The Regional Arts and Culture Ecosystem

No institution is an island. Understanding your part in the greater whole of your community can help, your organization find the best way to work in the community.

  • Large Single-Sited Institutions: ex. Museums
  • Multi-Sited Institutions: ex. School systems, Library systems
  • Event-Focused Organizations: ex. Reader/ Writing Events, musical festivals
  • Small Single-Sited Organizations: ex. Arts centers
  • Mobile/ Outreach Organizations: ex. teaching artist programs

Most organizations have a core competency. For example, a museum might have a housed-collection in a vast building downtown. They might then decide that connecting to the collection requires mobile outreach. However, their core competency is their sited space.  An efficient, thoughtful approach would be to partner with an organization that does outreach well.

Coalitions allow organizations to pool resources and gain the benefit of competencies they don’t naturally have. Additionally, the community wins exponentially. Remember, all the organizations are working together for the community (which is a more mission-driven approach than thinking that you are competing for audiences).  Understanding where you fit in the ecosystem is a useful way to find efficiencies, build audiences, and learn from adjacent fields.

 

What Museums Can Learn from the Black Panther

The stars of Black Panther including Zuri in purple carrying an impressive blade (Marvel’s Black Panther, 2018)

Taken from the Marvel Comic Books, the Black Panther is a movie about a fictional African nation that cloaks its advanced civilization as a form of self-preservation. The king of the nation has superhuman strength thanks to serious sumptuary success. The Black Panther’s trail to bring a bad guy to justice starts some even worse experiences for him and his nation.

1. Great story with POC doesn’t have to be about color
While the Black Panther mentions slavery, colonialism, appropriation, and the art market, they are in support of a great story. Certainly, the many challenges in the history of the African diaspora are worthy of exploring in film, as well as literature and exhibitions. But, people of color are not just the sum of the worst of their history. Black Panther told a great hero story, using all the elements of the character’s history, good and bad. But, this is a really an adventure romp.

In other words, don’t essentialize POC’s experiences in exhibitions or programming. Appeal to the whole people if you want their whole participation.

2. Market for Success
Disney put real money into the marketing, and their investment was returned by being the fifth biggest box office opening domestically.

Museums often split up their marketing with the smallest part going to education programs and diversity programs. And, then people don’t come. If these people are the hardest to get, you probably need to try the hardest to get them into your doors.

3. Synergy Sells
The Black Panther will be in the upcoming Infinity War, apparently. Most Black Panther audiences know this because the ad ran before the movie this weekend. Every person who liked this movie saw that. Some portion might even attend that movie as a result. That said, not every person in the theaters this weekend is a Marvel fan. Many came out to support a Black-led and performed film. But, the synergy is a classic Hollywood trick. Snag extra audiences by pushing products in existing audiences.

Museums often sell hard to a sector of an audience for specific exhibitions, like African-American audiences for an exhibition of Kerry James Marshall or young boys for an exhibition of Dinosaurs. That is good marketing sense. But, most museums can do better about cross-promotion. Look for ways that you might find connections to other parts of your collection. Offer them some connected ways to maintain a relationship with your organization’s collection. The Marshall attendees might love figurative painting. The Dinosaur boys might like whales. To find the best synergies think broadly, don’t essentialize people, and consider doing some evaluations of audiences about other interests.

4. Don’t Shy Away from the Hard Stuff
There is one scene in a museum where a woman (curator, marketing manager?) is standing in a gallery (with coffee!) nearly apoplectic when being accused of cultural piracy/ theft of artifacts. There are many tougher issues about race that are brought up in this movie, though woven into the narrative. I remind you that this is a Disney blockbuster movie being advertised during the Olympics.

Controversial issue and blockbusters don’t need to be in opposition. In fact, if you avoid controversial issues, you might find that you have alienated audiences making for a far-from-successful blockbuster.

5. Celebrate rather than Blind Yourself to Color
Disney worked to create a film within the Marvel universe that worked for the audience, and then made sure people knew what they were getting. It’s right in the name, “Black Panther”. This was not the African-American panther (not to mention he is meant to be from Africa). This story was pretty honest about race, but also matter of fact. From the advertising alone, no one thought that they were going to be seeing one or two black faces. But, at the same time, it was not just about race. You didn’t forget their color but you let the Black Panther, his enemies, his friends, and everyone else in Wakanda be their whole selves.

