Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ethics Smackdown: For the Resolution

This is the fourth and (for now) final installment of our report on the debate held at the Alliance in May regarding the future of museum ethics. In today’s post, James Bradburne, director of the Palazzo Strozzi in Firenze, Italy, makes the case for the resolution:

Resolved: American museums should revisit the Code of Ethics for Museums and relax the restriction on the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned collections.

The Code of Ethics for Museums states: “Disposal of collections through sale, trade or research activities is solely for the advancement of the museum's mission. Proceeds from the sale of nonliving collections are to be used consistent with the established standards of the museum's discipline, but in no event shall they be used for anything other than acquisition or direct care of collections.”

This debate is not about de-accessioning, which American museums consider legitimate, but the use of the funds generated by de-accessioning. We are also not arguing about the elimination of the concern that the well-being of the museum must be the first priority. What is being debated is the need to change the specific wording of the current Code of Ethics in order to allow funds raised by de-accessioning to be used across the full spectrum of the museum’s mission, as determined by its Trustees and Statutes.

Point 1. THE WORDING OF THE CODE OF ETHICS IS CONFLICTED. In the first phrase it rightly asserts that any funds realized by sale of museum assets should be used to further the museum’s mission (rather than paying dividends, taking holidays in Rio etc.). This is clearly a correct ethical stance. However, the last phrase limits the use of the funds solely to one – sometimes secondary – part of the museum’s mission: “acquisition or direct care of collections.” Even if we respect Robert Veach Noble’s definition of the museum’s mission ‘to collect, preserve, study, interpret and exhibit’, which has been superseded by more recent, more vague ICOM definitions, the museum mission – and its stewardship – is not only of collections, but of the historical, scientific and social value their interpretation and exhibition represents. To privilege collection and preservation over interpretation and exhibition seems willful and unwarranted.

Point 2. WHAT IS THE VALUE OF A MUSEUM? The Code assumes that a museum has the responsibility, as a steward of material held in the public trust, to maintain the value of the collections —that total value can be allowed to expand, but never contract. But the notion of value is highly elastic, in both quantity and in quality. The value and nature of museum assets are not stable – they vary with time. As an institution deeply involved with time, the museum cannot exempt itself from history. An Impressionist purchased in Paris in 1903 as an unknown or emerging artist, a purchase that may have represented a small percentage of the museum’s acquisitions budget, acquires a value of millions as the markets increase the value. The costs of insurance make it impossible for the museum to afford keeping the work. However, if the value of the object has increased over time, why should the full sale value be re-invested in the collections? Preserving collections is not the only “public trust” responsibility of museums. We already acknowledge we are responsible for more than merely storing collections. We have equal responsibilities to share our content in meaningful ways that are accessible to a broad swathe of the public. Seen in this way, a museum’s resources are a portfolio that can be distributed across many investments: in collections, staff, facilities, infra-structure and delivery mechanisms. Creating a portfolio that is profoundly unbalanced (for example, investing in the building while understaffing its functions, or maintaining collections without building the capacity to make them accessible to the public) is not acting as a good steward of the resources it holds in the public trust.

Point 3. WHAT IS THE GOVERNING AUTHORITY’S HIGHEST RESPONSIBILITY? It has long been accepted that a governing authority’s primary responsibilities are the duties of care, loyalty, and obedience: Care of the museum’s resources; loyalty to the museum before personal concerns, obedience to the mission. The consequence of the current ethics restriction leads to a potentially self-destructive situation in which, by making maintaining the value of collections the overriding concern, the governing authority neglects its other duties. An institution could collapse entirely at the same time it was using resources, per the Code, to increase or preserve its collections. This is the argument of the cancer cell: the right to grow and thrive at the expense of the host. Our overall responsibility is to maintain the health of the organism, not the individual cells. Many museums have a wide variety of ‘objects’ in their collections: a hands-on science centre, with a mission to foster a working understanding of science, may accomplish that mission through interactive exhibits, paintings, working models etc. For that science centre to sell a painting to build an interactive exhibit – does this violate the Code of Ethics? 

SUMMARY ARGUMENT. As with so many issues that museum professionals would like to characterize as being about “standards” this argument is really about difficult and subtle choices regarding rights, responsibilities and stewardship. Museums often want clear guidelines that would relieve them of the need to have messy, uncomfortable conversations. They want a “standard” that there should be term limits for the board, so that they don’t have to ask an underperforming board member to step down. They want there to be a “standard” that the temperature and RH be exactly X or Y, so they don’t have to justify to the board the investment they want to make in environmental controls. For the most messy and uncomfortable issues, they up the ante by characterizing an issue as being not just about standards, but about ethics. Should a museum board member be allowed to exhibit their collection? How handy if one can politely evade the issue that theirs is a subpar collection by saying “ethics say we can’t do that.” If you do accede to an exhibit, much easier to say “you can’t ethically be involved in developing the exhibit or its interpretation [even though you are an amateur expert, steeped in the topic for many years]” rather than negotiating a productive dialog between the board member and the curator, drawing and enforcing reasonable boundaries.

