Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Museums in a Common Core World

Over the course of the summer, the CFM Blog is featuring posts based on sessions called out in this year’s Guide to the Future at the Alliance Annual Meeting. Today we hear from Naomi Coquillon, Manager, Youth and Teacher Programs in the Department of Education and Interpretation at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). Naomi shares some of the content from the session On the Road, about professional development for K-12 educators, based on her experience developing the NMAH’s A. James Clark Excellence in History Teaching Program.

As NMAH developed its new teacher training program, my colleagues and I worked with communities in eight states between January 2012 and July 2013, and I talked with curriculum supervisors and social studies coordinators in many more communities as I recruited participants. Over the course of that year and a half, the increase in the emphasis on Common Core in districts nationwide has been striking. When NMAH started our program, Common Core was a nice addition to our presentations. Now Common Core State Standards have been adopted as official guidelines for teaching and learning in all but five states and Puerto Rico, and it is necessary to begin any conversation about professional development with an outline of the content’s relationship to the Common Core. In recruiting teachers for our local “Teach-it-Forward” Institute, a majority of candidates wrote that they were registering for the training in order to learn best practices in the textual analysis and research skills outlined in the Common Core. This is an exciting time for museum educators working with a K-12 audience, as the educational approach used in museums is already in alignment with the Common Core.

Common Core Standards emphasize the use of original sources, close examination of text and other materials, and exploration of multiple perspectives. They encourage student-centered, inquiry-based learning in which students formulate and articulate independent responses to prompts. This focus on informational literacy skills and argumentation is central to the work of historians, who read a variety of texts across various media, and compare conflicting accounts in order to create an argument about the past. This approach also aligns with the National Museum of American History’s public programming goals to spark dialogue about the past through intriguing questions. As part of our work, staff at NMAH are clarifying the relationship between our approach and the skills in the Common Core, creating “historical investigations” in addition to comprehension based-activities, and thinking more about how we can demonstrate our value in a Common Core world. We see this as an opportunity for NMAH to help teachers align to the standards in creative and engaging ways.

Here are a couple of starting points if you want to deepen your investigation of how museums are adapting to the Common Core standards:
  • This post from the Brooklyn Historical Society shares lessons on Common Core for museum educators from a New York City Museum Education Roundtable session in 2011
  • These video presentations share content from a 2012 symposium cohosted by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the LAUSD Arts Education Branch on “Creativity and the New Common Core Standards”
At our session in Baltimore, my colleagues Katie White Walters of Rockman et al, Megan Smith of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and I also discussed what teachers want from professional development; how we extend our reach to K-12 students and teachers using Skype (especially Skype in the Classroom) and Vidyo for workshop and classroom presentations; and how we invite workshop participants to “teach-it-forward” with follow up sessions and training. 

Here are some of the major takeaways about creating teacher workshops outlined in our session:
  • Give teachers the gift of time to process and collaborate with peers during workshops.
  • Treat teachers and districts like guests. Consider how to provide fees for substitute teachers if a presentation is during a school day
  • Collaborate internally to bring the best of the whole museum to workshops
  • Focus on strategies for teaching as much as demonstrating resources
  • Know our strengths and our weaknesses, and find partners to build a stronger program.
Mark Moore, Coordinator for the Office of Instructional Technology from the West Virginia Department of Education, who was unable to join us at the conference, provided this video for our presentation about what teachers want in workshops, speaking from his perspective as an educator but also as a professional developer himself.  If you want to hear the full session, you can purchase a recording here.   

I’d love to see (or do!) a session for the next AAM meeting about how museums are articulating their value to schools within the framework of Common Core and addressing standards in their work.  If anyone else is interested in collaborating on a session like this, please use the comment section, below, to get in touch with me!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

We Hacked a Museum Exhibition

You may have been following Nina Simon’s account of the Hack the Museum Camp recently hosted by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, or perhaps you read Paul Orselli’s letter from camp. Today Maria Mortati, who facilitated the event along with Paul and other “camp counselors,” shares her take-away lessons from the Hack.

Main gallery entrance. The museum’s talented
intern Iris Gottlieb did all the signage

If the future of exhibit development is short-term, high intensity, group efforts, I’m all in. I was a “camp counselor” at Hack the Museum at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, put together by Nina Simon and her wonderful staff. Campers came from backgrounds in science, history, and art. They were diverse in their talents, institutional affiliations, and geography—from User Experience Design at Nokia, to Te Papa in New Zealand.

campers signing in on Day 1
The central challenge of the Camp was to develop an exhibit around an object from the collection in randomly assigned teams, in two-and-a-half days.

Kicking it off with a little front-loading
Day 1 consisted of lively counselor-led workshops such as: “Becoming An Office Supply Ninja Prototyper,” (Paul Orselli) “Intentional Play,” (Merilee Mostov) “Writing Prompts for Visitor Participation” (Nina Simon). Kevin Von Appen of the Ontario Science Center and I led a workshop called “Exhibits 101: The Three Big Questions” to help ground campers in the fundamentals. We took them through an exhibition development arc in an hour, structured as: “What’s the Point?” “What’s the Form?” and “What’s the Voice?”