Museums in general still make the mistake of essentializing people of color, particularly black/ African-American people. Coded language flourishes in museums and museum culture. The word “diversity” in most museums means, not variation as it should, but instead moves to include black people or people of color in the museum ecosystem. This is a terribly bad way to grow audiences. You are basically inviting people in to change your demographic but not changing for them. What happens, then, is that you don’t have true change in museum demographics.

Black Panther showed that people of color will respond to quality entertainment that is more than about race as long as it doesn’t shy away from Race. Also, this was not a sneaky move to create a movie that had an almost all-black cast. This was all-out, right-on Black made and performed.

Museums can learn bringing people in, different people than you have now, requires real effort, real money, and a truthful product. After all, if you aren’t planning to go big, people will just stay home. Don’t believe me, ask the people who didn’t stay home this weekend.

And if you were here for the art, here are 12 artworks from cultures that inspired the Black Panther designers.

Employee Engagement: Cultural Silos and Personal Ladders

Trends come and go in business. You might hear one person say in a meeting, “It’s all about stories.” And then all of a sudden every article in business journals and blogs are about stories. Breaking silos is a particularly fashionable phrase current.

Silos

Silos dot the countryside in much of the US. These tall structures which store grain are all about use and little loveliness. On farms, silos are vital structures, their utility is apparent in their form. They are functional. Their usefulness has made them ubiquitous. And, their need has not changed much. In other words, farmers had silos to hold grain, and they continue to use them to store grain.

In terms of organizational structures, silos be an apt metaphor. Just as silos contain a single type of grain, organizations develop departments based on functional capacity. In some way, organizational silos can be positive. Likeminded people have a short-form type of connection that can foster deeper connections and increased productivity.

 


Safe Incubators

Think of a moment when you are trying to figure out a problem at work, one that has made you pull at your hair. In that moment, you turn to a colleague who works in a totally different field. You spend so much energy trying to explain the problem, only for them to suggest an inane fix. Then you call someone who does what you do. In one sec, without giving you chance to waste breath on an explanation, they offer the right fix. They get it! You sigh relief and move onto the new task. Silos are good at helping you do what you are doing right now better.

But, why are articles allows agitating for the takedown of such vertical hierarchies? The silo doesn’t need a takedown; it’s the leaders.


Communication & Bridges

Silos only work if people make purposeful bridges out of the structure. Farm silos have only one point where grains can be removed.  Many workplaces take this metaphor seriously, allowing ideas to move in and out of the structure through a single upper-level person. Often, this plan is a result of a lack of trust in colleagues. The result is that information, access, credit, and goodwill stagnate at the top level of the silo, with the bottom of the hierarchy groaning under the weight. The bottom of any workplace hierarchy is usually doing a huge amount of important work.

What is the solution?

  1. Make the silo strong: Foster interpersonal relationships in the silo, so that they feel like a cohesive group
  2. Create ways for information to flow freely throughout the silo: Don’t make the silo feel like it will crush the lowest-level staff.  Share information throughout the group. Don’t hoard credit at the top levels.
  3. Make the silo porous: Develop bridges at every level and in-between levels between silos in your organization. Develop processes that encourage staff to create personal ladders between silos.

The Future of the Art Museum: The Alternative Possibilities

 

I was struck by this response to a previous post of mine. I wasn’t the only one. It had 40 likes and 18 retweets.

In many ways, art museums greatest strengths can be their failures. Art museums do quiet, meditative, restrained, and grown-up really well. These are good things for the people who already go to art museums. After all, those people like those things enough to go.

Why is attendance going down? 

Yet, museum attendance is going down.  Why? I’ll give you my take.  First, that core demographic (middle-aged women) is aging. And, those people aging into middle-age are finding other things to do. In other words, visitors are becoming a finite commodity. Unlike in previous generations, when there were fewer things to do, museums now have still competition to convert new patrons.

Notice how I didn’t say that art museums do art well. Art museums often prioritize themselves over their visitors. I love museums and even I sometimes feel like visiting the morgue might be a more jolly afternoon than some exhibitions. Sometimes I read the curatorial listings in the paper and wonder if the museums are playing a colossal game of stump the chump. And, then as if they have Jekyll and Hyde syndrome, those same institutions evoke the blockbuster card with the most stereotypical, saccharine, middle-age-lady-baiting exhibition that they can. What about the happy medium, friends? Sometimes you do that well, but only sometimes. Make this the given, instead of the occasional, and museums would automatically do better with attendance.

