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A Clear View: The Case for Museum Transparency

Category: Advocacy

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2010 edition of the Museum magazine

Museums continue to operate largely as we always have, with minimal regulatory oversight of the kind routinely accorded institutions of higher education. Social media such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter-now play an increasing role in the revelation of misconduct, bias, and cluelessness. Yet our funding is principally from sources requiring superficial accountability, our strategic planning is rarely compelling, board and staff are uninformed about exactly who is and is not participating m our exhibitions and programs, and we provide fare that is indexed to internal priorities, with minimal effort to explain what we have chosen not to do, or the explicit rationale for what we have chosen to do.

It is essential that museum leaders resist self-congratulation and start explaining our priorities, our intentions, and the desired and measurable outcomes of our efforts. Fostering transparency in our operations is an indispensable attribute of every museum’s overarching management philosophy. It cannot remain an occasional indulgence or an option, any more than budgeting accurately, hiring thoughtfully or operating responsibly. Reciting bromides about our traditions or inherited purpose has no discernible impact on those texting observations about us on some of the 2.2 billion cell phones in use today.

In the same vein, excessive claims about attendance, box-office results or economic impact are behaviors that will come back to haunt us. We must explain the basis of attendance statistics; once we confess that many of our visitors and members return multiple times each year, the stats look a lot less rosy in relation to an exploding world population. Our ostensible economic impact should be measured and reported, with the supporting evidence explicit. And if we acquire and sell objects for and from our collections with only a secondary regard for potential claims on ownership, ethical dilemmas or sources and destinations of funds, we are exposing our institutions to great risk.

The following five truths are not self-evident; they need to be explained. And explain to them we can, but only if we are true to ourselves and to the public in soliciting, capturing, contextualizing and revealing information about our activities.

1) The size of a cultural organization’s audience should not dictate the extent of its support from the public purse or from any other combination of sources. Every museum measures participation differently, so the purported results are unreliable. More importantly, the contributions of museums cannot be reduced to foot traffic/headcount, any more than the contributions of scientific laboratories can be reduced to the number of laypeople who avidly follow advances in research.

2) We are not a subset of the entertainment industry and should not be measured by the same standards or adopt similar pricing conventions. Museum programming begins not with asking what a mass audience wants, but with what we might all benefit from experiencing, even if we have to struggle and sometimes fail to draw a huge audience.

3) A healthy museum should aim for a budget that supports its exhibitions, programs and other activities instead of looking for mission-irrelevant activities to pay the bills. Rather than focusing first on revenue-generating activities, administrators should start with a quest for contributed support. Otherwise, we veer towards a sales or entertainment model that ultimately jeopardizes our tax-exempt status. Exorbitant admission fees can’t pay the bills of art museums, but they can drive away families and younger audiences.

4) AB mission-driven nonprofits, museums are red-ink businesses. Back-of-the-house costs include security, climate control. research, publishing, educational offerings, care of collections and salaries for employees not tasked with earned or contributed revenue. We must build endowments and solicit support to offset these expenses.

5) Government support of culture is an appropriate use of the public purse. While the system of tax-exemption provides a progressive mechanism to incentivize philanthropic support, it rarely results in contributions adequate to offset all costs facing cultural organizations. Furthermore, the premise in every Western democracy other than the U.S. is that cultural offerings are indispensable to their citizenry-they define a nation’s identity and shape a national conversation about what matters most.

So what is it about museum leaders that hampers the embrace of transparency? The answer is simple: the reward system for museum directors is antiquated and needs to be revamped to incentivize scholarship, conservation, and educational outcomes rather than the pursuit of crowds. The Internal Revenue Service has encouraged some rethinking of the current reward system. Compensation committees of boards are now obligated to disclose how they arrive at compensation decisions as part of the revised Form 990. Six pages of dense instructions published in January 2009 effectively stripped away the fig leaves of our cultural executives. It is a foregone conclusion that excessive compensation and first-class travel will need convincing explanations from here on out.

But this is only a small piece of the puzzle. Combating profligacy is a very low standard for what transparency can achieve. It is not asking too much for chief executives of nonprofit organizations to observe certain standards of behavior, eschew excessive benefits and avoid conflicts of interest. But surely the revelation of compensation on a broad scale should be the norm. Not revealed by a tax form are the less tangible expectations of leadership. Such expectations should include an open workplace culture, ample room for contrasting views and a focus on best practices rather than short-term glory.

