What is Community Engagement?

Capital, Collections, Cultural Capital and Infrastructure are what museums can offer.
Facets of Community Engagement

Community Engagement is one of those terms that is tossed around in museums but can become encrusted with coded meaning. Often museums use the word community engagement to mean bringing in low-income people, with “community” being a coded term for underprivileged people. Sometimes community engagement might be used as the term for bringing in new audiences. Or, in an ideal situation, community engagement is a term for connecting people to your organization.

Not too long ago, I was thinking about the possible types of experiences that could be part of community engagement (see my handwritten notes above)  Often organizations focus on how they can bring people in their doors, usually with programs.

Yet, a rounded community engagement program should strategically consider the myriad facets of interaction. Museums have collections as well as space, money, soft power.  People’s draw to the museum might not be the collection, at least at first. This is a controversial thought, I realize.  Community engagement, however, needs to be about inviting people into the museum community rather than demanding people use the museum the “right way”.

A huge portion of community engagement should be about sharing. Museums have many resources they can share beyond their programs. Also, there are times when what they have to offer is space, both physical and emotional.  A well-rounded community engagement portfolio should balance multiple elements of the facets of community engagement, ideally developed iteratively and collaboratively with patrons.

Thinking about Value: Universal Rights of Humanity & Free Arts/ Culture

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948 explicitly calls out the importance of arts and culture. Article 27 states “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” This estimable document includes a number of essential rights, like the right to life and work. Amongst those foundational needs, everyone has the right to knowledge and culture.


The importance of intellectual and cultural pursuits might be seen as a right by the United Nations but are often unfunded mandates in many countries. In the US,  arts and culture funding generally combines private and public funding like a complicated crazy-quilt. A patron at a library, theater, and/ or museum would be hard-pressed to perceive the sources of money that keep the lights on and the culture coming.  Arts and culture seem to just be there.

The opacity of funding can be a sincere challenge in building ownership in patrons as well as maintain sustainability. Patrons need to understand costs if they are being asked to help pitch in. National Public Radio (NPR) offers a useful model of articulating the actual cost of services. During funding drives, most stations delineate the costs and then remind listeners of their responsibility to pay for what could be free. Breaking down costs concretizes services that otherwise seem ephemeral.

Museums and arts organizations, like NPR, are often available on the user’s timeline. Rather than a theater performance, you can go to the museum during open hours.  You might choose to spend the full day in the galleries or walk out in ten minutes. At the symphony, you would be ejected by polite red-coated volunteers if you tried to stay the day and judged, equally politely, if you walked out in ten minutes.  While this self-determined timeline can be positive for visitors, it can also have ramifications for the perception of value. One museum professional shared that they felt that, “People see us as the friend who is always there for you when you don’t have plans, and this is also the friend that you don’t really pay attention to.”

Visitors often do not understand the true costs of running arts or cultural organizations. Museums and arts organizations support their funding mostly through large donors, who basically subsidize the low-cost or free entrance. So, the visitors are merrily ignorant of the hard work the development staff engages in daily. They see the benefits of this labor as a given.  Alternately, many performing arts organizations have a different model. Patrons pay fees for tickets. These fees do not completely cover the operating costs. But, patrons understand that there is a cost associated that that cultural experience.  The distributed funding model in performing arts exposes the funding needs to a broader sector of their community.

Patrons will not innately understand costs. The onus is on the organizations to make this clear to their broad audience. Many of the costs of this work are different than the costs in other fields. Most office buildings have framed posters on the wall. Not all visitors will understand why the cost of framing and hanging an artwork on a museum wall is exponentially higher. An arts-professional shared the importance of expressing funding needs…”CHRISTINA”



Value has a complicated relationship with cost. For example, if the value is seen to be less than the cost, the patron will likely be deterred or disgruntled. If the value is perceived to be more than the cost, the person will be thrilled to make the payment.  But value is not just about getting a steal.  Value can grow over time. Repeated contact can be necessary to really appreciate some costs. Gym membership, for example, is a cost that you might need a few months to truly appreciate.