Art museums have also suffered for their stability. They have vast, expensive collections. They have authenticity in the hole. And, so, they have felt like they can focus on that and slack on the visitor experience. The truth is that the idea of authenticity has expanded. Who has read a book on Kindle and felt as if they didn’t read the REAL book? There is certainly the core audience who is amazed by a real Tanguy. But, there a bigger group of people who don’t care what That Guy’s real painting is. Museums can’t eschew focusing on experience. They don’t get a free pass for being repositories of the world’s history.

Museums aren’t changing fast enough. The world has changed pretty quickly in most people’s lifetimes. Other than those born after 2007, most humans remember a time before cell phones. Fast change is our normal. So, when museums tout changes that feel glacial, they show how incredibly out of step they are.

How can they stem the tide? 

Truthfully, monumental changes are needed. First, and foremost, culturally art museums have to accept that the status quo will not work. If art museums continue as they are, the audience decline will be precipitous.

Collections: 

Now, I will say that some museums are making changes and putting in certain efforts. A recent Ford Foundation grant, for example, funded some wonderful projects. Many of those efforts are focused on curatorial practices. That is a good start, on some level, as collection work is a core competency of museums. Curators have concentrated power in museums. In some ways, projects targeted at collection acquisition are focused on improving the means of production. Future collections will be less uniform, ideally, with these efforts.

Staff: 

But, those efforts might fall flat if they are not paired with many other changes. If you use the production model, even if the means of production improves, the company can still go under. Currently, museums run on a model of inequity, with portions of their staff working for considerably less than others. While in the short-term this model is fine, in the long-term this is inefficient for the field. Right now, the glut of young potential employees is high. Eventually, it will slow and then the cheap labor model will stop working.

Even if you aren’t worried about long-term sustainability, the museum staffing model is bad for visitors. Underpaid staff is not going to do their best no matter how much they love the art.

 

Visitors: 

Collection work will help museums maintain current audiences. Improving workplace equity will help them have a stable workforce, and therefore save money on retraining. This will allow them to increase time and money spent on visitor experience. Improving how people feel at the museum is the only way to increase audiences. To go back to the tweet I started with, people need to feel like the museum is enjoyable. They need to feel like you want them there as they are, not as you want them to be. In order to do this, the practice needs to align with the visitor’s needs (rather than the museums.) Without a concerted effort on making museums about visitors, we will eventually be without visitors.

Addressing Inadvertent Bias in Language

Words matter. Actions matter too, don’t forget. But, words can be harbingers of actions. They are certainly bellwethers of the inner mind. Words belie deep secrets. Words are the ultimate tells.

Most imperative, however, words are not static. Their meaning, their usage, their connotations fluctuate. The transmutation of meaning can feel imperceptible for people, like the growth of hair. But, other times, the change of connotation can be seismic and quick. The transformed meaning feels shocking.

So, words share meaning, and the meaning is constantly changing. How can you handle this? Go with the flow won’t work here. You need to be proactive to understand and incorporate new meanings into your language.

There are many words that can make others feel bad. These are often the words that connect to how people self-identify. These are also often the words that you feel are most fundamentally unchangeable.

What are some words that can cause others to feel bad?

  • Gender Pronouns (She/ He)
  • Words that use one group to stand in for a larger group (Mankind for Humanity)
  • Words that define an ethnicity or culture (Native America, First Peoples, Aboriginal, and/or Indian).
  • Words defining relationships between people (Wife or Partner)

How can I do better?

So, what should you do? Focus on words and usage. This is not to say meaning. We have all used words to hurt people. Instead, center your thinking on when intention is different than perception.

  • Self-reflect—
    • Start by thinking about the times when your words didn’t connect with the listeners.
    • Think about moments when you have felt you hurt people.
    • Also, consider when you have felt strongly about when people’s word usage has hurt you.
  • Investigate—
    • Make it your responsibility to learn about why certain words are not being received as you imagine.
    • Do not ask others to be responsible for your education.
    • There plenty of wonderful resources online to help you start your education.
  • Attempt—
    • Once you understand the ways that words feel to others, make your informed decision on your usage choices.
    • You might find your feelings mean that you will change your usage. You might instead feel strongly about maintaining your usage as it is. If you choose the latter, be prepared to affect people.
    • For those words that you change, put them into usage.
  • Listen
    • You will make mistakes.
    • Listen to how people react.
    • Reflect on those reactions.
    • Learn from those reactions.
  • Try Again
    • Amend your approach based.
    • Employ your new approach in language.