I put to you that the argument regarding ethical restrictions on the use of funds from deaccessioning has taken exactly this lazy path of avoiding a deeper exploration of the issue. What are a museum’s overall stewardship responsibilities to its public? When is a board trying to use deaccessioning as a fast and irresponsible way to raise funds, and when are they making reasoned and reasonable choices about allocation of resources within a museum’s portfolio of stewardship? Why should the fluctuating and largely arbitrary monetary value of a museum’s collections dictate so many of its other choices? Ethics should be boundaries that delineate realms where we can never safely venture, not excuses to avoid exploring unmapped but navigable terrain.

Most importantly of all, perhaps, is deciding what we believe of existing museum governance and governors, and, as a consequence, where we choose to intervene in creating an ethical framework. If we believe that museum governance is inherently flawed, and that trustees cannot be trusted to understand the museum’s mission and act in its best interests, then the correct place to intervene is not in restricting the board’s ability to decide how to use funds, but in strengthening the rules that have an impact on the museum’s governance – how it selects trustees and what informs their decisions. If, on the other hand, we believe that museum governance is robust, and that museum boards and trustees as a rule act in the best interests of their institutions, then it makes no sense to limit their use of funds to a single – and not always central – aspect of the museum’s multi-facetted mission.

Your turn: I encourage you to review my introduction to this series, Sally Yerkovich's preamble to the Smackdown, and John Simmons arguments against the proposition and then weigh in, below. Which argument do you find most compelling? What reasoning would you advance that has not yet been brought to bear? This is not an academic debate--it is one that my have very real consequences for museums and the standards to which we choose to adhere.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Do You Want to Live Forever?

Phil and I read far more broadly than we can travel, so when Rohit Talwar of Fast Future was kind enough to arrange a complimentary registration to the Global Futures 2045 conference in New York City earlier this month, we tapped Paul Orselli, President and Chief Instigator at POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop) to attend on our behalf. Little did we realize we were sending Paul into a convening of transhumanists (who believe we are on the cusp of discovering how to upload human consciousness into machines.) I’ve written that scanning should encompass fringe as well as mainstream sources. Consider this your monthly dose of news from the fringe. 

When the fine folks from AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) asked me to attend a “futurism” conference at Lincoln Center in New York City, I jumped at the chance.
I imagined discussions and demonstrations regarding robots, space, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and the like. I expected that an international conference entitled GF2045 (Global Future 2045) would stretch my mind in unexpected ways.

Which it did. But little did I realize that the primary focus of this conference would be, in a word, immortality. Immortality as in living forever. Immortality as in downloading the complete contents of your brain, your human essence, into some sort of machine.
I looked at the back of my fancy plastic nametag that I received upon check-in to discover what I would characterize as the GF2045 “manifesto” from the Conference’s founder, Dmitry Itskov:

“Cyborgs or AI would not cause a civilization catastrophe. Homo Sapiens’ primitive, selfish, short-sighted thinking however could. If we are willing and able to change that mindset and change the world, then why would we have to die in this new world?  Why would we not have the right to choose?  Why would immortality not be part of a positive scenario for human development?”

And now I’ll admit that I started to get intensely uncomfortable. (I’ll also mention parenthetically that I had just gotten off a red-eye flight from Albuquerque a few hours before at JFK and came directly to Manhattan, so I was feeling a bit fuzzy.)  Was this really the conference I had committed to attending for two full days!?!?

I took a deep breath and started scanning the Conference program for reassurance. Here were some of the session titles that immediately jumped out at me:  “Intelligent Self-directed Evolution Guides Mankind’s Metamorphosis Into An Immortal Planetary Meta-Intelligence”  (had to read and parse that one several times!) “The Goal of Biotechnology is the End of Death“; “Whole Brain Emulation: Reverse Engineering A Mind” and “How Human Consciousness Could Be Uploaded Via Quantum Teleportation.”

Clearly, even as a science person, I was in over my head. WAY over my head. But what could I do?  I had made a commitment to the CFM team, and really isn’t the point of a Futurism Conference to push us out of our comfort zone, and make us think beyond mere incremental steps and predictions about what lies ahead?

With another deep breath, I grabbed a seat near the rear of the Alice Tully Hall auditorium inside Lincoln Center and told myself that I would resist judging the content being presented and just experience the ideas of the conference as they happened and try to take notes to be able to mentally unpack and collate my thoughts.

