse

Tweet tweet, twiddle twiddle . . .

Okay, I admit it: Twitter has been a bit of an enigma for me, and so this post is more 'thinking out loud' than it is any given advice about the now 5 year-old microblogging platform. I am slowly becoming a Twitter convert, though, and see it as a valuable tool for museum folk.

Twitter all began for me when I created 
my account on November 15, 2008, and opened with this oh-so-obvious tweet:

Always a little bit of an adventurer, including how to use technology, I was interested in this new form of communication, how it worked, how I could participate and add it to ways to talk to people about museums. And so I poked around for a few days, specifically looking for British Columbia museums. I found none. I did find some 'big name' American museums, and started following them. And so my second tweet?

Ya, clever . . . I needed to do some research. I lurked and only sporadically twittered once or twice a week for my first year on Twitter. I was slowly finding museum people and organizations by using the search bar, and then looking at who they were following, often adding who they followed to my list. It was in January of 2009 when I started following the Vancouver Police Museum as well as the Creston Museum — my first BC museums. I also started to find active museum bloggers — I believe this is where I came across one of my favourites, Nina Simon's Museum 2.0 blog. Specific to what I was doing here, I found Nina's open letter to museums on Twitter particularly insightful. What has stuck with me from this post is a comment from a museum worker that followed Nina's first rule for museums: 1. Don't use Twitter to spam me about visiting. 

The last thing I would want is someone to think that our twitter account was just another marketing vehicle which . . . Twitter is not about. People can sniff out blatant marketing in a second, and will lose interest instantly.

Wise words. 

And I guess I should explain about my name "Owl_". As mentioned, I first joined Twitter to find and follow BC museums. I was hesitant about putting my whole name out there — not sure why, because I am not afraid of doing so on Facebook or LinkedIn — and so I chose to this avatar as a homage to the BC Museum Association's lost owl (see my blog post on that topic
here). I twittered, rather oddly, in the voice of Owl; now I see that might not have been the way to go. When I recently got four comments in one week asking 'just who are you??' I decided I should attach my name to my account, to take ownership of what I was saying. It was the right move — but now, of course, I am having the mental debate if I should change it to something that parallels my name. (Any thoughts on this would be most appreciated!)

Anyway, in 2010 I was over-run with work and abandoned Twitter. Oops. I'm not sure I missed it because I was so busy, but this January I dove back into the stream of information, going deeply into it as if it were my mid-winter master class. I wanted to learn more about it, specifically about the 'so what?' part that I could apply to museum work. And I am so very happy to be back! I still find that Twitter can be overwhelming, but I am continually learning something amazing about how it all works - in fact, I just 'got' the other day from a great post on museum professional development by Susan Spero. Now I have two newspaper-like ways to follow my feeds - one for all I follow, and the other on my list of BC museum tweets. It's one way to help me feel like I don't have to be watching my feed every moment of every day, which is very reassuring as well as sustainable long-term.

But fundamentally what blows me away about Twitter is that people ARE paying attention to what you are doing and saying — I am never sure if we what we say is noticed, but I think on Twitter, when used correctly, it is. Maybe it's the condensed form of 140 characters that makes people more succinct, and therefore gives equal-opportunity discussion time, whether your one loan individual or someone who works for a Smithsonian organization. I really found this out when I started listing the people I follow, putting them into my own personal categories. People commented, were happy to be listed. Cool. And I guess that's why I am always so happy when I am able to engage in a conversation right there and then. We're not alone in what we like to do, and you can find that evident when you go on Twitter. That feels good!

What has hooked me in the past few weeks, though, is going to 'live' events. 
 I have to say, being on Twitter during a chat event can be much like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time, but it is worth it. I had the most fun having my dream interpreted by artist Man Bartlett. He was sitting by a computer, waiting for the hashtag #24hrclerk to appear via Twitter, and reading the tweets aloud. A person behind him typed out the dream, and he put a monetary value on it and placed a sticker on a scale with all the other interpretations. It was mesmerizing . . . check it out. He did this for a full 24 hours, so one of the points, to me, was to participate and then try. to. look. away. It made my day to be a part of the experience, I have to say. And who could ask for more from social media? 

More directly related to museums, I also attended the Centre for the Future of Museums 'twebevent' with the hashtage #CFMtrends 
and got some great resources on demographics and diversity. CFM blogged about the event here, which helps me to go and review what actually transpired during the hour. And on March 17, I attended part of the #nytmuseums chat, which was put on by the New York Times as part of their special section on museums that appeared the day before. Not only were there fabulous resources in the newspaper and their site, but the event spawned an incredible discussion reviewed by Hyperallergic, a forum about the arts and arts issues, with the hour's 1400 tweets logged by Bill Lefurgy. It was like I found the fountain of museum knowledge. Amazing.

