Everyone wants to know what the next business model for museums may be. Will they morph into hybrid nonprofit/for-profit social benefit corporations? Lose tax exempt status entirely? In today’s post Carl Hamm, immediate past chair of the AAM Development and Membership Committee, makes the case that the future of museum funding will continue to lie squarely in the hands of the 1% of Americans who control 42% of our country’s wealth.
First, I think it’s important to distinguish between the ideas of funding for museums vs. giving to museums.
As it relates to the idea of funding, I very much believe that the revenue mix supporting museums (in individual cases and collectively as a field) will evolve with societal patterns over the years to come. I think that one direct response to the dramatic recent cutbacks in government funding may be that we will be forced into a greater reliance on earned revenue from creative, non-traditional sources. For example, in our increasingly digital, media-driven world, there could be boundless opportunities for museums to package and repackage existing content which can be licensed and sold to generate earned revenue—yet fulfilling mission-related objectives at the same time.
Consider this as a crazy idea. Let’s say a museum decides to video its hands-on preschool classes, then works with an entertainment industry partner to wrap the concept around one of their already existing properties; they co-brand the program and distribute it online or through traditional means (such as DVDs) for a fee, then they create and distribute corresponding co-branded merchandise which is sold internationally, etc.—all simply using the basic intellectual content that the museum’s educators have been using for years, but relying on the megabrand, distribution channels and business opportunities presented through the partnership.
Some might see this type of content-driven collaboration as an inappropriate contribution to the slow erosion of museums as trusted, respected, “safe” institutions of society. On the other hand, it could also be argued that taking existing, well-developed content and providing it to global audiences is actually a worthwhile, mission-related activity, even apart from the new earned revenue possibilities it might open up.
My point here is that I do believe the funding mix for museums will absolutely need to change in the years to come, and these changes will require that we consider revenue generating possibilities which are as innovative and entrepreneurial as the rest of the business world requires.
As a transition to the conversation about giving, I think that how we engage audiences may also fundamentally change the way our missions are delivered. If we are successful in our attempts at inclusion, the profile of those constituencies who care about museums will correspondingly change. The age-related, financial and racial shifts in our country’s demographics will certainly change the profile of those who are attending and benefitting from our museums. And that will, of course, change the “look” of the broad base of those who support us through their giving as well.
Technology will evolve, the young people of today (who will be the old people of tomorrow) will require that we all embrace new transactional media, we’ll all be connected through the latest craze in social media, and our donors will continue to demand the utmost transparency and accountability for every dollar we spend. Yes, yes, yes and yes.
But I do believe (with the passion I infused into this soliloquy!) that the long term, ultimate sustainability of our institutions, individually and as a field, from the largest mega-institutions to the tiniest of tinies, will continue to rely on the essence of major gift philanthropy, which will supersede changes in tax law, demographic shifts in society, ebbs and flows in partisan attitudes in government, and so on.
How we deliver our missions to, communicate with, connect and receive transactions from the broad base of those who support us financially (the 99%) will undoubtedly change. Absolutely. And these shifts will also have a profound effect on the way museums are funded, and possibly, on the way transactional giving by this group will be motivated in the future.
I’m not suggesting that we rush out and focus all of our energies on finding a couple of big transformational gifts. What I am trying to suggest, however, is that the stable future of our institutions relies on our ability to engage and work with our closest donors in a regenerative system of ongoing support which both challenges their capacity for giving and our own capacities for mission delivery, rather than focusing too exclusively on efforts aimed at producing many small, mostly transactional, gifts.
While they may not look or act like they do today, to the extent that we lose focus on that select group of philanthropists (the 1%) who care deeply about individual museums, and the idea of the role museums play in our society, I believe we will not be maximizing our potential for philanthropic engagement, both through current and deferred gifts, and we will continue to lose ground to the other institutions of society (health care, higher education, etc.) to whom this group of donors will choose to give.
If Carl is right, and the wealthiest Americans are crucial to the financial future of our museums, what are the consequences? How might a museum shaped by broad public funding differ from a museum dependent on a few deep-pocketed donors? Please use the comment section, below, to weigh in.