For more, a longer and more emotional conversation about language read my thoughts here.

The Strengths of Museums: What We Can Learn From Each Other

Last week, I had a wonderful amount of feedback on my post. I had compared two fairly different types of museums, Art and Science Museums, to see what they can learn from each other. Often, museums silo their practices within their own specialty. By looking over the wall at the successes of others, the whole field improves. I have compiled feedback from many to create this graphic. It is really just a start. I am sure there are so many more strengths. In fact, if you see missing ones, I would love to hear about it.

Also, what about the museums and installations that have already picked up ideas from other types of museums. I have scores of examples, but I will share one. One of the most moving art experiences my family had was at the Redford Gardens in Quebec at an international art show. My children are regular museum-goers (a familiar hazard for museum kids), but there was something amazing about art in natural space. The children were talking about form and line in ways that I hadn’t really ever observed in other museums. And, my children were not alone. Many other families were having similar experiences around us.

What are some of your favorite times where a museum has broken its usual paradigm and thereby improved the visitor experience?

How to make museums more engaging? Develop Employee-Centered Museums First

Museums share collections and research for visitors. But, of course, they are also workplaces. People, who work at museums, create research and installations for visitors. This simple equation highlights an essential challenge for museums.

Unhappy People equals Unhappy Product

Unhappy people are some of the most generous folks around. They share their negativity with awful abandon. Their noxious fugue of disenchantment follows them, infecting those they contact. This attitude spills into all their actions and communications. In service organizations, these unhappy people suffuse every action with a patron. The sticky residue that disgruntled employees exude is hard to expunge from the workplace culture. Unhappy people, therefore, taint the product of the organization. But, this terrible plague of negativity is not the fault of the employees. Employee dissatisfaction and negativity is often a symptom of a challenged workplace culture.

A strong, positive workplace culture is like an inoculation against negativity. Good cultures put employees at the center. Starbucks recently invested profits back into their employees, in line with their belief that staff is the best brand ambassador. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, goes farther in describing the relationship between happy employees and happy customers:  “At Zappos, our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff—like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers—will happen naturally on its own. We believe that your company’s culture and your company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin…Your culture is your brand.”

Museums might bristle at comparing themselves to a shoe company or a coffee shop. But, most visitors who walk through their doors have done business with Zappos or Starbucks. Visitors are used to experiences that “feel” a certain way. Therefore, museums with strong customer experience (born of equally strong staff experience) feel comfortable and resonate with visitors.

How do you make a positive work environment?

I have always been reticent to participate in anything billed as fun in print. If you need to say its fun, the likelihood is that others might not. Authentically enjoyable experiences are more expansive and cannot be encapsulated in that three-letter word.

Often workplace thinks of employee engagement as additive. In other words, they add a few workshops to improve an employee’s day, like a yoga experience or a trick-or-treat party. Experiences like this are not bad on their face. But, if the core culture is not solid, these are basically like adding frosting to a maggoty cake. Frosting will not make you want to consume even one rotten slice.

Developing a solid employee experience is not easy. As Casper mattress brand CEO Philip Krim says, “just because you say you’re fun, doesn’t actually mean you’re having fun. Paradoxically, being fun takes work.” While negative employee culture can easily spread like a virus on its own, positive employee culture needs a thoughtful, purposeful effort.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

First and foremost, the museum needs to make a commitment to place their staff first. This commitment can be lip-service. It needs to be shown in actions. A colleague once said, “organizations express the value they have for your work in cash-money.” Pay disparity in departments often results in real cultural problems. When an assistant in one department, say curatorial, is paid drastically more than another, say, registrars, the museum is highlighting that is not work but affiliation that matters.

The biggest challenge in terms of pay equity is between executive staff and junior staff. The museum is implying that executive staff is worth 50 times more than the junior staff by paying them 50 times more. This might be true, but if so, then junior staff should not be asked to check email at home, make on-the-spot customer decisions, and take work home. More likely, however, is that this pay disparity between executives and junior staff is disproportionate to the relative importance these roles have to the visitor experience. In other words, junior staff make or break visitor experience, and yet, do not receive commensurate pay for their value.