Bottom line is that Twitter can be just a little mind-blowing, with its power to gather people and provide opportunity for rich, rich conversation for a focussed time online. Especially during events, it's like access to an instant, intense networking conference/cocktail party, and a
 fantastic way to share a blitz of a conversation with museum colleagues all over the world. I am going to keep a look out for more Twitter events, for that's where I find much of Twitter's value, and certainly where I can easily interact online with my beloved museum Twibe. It has been well worth the effort of finding out what Twitter is all about — I get it now!

Friday, March 4, 2011

Pondering Mu$eum Finance$, Part 2

If we had a million dollars . . .

This is a continuation of my previous post on museum funding and finances. In my first post, I spoke about how museums ought to move beyond the government dependency, and seek new funding methods. This post considers some of these funding options.

I am compelled to say right here that I have not ever directly been in charge of the finances of an institution — although, silly me, I hope I get to do this in the future, when I KNOW I will learn a lot more about this, right away. And I know these changes listed below wouldn't pay for everything — and that most of them are likely already being done. My point is I think we have to be very proactive pursuing revenue sources other than those provided by government entities.

have made efforts to be creative with how they raise funds above what any public support might bring them, and I would like to recognize that. I know that many museums rent out their space for private events. There are also fundraising events that take a whole lot of effort to pull off, and end up doing an impressive job of making some good coin. I think this extra fundraising effort is part of the new deal, and we need to be cool with that without letting it take over other work we do. It's not a bad idea to diversify revenue streams. We can continue to be creative with what we do to make money, and I think we can do better somehow wrapping it into what the museum does provide, i.e. highlighting our collections in a manner that can generate revenue through licensing and such things as photo reproduction. This last point may be blasphemous to some, but with careful and thoughtful planning, I believe we can figure this out.

I know that it has also come up that museums can/should/have to/and shouldn't pass the expense onto the visitor. Truthfully, it can be said that the visitor wants the experience to be less expensive than a trip to the movies or a professional ball game, and there is sticker shock when admission comes even close to the same cost. Museums are traditionally viewed as educational services and I gotta say, in my heart, I don't think passing a huge expense on to the visitor is the way to go. We have to manage the costs here 
while being an inclusive and an open organization that serves the entire community. However, I do think we need to consider charging what we are worth and to find that sweet spot where we are open with our visitors the kind of expenses we incur in our institution, and how we get our funding. We also need to be absolutely certain that we remain really awesome and worthy of the visitor's time and expense. 

Just far will we have to go to make money? What about the suggestion that some institutions would like to sell 'just one piece' of the mission-appropriate collections that would pay the bills forever? Ahah. But that breaks one of museum's key ethical tenets: collections are not assets to be liquidated. 
If we are going to be in charge of caring for the community's collection, we can't use it for collateral when we are in trouble. If we sell out our ethics and turn a blind eye to the public trust we hold because we can't pay the bills, we will lose our credibility as an institution. From the outside this idea does seem like an easy solution — and I am sure many people have considered selling the family silver to cover their own personal costs. Museums simply cannot go down that slippery slope, and it's our job to ensure that our public and supporters understand why.

Perhaps we need to bring back The Museum Patron, to convince the big businessman and woman, the singer, the actor, the top-ranked professional sporting heroes in and from our communities to 'pay it forward' and contribute more to our arts and culture. Maybe we need go after them like polite pit bulls.  And if they already do contribute, let's celebrate them a lot louder, and make sure our stakeholders know about when it happens. When we do, these new funders might end up saying something profound, such as what spoken by Michael Audain about the sponsorship from the Audain Foundation of artist Bill Reid's carving "Bear Mantle" to the Royal BC Museum:

I think museums everywhere just can't depend on government funding. They need support from the community, and art lovers such as ourselves. I think we have an obligation to ensure that our public museums are supported and are able to acquire an important work like this.

What fabulous words, eh!

Another option: some museums have taken an active role in purposefully stepping back from requiring public funding by fundamentally changing the way the institution is organized. The museum the comes first to my mind in this is category the 
Oakland Museum of California. When I lived in California eight years ago, the OMCa was just beginning to talk of redeveloping the galleries, reworking the site to be more visitor friendly / centric. The museum was already near and dear to my heart (wonderful staff!), and I agreed this was a timely project to take on. Honestly, though, I simply just had no idea how the institution might find the money, and this was before the economic meltdown. Well, the OMCa managed the redevelopment of the institution, and the have been getting great reviews. I think part of this success is that the long-standing Oakland Museum of California Foundation that has stepped up and taken on the task of figuring out the financing of this project as well as the long-term funding the museum. The Foundation is also hopeful that the future will set them completely free of relying on City of Oakland monies, which includes making all the staff Foundation employees, no longer City workers.  I think this is forward-thinking, responsible, and brave. Kudos to the OMCa.

