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.

1 comment:

  1. Ooh - using pages like Kickstarter might work for projects. Cool. Check out these projects at