Museums Need More Than Rich Donors to Survive
Museums are the coral reefs of the global art ecosystem; their health underpins and signals the well-being of the whole. They elevate discourse, provide entertainment, educate the public, attract tourists, create jobs, and certainly provide evidence of long-term value in the $57 billion art market. Today, from Moscow to Muscat to Montevideo, there are 55,000 active institutions devoted to the arts, according to the directory Museums of the World. Roughly 35,000 are in the U.S., according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Many of these thousands of museums are fighting tooth and claw for the attention and generosity of only several hundred wealthy families, corporate foundations, and ultra-high-end art dealers. This numerical mismatch means reliance on traditional philanthropy (or the meager crumbs of federal funding) is not a viable plan for long-term stability, let alone success. Now is the time to identify new avenues for growth, and create more nuanced targets to help achieve it.
In the U.S., dependence on traditional giving (private philanthropy), foundation grants, or government support has thus far proved a shaky development or operating strategy, leaving institutions vulnerable to the whims and fortunes of lawmakers or mercurial donors. I propose they look elsewhere for support.
Museums can no longer ignore the abundant capabilities and resources of an emerging cadre of professionals in the arts, creative services, and technology fields. This is a concentration of people willing and able to donate their talents to organizations and institutions they care about. By my estimate, this potential “cultural corps” accounts globally for at least several hundred thousand names. They live in or between major urban centers (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris, London, Berlin), nearly always in close proximity to the institutions in need of their aid and expertise.
Simply put, this is a clarion call to embrace experimentation—with models, methods, approaches, and programs—with greater ardor. Old strategies, employed in the art world for the better part of 50 years, were, to be fair, successful to varying degrees in their time, and appropriate for their audience. But times have changed. Before us are new audiences, new challenges, and new challengers—an ever-expanding array of rival attractions and distractions for museum-goers’ time and money.
The fight for scarce resources
The chronic challenge for all nonprofits is competition for limited resources. In recent years, capital campaigns have increasingly been entrusted to fundraising Olympians, orders of magnitude stronger and fleeter of foot than their predecessors. But not all truly great arts administrators, curators, or directors are fundraising all-stars. There are also performance-limiting factors at work: aging boards; lagging digital performance (in terms of brand identity, content creation capabilities, or discoverability); rising operational costs from recruiting and retaining top talent to marketing and promotional expenses; and the escalating price of ambitious arts programming.
Cataloguing failures leads to smarter options and outcomes
To plot a more successful course, we have to be courageous enough to identify weakness and failures. To date, attempts to act more nimbly across the institutional art world look familiar: changes in programming or special events for millennials, sponsored international trips, and mobile campaigns of every imaginable kind. But the majority of these efforts have a mixed record of success. Jeffrey Deitch’s conspicuous failures at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles are one well-publicized example. Other attempts to attract new audiences, like Björk’s widely panned show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, provide a cautionary tale. This is not to dismiss or ignore individual cases of success, but a gold standard has so far proven elusive. Few institutions would claim they’ve found a repeatable or scalable solution for generating additional revenue or driving audience.
To identify robust models for success requires holding ourselves accountable for meeting specific metrics within reasonable time frames. That is to say, what we measure is as important as how we measure it: not just revenue, digital engagement, membership growth, charitable giving, or social sharing, but perhaps a new series of key performance indicators that museums haven’t yet embraced: penetration by media vertical, growth in charitable participation, or even net promoter scores, a management tool that can be used to gauge brand visibility or customer loyalty. Learning to make course corrections based on data and performance metrics rather than on hazy beliefs in future outcomes is hard, but it’s an approach more museum administrators should adopt.
The way forward: Recruit widely to maximize available resources
First, we must expand recruitment targets. Institutions have to reduce their dependence on conventional philanthropy, or the generosity of the world’s wealthiest families. Instead, they must target an estimated 30,000–300,000 influential up-and-comers: available sources of talent, expertise, and future charitable giving. Keeping in mind that the current pool of several hundred “platinum circle” givers enjoy considerable influence over programming at museums, the prospective flood of newcomers by the thousands should be positioned as part of a “superstructure” to enhance long-term institutional strength.
This is about capacity-building, not regime change. It’s unclear to me what the right role is for galleries in this emerging matrix. As it stands, large, powerful outfits like David Zwirner and Gagosian help fund museum shows featuring their artists, or provide other material support such as research or shipping help. Whether that’s a good and healthy thing, or contributes to inequality in the institutional and market landscape, is beyond the scope of this article.
Second, museums must learn to raise contributions “in kind.” This requires a radically different approach than those we’ve witnessed to date, starting with with a shift in mentality from dollars-first or dollars-above-all to a “total available resources” strategy. How to solicit and incorporate is addressed in the second part of this series.
Several early experiments are underway. Consider the New Museum’s NEW INC initiative, a select community of a hundred-plus annual participants from across different practices, housed in an adjoining facility. Through iterative experiments in recruitment, organizational priorities, and programming (demo days for members, and conferences for the general public), NEW INC endeavors to advance ideas and enterprises that do not fit comfortably into other tech accelerators or fine art programs. In full disclosure, I’m a proud member of its advisory council.
In May 2017, New York’s Guggenheim Museum began working with an innovation committee comprised of industry experts from technology, marketing, media, and government, to collaborate with museum stakeholders to radically rethink how the institution might better deliver results over the next decade and beyond. Although the gathering is still in its infancy, its formation is an encouraging sign for an institution of this type, size, and profile. Other museums are rumored to be following suit, and redoubling efforts to clarify their mission and enhance measurable impact.
To be clear, I am not counseling “experiments in innovation” for their own sake. Accountability is key. Assessment metrics are a must. These two programs are noteworthy not for their existence, but for their willingness to actively and publicly wrestle with new challenges, and be held accountable for success—even along new, unfamiliar, or fundamentally different lines of measurement.
An initial inventory of strategies, including those under consideration or experimentally deployed by these organizations, will be further addressed in the second part of this series.
Michael Phillips Moskowitz is an entrepreneur, art collector, and member of the New Museum’s NEW INC initiative advisory council.