The compensation committee normally asks the chief executive only to keep a balanced budget and make the museum relevant to its community, leaving other goals unstated. This limited mandate stems from the traditionally cordial accord between board and director that allows the management of the organization to oversee staff and the board to focus on policy and fundraising. But there are strains in the relationship, as witnessed in the public drama attendant to now-routine, high-profile exits of museum leaders. Several departures in recent years are a function of unrealistic expectations of the commercial viability of expanded facilities, which were built without adequate planning for increased operating expenses.

One problematic, often board-driven expectation of the chief executive today is to rattle the tin cup while holding one’s nose in the face of unwelcome conditions attached to gifts. In recent years, there has been a trend towards “venture philanthropy,” in which a donor’s wishes can trump institutional need. True transparency would reveal that contributions with strings can lead institutions astray, as when philanthropist Catherine Reynolds signed a contract to support a hall of achievement for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. By the terms of the contract, she was entitled to propose people for inclusion in the hall. The Smithsonian had the right to make the final selection, but human nature could easily have prompted the lauding of some individuals based on donor preference rather than on a review panel’s objective assessment. Whether the inclusion of Sam Donaldson and Martha Stewart would have been worth a $38 million gift may remain a question for the ages, but the offer was withdrawn in the face of public criticism.

This is but one example of how transparency can serve the public good: The revelation of the terms, names and process led to controversy and a rescinded offer, and ultimately contributed to Lawrence Small’s exit as secretary of the Smithsonian. Nothing about this tale bears celebration. But the lesson learned is surely that there must be limits on how philanthropy plays out in a cultural landscape run largely on contributed revenue. And that open disclosure of gifts with strings is both a necessity and a means of preventing institutions from going down a path on which the long-term detriments exceed the benefits.

True transparency would reveal that ticket sales are marginally beneficial for most museums and that they divide prospective audiences into haves and have-nots.

The dangers of pursuing earned revenue are no fewer. The feverish chase of ticket revenue or corporate underwriting has led to wrongheaded programming, from the Guggenheim’s Giorgio Armani retrospective to the legions of ground-breaking, revelatory and compelling exhibitions abandoned because their financial promise was deemed inadequate. True transparency would reveal that ticket sales are marginally beneficial for most museums and that they divide prospective audiences into haves and have-nots. And it might even open the door a crack to programming that provides a greater educational value than box-office appeal.

Despite these challenges, running a complex 21st-century organization with reflexive transparency is easier than it seems. At the Indianapolis Museum of Art, we approach every decision with the assumption that our activities will be open and evaluated. The topics for every senior staff meeting are posted on a staff-wide intranet in advance, and minutes are posted following every meeting. We manage budgets and projects with files open to all staff, encourage unedited staff commentary on the IMA blog hosted on our website and in general assume that apart from medical records and performance reviews, there is little we should keep from one another. We post our IRS Form 990 on the IMA website as soon as it has been approved by the board rather than waiting for Guidestar.org to find it almost a year later.

The IMA Dashboard has received a fair amount of notice since its September 2007 launch. An evolving template for institutional performance metrics, it was conceived by staff to help the public evaluate our museum’s adherence to mission, addressing issues such as energy consumption, the circulation of artworks in and out of the galleries, conservation treatment hours, funds raised year-to-date as a percentage of budgeted goals, size of endowment month-to-date and other potentially embarrassing matters. Recent additions have included an interactive map showing the Zip codes of our visitors, revealing the extent to which we attract an audience reflecting the demographics of our metropolitan area.

We also added a novel feature to the IMA website that lists objects to be deaccessioned (sold, transferred or exchanged), with valuations provided. The public can follow the disposition of deaccessioned works online or search for them since we post the reasons for deaccessioning, sale date, funds received and links to works acquired from the proceeds of sales.

The steps we are taking towards transparency at the IMA are born of an instinct to rethink how a museum should operate in today’s electronic fishbowl culture. The ultimate objective is to raise the standards of the profession as we step into uncharted territory. The unexpected, rewarding result is a more honest organizational culture in which constructive dissent and failed experimentation are not punished, profession-wide innovation is favored over scorekeeping about our successes and going to work in the morning is a continuous adventure. Once you decide to transition from providing select information to restricting select information, a host of new institutional behaviors becomes the norm. While a diminished endowment and challenging economic environment present many obstacles, our staff has chosen to model the best practices we can invent or follow, resist territoriality, reveal agendas when they surface and face tough choices with equanimity and honesty.

Of all workplaces, a museum should prize innovation and social benefit over personal or professional gain. That’s easy to say if you’re earning a salary as competitive as this author’s, and harder to say if you’re not. But unless I’m delusional, the majority of IMA’s staff is focused on our mission, energized by our potential and persuaded that our embrace of transparency has improved workplace ethics and performance. And if that isn’t the case, you’ll likely read qualifying commentary on our blog in short order.

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