Arts and culture also have a perception problem. These pursuits are seen as being appreciated by a rarified audience. Certain skills are seen as necessary to “get it.” They have to be “your thing.”  And, if they aren’t your thing, you won’t find enjoyment. A recent British study articulated this issue:

Onboarding is, therefore, a major problem for the field. Entry programs, often through schools, can help people gain an appreciation of arts and culture. However, if these programs are not valued in their family, students often do not grow to value arts and culture in the long term. Families often preference other leisure pursuits, even if those have costs, unlike the free arts and culture. All is not lost, of course. Arts and culture appreciation can grow in young adulthood, often through friends. However, young adulthood is a time of high student loans and low disposable income. So, young adults might not experience arts and culture enough to build a sustained habit.

Free programs, therefore, can be a way to build broad audiences. As one cultural professional said “[without free programs], I think our audience would be even more middle-aged and middle-class than it is, and I don’t know that it would have the chance to diversify, both in those terms and in others.” Free programs are the easiest way to break down a tangible access barrier. Free allows anyone and everyone to enjoy the benefits of arts and culture.

Arts and culture are also often best enjoyed collectively. A live reading of a poetry is different than listening to an audiobook at home. Live theater allows patrons to connect not only to the story but also to the energy of being in a room full of like-minded individuals. When a social group goes to an exhibition, they can learn and explore together. Arts and culture are also cost-effective when experienced collectively. The cost of mounting an opera is exorbitant, and so sharing those costs are the only way that such experiences can exist. Real Rembrandts, and frankly many fake Rembrandts, are too costly for most people to own. Most people’s chance to experience high-quality art is in art museums.  As, the power of experiencing arts and culture, though, is not universally obvious, free opportunities allow people to tap into these experiences of collective learning with authentic arts and culture.

Free also has a number of problems, however. As mentioned above, free means costs must be raised in other ways. Also, as mentioned above, free means people do not understand the true costs, and so they cannot determine the true value. Therefore, for some organizations free becomes a different type of barrier. As a professional at a free museum shared, “People just assume that they can come when they want, and so they never come and go to the things that they pay for. No one wants to lose money.”

Value and cost, therefore, have a convoluted relationship. These organizations are seen as exclusive.  Charged fees support the perception of exclusion. The real costs of running these types of organizations are often invisible to users. However, most people do not place enough value on these resources to pay even a portion of the cost. After all, even when available free, these arts and culture amenities are often eschewed for costlier options. When free programs are valued, patrons grow a deep appreciation and donate funds.


The rights to art and culture are one that is not universally appreciated. There is no single way to run arts and culture nonprofits to help patrons understand their value. Broad social appreciation of these fields is required to sustain audiences. Costs can be an access barrier, certainly, however, fees can also signal value to patrons. Availability can be a way to grow engagement or a means of building engagement.

However, the salient issue here is about perceived value. In order to maintain the arts and cultural sector, writ large, the social value has to be clear to potential patrons.  These programs have to appeal to patrons (rather than organizations). In other words, the arts and cultural sector cannot expect to draw new patrons (or even existing patrons) by maintaining the status quo. They need to find better ways to express their value to their local community while also working nationally as advocates.


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.


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 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.

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.

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).


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.


Inequity in The Arts & Culture Economy Equation


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


  • 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.


  • 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.


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.


Museums are not Neutral — Nothing is #MuseumsarenotNeutral


As a “first year” in college, I sat in a bright room that belied the imposing gothic facades that populated campus.  My professor asked us to raise our hands if we were rational beings. We all raised our hands. He asked us to keep our hands up if we were not biased. He then asked us to keep our hands up if we are able to turn a lens on culture critically, without bias. We all maintained our smiles with our hands thrust in the air.  He then said that every hand should be down. No human, he explained, could be outside society.