So allow me to unpack my “mental laundry” a bit and share my impressions of the future as viewed through a decidedly GF2045 lens:

There are clearly many completely sincere people from a variety of spheres: science, spirituality, engineering, and business who firmly believe in the importance and efficacy of pursuing the goal of human immortality.

Personally, I still find the notion of immortality (even in the digital brain download sense) baffling. I love life, but I do not want to live forever. Nothing I heard at the GF2045 Conference has changed my personal ideas about that. It often felt like answers in search of questions.

Nigel Ackland & his Bionic Arm
However, having the opportunity to see Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro’s robotic “avatars” or to hear the gratifying story of Nigel Ackland who lost his arm in an accident, and then to see his amazingly cool prosthetic arm controlled by his brain gave me enormous hope for the future and the continuing intersections of human ingenuity and technology.  

So perhaps, in the end, immortality is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps a different measure of immortality is not an individual life lived forever, but rather a collective human spirit that leads into the future, pushed forward by interesting ideas and discoveries contributed from all of us.

You can read an extensive review of the conference with a list of speakers in Digital Trends, and hear Dimitri Itskov on the subject of immortality for yourself in this video

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ethics Smackdown: Against the Resolution

This is the third installment in our report from the Ethics Smackdown at the Alliance annual meeting, debating whether museums should loosen the ethics restrictions governing the use of funds resulting from the sale of deaccessioned collections. In today’s post, John E. Simmons, principle of Museologica, Adjunct Curator of Collections, 
Earth and Mineral Science Museum & Art Gallery
Penn State University 
 Lecturer in Art
Juniata College
, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, summarizes the arguments against the resolution.
Resolved: Whereas, cultural, financial, technological and political trends are changing the world in which museums operate, American museums should revisit the Code of Ethics for Museums and relax the restriction on the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned collections.

Deaccessioning is necessary to maintain a healthy museum—the issue is how funds generated from the sale of deaccessioned objects should be used. Deaccessioning should be a tool to improve and refine collections, not a source of income.

Using deaccessioning proceeds for anything other than “acquisition or direct care of collections” violates the principle that collections are held in the public trust. Museums and businesses play by different rules, and for good reason. Most U.S. museums are nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations that carry out their missions for the benefit of the public. Because most museum property is held for charitable purposes, museums are legally treated as charitable trusts. This special status is strictly defined and tightly regulated by the Internal Revenue Code of the United States, and it means that museums have both legally mandated and implied responsibilities, including the duty to care for and manage their collections. Nonprofit, public trust status is not to be taken lightly—in 2011 the Internal Revenue Service revoked the tax exempt status of 275,000 organizations, including many museums, for failure to comply with legal requirements.

Nonprofits are given their special legal status to allow them to take on tasks that are socially desirable, because they usually operate at the limit of their resources, and because they provide a benefit to the public. A Legal Primer on Managing Museum Collections puts it this way: “When a for-profit organization faces a financial crisis, the sale of part of its assets is essentially a matter of business judgment…  For a nonprofit, the sale of assets can mean (as in the case of a museum) the disposal of part of its very reason for being.” Holding collections in the public trust does not mean that a museum must keep every object in its collections; rather, it means that a museum must ensure that the objects help fulfill its mission, and that collection objects are not treated as a source of ready cash.

Allowing deaccession proceeds to be used for general purposes will turn collections into financial assets that have no greater worth than their market value, presenting an irresistible temptation to boards and administrators. Fair market value rarely reflects an object’s research or scholarly value (which is dependent on its documentation) or cultural value (which is dependent on its associations).  Calculating the monetary worth of a museum object is necessary for purposes of insurance, but it does not begin reflect how much objects are worth as part of a museum’s collection.  Collections are the heart of the museum—everything that a museum does, including exhibitions, pubic programs, research, and the acquisition of more objects—is based on the use of its collection. Liberalizing the ethical standard would have a negative effect on supporters and future donors, who would see that the museum valued their donations only for their cash value, not for their cultural or scholarly value.  Deaccessioning for cash is very a bad public relations move, and may force the museum into court.