Campers at Merilee’s “Intentional Play”
Teams were assigned in advance by Nina and her staff. There weren’t any seasoned museums folks on our team, so I played more of a leadership role than I had imagined. We had terrific diversity: Balakrishna Chennupati, a UX Designer from Nokia, Lexa Walsh, a social practice artist from the Bay Area, and Sarah Groh, a guest services SCMAH staff member.

Once we met our teammates, we played a “white elephant” game to choose our object. One teammate ran to the gallery to claim a spot for our exhibit, while others went to see our object or talk to the curator. After dinner, each team came up with an exhibit concept and posted it on the wall in the gallery before calling it a night.

Day 2: is unenthusement a word?
You know the truism that an object may not be compelling in a photo, but turns out to radiate energy in person? Our first impression, contemplating our object—an abstract sculpture—was that it didn’t have much energy.

 Untitled, Totem VII, 1977, by Peter Zecher
Honestly, it reminded us of a magazine or wine bottle rack. There was no background on the artist or the piece in the file, and we had 48 hours before our exhibit opening. So we started researching. We discovered that the sculpture was not from Santa Cruz- making it an outsider for MAH’s local-centric collection. The piece hadn’t been shown since it was acquired (if ever). The artist, Peter Zecher, died at age 50 in 1996, so there was not a lot of digital data about him. What the museum file did contain was a series of lovely hand-written and typed letters from 1980-83 between the artist and the curator, showing how the piece came to be at the museum.

We decided our piece had a singular tale to tell, so we gave Untitled: Totem VII a voice (and a Facebook Page) and let the sculpture speak for itself:

our final installation: object emerging from a fictitious crate, treated like a cell.

What was experimental about camp?

The camp assignment—to take risks—was tricky. It wasn’t entirely clear what MAH meant by “risk.” (Nina wrote about this in a post-camp analysis.) Risk is context dependent, and museums or exhibits work well when they are context rich. It was hard for us, as out-of-towners in an unfamiliar community, at an extremely local, community centered institution, to assess that context.
Production Central

That said, I think many of the exhibits created by the camp teams engaged the community in fairly risky and certainly, inventive ways. Not only because their objects (unlike ours) were of the community—some literally took to the streets as part of their R&D. One team had a portrait of a former mayor, so they literally took to the streets to engage the community in developing the exhibit, including audio.

The counselors got a house together and that rocked- we had time to make awards and talk shop in a way that I rarely get to do at more formal gatherings. Many campers slept at the museum. Spending this type of time with professionally like-minded people helped solidify social and intellectual connections.

The future of museums should include player pianos and a confession booth
The museum has a player piano in the atrium, which served as the signal to come to gatherings. That music will always ring in my mind when I think of camp. Especially with Dan Spock at the keys:

 Video from Maria Mortati on Vimeo.

Activities ranged from practical to fun. In addition to the opening workshops and “lightning talks,” the museum set up a tent in the atrium with an iPad and created daily film “camp confessionals.”

Though it looked chaotic at times, the overall experience was incredibly well-organized. The end result was a diverse exhibition, with a variety of interpretive techniques and approaches for helping audiences engage with an equally diverse set of objects.

What can you learn from the Camp?
While conferences are useful and informative, they can sometimes flatten passion. They are naturally geared more towards reflection than production. You may recall that in 2009, N.A.M.E. put together the Creativity and Collaboration Retreat. It was fun and informative. However, the MAH camp’s tight focus around one of a museum’s central creative acts was for me, more inspirational. It supported a conclusion that I’ve come to (along with many others): museums need to get more adept at producing vs. protecting. Hosting a “hack” like this is a good way to practice production.

The tight focus of Camp helped develop both the infrastructural and social dynamics needed for creative exhibit or program production. I recommend if you try a similar experiment, that you focus on a specific outcome and impose meaningful constraints—they will foster innovation and output. In the future, I could see a museum creating series of residencies or workshops around this idea or approach.

The objects we were working with weren’t extremely valuable. That doesn't mean there isn’t anything to learn from this model if you’re a museum with priceless objects. When exploring engagement options, there is a lot of value in starting with less-sensitive objects. This avoids many of the rules and regulations that protect the objects, which unfortunately can hinder creativity.

This quote from the Santa Cruz newspaper illustrates campers reactions to the experience:

“Elizabeth Spavento, whose group explored questions about beauty in their exhibit centering around a historic Miss California scepter, said the overall experience of Hack the Museum camp was unlike anything she’s experienced in her museum career. “I’m used to working with people that are like, ‘Oh that’ll never work,’ or ‘That’ll never pass code,’” she says. “So it’s nice to hear, ‘Wow, I’m listening to your idea. And I like it.’”

If museums are places to engage ideas- either socially or in isolation, camp made the case to lead with the ideas. If museums are going to get this right, then it’s essential to figure out how to start answering the question “can I do this?” with “yes.”

Our team won an award for "best use of emotion"

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What Movie is your Museum?

Everyone wants to know the secret to running a successful museum. Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle tackled that question in a new book from the AAM Press Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement. Bergeron is associate director for external affairs at the Dallas Museum of Art. Tuttle is president and CEO of the Cultural Data Project, a national organization based in Philadelphia. At the Alliance annual conference in Baltimore this past May, these co-authors talked with the directors of six museums whose stories are shared in the book, asking them what movie title best represents his or her organization’s transformation.