Show People & Tell People

Museums are tiered corporations, certainly. And, some decisions are easier made by a few people. But, most decisions are best made by those who know what they are talking about. The challenge with hierarchical (oligarchical) organizations is that decision-making power is reserved for the highest tier. As such, the deciders are often fairly far away from the results of the decision (and the need for the decision). Think of the decision on the size of the font. If the head designer is not in the galleries with the recently visually-impaired elderly patrons, she doesn’t have the pleasure of hearing the complaints about her tiny, tiny type. Ideally, delegate decision-making. Find ways that people can make decisions from their role that help their work. AND DON’T MICROMANAGE.

Some decisions, say financial ones, will need to be sent up that corporate ladder. The challenge for staff is not always that they have no say in the decision, but instead that they are ignorant of the reasons. When rolling out decisions, be truthful and transparent about the motivations.

Don’t Pull a Bait and Switch

There is nothing worse to me than the sickly sweet “friends.” I, personally, don’t care if you don’t like me. But, don’t be nice to get something from me, and then return to your usually nastiness. This is a habit many museum managers take with their junior staff. They roll out the pleasantries, commending the importance of a certain field. Then, internally, in upper-level meetings, say, they mention all their complaints about said department, staff-member, program. Firstly, museums are magnificent for their grapevines, keeping true, perhaps, to their academic roots. If you really want to spread a rumor, start it in a meeting considered confidential. Secondly, this type of behavior will erode staff culture faster than any other behavior.

Don’t be underhanded. If you don’t know what underhanded is, then you likely are. Don’t lie to your staff, either through omission or true falsehood. Don’t say one thing and do another. Don’t make rules and then exempt a certain sector of people (say curators). Don’t treat a set of your employees with kindness (the rest will assume contempt).

Conclusion

Back to our cake, rotten ingredients make a rotten cake, but the eater not the baker will be the one to truly suffer. Museum visitors suffer most from negative employee culture, which results in decreased or stagnant revenue, which will mean less money to operate the museum, which eventually is bad for the collection and the institution. In other words, centering your employees and ensuring their satisfaction is good for collections. Your investment in your employees will be returned one-million-fold in superior visitor experience, which is the sweetest reward.

This post was inspired by Mike Murawski’s TOWARDS A MORE HUMAN-CENTERED MUSEUM: PART 1, RETHINKING HIERARCHIES.

Work Better: Foster your Curiosity

Two weeks into the year, and statistically speaking, you are probably a failure. Most people who make new year’s resolutions break then before their holiday decorations are down. Why is this?

Start with the moment you make your plan. You focus on what is wrong in your life. You don’t exercise. You are not good at keeping up with email. You are judgmental. Then, you come up with a solution to this problem. In the heady moments of December, hopped up on holiday candy & cosseted with your holiday social set, you pick something that will make you better. You make a pact with yourself that you will do X to fix Y. And, then the cold dawn of the new year arrives, you find the old you keep showing up.

Most people find extrinsic motivation much more powerful than intrinsic motivation. For example, you might not write a journal every day religious, but you will certainly send your daily update email to your boss if they ask you. In the case of your resolutions, you are setting yourself up for challenges by relying solely on intrinsic motivation and a lack of consequences.

Moreover, the premise of resolutions is problematic. You are not broken. Resolutions basically focus on making something negative better. Resolutions are basically a system set-up with a fixed mindset.

A growth mindset is the belief that you can grow new skills. Rather than thinking you can’t draw, you can say that you will need to grow new drawing skills to feel more competent. Developing a growth mindset can be challenging for people who have long held negative feelings. For example, you might have spent a lifetime being told that you aren’t athletic. It’s hard to gain the momentum to find the exercise that makes you feel good (and athletic).

Curiosity is one of the best ways to transforming yourself from a fixed mindset. There is no way to fail at curiosity, as long as you try. There is no rubric. There is no wrong. Your resolutions are an attempt to move you from one point to another in your actions. Fostering creativity is about going from one unspeaking place to another unknowable space. Said differently, creativity is a way to allow your mind to move past the simple accrued actions of a fixed mindset.

Fostering curiosity is a way to allow your mind to wander past long-held ideas towards new ones. Regarding work, diversity of ideas is an essential way to find better solutions to your challenges. So, how can you foster curiosity? Try this simple exercise today.