If the ethical standard is revised, collection objects will be sold to pay for pet projects, building expansions, salaries and bonuses, to cover debts, and in other ways that offer an escape from fiduciary responsibility. It isn’t just museum professionals who make decisions to deaccession for cash—it is often the museum’s parent organization, which leaves university museum particularly vulnerable to the plundering and pillaging of their collections. We know that deaaccesioning for cash will take place on a large scale because there is a long history of it despite the ethical standard. For example, in 2007 Randolph College sold four paintings from the Maier Museum of Art to help balance the university’s general budget; the local paper called it a “targeted heist.” In 2008, the National Academy Museum sold two paintings for $13.5 million to shore up its troubled finances.  Following a devastating flood at the University of Iowa, the state legislature attempted to force the university to sell its Jackson Pollock mural to help pay for $743 million in flood damages. In 2009 Brandeis University announced plans to shut down the Rose Art Museum and “monetize” its collection to make up the university’s budget shortfall. The Western Reserve Historical Society sold $3.2 million of collection objects to help pay a debt of $5.3 million. In 2010, Fisk University sold a 50% share of its Georgia O’Keeffe paintings to the Crystal Bridges Museum for $30 million, of which the university was allowed to use 1/3 to pay its debts; the paintings are now shipped back and forth between Nashville, Tenn., and Bentonville, Ark., every two years. In 2011, the New Jersey Historical Society sold artifacts to pay off a $2.1 million debt; the local paper described the museum as cannibalizing itself to survive. In 2012, it was reported that the Field Museum, which had already sold more than $15 million worth of George Catlin paintings, might sell more collection objects to cover its debts—five years previously, the board had issued $90 million in bonds, doubling the museum’s debt; at the time, the Chicago Tribute described the board’s financial plan as “fraught with risk.” Although behind all of these examples we can find worthy goals and good intentions, we can also find financial recklessness and absurd predictions for future income.

The present ethical standard allows broad use of deaccessioning proceeds while keeping museums focused on their missions. As any ethical standard should be, this one has already been re-evaluated and revised. The 1991 edition of the code stated that the use of deaccessioning proceeds was “…restricted to the acquisition of collections;” this was revised in 1994 to “…acquisition or direct care of collections.” The meaning of “direct care” has been interpreted widely, both in museum practice and in the courts. When deaccessioning proceeds are used to care for the collection, it means other sources of income can be diverted to other museum needs.

Finally, if the museum is in dire financial straits, in most cases it is due to fiscal mismanagement, so selling off the collections won’t help, it will only cripple the museum in the future. An analogy can be made to a hiker who is lost in the woods at night and sets his map on fire to find the trail. That’s a really bad idea—the hiker should tough it out until daylight. It might be uncomfortable, but at least when the sun comes up he will still have a map to read.

In the next installment, James Bradburne of the Palazzo Strozzi in Firenze, Italy summarizes the arguments for the resolution.You can order a recording of the session here.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Case Study in Survival from the Sacred Realm

Museums can learn a lot by looking at how other sectors—for-profit and nonprofit—are responding to the same trends and events that shape our operating environment. Religious communities, for example, are challenged by changing demographics, shifts in audience expectations, aging infrastructure, and finances—forces that confront many historic houses and historic sites. So I was particularly pleased that Karen DiLossi, director of Making Homes for the Arts in Sacred Places at Partners for Sacred Places, agreed to share a story drawn from her experience at the intersection of the secular and sacred worlds.

Adapt & Change, or Die—they’re blunt choices that confront the historic churches and synagogues in the U.S. in our changing times. At Partners for Sacred Places, we encourage organizations to focus on the “adapt” and “change” options, and I want to share one example of how that approach is catching on.

Worship services at all too many mainstream churches once commonly hosted 1000 members or more, including people of all ages, now attract only 30-100 attendees, mostly senior citizens. Most of these congregations have moved their services to annexes, basements, or fellowship halls because the main sanctuary is too costly to heat. Facing bills upwards of four or five thousand dollars in the month of January, these congregants may be thankful, in a strange way, for global warming.

Climate change is not the solution, of course, and neither is business as usual when your historic worship site’s beauty and future are on the line. Pastors who have a global perspective and who want their large facilities to be used for their entire community—as it once was 100 plus years ago—are turning to artists to fill their empty halls. For example, Philadelphia’s Hidden City Festival, brings the public into many kinds of historic buildings, including churches, in a celebration of “the power of place through the imagination of contemporary artists.” But this festival and others like it, while wonderful at getting the public into these houses of worship and putting a media focus on them as well, are episodic and their effect fleeting. Once the festival is over public attendance and media’s attention fade.

Interior of Shiloh Baptist before Brian Sanders' JUNK
(Photo credit: Partners'  staff)
How can art be embedded in places of worship in an ongoing fashion? Shiloh Baptist Church, located in a gentrified neighborhood of Philadelphia, is a great example of how a church can go from a closed-door facility to a “church is for more than just Sunday” arts facility. Under the leadership and vision of their Pastor, the Reverend Edward Sparkman, Shiloh Baptist has chosen change, and adaptation, in order to alter the course of their future. Their Frank Furness designed facility has at least an acre of space within its three buildings. On the second floor of one annex building alone, there is a 3500 square foot former Sunday School room with a ceiling height of 35 feet, a small chapel of 1500 square feet, a full size basketball court and two dining rooms that are each larger than most NYC apartments.