Metaphor can be a simple way to communicate complex reality. The right metaphor conjures images and meanings that often go deeper than what the words themselves convey. Our case study museums selected a range of movies that offer insights into their institutions, and underscore the multiple ways in which the museums approached transformation. While Magnetic outlines six common practices that build “magnetism,” there is no one style of vision, leadership, or engagement that fits all institutions. Each museum’s path is as unique as its collection and the people and community it serves.

“Do the Right Thing” is the movie metaphor chosen by Philbrook Museum of Art. This remarkable villa and collection situated within acres of exquisite formal and informal gardens was once an exclusive preserve for the wealthiest citizens of Tulsa, Okla. Today, it teems with families, children, and an ethnically and economically diverse audience ranging from first-time museum visitors to sophisticated connoisseurs of art. Philbrook became a vital urban asset by adopting a vision shared by the museum and its community: to strengthen the ties that bind its diverse community together through access, service, collaboration, and engagement.

For Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, the phrase, “the journey is everything” describes a philosophy that the staff and board share with Tom Cruise’s “Jerry Maguire.” This living history museum that shines a light on Indiana’s 19th century past transformed itself in the midst of a life-threatening two-year governance dispute. How? By adopting as its North Star an emphasis on visitor engagement. No matter what else happens along the way, the museum stays focused on making audience members feel like “guests” by putting them at the center of every decision affecting participation and planned activity. In the end, Conner Prairie’s story, like Jerry Maguire’s, is a lesson in how magnetic and engaging a powerful conviction can be if shared with others in ways that create emotional connections and invite meaningful participation.

A financial crisis in the mid-1990s turned out to be a pivot point for the Chrysler Museum of Art, and the leadership transition that followed allowed the Norfolk, Va., museum to reinvent itself. A new mission to foster transformative experiences through art, combined with a commitment to serve the area’s diverse population has galvanized the staff, board and community. The Chrysler staff relates to the Christopher Guest movie “Best in Show,” likening the museum’s wide-ranging collection to a group of wildly different breeds and its visitors and staff to the diverse and sometimes eccentric owners and handlers. Rather than resulting in chaos, the museum creates satisfying and humanizing experiences that consistently win high marks from its guests and from the community at large. Fostering a highly empowered, service-oriented culture has not only transformed the Chrysler into a welcoming and participatory museum, it has created an extraordinarily loyal and motivated staff and board culture.

The staff at the Children’s Museum Pittsburgh has an ensemble approach to its work that makes the theatrical metaphor of “putting on a show” particularly apt. By focusing on the needs of children, families and community over the last decade, and by working in a collaborative and often improvisational way that plays to each person’s strength, CMP has nearly quadrupled in size, multiplied its offerings, nearly tripled its membership and attendance, and more than doubled its annual operating income, making it the fastest growing institution that we studied. CMP is now a recognized leader in the museum field, as well as the heart and centerpiece of a campus for children and families in Pittsburgh, and it has become a catalyst for the redevelopment of Pittsburgh’s North Side. In describing CMP’s transformation, the staff offered “Shakespeare in Love,” and one memorable scene in which Shakespeare patron Philip Henslowe (actor Geoffrey Rush) seeks funding from a loan shark to premier a comedy called “Romeo and Ethel.” When the loan shark asks how the business of theater, which Henslowe describes as  “insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster,” always turns out so well, Henslowe replies, “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

The Greensboro Science Center (formerly Natural Science Center of Greensboro) in North Carolina joined civic, business and nonprofit leaders to rebuild the economic vitality of a city that had never fully recovered from an onslaught of 1980s corporate downsizing. Embracing the business recruitment efforts of the Action Greensboro consortium, the Science Center focused on preserving endangered species, and enhancing educational opportunities and quality of life initiatives in the region. It also solidified its position as a frontrunner in science education for elementary, middle, and high school students. After attending more than 500 community forums, municipal hearings, and stakeholder meetings, and having won approval of a $20 million bond to build a state-of-the-art SciQuarium for the study of diverse aquatic ecosystems, Director Glenn Dobrogosz and his team chose “Dances With Wolves” to illustrate their transformation.

The oldest and largest of the museums we studied is The Franklin Institute. Change often comes slowly to large-scale organizations, but creating a business-savvy, people- and performance-focused culture has enabled the Institute to broaden its audience, expand its service to the community, enlarge its base of support and increase its earned revenue to an astounding 75 percent of its annual budget. As a result of increased support, the Institute has been able to establish a science-focused magnet high school, engage teens in out-of-school science education and career preparation programs, and become the leading source for science education in Philadelphia and beyond. Institute President Dennis Wint chose television’s “Myth Busters” for his metaphor, in honor of the museum’s fact-based approach to decision-making, but the Development staff won the day with its picks, “A Fistful of Dollars” and, they hope, its sequel, “For a Few Dollars More.”

What movie best characterizes your museum today and what movie would you like it to be in five years? Having this discussion inside your museum may very well be the first step toward becoming magnetic.

