Investigation Finds Federal Agency’s Grants Are Disproportionately Flowing to a Few Large Museums

Isaac Kaplan
Feb 25, 2016 11:47PM

This is Part 1 of a multi-part investigation into public funding for small museums. Part 2 will publish in the coming weeks.

Heat-map of the 35,000 museums in the United States, according to data from IMLS Museum Count survey. Image by Justin Grimes, via CartoDB.

For those who reside in art-world hubs, the prevailing headlines in recent years suggest a boom in the fortunes of museums around the country. “Boom” gives a false impression of the health of U.S. institutions as a whole. In but two of the most prominent examples, the Pérez Art Museum Miami opened a new location (at a cost of $131 million), and, in New York, the Whitney moved downtown to a Renzo Piano-designed home in the meatpacking district (cost: $422 million). These museums have eight-figure budgets thanks to support from businesses, endowments, wealthy patrons, and every level of government.

However, it doesn’t take anywhere near that to be considered a “large” museum in the U.S. today. A budget in excess of $1,000,000 is enough. And in the towns and cities that dot the nation, thousands of small and mid-sized museums that serve as crucial sources of local history and culture have struggled to recover from the recession as sources of public and private funding have vanished or steadily depreciated, according to interviews and data analyzed by Artsy over the past month.

Scarcer public funds, allocated without the influence of objective data, could well mean that stagnation is the new norm as a rapidly urbanizing country watches its heartland ail.

“Museums are, if anything, more important in those small rural communities than they are in a big [city] because the small local historical society or the small nature center has an outsized impact on the people who live there,” said Elizabeth Merritt, the director of the Center for the Future of Museums, which is part of the ‎American Alliance of Museums (AAM). “One more museum in New York City isn’t going to make a damn bit of difference.”

You might think that it is the responsibility of the federal government’s funding programs to level the playing field between well-off, large, urban museums and poorer, small, rural ones. You might think that federal cultural agencies are actively ensuring equitable access to culture for Americans across the country regardless of where they live. But you would be wrong.


In actuality, our data analysis of information provided by a longtime senior government employee reveals that a key source of taxpayer-funded, federal support of museums in United States benefits a relative few institutions—and the larger and more prestigious those museums are, the more likely they are to get funding.

The agency in question is little-known to outsiders: the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Calling itself the “primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums,” IMLS forms, along with the NEA and NEH, what could be called the “big three” of governmental cultural funding agencies.

Yet it operates in a state of data blindness, making policy decisions in an “information vacuum,” according to Carlos A. Manjarrez, who, until very recently, was a high-level staffer at IMLS. He spent seven years at the agency, five of them as director of the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation. (He is now president and CEO of Creative Destruction Research, a private consulting firm he founded.) It’s a way of doing business that, Manjarrez contends, has hurt smaller museums.

The growing divide between big and small

When arts advocates, like David Horowitz writing in the Atlantic, look at the major problem afflicting cultural agencies on the federal level, they often point to systematic underfunding. In the 2015 fiscal year, IMLS had a budget of some $30 million to foster the development of museums, of which there are roughly 35,000 in the U.S.—a figure which includes historical institutions (the vast majority), art museums, zoos, natural history museums, and more. By comparison, the Department of Defense provided $98.6 million to 87 military museums in the 2013 fiscal year alone, the latest fiscal year for which figures are available.

Raw funding totals only provide part of the picture. It’s crucial to look at the processes by which money is allocated.

In response to a detailed request for comment on their funding of small museums, IMLS pointed to their 2011 report on the Museums for America (MFA) program, the agency’s flagship initiative, which provides grants for exhibitions and other museum projects. The MFA report found that between 2004 and 2010 “large museums have both applied for and received grants in greater numbers than medium-sized and small museum[s].”  

That is simultaneously an accurate finding and one that speaks to IMLS’s lacking data. The agency has no single objective definition of what constitutes a “small” museum of any type. So the report divided museums into thirds—large, medium, and small—by operating budget, with break points adjusted for the type of institution (historic site, art museum, natural history museum, etc.). While providing a good picture of funding inequalities within the MFA program, the size categories are relative within the report, not objective within the museum sector as a whole. It also has tangible policy consequences. 

“When you don’t have any [objective] information, then you base your funding decisions on the reputation of the director, the status-honor of the institution, and quality of the written proposal,” Manjarrez contends. “Those are not the kinds of things that are going to make it easy for fledgling organizations like the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore or the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum in San Francisco to compete with the Walters or SFMoMA.”

Between 2004 and 2010, roughly 1,800 eligible institutions applied for an MFA grant, a tiny number compared to the size of the sector. (Not all 35,000 museums in the country are eligible, but there is also no data on how many are.) In a statement, the agency told Artsy, “IMLS maintains a number of outreach efforts to ensure that museums are aware of grant opportunities and eligibility requirements,” highlighting webinars, among other efforts.

Over six years the number of small museums in the pool of applications IMLS received dropped 9% (from 29% to 20%) while the number of large museums increased by 8% (from 38% to 46%). Roughly half of all the museums that applied for an MFA grant did so more than once, and repeat applicants were more likely to be approved for funding than were first-time applicants. These repeat applications also came from institutions that tended to be mid-sized or larger.

The MFA report found that between 2004 and 2010 “large museums have both applied for and received grants in greater numbers than medium-sized and small museum[s].”

Indeed, the IMLS report states “larger museums were more likely to have received funding for at least one application submitted to the MFA program (35% small; 49% medium-sized; 54% large).” The MFA program, like other grant programs administered by IMLS, does “not factor in need at all, which is part of the issue,” adds Manjarrez. “This is one way that cream rises to the top.” 