To capitalize on this beautiful unused space, Rev. Sparkman participated in the Hidden City Festival. With three exhibits within its massive structure, Shiloh was a highlight of the 2009 festival, convincing the Reverend that there was more to be mined in this approach of using arts to repurpose sacred space. The Reverend decided to try welcoming artists into Shiloh Baptist on a long-term basis, encouraging them to invest in maintaining and improving the space. The church has allowed these artists to come in and out at any hour, and to use their location to expand their reach with classes, mentorships, or apprentices. Are these artists members of the church? No. Are these artists awed and inspired by their new surroundings? Yes. They are also happy to have stable rental space, with no fear of eviction, at paying rent that compares favorably to retail or commercial rates. They are now solidly hooked into the church community.

Creative and loving artist, meet charming and charismatic pastor.

This relationship is still evolving, but currently Shiloh Baptist, with its beautiful facilities, caring pastor, and aging congregation, is home to three arts groups:  A dance company, a theatre company, and a freelance theatre professional.
Interior of Shiloh Baptist after Brian Sanders' JUNK
(Photo credit: Partners' staff)
  • Brian Sanders’ JUNK, a company who dances both on the floor and suspended in the air, has found their home in the Sunday School room.
  • Brat Productions, a rock and roll theatre company who lost their free office at another facility, is solidly at home and at peace.
  • By moving into the Shiloh Baptist space, Madi Distefano, AEA actress and professional director, was finally able to separate her work from her home.

Two more artists are interested in taking over a former Boy Scout room on the third floor of one of their buildings.

The lesson imparted by Shiloh Baptist’s experience is: look beyond your organization and your own capacity. Sharing means caring and more importantly sharing can give you the ability to politely decline the unattractive option of “or die.

Cartoon from

Friday, June 14, 2013

Futurist Friday: The Great Inversion

Here’s a good medium-length read on the rise of the city (one of our feature topics in TrendsWatch 2013): an article by Edward Luce in the Chicago Tribune on The Future of the American City, documenting the revitalization of the urban core “as the suburbs become the new home of the poor.” [~4,000 words]

It includes a great counterpoint to the prevalent “Detroit is dying” narrative, documenting how downtown Detroit is attracting new employers and new residents, particularly the young, creative class. (And Luce gives a shout out to the DIA as one of “America’s finest…institutes of art,” helping make the city an attractive place to work and live.)

Some of the forces Luce describes as driving re-urbanization are:
  • Gen Xers, to whom the suburbs they grew up in represent a “poverty of living”
  • Baby Boomers growing bored of the suburbs, too
  • The increasing proportion families without children
  • The rise of independent charter schools which give families the option of staying in the city wen their children reach school age
  • The rising importance of “Place-based” shopping as online retail erodes the primacy of the mall
  • Growing urban investment in mass transit, with coincides with Millennial aversion to car ownership
  • A growing cadre of activists who bypass dysfunctional local government to work directly with the private sector on community revitalization

The story also paints a grim picture of the growing divide (Luce characterizes it as a moat) between booming downtowns and impoverished city neighborhoods, and of rising poverty in the suburbs, where hardship is often easier to ignore, and harder to address.

Some questions that occurred to me (you can contribute others in the comments section, below):
  • How can museums join the ranks of “social entrepreneurs” actively contributing to urban rebirth?
  • How can museums help bridge the moat within the city between neighborhoods with attractive cultural amenities, and those without?
  • How can museums find, and serve, the suburban poor, who face even greater barriers (transportation, cost) to accessing cultural resources than their urban counterparts?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ethics Smackdown: Preamble

Last week I wrote about the Ethics Smackdown that took place at the Alliance annual meeting last month. This week, Sally Yerkovich, director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University and moderator of the debate, sets the stage for the arguments for and against the proposition to revisit the Alliance Code of Ethics.

In the spring of 2011, Seton Hall University’s Institute of Museum Ethics began to talk with the Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums about working together on a project dealing with ethics in museums.  We agreed that ethics, like other cultural values, change over time and wondered how the many changes we are seeing today -- in the global economy, demographics, and technology, among others -- will affect museum practice.

We speculated that it would not be surprising to find that the ethical principles that guided professional practice even just a little more than ten years ago when the AAM Code of Ethics was last revised might continue to change dramatically over the next ten to twenty-five years.  And while museum professionals make decisions about ethical issues on a regular basis, we tend to think together about them only when a crisis arises.  So we asked if there might be something that we could do to start a constructive and future-oriented dialogue about ethics in our field.

We decided to embark upon a forecasting exercise to identify some of the critical issues that may need to be addressed in a future revision of the Code of Ethics and were pleased to find that there were many people interested in working with us on this.  We approached close to two hundred museum professionals -- from emerging professionals to senior experts, from educators to registrars, public relations staff and fundraisers to directors -- as well as professionals from related fields like librarians and archivists, attorneys, journalists, and even futurists and ethicists.