  1. Grab a white sheet of paper.
  2. Turn on a song with lyrics that you know well.
  3. Write out the words that you hear in the lyrics.
  4. Once the song is over, turn off the music. Set the timer for 30 minutes.
  5. Now, look at the words. Let your mind think about the words and ideas. Write out all the first set of questions that come up.
  6. Then, look at those questions. What other questions come to mind?
  7. Keep going on this iterative question exercise until the timer goes off. You might feel stalled in the middle of the exercise. It is important to keep going past that point.

Once the time is up, you may look up answers to your questions. You don’t need to however. Curiosity is about wanting to know answers, but it isn’t always about finding the answer. Sometimes just asking the question is enough to change the way you think about questioning.

 

 

Inequity in The Arts & Culture Economy Equation

 

The arts and culture present some serious funding challenges for society and represent some serious inequities.

Production:

  • The top of the pyramids, like the directors of museums or the owners of galleries, make much more money than those starting out.
  • Many people cannot afford to work in the arts because of the low salaries.
  • Therefore, arts and culture often draw from upper middle class and upper-class sectors for staffing.

Consumption:

  • Donors give more money than the average customer.
  • However, donors and other upper middle class/ upper-class disproportionately consume the arts.
  • Arts and Culture are often too expensive for the middle class and lower middle class.
  • Institutions serve more people than they employ, meaning that while there isn’t large “profit, there is increased engagement.

So what? Well, it means that when arts and culture have inequity in their means of production, the public will question our costs. Art, for example, is a commodity. People know that works can cost millions of dollar. When museums suggest they need money to support their operations, this doesn’t compute.

Arts and culture are extremely costly to produce. Think of all of the people who need to paint sets for Broadway show, and this is not work that can be automated. And, while people might enjoy that show, they can’t see how the cost of painting that set goes into the ticket fee. They just see that they will be spending $200 of their hard earned money for a 2-hour show, for example. You don’t realize that your ticket is not even close to covering that set painter; the corporate donations are part of this. Obscuring the cost of production means that consumers don’t understand the importance of their contributions.

The inequity on the production side also has major problems. Arts and culture of all kinds have expanded drastically. The required contribution from consumers has increased to cover these costs.  But, finally, the perceived value of these experiences has not necessarily increased. There is more and more competition for the same consumers, just as they are less likely to go to events. In other words, organizations now cost more while often getting fewer consumers.  Arts and Culture need to make more to cover their higher costs but people are not necessarily more likely to spend it. Finally, the opt-in fee to start using arts and culture prices out people, meaning that a whole generation of potential future clients might miss out.

The inequities in our funding of arts and culture can have massive ramifications on the number of future consumers potentially rotting the future of the sector.

This post follows up a post about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new mandatory ticket fees: Nickles, Dimes, and Tough Times : The Relationship between Visitors, Revenue, and Value

Nickles, Dimes, and Tough Times : The Relationship between Visitors, Revenue, and Value

This post is a follow-up on a post last week about the Metropolitan Museum of Art instituting mandatory ticket fees

For many years, I ran a department in a free museum. Perennially patrons would ask for a free parking sticker stamp. If I had been a visitor, I, too, might have asked for this. After all, it is basically just a stamp. This museum was in a town where free parking was pretty common; people bristled at paying money for something they expected to be free. It was then that I had to share with patrons that our department, responsible for the education of the young minds exploring the museum, would be charged. Inevitably, the visitors would apologize, and exclaim their surprise that the department might accrue costs in this manner. In other words, people often don’t know the relationship between the money they spend at a museum and the programs they want to support.

You can’t blame them. Most of our American life is based on a colossal shell game.  In many states, education is funded through housing taxes, meaning that those with bigger houses pay more for the same education as those with small houses. Basically, many of us pay different amounts for the same thing. But, as with the case of my visitors asking for free parking, the nuances of funding are usually poorly understood.

Where does the money go?

Museums are exemplary at many things including obfuscating their processes. Visitors are not to blame for not understanding the cost of a day at the museum. And, the costs can be astronomical. Guards, HVAC, cameras, housekeeping, conservation, education…everything adds up. Rarely does a museum share how much it might cost per hour in a gallery. I assure you that any manager who has priced out opening a gallery for an hour for a private event knows full well the astronomical costs of maintaining a museum. I certainly still shudder at thinking of this cost. And, these are just the costs to run the museum on the daily basis.