So, extending from the work done by the Oakland Museum of California, I do think we need to embrace these challenges instead of fighting them, and this change of strategy will help us find a new way. 
We need to boldly go into new territory, and to be our own strongest advocate in all that we do and how we present ourselves, and encourage our boards and foundations to laud us publicly and proudly. This is not to say that OMCa has it all figured out with their foundation, or that we all need to lose our government employee benefits to become private/public organizations, but we do have to explore a wide variety of options such as these.

Some of the ways we can organize and plan our options:
  1. Museum professionals need to know darn sure what museums are and what they  do. The American Association of Museum provides a impressive list of museum facts that we need to memorize, with statistics appropriate to the country we in.
  2. Museums truly have to be more rowdy with economic drivers (government and private businesses) about with how much we contribute to the economy — we are not looking for charity, we're looking to cover our costs for the amazing things we do for the community. Like everyone else. 
  3. We must boldly let the public and other funders know that museums are the story recorders and the treasure protectors — these things help communities define themselves for the long-term. We can all lose sight of the value of knowing our identity we are collectively trying to figure out how to care for our basic necessities. If museums are going to be here for the long term, we have to let the public and government entities know that we add unique value to our communities.

What do you think about this? Am I being naïve here to suggest we just walk away from hoping government funding will ever fully be reinstated? What's your real-world experience with museum finances, and what do you think our future will look like, as a sector? I'd love to know through comments here, or resources you can point out to me. THIS is a critical museum topic that I would really like to explore and figure out . . . got any tips? I'd truly love to hear them.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Pondering Mu$eum Finance$, Part 1

Times, they are a-changin' . . .

Museum people talk a lot about a number of sector issues, such as remaining relevant to our communities, and about the definition of museums. I don't want to say we're too much into navel gazing, but we do regularly ponder whether or not we should be all about:

  • presentation or preservation?
  • being the community's authority or facilitator?
  • creating didactic or interactive exhibitions?
  • organizing research opportunities or running educational initiatives?
But the biggest real-world pressure in museums these days, the thing that keeps us up at night and worrying what tomorrow will look like is: Where on earth are we gonna find the money to pay for what we do and what we deliver?

Ya, truth, it's a universal fact that we gotta pay the bills in order to do what we do. Museums have done their best to cut costs for at least the past 15 years, and we are at bare bones in many places. There have been staffing, collections care, and facility cutbacks to the point were institutions are struggling to survive at all — and some just may fail. That's scary.

There has been great discussion and uproar recently over the fact that government entities — local, regional and national — just can't keep paying for museums. It seems we're seen as a luxury when there are 'bigger' issues such as unemployment, housing, health care, homelessness, the economy in general, and on and on. You can just feel the lack of empathy for our budget situation in letters to the editor such as this one questioning a museum's plan to upgrade its site. And we're not alone here in Canada with these struggles: both Great Britain and
 the U.S. are experiencing a watershed moment regarding the massive cutbacks that are moving forward faster than you can say 'there's only one taxpayer and there's no money for museums in our budget'. 
 But it is simply not sustainable to think that museums can keep going on like this, with the hopes that museums might get more funding from the government again 'one day' and we just need to ride out these lean times. Somethings gotta give.

Personally, I think the days are close to over where we should even consider money coming from our governments. Museums can state again and again to the powers-that-be that we are caring for the heart of our communities through exhibitions and collections care, but I don't think the politicians have the resources to help us fund this noble cause. And I want to believe it's not because our governments don't care about our heritage and culture, but it's more because they have to deal with the issues that are literally much more in their face. I hate it that museums are considered the gravy of what life has to offer, but discussions about social housing is going to trump funding museums every time. (Caveat: Do trust me that I will call out to those governments who are being wasteful and irresponsible if they have the funds to support museums yet choose to 'forget' them. I am not just going to let them walk away from us, but I do see there's not a lot of wiggle room for governments to support us as much as they once did.)

So what do we do about all this worry about money? Stick our head in the sand and pretend it's not a problem? Cut programs? Cancel plans? Lay off (more) staff? Freeze positions after staff leave
 or retire? Find a Sugar Daddy? Give up and close the doors (and cry)??

My next blog post — I had to divide this topic in two because this one was getting realllly long, go figure — reviews some options that I think could give us other funding options. Stay tuned . . .