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 . . .

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