In a statement provided to Artsy, IMLS neither denied their lack of an objective definition for museum size nor the distribution of their funding, highlighting instead their policy as a need-blind entity: “We invite museums of all types and sizes to apply for IMLS funding,” so long as they meet eligibility requirements. “Operating budgets, size of physical plant, attendance, collection size, and service area are not considerations in determining eligibility for applying for funding.”

While at the agency, Manjarrez alleges that this need-blind structure is one reason IMLS primarily funded institutions that are already well-funded, solidifying and exacerbating inequities already present in the system. These IMLS grants can amount to a miniscule—and replaceable—percentage of large institutions’ budgets. And multiple sources we spoke to argued that federal funds should go to small institutions with small budgets, which serve small-town residents who have less access to cultural institutions.

Are any efforts to fund small museums being made?

There have been efforts by IMLS to target specific museums for funding, but not by size. Along with a program geared towards Native American and Native Hawaiian museums, IMLS has a program for African-American museums. Samuel Black, president of the Association of African American Museums (AAAM) told me that his agency enjoys a good working relationship with IMLS and that in his experience, IMLS grant-reporting requirements (reports on how granted money was used) are relatively straightforward compared to those of other government organizations.

But others reported that IMLS requirements make it onerous to apply for a grant. Bill North, who runs the Salina Arts Center, a mid-sized institution in Salina, Kansas, told me that, even with a relatively robust staff of five full-time employees, his institution does not have the wherewithal to put together a big IMLS grant proposal. Indeed, though Bob Beatty, COO of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) noted that there is “no reason to lower standards” with regard to who can apply, he added that “it’s harder for smaller institutions to devote the time to what is, essentially, a less than 50% shot for funding.”

Some within the sector defend IMLS, including Merritt, who told me that the agency “put a lot of emphasis on trying to get their funding to a diverse set of museums, including small museums.”  

Manjarrez disagrees: “You’re not going to find a program at the federal level that uniquely identifies and targets those [small] institutions for support.” When asked about this allegation, IMLS highlighted two programs that, it says, “for more than a quarter of a century” have provided targeted “technical assistance” to small and mid-sized museums: the Museum Assessment Program (MAP) and the Conservation Assessment Program (CAP), both of which are administered by third parties.

Though nominally dedicated to smaller museums, neither program make institutional size a required criteria for funding. Without standardized IMLS definition for small or mid-size, it’s unclear if they even could. The last year IMLS budgeted money for CAP or MAP was fiscal year 2010, with the programs amounting to 2.4% and 1.4%, respectively, of the total IMLS budget. Actual yearly funding of the programs is likely even lower given that already limited funds budgeted in 2010 have been spread over the subsequent six years.

MAP isn’t programmatic support, but a consultancy program, providing funds for outside professionals to assess how museums operate. AAM, which administers MAP, noted that in the last four cycles, “an average of 82% of participating museums had annual operating budgets of less than $1 million.” (The $1 million number is commonly thought of as a dividing line, with larger museums operating on more than that, while smaller museums can operate on as little as $25,000 annually.)

But due to the fact that the MAP program is not limited by the size of museums to which it distributes funds, some 18% of those institutions receiving the limited taxpayer-funded consulting services available have been large museums.

IMLS says it is continually evaluating the efficacy of CAP and MAP. No statistics were provided to support the claim that the former (which has recently lost its private partner) aids small museums, and Manjarrez said that during his seven-year tenure at IMLS no systematic review of MAP’s impact on small museums was ever conducted. The agency notes, however, that beginning this fiscal year it is asking for institutions to self-report more information about all types of grant performance.

What analysis could be done?

Looking at the available IMLS data for just art museums, we found that IMLS awarded 739 grants to institutions they deemed art museums between 1996 and 2014. Those grants went to only 197 different institutions and organizations. Of those, 104 institutions (including university-affiliated organizations) had income figures available. Using this, we found that art museums without university affiliation with gross income in excess of $1 million received 54% of grants across all IMLS programs.

The 197 art museums that received IMLS funding represent only 6.4% of the total number of art museums (3,074) the organization has identified in the country. And, in recent years, funding has grown increasingly exclusive. Since 2005, only 4.7% of art museums, or 146 different institutions, have received a grant. Since 2010 that figure has dropped to only 3.1% or 95 museums.

To be clear, this is rudimentary analysis. We were forced to use museum income rather than budget given the limitations of the data set. But it’s a taste of what IMLS could be doing with its own data and expertise to address potential biases that may be present in their funding when delivered data-blind.

When asked about these findings, IMLS stated that “our goal is to help museums better serve their public,” describing their outreach and professional peer-review process, which accords to the “review criteria” in a given program’s guidelines. “The agency takes into account the advice provided by the review process and makes final funding decisions consistent with the purposes of the agency’s programs.”

In some ways, being long acclimatized to financial adversity has meant that smaller museums have struggled since 2008, but not closed in large numbers. “Museums are the proverbial cockroach in the nuclear winter: you can’t kill them,” says Merritt, noting that if they demonstrate value to their communities, they’ll endure. Yet scarcer public funds, allocated without the influence of objective data, could well mean that stagnation is the new norm as a rapidly urbanizing country watches its heartland ail.

“Is the state or the country as a whole going to support populations in areas that are no longer economically necessary or viable?” Merritt asked me, rhetorically. “That’s a really hard existential question to tackle.”

Isaac Kaplan

Data analysis and infographics by Oliver Plunkett.