Of these, seventy-nine agreed to participate in a forecasting exercise that would take place on the Internet.  In addition, we invited public participation and had over one hundred members of the general public weigh in on various aspects of the project.

The forecast identified six issues likely to be of profound importance to museums in the next ten to twenty-five years.  They are:
Accessibility -- encompassing the whole range of questions related to ease of access
  • Accountability and transparency in governance, operations, and finance
  • Conflict of Interest on several different levels -- governance, staff and donors
  • Control of content, again a broad category dealing with everything from curatorial independence and public participation to censorship
  • Diversity; and
  • Collecting and deaccessioning

Of all of these groups of issues, it was the last, and in particular how the Code of Ethics should change regarding the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned collections, that was the most controversial.

There was no consensus about how the Code should change but there were strong feelings about every possibility.  About half of our forecasters predicted that the restrictions will be loosened; twenty percent through they will remain about the same (although perhaps subject to greater public scrutiny) and the remainder, around thirty percent, felt that restrictions on deaccessioning will be tightened. 

The current Code was written, for the most part, to be very general and non-prescriptive.  It was designed to apply to museums of all types and sizes (from an historic house with $50,000 in annual operating expenses, to a zoo with a $50 million budget).  And in part it reflects the inability of the field to come to consensus on some issues, such as the definition of “direct care.”  It is clear from the forecasters’ comments, however, that there is now a hunger for more clarity and guidance.

Comments on all side of the issue were impassioned.  There were calls for clarity,

“These policies are already way behind the eight ball in terms of the fields need for reasonable guidance and standards. In our zeal to avoid making rules, or the inclination to make "one size fits all" rules for the field, we have done the field a terrible disservice.”

There were calls for change,

“AAM's standards about the use of funding for deaccessioning is stuck in the 20th century. Pretty soon, we'll have tons of stuff but no museums left to reach audiences.”

And there were calls to protect the collections entrusted to museums,

“AAM and other national and state organizations need to step it up and ensure that the nations treasures stay put or go to other museums for care and not into private collections.”

We are not surprised by the passion expressed in the forecasters’ comments on this issue. Deaccessioning, and use of funds from deaccessioning, is perennially a huge issue for museums, with many seeing an ethical prohibition as the only way to keep governing authorities, or parent organizations, from raiding the cultural till.  Some of our forecasters were recruited from outside the museum field, however, and had different observations,

“As someone who is not an insider to the museum world, I really think this issue is a ridiculous tempest in a teapot. As long as institutions aren't creating a massive black market for famous works and selling off items from the permanent collection on a regular basis, I can assure you that NOBODY CARES about deaccessioning outside of a few academics and museum nuts.  In general, there is a movement in the nonprofit sector to place less importance on administrative cost ratios and more importance on whether an organization is accomplishing its mission. If a few works have to be sold in order to keep a museum alive, even if that money pays down debts or whatever, to me that is in keeping with the mission.”

So, with that as background, we proceeded to explore some of the issues surrounding the use of funds from deaccessioning and to debate the motion:

American museums should revisit the code of ethics for museums and relax the restriction on the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned collections.

Stay tuned next week for part three of this series: the arguments against the proposition.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The (Ever) Changing Shape of Giving

At the rate the world changes, CFM will never run out of work. It’s only four months since we released TrendsWatch 2013, and already my co-author, Phil, and I are scrambling to assemble updates.

This post shares some of the material we’ve compiled recently on the future of philanthropy. We also want to invite you to join us for an Alliance Town Hall webcast on the topic.

Webcast info first: Jacob Harold, CEO of GuideStar, and Laura MacDonald of the Benefactor Group will join me on Thursday, June 13 from 2-3 pm for discussion on the future of philanthropy. Jacob and Laura will share their observations on trends and events shaping giving in the US, and field questions from the online audience. Town Halls are free to individual Alliance members and staff of Museum, Ally and Industry members. Non-member registration fee is $50. You can read more about the Town Hall and register here.

Whether or not you attend the Town Hall, I recommend the following readings related to this topic. (If you are planning to attend the Town Hall, I highly recommend this reading, as we may riff on the content in the discussion, and it may inspire questions you want to lob at our speakers.)

In Ten Legacy Goals of Next Gen Grantmakers Albert Ruesga reports for the Nonprofit Quarterly on a discussion with “younger philanthropic careerists” at a Council on Foundations program, in which he asked them what they hoped to be remembered for in philanthropy. A good brief read. Isn’t it important to know what motivates the next generation of foundation staff?