You can purchase a recording of this session at the annual meeting here. And if you take Anne and Beth's challenge to pick the movie that best matches your museum, share your movie title, and your reasoning, in the comment section below!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Futurist Friday: Nonprofit Apartheid and the Overhead Myth

I posted some brief musings this past Monday about the blurring boundaries between nonprofit and for profit options for young professionals seeking to do good in their careers. In the comment section, "Albert Nonymous" posted a link to a TED talk by Dan Pallotta, president of Advertising for Humanity, who is widely credited with pushing the boundaries of multi-day charity events that raise huge amounts of money.

I agree with Mr. Nonymous that this 19 minute video is very much to the point, and recommend it as today’s futurist assignment.

Pallotta outlines five “rules” (or norms) that discriminate against nonprofits that make it hard for them to succeed—either at competing with the for profit sector for employees, or at scaling up their impact. These rules describe societal attitudes towards nonprofit:

  1. Compensation—our society seems to believe it isn’t right to use pay to incentivize people to help other people. Why, Pallotta asks, is it ok to make a lot of money not helping other people, but not ok to make a lot of money for doing a good job of helping people? As I hear a lot of grumbling, in the museum arena, about the low pay of our profession, you may be interested in what Pallotta has to say to this point.
  2. Advertising and Marketing—society doesn’t recognize the value and payback of nonprofit spending on advertising. The amount of GDP going to charity has been stuck at 2% for over forty years.  Pallotta asks, how are we going to unstick that figure, and wrestle “market share” from the for-profit sector if we can’t market what we do to potential donors?
  3. Risk Taking—big corporations can take big risks (and fail) in pursuit of a big payoff. As long as their overall performance is good in the long run, people are ok with that. Pallotta feels one thing killing innovation in our sector is that nonprofits are so routinely beat up in the press if any one fundraising attempt fails.
  4. Time—for profits can take years to become profitable and generate income for their investors. It took Amazon years to pay off, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter attract massive investment while searching for a stable financial model. During that time, a lot of their money goes to scaling up to the point where they are sustainable. Pallotta points out that society has no patience with a nonprofit that concentrates its resources internally on building capacity, rather than channeling it immediately to short term mission delivery.
  5. The very nature of nonprofit status—because we can’t pay people a return on their investment, we have less access to capital and less ability to take on debt. (Hence the dilemma I wrote about Monday, as entrepreneur Saul Garlick considers whether he would do more good, and be more sustainable, by turning his nonprofit into a for profit company.)

These five “rules” hobble our ability to generate scale, and limit our ability to have a profound impact on the world.

Pallotta ends with an effective summary of the arguments against the “overhead myth”—the single figure metric that says that nonprofits should spend the vast majority of their operating expenses on programs, as if “overhead” (read staff, facilities, capacity) were an evil and wasteful extravagance.  (You can read more about this last point at the Overhead Myth Campaign, supported by GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance, which is recruiting signatures on a pledge to “end the Overhead Myth and support nonprofits to invest in their mission, sustainability and success.”)

So my Futurist Friday assignment for you: watch the video and think about what would have to happen in order for Pallotta’s three rules to be overturned. What trends and events might shift societal attitudes and values so that, in the future:
  • Nonprofit professionals are compensated commensurate to their ability to deliver on their nonprofit mission, and this compensation was competitive with the for profit sector, in part because
  • It is right an appropriate for nonprofits to market what we do for all we are worth—expanding the percent of GDP going to charity from 2% to 3% or higher
  • A good nonprofit is expected to take risks, and occasionally fail, in pursuit of the next great thing they might achieve
  • Donors accept and support that a nonprofit might have to focus its efforts and money inward for some years, investing in its own capacity to scale up
  • Many nonprofits move to a hybrid model (B corporations, L3Cs) to attracted social entrepreneurs who want to invest their money in return for both a financial result and a social good.
And please, share your insights in the comment section of the Blog!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Exploring the Edge of Innovation in Seattle

The Call for Proposals for the Alliance annual meeting is now open.

First piece of news: the theme is (drum roll) “The Innovation Edge.”

Second piece of news: forget the first piece of news. It doesn’t matter.

Well, it does matter to us, the conference organizers. It helps focus our thinking, guide our search for keynote speakers and thought leaders, and make the case for support to local funders. Added bonus if it provokes some new ideas on your part for session proposals (“oh I’ve been meaning to share all about that little innovation project we have going.”) 

But don’t feel obligated to work the word “innovation” into your proposal (whether it naturally belongs there or not), and it doesn’t mean that proposals about innovation have an advantage in the selection process.

[Note, however, that one of the evaluation criteria is “the topic is important and/or timely,” and prospective proposers are directed to TrendsWatch 2013 for guidance on that point. Insert CFM smiley face here.] The session proposal guidelines have more information about the criteria for selection.

OK, with theme settled, on to logistics of the proposal process. Visit the annual meeting webpage for details, but here are some highlights.

