This article appeared recently in PJStar.com: “There’s No Plan ‘B’ for Peoria Museum”. It reports on a town hall meeting about the proposed Downtown Peoria Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitors Center. Being blissfully ignorant of this project, I am free to contemplate the article, and the responses from readers, as a fascinating mini case study of public attitudes and concerns regarding museums in these hard economic times.
Briefly (as gleaned entirely from this article): Caterpillar has promised ~$50 million towards a new museum complex, out of a total of $90 million that has been pledged. The cost is projected to be $136 million, and county residents will vote on April 7 on a proposed sales tax that would add 25 cents to every $100 of purchases (with certain exemptions) to make up the difference. The county estimates this will cost each resident about $17 annually, and in return they get a 15 percent discount on museum admission.
So, some things that struck me as I read:
- What concerns should shape the design of a museum? One reader asks “if the museum should fail, what adaptive reuse do you envision for the structure (as currently designed)?” Interesting question. In a time of financial stress, should museums design buildings that can be downsized, as well as expanded? Plan space that can be easily divided, repurposed, and rented out? Consider what the community would/could use the structure for, should the museum close? “By creating architecture that can be readily and adaptively reused” says the same commentator, “the public is protecting its investment.”
- What concerns should affect where we put a museum? According to another reader, the planned site lies in a flood plain. This is not a new issue, but in an era of increased climate instability such risks become both larger and harder to estimate. Is it responsible to build a museum in an area that in coming decades is likely to be threatened by rising sea level, severe storms, drought or other factors? The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, Miss. is building a gorgeous new facility, designed by Frank Gehry, a couple hundred yards from the ocean. OOMA already had a casino barge dropped onto it (literally) during Hurricane Katrina. It is valiantly rebuilding, but to what long term end? Many credible forecasts predict the Gulf Coast will be threatened by more frequent megastorms, and that it will continue to lose population in the coming decades.
- What are a private company’s ethical obligations regarding its discretionary funding? Several people aren’t happy that Caterpillar would spend money supporting a museum when the company is laying people off. “Give your money to the poor instead,” writes one person “and really make a difference in someone’s life.” The company is slammed in the comments for not directing profits to their shareholders and for not investing in job placement and training for employees. What are a private for-profit company’s obligations to help build a strong civic infrastructure, relative to these other needs?
- How do we balance supporting existing museums versus establishing new ones? Some readers express frustration that support does not go instead to an existing local museum–the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences, an AAM-accredited institution. In a time when many museums are facing closure, and competition for funding is fierce, how do we weigh the benefit of putting public funds into a new museum (which may serve new audiences, revitalize a depressed area of a city, or experiment with new ways of operating) versus concentrating support into existing institutions? Especially ones with a track record of excellence that are probably (in these hard times) in need of additional support?
- What is people’s price point for culture? $17 a year in taxes to support a museum. That’s less than two movie tickets. Or a dinner out (at a sit-down restaurant.) Or a designer dress from Target. If people are not willing to spring for $17 a year for a new cultural institution in their city (supported by their major local industry, however reduced) I think they must a) be really, really sure they would never go to the museum (even with their 15% discount), b) be convinced there is will be no economic return to the city from increased tourism, employment, etc. c) be royally ticked off by the whole planning process or d) all of the above. To change this calculation, do we lower the price point or increase value? Would people be willing to pay $5 a year for a smaller museum? Would they pay $17 with the guarantee that every child resident of Peoria would have a free pass good to age 18?
- What are the funders thinking? I was floored by remarks from the Caterpillar project manager, as quoted in the article. Confronted with opposition at the meeting, he gave the verbal equivalent of a shrug, saying “it’s not critical to us…it would be nice to have.” Setting aside whether this is a strategic move to leverage support (the “threat” perceived by the commentator quoted above), what an attitude! Spending $50 million on something that is “nice?” I am happy that Caterpillar is willing to put its money into a museum project, but I hope museum funders can be more articulate about why they feel museums are critical to their communities and worthy of their support!
- What does this mean for the rest of us? The article leads with a classic fallacy regarding sunk costs. “With so much money…already raised” says the author, “why…risk the whole project?” Economic theory says sunk costs don’t count. The question should never be “how much have we spent” (or in this case, “how much have we raised”) but rather “how much is it worth spending on this project from this point on?” Put this way, we might all feel uncomfortable. In the future, the economic question our communities ask themselves may not be “how can we let our 100-year-old museum go down the tubes,” but rather “is it worth the money it will take, from this point on, to save the museum?” If communities do start from scratch, building their budgets from the ground up, would your museum survive the scrutiny?