I posted my first little essay here on July 6, 2020, so we’ve been at this for a little under a year, or 9 months, 1 week and 5 days if you’re being choosy. Appropriately, after this gestation period of growth, Museum Drip apparently birthed something with “Museum Nerds Codified” and has ~blossomed~. This is really exciting, obviously, but all I can really think about as I write this is the fact that it’s been 13 months since the world hit “pause,” we were urged to stay home, and the number of museums I’ve set foot inside in per year plummeted. I’ve been to two museums besides the one that I work in, and one very glorious outdoor sculpture park, in 13 months and as I’m writing this it’s literally making my heart hurt. Does it feel selfish to write that for public consumption when people have lost so much? Jobs, homes, loved ones, lives? It does. Yes. But I’m thinking that based on the response to “Museum Nerds, Codified,” I’m not the only one who is physically aching to explore and get lost in objects again. It might seem insignificant in light of the social justice trauma and chaos we’re facing, but I really feel the opposite – I feel like seeing what past generations or fellow contemporary humans have made, touched, and expressed helps to ground me. And I’m guessing a lot of you that show up here feel that too.
In addition to missing out on being with museums, many of us are also mourning the losses in the field due to the pandemic. Plus, we’re preoccupied by the reasons that I started this blog in the first place – how can we do better, how can stop being so exclusive, elitist and uninviting. We’re at one of those “build back better” moments. Museums are struggling, financially and spiritually. As most of us know, the past 13 months haven’t presented any new problems for the field. It just revealed how unstable our footholds are.
This isn’t a new idea, but lost revenue and an inability to welcome diverse audiences might….actually be related when thinking about how we can build back better when it comes to fundraising and development. American museums don’t have any guaranteed federal funding. We’ve talked before about how museums have expensive habits, which sometimes complicates the perception of the need for and lack of funding. Instead of reliable funding we have the National Endowment for the Arts, which is a competitive granting entity. Applying for NEA grants requires museum staff time that most museums simply don’t have to spare. Many states, especially more politically progressive states, have line-item funding dedicated to museums. However, this often gets chipped away at year after year and is usually in amounts that wouldn’t cover a single mid-range employee salary. Museums in the U.S. are funded through a diversified stream of admission, program and membership revenue, endowments, grants, and charitable giving and donations. Grants & giving come from corporations, individuals, and foundations. Fortunate museums receive regular corporate or foundation support that they can depend on annually, and concentrate fundraising efforts on special projects. School tour and youth programs are often the source of the bulk of this reliable support, which I’ll touch a little bit on today but also in a future post. Less fortunate museums without this dependable stream of income, especially those without and endowment, have to expend the bulk of their staff time and resources to earning income and fundraising. You can image how this cuts down on creativity, research and innovation.
I can’t speak for all museums and have certainly had plenty of experiences where this isn’t true, but generally speaking, there tends to be an air of “shut up and take it” when it comes to donations and charitable giving. Of course money in the form of donations, grants, etc. will always have strings attached – it’s a transaction, after all – but this don’t look a gift horse in the mouth attitude puts museums and other non-profits in difficult situations. Also, museums say they’re committed to DEAI work, but without diversifying funding sources, it’s hard to literally put your money where your mouth is. The people who spend the money tend to predict what the audience will look like.
Where our money comes from matters, not only because of the external optics, but also because of the pressure or disrespect that capricious funders can inadvertently put on museum staff. (Although not everyone thinks this is a problem.) When it comes to reforming museum fund raising and fund development efforts, the question is, how can fund raising and development work for your mission and vision? For example, if you pledge to only acquired works by women artists for a year, can you ask the women on your board to contribute and to raise money from women-owned businesses or women-led foundations? Do your curators feel that their acquisition and exhibition efforts are supported, or are they constantly being asked to shoehorn in projects just to please donors? Do educators feel they’re able to tweak and refine school tour programs for the most student success, or are they beholden to funders’ ideas of how tours should look?