You may remember that last year was our first experiment with an on-line submission process that invited crowdsourced input. That had some good points (people felt free to float creative ideas) and some rocky bits (particularly the technology). Here is what we have tweaked this year to improve the process we prototyped in 2013:
  •  You can use the proposal site to post drafts for comment and input (use the “Save” button), but you must, as a final and separate step, use the “Submit” button to send the proposal for review. (This way the system won’t accidentally import incomplete or abandoned proposal drafts.) NOTE: once you submit a session, you can’t edit it.
  • There is a new search function—you can find proposals by searching on any part of the name of the person submitting the session, a key word in the title, or by track/subject area. You can also search on the name of a proposed presenter (but you won’t see their name in the summaries returned by the search—click through to a proposal to check who is presenting.
  • Each proposal also has a comment section where peer discussion can take place—you will receive an email if someone comments on your proposal. This can help you solicit input on your session and search for other presenters.
  • Crowdsourced input is again encouraged: after submissions close on August 26, AAM members will be able to show support for a session by “liking” it. The National Program Committee will take these ratings into account but the number of “likes” won’t determine a proposal’s fate. 

 Our technology team spent a lot of time on the look and feel of the site to make it more user-friendly. We hope you like the improvements and look forward to your feedback on this iteration of the site.

To get things rolling, I’ve posted a draft proposal on behalf of CFM exploring how museums are harnessing the Internet of Things—networked objects and sensors—in the service of building management, security, collections care, marketing and interpretation. I’ll be writing a follow up post on that proposal (which you can read on the proposal site), telling you how Phil and I are developing the session, and what kind of input we would like from you.

Now—go forth and propose. I look forward to reading your submissions!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Kickstarting a New Museum: MOFAD

How can a museum fully integrate food into the whole museum experience—not just the cafeteria or restaurant, but collections, exhibits and programming as well? How would a museum designed, from scratch, around food differ from a traditional museum?

I’m going to find out first-hand—as a member of the advisory board of the Museum of Food and Drink. MOFAD is a new museum just starting up in New York City. Their mission is to “change the way people think about food and inspire day-to-day curiosity about what we eat and why.” 

When MOFAD offered me the opportunity to help start a museum that aspires to become “the global leader for food education,” I saw it as a chance to explore many of the issues raised in CFM’s Feeding the Spirit initiative. I have a book in production compiling what I've collected so far on museums connecting with their communities via food, but I want to dig deeper.

One of the refrains I heard over and over again from people involved in Feeding the Spirit was how hard it is to fully integrate food and the experience of preparing and sharing food into a traditional museum. Museums are usually designed to segregate food and all the risks it might pose from the collections and the exhibits. Often museum facilities don’t meet the legal requirements needed to serve food to the public, and their organizational structures don’t facilitate getting the necessary permissions. (Read Pam Campanaro’s hair-raising story on that subject here.) I've been brainstorming with potential partners on how to fund a conference on how to redesign or retrofit museums to embrace food—not just in the restaurant but integrated into exhibits and programming. Meanwhile, I get to see what MOFAD can do, starting from a blank slate.

Also, very much in the spirit of CFM: rather than waiting to find their physical location (much less build the museum), MOFAD is launching with a mobile, pop-up exhibit. This means they get to literally start with a bang, since the exhibit consists of a working Puffing Gun—the machine that turns grains into puffed cereal by…oh heck, just watch the video.

Notice MOFAD is crowdfunding this first exhibit via Kickstarter (and yes, as the video says, I have donated. That is what board members are supposed to do, right?) We are 78% of the way towards our $80,000 goal—and have until Saturday, July 20 to make it across the finish line. I’m crossing my fingers for the rest of the week.

I’ll be sharing my experiences with MOFAD on the blog. Stay tuned for adventures in:
Picture from Food Fashionista

  • Trying to start a new museum in this challenging economy
  • Designing a museum around food
  • Moderating the fertile collision of the food world with the museum world 
  • Designing the museum staff uniform--will it include orange Crocs? (At right, see my fellow advisory board member Chef Mario Batali in his signature footwear)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Monday Musing: On Blurring Boundaries

Monday musings are my way of sharing brief, off-the-cuff thoughts about something I have read recently, both to help clarify my thinking an in the hopes of generating discussion and response. I give myself 15 minutes to jot down a summary of the article(s) stuck in my brain, and outline why I think they may be important.

Two recent articles in the New York Times are fueling my thinking about the future of nonprofts:

Article #1: A Social Entrepreneur's Quandary: Nonprofit or For-Profit? from last Wednesday's Case Studies column invited business experts to weigh in on the decision faced by Saul Garlick, founder of ThinkImpact, a nonprofit that encourages entrepreneurship in third world communities. Garlick is frustrated by the nonprofit hamster wheel of low salaries, uncertain income, and onerous expectations on the part of funders. Also, he has ambitions to scale up and increase the organization's impact, and raising nonprofit capital is extremely difficult. So he posed this question to the Case Studies advisers and to readers of the column: does it make more sense for him to 
  • Remain a nonprofit
  • Close the nonprofit, form a for profit company to buy the assets of the old nonpo and pay off its debts, take on debt and raise equity from investors
  • Keep the nonprofit but start a for profit subsidiary. The nonpo could pursue grants and donations, the for profit could take on debt and use traditional sources of business financing
Later this week, the NYT will share what Garlick decides to do (check in at nytimes,com/boss) 

Article #2: A Six-Figure Salary? They'd Rather Make a Difference looks at the "Venture for America" program, which recruits recent college graduates to serve as fellows at companies in cities that need to build a stronger business infrastructure--places like Detroit, Cleveland and Providence--that are not the usual magnets for young entrepreneurs. The article highlights the mindset that drives talented graduates from some of the top schools in the country to choose this high-risk route rather than the traditional job tracks into business, finance or technology. "I want to be in a position where I could have a huge impact on the community" said one VA fellow. This choice has immediate costs--Fellows take a salary in the mid-30's, compared to the six figures referred to in the headline, which someone with a good GPA from a top university could typically expect on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley. The executive director of Duke's career center, interviewed for the article, notes  that in recent years, “students have become more interested in exploring the intersection of entrepreneurship and social enterprise."