We all have these moments that break into our excepted vision of the universe. These are revelations which change everything.  I never again could look at anything within society as being anything but socially/ culturally constructed. Nothing is free of culture.  Think of this metaphor. Everything in the world is culture; and we cannot step outside it into space, as there is no air there.

So, when I saw this debate on Twitter about my colleague/ friends at Portland Art Museum’s exhibition involving sharing ideas with visitors, I was almost incredulous. The socially constructed nature of everything, including museums, is something that has suffused all my work. It occurred to me that this might be an issue of nomenclature. Political is a  word that has become tainted with additional meaning. In its original sense, it means to wade into the ideas that are part of society. Partisan, on the other hand, is to take sides. People might not understand that nothing is neutral; everything is within society.

Of course, the idea that museums are not neutral is not solely an academic one. Money is involved, and as such, complications follow. Museums are 501(c)3s or non-profits. As such, there are many rules as to how they should behave. But, those laws do not prevent museums from sharing ideas or empowering visitors to make choices. In fact, those laws support museums in doing their part to help visitors be informed.  Those laws help create a structure denoting exactly how far museums can go. Truthfully, when people like Portland do anything, they are way ahead of others, and so it looks as if they have crossed a line. But, what they have done is stand up to do what’s right within the law. If this seems shocking, you might instead wonder why more museums aren’t joining the charge.

Team Dynamics in the Nonprofit Workplace / The Pride and Prejudice Guide to the Non-Profit Workplace

Pride and Prejudice, written by Jane Austen, was first published in 1813. In the subsequent 200 years, the tale of a family of unmarried daughters and their subsequent marital aspirations remains a popular novel. In my recent reread of the book, I started to focus on the staying power of this literary classic. This novel is about interrelationships, communication, and strife. In many ways, this book, with some plot transformations, could be any nonprofit. Rather than regurgitate the novel, check out the synopsis before digging into the rest of the post.


In many ways, this book, with some plot transformations, could be any non-profit office place. Instead of the ideal husband, rich and loving, the non-profit organization is seeking the ideal donor. While we dream of a Bingley, a rich, affable donor who lets us do what we want, we end up with ever so many Collins, the low-level donors with outstripped demands on our time. The rare Darcy might come up; this donor is demanding but in ways that appreciably grow your organization.

The Non-Profit Team

So, if the suitors are the donors, then the Bennett family is a useful metaphor for the non-profit organization. Each working team has a set of people: You will likely have a number of Jane’s and Kitty’s. These are people who do their work and keep things going, but they don’t make waves. You will have a fair number of Mary’s. These are the people who follow rules above all other choices; they don’t bend.

You will likely have a number of Jane’s and Kitty’s. These are people who do their work and keep things going, but they don’t make waves.

You will have a fair number of Mary’s. These are the people who follow rules above all other choices; they don’t bend. These are not leaders, but sometimes they are also not followers.

The smallest categories of workers are the Lizzy’s and Kitty’s. In many ways, they are like ying and yang. For all of Lizzy’s amazing characteristics, her judgmental nature makes her challenging in the workplace. Similarly, for all of Kitty’s negative characteristics, she is definitely doing something. So many of the people in the non-profit ecosystem are maintaining the status quo, and the Lizzy’s are a rarity.

So What? 

In the novel, Lizzy, the main character, slowly comes to value people for who they are. For example, when her friend marries Lizzy’s horrible cousin Collins, she comes to see that the match is actually fairly good.  Love isn’t the only path to marriage, she realizes.

Working with other people is often about just getting along well enough to get the project done without impaling each other.  A big part of this is realizing that you can’t change people. Frankly, it is hard enough to change yourself, and you are generally in control of your faculties. So instead of changing people, you are often better served by understanding others.

Certainly, the characters of Pride and Prejudice are more simplistic than real people. Most people aren’t straight Lizzy’s or Lydia’s. But, when you are sitting in a staff meeting, wondering why your insane coworker is allowed such latitude, step back. Try to consider what positive things happen when this person goes off the deep-end.