Beyond that, museums have had many of the same problems of universities. The salaries of the top layer have grown faster than the amount of money coming in. They have expanded their facilities, incurring capital expenses, and then now have much larger operating incomes. Many of the expansions have resulted in revenue in the form of rentals (Weddings are the fairy godmothers of 21st-century museums). But, they have also increased the cost of upkeep. Think of the extra wear on the floors and of the bathrooms. Or don’t. (After nightmare experiences with duct tape, orange feathers, Bud Light cans, and rentals, I try not to.)

Finally, museums are now competing with everyone for audiences. You can easily stay home for entertainment. Or you can go to see street art for free. You see a public lecture by your favorite paleontologist at your library. You can use VR to see the moon and the stars at home. Educational leisure activities are widely available. As a result, museums have upped the ante, with costly traveling exhibits and events. In other words, museums need to put out money to get more people.

Think of it this way. Museums have more annual visitors that sporting events. I can’t say how much they earn annually in revenue, but I would wager that it is less than the NFL, NBA, and MLB at 28 billion dollars. So at sporting events, they have fewer people who spend more.

What does all this matter? 

Firstly, it means that the museum needs to make up money per visitor from other sources to subsidize the ticket. (See this interesting discussion from the director of the Met).

Donors are often very interested in seeing large visitor numbers. Many foundation reports require attendance numbers, not measures of satisfaction. They want to know that their 20 Million dollar gift towards that dinosaur exhibit was loved by 200,000 visitors. In other words, the museum actually needs visitors to keep coming in order to keep up the subsidy. And, here in the final challenge with this financial game of Twister, visitors will likely avoid the institution if there is no ticket subsidy.

Are Museums Worth it? 

If you imagine a graph of price vs value, in a free museum or a pay as you go, you have donors who are paying vastly more than the person who is entering free. (The orange line). In a mandatory ticket fee museum, basically, you are losing the people who were entering at free. To say this differently, if you charge a fee, you will lose people. Some will be lost if the cost feels onerous. Others will decide that they don’t value the experience enough to pay the base fee. Others will pay the fee and then spend additional money on donations, memberships, and in the store.

The challenge with charging people money is that they start thinking about the experience as a transaction. You will countenance lukewarm lemonade for 50 cents from a child’s corner stand. The great Michelin starred restaurant charging $15 will be kept to different standards.  In the case of the Metropolitan, (and previously at Newfields in Indianapolis and Art Institute of Chicago), people will now expect $25 worth of experience. Visitor experience will need to feel sterling. (I will say that with friends at three institutions I think that they will be able to meet these expectations).

But, this doesn’t actually respond to the issue of the worth of museums. The real challenge for museums is that the field hasn’t demonstrated their value to enough of American society. Attendance numbers continue to go down. We are neither popular nor populist. The ticket fees at the Metropolitan are certainly a challenge, but they are near the end of the wave of museums charging for experiences. In a perfect world, people would pay as much as they could afford to go to the museum. They would understand the value of the museum to their lives. But, how can they when museums aren’t consistently demonstrating their worth and remaining relevant to visitors?

If we as a field want more museums to be free, we need to make more people want them to be free. We need to make people crave museum experiences. Of course, people don’t crave that which they don’t want to consume. People will never fight for museums on a large scale if those spaces feel closed to them.

Conclusion

Truthfully, the whole ticket fee issue is a huge challenge.

  • Ticket fees help museum patrons cover a portion of the costs, like when you ask your child to pay for their own ice cream when you paid for the vacation. They serve as a sign to donors that visitors value the experience. They also allow museums to relieve some of the huge responsibility of raising donations.
  • But, big visitor numbers are needed to raise the donations, and there is a ticket cap at which point attendance decreases. With the scale of the museum market, this cap is often hard to pinpoint.

But, the issue of ticket fees is not about economics. It’s about value. I value the ability to stop by a museum for a short amount of time. I value the way that a free museum can be an extension of my social space. I value my free museum enough to be a member. I value my museum enough to spare precious family time. The depth of value is hard to develop when the ticket fee turns the museum experience into a once a year type of experience.

And, here is the crux of the challenge. We live in a society where a small sector values museums. When we add fees, we decrease the number of people who enter, and therefore we decrease the number of people developing deep bonds with our institutions. After all, it is hard to say if something is worth it, when you can’t afford to see it.