The Millennium Communications Group recently completed a “Donors of the Future Scan,” identifying 12 key trends in the giving landscape that will drive change. Interesting questions raised by the scan include: Will the concept of endowment be challenges as new donors give preferentially to non-endowment options? Will more philanthropic dollars flow from inside the US to outside projects? Will “flash giving” in response to disasters affect traditional giving? And (related question) will the rise of mobile giving erode place-based philanthropy? A good longer read. Here is a summary which contains a link to the full report.

This Forbes article explores What it Means to Be A Philanthropist—Gen Xers and Millennials Weigh In, summarizing results from the Next Gen Donors report. Some of the highlights: These donors want to make a bigger difference, and to integrate social responsibility into their lives, not just their giving. They want to combine social and financial value, sometimes via impact investing. They see their philanthropy as part of their lives, not as something that will happen when they retire. Here is another article on the Next Gen report, this one from the New York Times, focusing on the implications for family foundations.

Finally, this report from the Bridgespan group examines Philanthropy in the New Age of Government Austerity. (It could have been titled “advocacy as a zero sum game,” as government programs of all types compete for an ever-shrinking pool of funds.) The Bridgespan report discusses three approaches philanthropic organizations can use to engage with the government in this climate: investing in government institutions (such as public schools); helping nonprofits attract government funding (by investing in nonprofit capacity); collaborating on government reform.

We will continue to share links to new articles and reports of interest in the weekly e-newsletter Dispatches from the Future of Museums. When I tweet links from @futureofmuseums on this topic, I use the hashtag #philanthropy. (Whenever I can fit that into the tweet, anyway.)

I look forward to discussing millennial donors, family foundations, impact investing and other trends in philanthropy with Jacob, Laura and with you this Thursday!

Yours from the future,


Friday, June 7, 2013

Futurist Friday: Interview with Garry Golden

Garry Golden is a professional futurist. (Yes, it is a profession. I myself am a proud member of the Association of Professional Futurists.) 

I met Garry through our shared academic lineage--he is a full fledged graduate of the University of Houston's Strategic Foresight program; I took their one week crash course when I was handed the assignment of founding CFM. The director of the UH program. Peter Bishop, became one of the founding members of the CFM Council, and introduced me to Garry. Now Garry has succeeded Peter on the Council, and is my futurist mentor and frequent collaborator. 

In a couple of weeks he and I will be presenting at the League of American Orchestra's conference in St. Louis. In the course of preparing for that gig, I re-viewed a series short video interviews with Garry on the Kennedy Center's ArtsEdge site. In these interviews Garry introduces himself and discusses:
  • Arts Experiences and the Rise of Third Place. (Garry has also written on the CFM blog about the growing importance of Third Place.)
  • The Role of Educators in a dynamic arts education landscape
  • The Future of Work including the opportunities created by social networks and the growing need to develop an online portfolio of work
  • Effecting Change and the future of learning management systems 
  • Emerging Technologies including Kinect, Siri and IBM's Watson
Each video segment is 5-10 minutes long. Maybe ration them as quick brain breaks over the next few days. 

If you have questions for Garry, post them in the comments section, below, and I will nudge him to reply.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Future—Brought to You By

Ever wonder how CFM can deliver so much content to the field for free?

I get that question a lot, from museum professionals as I travel, and from staff of other associations wondering how they might create their own CFM-equivalent.

The answer? It’s made possible by members of the Alliance —people and institutions who support the field through their dues. This is my shameless plug for your museum to be one of these supporters.

Here are just some of the resources that membership dollars have enabled us to create and share with you, in the five years since the Alliance launched CFM:

It’s easy to take such resources for granted, since nowadays you can swim in a sea of free content on the web. But high quality, thoughtfully selected content still has value, and it has a cost. Businesses from Google to Facebook to Coursera are trying to figure out sustainable business models for this ocean of information.

Founding CFM was an early step in the evolutionary path that resulted in AAM reinventing itself as the American Alliance of Museums. We are trying to create a sustainable business model that will enable us to serve all museums in the US (and a burgeoning number across the globe).

The Alliance’s ability to provide key products and services for free—our core publications Standards and Best Practices for US Museums and Speak Up for Museums (free to all members), the Center for the Future of Museums, our advocacy on behalf of the field—is an outgrowth of the ongoing work that is funded in large part by our member dues.

So if you want to support our work, please do this:
  • If you would like to become an individual member of the Alliance, you can join here
  • If you work at a museum, check to see if your employer is a current member of the Alliance (instructions below*)
  • If the museum you work for is not a member, please join! There is an affordable option for every institution—from “pay what you can” tier 1 membership to a benefit-rich tier 3. (You can find a run-down of the choices here)
  • If your museum is a lapsed member, please take a few minutes to renew (This is tremendously important. One thing I have learned about business models as I tweak CFM—even a couple of months lag in renewals can mess up a whole year’s income.)