Hmm, forgoing the earning power that comes with a good education, and choosing instead to find a job that lets you do social good and have a big impact on the community. Sounds a lot like the reasoning that has lured people into nonprofit work for decades, yes? 

Pair this with the take away of article #1--that a for profit business might be a more sustainable and scale-able way to tackle a social need--and you have my Monday Musing: Are we entering a time when the traditional distinction between a nonprofit and a for profit career is blurring? Will Millennials see for profit social enterprise as an attractive way to fill their desire for mission-driven work, and will that affect the nonprofit workforce? And, most intriguingly for me, is there a future out there for the for profit museum that takes on debt and leverages capital in order to scale up the good it does in the world? 

Your turn to weigh in.

Ok that took a little more than 15 minutes, but it was worth it. 

Update: On Monday, July 15 the NYT reported on Saul Garlick's decision to turn ThinkImpact into a for profit enterprise. You can read about the advice he received, and his reasoning, here.  The take-away quote from Garlick, for me: "I think people make the mistake of distinguishing for-good vs. for-money. The notion that nonprofits are the right — or even, better — vehicle for doing good in the world is no longer true. That may have been the case at one time, but today, ethical, well-run businesses with products that make life better are remarkable at improving lives at scale."

Friday, July 12, 2013

Futurist Friday: Summer Reading

Here's what I have stacked on my nightstand. With a month or two lull from work travel, I might actually make it through these before the museum conference schedule revs up in the fall.

"Who Owns the Future?" by Jaron Lanier. I first read about Lanier in an article in the New Yorker a couple years ago. He is a computer scientist who delights in provoking people about the internet in general, and social networking in particular, and their impact on human culture. His last book, "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto" was a cranky rant on the dehumanizing effect of services like Facebook and Twitter. He's a futurist, too, envisioning the scenarios technologies could create. (He served as an advisor to the dystopian film Minority Report.) In this new book he continues his diatribe on the dangers of the Internet, taking on the exploitative potential and corrosive economy of "Big Data."  Here is a review from the New York Times if you want a preview.

Next in the queue is Marina Gorbis' "The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World." Gorbis is executive director of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, and author of the Odessa to the Future blog. (I follow her on Twitter at @mgorbis.) I suspect, comparing blurbs and reviews, that in this book she offers a counterpoint to Lanier's dark view of the Internet, seeing it instead as a mechanism that undermines the power of large corporations and big government, empowering communities and individuals to create "distributed" solutions to societal challenges. Lucy Bernholz (my go-tweeter and blogger on issues related to philanthropy) just posted a review of this book. 

I'm sharing these titles now, rather than waiting to write reviews (though I may do that as well), in the hopes that some of you may read them along with me, and share your reactions via Twitter (please tag tweets with @futureofmuseums), email, or comments on this post. And please share the books you have lines up for your futurist summer reading. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Balancing the Equation

I had the pleasure, last month, of addressing attendees at the League of American Orchestra’s conference in St. Louis. They invited me to share some insights from the museum world about the forces shaping our shared future.

As is often true, I found that talking to other sectors about what we do made me solidify some of my thinking.  Here is the entire talk if you want to watch [20 minute video]:

I covered a lot of ground in this talk. The the point I would like to share with you in today's post the need for any cultural organization to create a “balanced equation” for financial success.

Here’s the catch: In balancing this equation, a museum gets to set the value of only one variable—the one that represents its core purpose, the heart of what it exists to deliver. The staff, board, volunteers have to be willing to experiment with all the other variables.

Many of the museums we see foundering today are ones that, instead of holding onto that one true thing, tried to take the whole equation of how you make a museum work, this big complex organism, and control every single variable. That doesn’t work. You don’t get to say what all of the pieces of the equation are. A museum will pick five variables and then be left with an unbalanced equation and so their planners fiddle with the attendance projections, because that’s the only thing they have left to can mess with. (Then, of course, the projections turn out to be wrong).

Museums have to let go of all of the assumptiond that have set the historical values of the equations that used to work. They need to find the one true thing that defines their identity, and then figure out how to let everything else morph as the world changes.

Some of the assumptions museums are having to let go of, for example, are about:

Place. There was a major study last year by the University of Chicago—Set in Stone—about the cultural building boom that took place between 1994 and 2008. There was unprecedented growth and building the nonprofit sector - museums, performing arts centers and theaters. The presumption was that if you had a big name architect create a major new cultural center, people would come use it. Often that assumption turned out to be wrong. Of the projects the report identified and studied, 80% went over budget, some by as much as 200%, and often the attendance projections were dead wrong. If you build it, they will not come, unless it serves a community need. That was an assumption that didn’t hold up.

