Friday, May 8, 2009

Tough Choices for Museums

Last evening, we attended a party for an out of town friend at a cozy restaurant on the Lower East Side. It was one of those dinners where you are separated from your spouse and carefully placed by the host according to some grand plan for maximum social effectiveness. One of my dinner partners turned out to be a person who works in the development department of an art museum. Through the first several courses of the meal, we had a wide ranging insider discussion about museums, capital and annual campaigns, how big gifts are targeted and brought in, how boards and accession committees are filled out, and the hierarchical nature of different classes of donors.

The singular takeaway for me from this entertaining conversation was that given the current economic environment, museums are really struggling to uncover new, fresh, deep pocketed donors that aren’t already affiliated with another museum in some meaningful way or that they haven’t already talked with. The list of targets is pretty stale, and it’s arguably shrinking. This has led them to start searching farther afield (the net has to get wider), often outside the local geography, and most intriguingly, getting connected to many folks who haven’t as yet shown any interest whatsoever in art. The sales pitch to these targets is that even if art isn’t your thing, a large donation to such a museum brings with it an important mark of status and an entrée into a network of high powered people of all kinds.

None of this is of course news or should be wildly surprising; in fact it’s standard operating procedure - if you’ve got to raise a big pile of money (in whatever context), you focus on those who have such money to give, and come up with some factors that will appeal to them. But it got me to wondering more deeply, is there an impact on the spirit of your institution over time if the majority of your board members and major supporters are giving money not because they are passionate about the cause (in this case, art), but because they are doing it for the ancillary benefits of the gala invitations or business contacts? Does the soul of the place get hollowed out? How many mail-it-in directors and donors can an institution handle?

Having seen firsthand plenty of dysfunctional boards/companies in a business context, it is clear to me that a less than attentive board can do an enormous amount of damage, can waste precious time focusing on the wrong things, and can derail positive momentum quite quickly. But it’s also true, and we’re seeing it in spades these days with the daily news stories about museum layoffs, that without money, these institutions crumble under their own weight equally fast. Money is what pays for exhibitions, and salaries, and conservation, and new buildings, not passion and erudition.

Which brings me to the paradox: is it a fantasy that a major museum can be fully funded by wealthy donors who also happen to be passionate about art? Is it inevitable that a museum has to choose between more money from donors who may not have much interest in the activities of the institution, or less from those who care more deeply? Of course, many will now immediately protest that their specific institution is only funded by passionate art patrons, that their board is filled with only important collectors and art world professionals, etc. etc. But imagine you are a museum with a less than perfect financial picture right now (not hard to do). Do you take the much needed money from donors who aren’t obviously aligned with your going forward plan (and may potentially be a permanent pain in the ass), or go without, thereby reducing your options for producing good exhibitions and holding onto key staff, forcing you to scale back your program? While this might be an oversimplification of a complex situation, and perhaps the easy answer is always "take the money", either way, it is an undeniably tough choice. No wonder museum directors and development groups are so stressed these days.


J. Wesley Brown said...

And a natural extension of this dilemma - do you show less than ideal exhibitions during these times because Burberry, BofA, Enron, or Anvil company sponsors it or because another institution has already put them together, thus resulting in cost savings vs. putting on new and more excitign/important shows at a higher cost? The best art shows or the ones that are safe?

Pete Brook said...

Why can there not be a third way, where the museum cogently, actively engages the non-art donors, to the point they make them the keenest art fans about? The vast abyss that your article suggests exists between the art-lovers and art-unlovers is one to be scaled, traversed. It is an abyss that art-unlovers can be helped across.

Yes, approach them with many reasons why they should give money to the arts when they have never before, but always do it with the end-goal that they can nurture enthusiasm for the arts.

After a few years of trying, if it's obvious that the museum's conversion attempts have not worked then the museum should suggest to the donor that they sever the relationship.

Money is necessity but should never be a crutch.

dlkcollection said...

Two great comments.

On Wesley's ideas, I think it is natural that as corporate sponsors pull back, we will see more exhibitions that are drawn from permanent collections or are prepackaged from another venue, rather than ones that require years of effort to pull together. Hopefully, this will be a creative jolt to curators to make more out of less. As you mention, we may also see shows that are driven by the specialized interests of deep pocketed patrons who are willing to pay to support certain kinds of exhibitions, irrespective of the larger needs of the museum. Hopefully, some of those shows might be photography...

On Pete's ideas, I entirely agree that education/conversion is an important focus, and one that is the core mission of most museums. I think this is always happeneing, converting occasional visitors to regular visitors, regular visitors to members, members to patrons, and so on up the ladder. What I found interesting is that given a scarcity of big donors, museums are being forced to look to potential patrons who live far away and aren't already art lovers, in a sense bypassing the entire longer term build up process above. Cutting to the head of the line seems like a huge challenge in education, and if it becomes a more widespread trend, it may have unexpected implications for how the institutions get run over time. But you are right that a wonderful outcome is finding a wealthy donor who can be converted over time into a true art lover.