If someone else in your institution makes decisions about the museum’s professional memberships, please send them a link to this blog post, along with your personal endorsement of the value of the work we do. (Heck, sign them up for a subscription to Dispatches while you’re at it.)

However you choose to support our work—through individual or institutional membership---thank you thank you thank you. If you send me a note that you joined or renewed--I would love to make that a personal thank you. Or if you choose not to join or renew, please tell me about that, too--I'd like to hear why.

*How to check on whether you, or your museum, is a member of the Alliance
  1. Log in to your existing account. If you haven’t interacted with AAM before, create a new account by clicking Login at the top of the page. 
  2. Click on Edit Profile, then view your museum’s membership status in the Employment Information tab

 Yours from the future,


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Ethics Smackdown: A Preview of the Future?

I returned from the Alliance annual meeting in Baltimore to find my scanning feeds clogged with a spate of articles about the threat of the state-appointed emergency manager selling collections from the Detroit Institute of Arts to help resolve the city’s $15.6 billion debt. (While the museum is operated by a private nonprofit, the building and the majority of the collections are owned by the city.)

These stories demonstrate the timeliness of one of the Baltimore sessions—the “future of ethics” debate CFM engineered with the Institute for Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University. The origin of this Ethics Smackdown was the Forecast on the Future of Museum Ethics conducted jointly by IME and CFM last year, in which half of our forecasters thought that restrictions on the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning will be loosened in coming decades. 

For the Smackdown, we recruited two eloquent and experienced speakers (John Simmons of Museologica and James Bradburne of the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy) to argue the following proposition*:

Resolved: Whereas, cultural, financial, technological and political trends are changing the world in which museums operate, American museums should revisit the Code of Ethics for Museums and relax the restriction on the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned collections.

You might take the position that our field’s internal debate about museum ethics is only tangentially relate to the situation in Detroit. Most of the high-profile cases regarding non-compliance with the Code of Ethics involve the actions of non-museum parent organizations, notably colleges or universities (see Randolph College/Maier Museum of Art; University of Iowa/UI Museum of Art; Brandeis University/Rose Art Museum; Fiske University & Crystal Bridges) or, in this case, a city. One can argue (and university administrators often do) that a college, or a city, isn’t a museum and isn’t bound the codes of ethics of the museum field. Certainly it has been pointed out that the Detroit’s emergency manager is primarily responsible to the city’s creditors, not to its cultural heritage.

But the Detroit case has already rebutted the comment of one of our forecasters, who wrote “I can assure you NOBODY CARES about deaccessioning outside of a few academics and museum nuts.” Evidently, this is not so. The Senate Majority Leader of Michigan has introduced a bill that would protect the collection by requiring the DIA to abide by the AAM Code of Ethics. The code specifies that the proceeds from the sale of collections must be used “consistent with the established standards of the museums’ discipline.”  In this case, that would be the standards of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which sets the highest extant bar—proceeds from the sale of deaccessioned material can only be used for the purchase of new collections. 

I will share the arguments made in the Smackdown (as well as the audience vote on the debate) in future posts, but for now I want to encourage you to read up on the situation playing out in Detroit, and think about the following points:

  •         The AAM Code of Ethics has always been a voluntary standard. Outside of the Accreditation Program, enforcement takes the form of pressure from a museum’s peers, press or the public. How do you feel about the prospect of our sector’s voluntary ethical code being enshrined in law? Read through the code and think about the potential consequences of such legislation.
  •          Cities grow and constrict over time. Detroit has shrunk by about 25% over the last decade, and since 1950 it has lost over half its population. Unemployment hovers at 18%, and up to a third of the city’s residential parcels are vacant lots or abandoned homes. The DIA has been economically stabilized, for now, with the support of surrounding counties, which voted to support a millage that will raise about $23 million a year for 10 years for the museum. But the plight of the city dramatizes the broader issue of how any established cultural organization adapts to its environment. Can museums (and their collections) fluctuate with the size of their community, or can they only ever get bigger? If so, how can museums reconcile their size, and costs, to the resources of their environment?
  •          DIA was founded by private wealth, but those founders didn’t provide enough endowment to make it self-sufficient, and the museum soon began to rely on city support. (This was in an era when it was widely accepted that a valid role of government was support for the arts and other cultural goods—a presumption that is currently fading fast.) What is the obligation of a museum founder (or founders) to create a financially self-sufficient institution? And if they fail to do so, are the people who pick up the bill (whether individual donors, a government entity, or a mix of supporters) obligated to abide by the founders’ vision for the size, scope, operations and resulting cost of the organization?

Food for important thought, I hope. Here is some reading to support your ruminations:
*(You can purchase a recording of the Smackdown debate here,)