Time. The era of the old 9 to 5, Tuesday through Sunday museum is dead. That’s not when people live their lives; that’s not when they have free time. We see more and more museums experimenting with being open into the evening; even with being open all night. When the Dallas Museum of Art experimented with this, they had people lined up at 2 and 3 in the morning to get into the museum, because that was a cool time to be there.

Content. Consider the first Internet Cat Video Festival held at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis last year. It attracted 10,000 people to sit on their lawn and watch YouTube videos projected on a big screen. This event was so popular it’s now gone on the road and may be coming soon to a museum near you. Was it serious content? Actually, to paraphrase one professor commenting on the festival, ‘this is material culture. One of the most important things a museum can do is help people think critically about material culture and about emerging forms of art.’ So yes, this was very to-the-point of their mission.

Format. Museums don't have to be constrained by the traditional four walls, inviting you come and visit the museum. The museum may come to you. One example of such mobile, distributed museum experiences is the BMW Guggenheim Lab that’s now traveling the world. It’s a massive portable pop-up museum that helps cities examine their thoughts about design. It sets up in New York, in Berlin, in Mumbai, and it says “come talk to us about urban design. What do you want the city to look like? What are the elements of design that make a city livable?”

Scale. A museum like the National Gallery of Art can be tremendously proud if they have 4 million attendees a year. With an ambitious plan, maybe they can shoot for 10% increase per year scaling them up to 102 million more visitors per year after 33 years. As the Smithsonian’s director of Web and New Media Strategy, Michael Edson, says about scale, the internet now reaches 2.4 billion people. Does that make you feel a little small? Should a truly national museum with international aspirations be thinking about how to scale up 10, 20, 100, 1000 times? Conversely, are there museums that traditionally in their mission statements say “we want to be world class”? Should they be thinking smaller? Should they be looking at their local audience and asking how they can best serve their community?

Oakland Museum of California
Organizational Chart
Courtesy of Lori Fogarty
Structure and authority. These organizational assumptions often hobble all of the other variables, keeping them artificially pegged to dysfunctional values. The traditional museum where the director was in charge of curators who had all the status and authority, who told the educators what they could go interpret in the exhibits, that’s all changing. We have museums like the Oakland Museum of California restructuring their entire organizational chart to center on the community, to say “what is the community’s opinion of what we should be collecting and preserving and interpreting?” Because that is the core of their purpose.

In the end, when that equation balances successfully, it’s because you’ve found a core purpose that is either essential (people cannot live without it), it’s addictive (people don’t want to live without it), or ideally both.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Class System of the Future

In creating their scanning frameworks, many of the “test pilots” in the first flight of CFM’s Digital Badging Projects identified “wealth inequality,” “wealth gap” and other variations on these terms as being issues worth monitoring as they forecast the future of museums.

That being so, I found myself pointing many pilots to the video “Wealth Inequality in America” by the pseudonymous Politizane [6.24 minutes]:

The video has provoked push-back from people who argue it misrepresents the numbers (for example, not taking into account the assistance the government gives the poor in America), while others praise it as an example of an effective infographic presenting data from clearly identified sources. Overall, I think it does a good job in giving an overall feeling of scale of the wealth gap (not to mention shaking people up and provoking righteous indignation).

The purpose of scanning for change is to help us question our assumptions and imagine the future may be different from the present. So, righteous indignation aside, why put wealth inequality on our scanning radar? What does it portend for museums? This post is to encourage you to spend a bit of time thinking about that question.

Carle Kopecky, executive director of the Old Stone Fort Museum in Schoharie, NY, commenting on a recent post about fundraising on this blog, opined that “Instead of accepting the premise that society, through its government representatives and other institutions can no longer afford to subsidize essential aspects of our shared cultural heritage...we need to be making the case against the increasing income gap that concentrates the national wealth in the hands of a few elite - or worse, multinational corporations.” This approach might suggest that museums take a role in economic, social and political advocacy that changes the capitalist underpinnings of our nonprofit economy.

But assume for now that museums aren’t going to overturn the free market, or reverse the trend of decreasing government support anytime soon. How will the increasing inequality of wealth affect our audiences—the people who consume museum content and decide how and whether to support us?

Let’s imagine a future inhabited by three classes of cultural consumer in the US:

These three classes may look to museums to fill different roles.

For the 1% museums can fill their traditional functions as places of quiet contemplation of art, history, science. They serve as authorities that document and validate the status quo, and reinforce the norms of their funders. In the New Gilded Era, the wealthy can underwrite the costs of operating a traditional museum, either through what they pay at the gate (if there are enough of them), or through their philanthropic support (if that is where they choose to direct their charitable giving).

The underclass may place the most value on museums that serve their personal, family and community needs, whether or not those services align directly with traditional museum functions. The community museum that does what needs to be done: offering ESL classes, job application training, pre-school education, health and wellness programs, safe and productive after-school spaces for teens, will be treasured as a valuable, and practical asset.

The creative class value museums that offer them resources to help their innovation: access to digital and physical assets, opportunities to collaborate, places to network with other creatives & opportunities to share their work.

