Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Anyone Who Says this isn't a Business is Nuts.

It's a rough week for cultural practitioners. In the Netherlands, State Secretary for Culture Halbe Zijlstra slashed 200 million euros from the national budget for the arts, leading to the close of the innovative National History Museum project and crippling many superbly inventive and inspiring organizations like Mediamatic and the Waag Society. In Minnesota, the state budget standoff has closed the Minnesota History Center and the many other arms of the MN Historical Society.

And here in Santa Cruz, I've got two very expensive bottles of champagne on my desk. Well, they only cost me $8 apiece... but we aren't opening them until we have $50,000 committed to each one.

Let me explain. When I came to become the director of The Museum of Art & History two months ago, we were on the financial brink. We were operating week-to-week and racking up unpaid bills. Within ten days on the job, I made two tough decisions. I laid off a full-time employee, and all remaining employees (including me) took a 20% salary cut.

Now, our fate--and our salaries--lies partly in the hands of those champagne bottles. When we can raise $50,000 in an operating reserve, we'll open the first bottle and our salaries will go up to a 10% cut. When we raise $100,000 in operating reserve, we'll open the second bottle and go up to full pay. I am doing everything I can to ensure we will be spraying that champagne all over ourselves within a year. We've had two months in the black and we're going to keep pushing.

This is the first time I've really grappled with the reality of "the museum as a business." Sure, I've been part of discussions about business models and have written/tracked plenty of budgets, but I haven't dealt with money on the day-to-day, how-am-I-going-to-pay-this-month's-payroll, feel-like-rockstars-as-we-reduce-our-liabilities level. It's surprising to me how unaware I'd been of this side of the work and how much of my emotional space is focused on it now. I feel as much pride about having a month in the black as I do about some of the great programmatic projects we're launching.

At my institution, we're trying to build our capacity around this both by opening the books to staff and by use of public visual metaphors like the champagne bottles. Turns out those champagne bottles are the best marketing tool we've got--everyone who walks in my office asks about them, and we've received several donations from people who tell us they want to help open the first bottle. On our website, we're telling people how much it costs us per day to run the museum (about $2,500) to help everyone understand how essential their donations are to our service to the community. I've been thinking about a sign at the front desk clearly showing people how donations of different levels support different institutional needs... but frankly, the numbers are so high that it's a little overwhelming. I'm still working to find the most digestible ways for people--staff, volunteers, visitors, supporters--to understand where our money comes from, where it goes, and what it's for.

I suspect there's a lot more we can be doing, both for our professional field and for constituents, to increase awareness and understanding of the business of museums. What has helped you grapple with these issues? What do you wish you knew? I'm thinking about proposing an AAM session on this topic and I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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