First, let’s talk about galas! When it comes to galas, sure, upper level donors and members who give not only funds, but also their time and energy, deserve a party! Special director dinners, galas, all the museum parties have a function. But is it fundraising? Or is it honoring the most loyal demographic of members and donors? Is there a ticket price that would permit access to community members who aren’t in that top tier? What are the expenses of the gala? What is the actual profit? Museum parties are fun and have the ~it factor~ that means people will shell out more money to drink in a museum than they would at another venue. People get excited about an opportunity to dress up. They hopefully remain respectful of the objects unlike Barney and Robin in How I Met Your Mother. This is something that people from many many walks of life would enjoy the opportunity to do. Can your gala be rethought as a way to foster good will and a good reputation in the community? The amount of money you raise with that reframing might be surprising.
Many of these questions can apply to building rentals as well. Facility rentals love to be like, “this funds our education programs!” when in reality, like many galas, the margin of profit is narrow and it’s really more about serving a function as a community gathering space. Of course, there are some museums who have their building rentals down pat. They have a dedicated time frame and space so as to not compete with any museum programming or installations. They have minimal impact on the visitor experience. Many more museums, though, treat rentals as large donor gifts: don’t ask questions, don’t talk back, shut up and take the money. This is the key issue – again, that lingering notion that as impoverished museums, we should put up with whatever b.s. it takes to add to our dusty coffers. This is especially the case when an external catering company handles the rentals. Often then the catering company isn’t integrated into the team and doesn’t understand different departmental concerns, and allows customers to make requests that impact the function what what the museum says the rental fees go to support – which truly feels backwards.
Do the folks who do the work that you’re fundraising for – your collection, exhibitions and education – feel valued, or undercut by the process of throwing galas and parties and rentals? Is there extra work to rearrange tour schedules and move artworks? Do you invite your staff to be honored at any of these parties? Are they invited at all? Consider how you can reframe the notion that museums must move heaven and earth to be blessed with a small profit from these events that upend daily operations. Instead, think about how dope it is to show off your building for all that it is. Let staff be involved with floor plans and entertainment ideas. You might end up making more money with a more authentically ~you~ experience.
What about grant writing? Many museums pull in a significant portion of their grant funding from foundations or corporations for school and youth programs. One of the primary reasons to advocate for a rethink in the way we traditionally seek funding is because grant writing can unintentionally become a poverty porn competition – granters want to fund the programs that serve the most “underserved” “disadvantaged” and that perpetuates the narrative that those communities need our help and always will. It begs the question that if we were to undergo dramatic changes in our socio economic structure, would museums stop receiving crucial funding, because we couldn’t justify serving people living under a certain standard. This frames non-profits, especially art museums, in a hierarchy where we exist towards the top. Can we shift fundraising models to be more inclusive to those who we’re actually serving? Can we invite community members to help shape how we engage? Can we emphasize collaboration over the familiar “us versus them” language that a lot of traditional grant writing falls into? Here is a great resource to call attention to what some of that language looks like.
And finally, what is your museum’s lowest membership level? How do you advertise membership? Do you have open house opportunities to show off your museum to new visitors? Some museums have free membership opportunities, especially for their family memberships. The Minneapolis Institute of Art, Mia, has a free basic membership level. (It’s mostly just that Mia has free admission, so anyone can be a “member,” but I think giving the title still gives a little bit of pizzaz to the experience.) Some others offer free memberships to residents without a certain radius, such as Louisville’s Frazier History Museum. Generally these types of offers continue to attract “traditional” demographics (read: older, wealthier white folks) but not always. Again, the idea of putting the benefits to the member and to your institution of membership before the goal of membership revenue can often result in higher membership revenue. If you offer children’s art classes, and offer the member price at a steep discount over the non-member price, you’ll rack up family memberships that will outweigh the income from the non-member priced classes. If you offer $20 student memberships, you hook young people who stay members for decades instead of waiting to get their money when they retire.
It’s an understatement to say that it’s glaringly obvious that museums cannot keep doing things the way they have always been done as we build back better (is that a Biden campaign slogan that I’m stealing or is it just a thing people say?) Advancing the ways we think about museum development and fundraising can be a part of the solution to both financial and cultural woes. Much like the issues we’ve faced over the past 13 months, talking about rethinking advancement is not a new conversation – but if we don’t have it now, we honestly might not get that many more chances. (At least not for those of us who want things to change.)