Not to say these boundaries don't blur—some from each of these three broad groups are sure to value museums for reasons more commonly ascribed to the others—but the main point is that in a country that is increasingly economically fragmented, so are the expectations we bring to bear on our cultural institutions and to the reasoning behind public support for their missions. So we find ourselves, like Carle, arguing for the intrinsic value of culture, while at the same time documenting the practical role we play in contributing to local economies, or addressing health issues. I find myself increasingly confused by these mixed messages—how can I effectively present them to the public?

Can we hedge our bets indefinitely, behaving in ways that appeal to both ends of an economic curve rapidly shifting to the right? It we can’t, and we have to choose, do we serve the interests of the 1%, and adjust our actions and our ethics accordingly, do we strive for relevance as social institutions deserving of public funding, or do we crowdfund our way to success through populist support? Spend some time thinking about this. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Who is the Development Staff of the Future? Look in the Mirror

I had the opportunity to give a keynote address at the League of American Orchestras conference in St. Louis last week. As always, I find it mind-bending (in a good way) to talk to folks from other nonprofit sectors experiencing the same forces of change buffeting museums, but with their own unique twist.

One of the challenges orchestras share with museums is (big surprise) finding sufficient funding to support the high-quality product we want to present. I think the brutal economics of an orchestral performance crank this tension up even higher than it is in museums. There are corners one can cut (up to a point) to fit an exhibition into existing budget. The costs of putting on an orchestral performance (especially given the strong union representation of most orchestral musicians) are largely set and very high. Take a look at this diagram from the Stanford research paper, “The Economic Environment of American Symphony Orchestras,” that I linked to above.

The “performance income gap” between what you can charge for a concert and what it costs to stage is largely bridged by contributions. Let’s assume for a moment that we can’t come up with a radically different economic model. Who is raising the money that builds the bridge?

One set of trends I’ve been following concern professional development. Here is a good study a on the subject from CompassPoint, nicely summarized in the Nonprofit Quarterly, but in brief:
  • There are not enough qualified development directors to fill the available positions
  • Organizations are suffering from high turnover and long vacancies in development positions
  • Executives report performance problems and lack of basic skills among fundraising staff

The report concludes that development has to become a shared responsibility across the organization—an embedded part of many people’s work, not segregated into one specialized compartment. This is in accord with the general push for staff to develop “T-shaped” skills: deep in one area, but broad across a range of competencies. Nowadays, it isn’t enough for a curator to be an expert in her or his subject matter. A curator also has to be good at communicating to a variety of audiences, valuing the input of non-experts, and finding ways for people to participate in the creative process.  Many people bitterly resent the fact that they can’t just focus on the skill at which they want to excel—I’m told this is a major tension in orchestras, as well. Many musicians who practiced long hours from a very young age and finally made it into a first rate ensemble, want to spend their time on making the best possible music. Understandable, but increasingly unrealistic.

To launch the Center, the arms of my “T” had to stretch to encompass editing, using social media, presentation, business planning and new product development. Now I, as a program staff member, feel like we (the subject specialists) have to learn to take point on raising funds to underwrite our work, as well. I can’t afford to land back at square one every time staff in the development department turns over—again. The time I spend teaching new staff about what I do, and how to speak about it to others, might be better spent delivering the message myself. Do I still want development staff supporting my efforts? Heck yes! But I think I had better not rely on them too much—in the end, no one can do a better job of convincing people of the importance of what I do than me.

So in the age of social media, celebrities, crowdfunding, and an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, who raises the dough for orchestras? Here’s the brief story I wrote for closing event at LAO, a news item plucked from the headlines of 2023:

Congress Passes Arts Patronage Charitable Deduction Act, providing full tax deductibility for private support of individual visual and performing artists.
On the heels of this news came a second announcement: a call for auditions for the New South Orchestra, a musician-founded organization dedicated to musical excellence. "A classical musician today has limited opportunities to focus purely on their art " said New South spokesperson, cellist Mia Lamm. "The majority of orchestras are premised on community service–even in the big six, musicians spend a significance portion of their time on social engagement, education and community service. The New South Orchestra is currently concluding a successful capital campaign to create a state of the art performance space and a modest endowment. For operating funds, our new orchestra has created a funding model that will allow us to focus on artistic excellence by expecting those most invested in that excellence—the musicians themselves, to fund the organization. Each musician, selected through a rigorous, global audition process, will be expected to bring with them to the job their own salary plus overhead. Some musicians will raise this funding through tapping their individual fan bases, built through social media and mobilized through crowdfunding; some (facilitated by the legislation passed today) will find individual patrons; some may fund their participation through personal wealth. This model will enable the New South to offer free admission to our performances, helping to build a broad & diverse audience for symphonic music.

The tweet version of this story? “People are sexier than their organizations.” I can imagine a future in which social media enables individual musicians to create avid international fan bases. Crowdfunding of musicians is already becoming mainstream—just last year Amanda Palmer raised $1.2M to self-finance her new album. And if current trends continue, in 2023 the top 1% may own over 40% of the wealth in the US (compared to the 36% they control now)—a crop of new Medici poised to be patrons of the arts. So dust off your social skills—both the social media and the cocktail party kind. In that future, funding will go to the creatives who learn to make their own pitch.