This week’s guest blogger is Marie C. Malaro, a lawyer, author and retired university professor. For many years she was legal counsel for the Smithsonian Institution, and later was Director of the Graduate Program in Museum Studies at The George Washington University, where she is Professor Emerita, periodically teaching online. She is widely known for her books and many articles, as well as her 20 years of participation in the American Law Institute/American Bar Association’s annual seminar, “Legal Problems of Museum Administration.” The post originated as an email from Marie to CFM director Elizabeth Merritt, author of the article referenced in the commentary.
The weather this past winter forced me to sit down at my desk and tackle some “not urgent” matters that have been patiently waiting for my attention. On top of that pile is a copy of your article in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Museum that gives an overview of Museum Financial Information 2009. When I first read the article I had the urge to write you immediately with my comments, but then I reminded myself that I am supposed to be retired. So, I waffled and put the article in the “not urgent” file. Now that I look at the article again I’m inclined to forget retirement and get on my soapbox.
Your article is very good at showing how quickly things change these days and how this rapid pace has affected all aspects of our society, even throwing into question the future of museums in this country. Your focus is on what may lie ahead for our museums financially now that just about all means of support currently used by museums have been compromised by the latest financial crisis. But then after reviewing the data AAM recently compiled your advice to museums is that they may now have to run even faster than they have been in order to stay in place. This conclusion saddened me because I think we can come up with some very positive (but challenging) advice about what museums should do now, if we look back far enough.
The position the museum community now finds itself in should have been foreseen at least 30 years ago. By the early 1990’s museums were becoming more and more market oriented. The bicentennial boom of the 1970’s and early 80’s with its out- pouring of grant money for museums was over and many museums were left with new buildings and programs that were costly to sustain. The solution for many was to embrace a more entrepreneurial approach to acquiring income.
The first steps were tentative but the spirit of competition soon took hold. Museum shops were moved to center stage in museums and some even ended up in shopping malls. Exhibitions became “events” not supported by philanthropy but by corporate sponsorships which are nothing more than business arrangements with for-profits organizations. “Lending for profit” became common place and museums joined the bandwagon only to be diverted when marketers began singing the praises of “branding”. And, not surprisingly, those holding major management positions in museums began to compare themselves with managers in the for-profit world and demand similar compensation packages.
It is growing harder and harder to tell whether museums are nonprofit or for-profit organizations by the way too many operate today and just about every problem now facing museums is due to the failure of museums to understand and adhere to their nonprofit status. Let me explain this sweeping statement.
We support a nonprofit sector in this country and afford it many privileges because we expect that sector to offer our society services and products that cannot be provided by our government sector or our for-profit sector. In other words, nonprofits are expected to stand apart from the other two sectors and put their special privileges (great tax advantages, government encouraged philanthropy, freedom to accept volunteer services and a public willing to volunteer,) to good use so they can provide their unique services and products to the public. When the nonprofit sector forgets what its distinctive role is (when what it offers cannot be distinguished from what the other two sectors provide) it places in jeopardy its special privileges, and the good will of the public. This is why we see so many attempts by governments to curtail tax exemptions enjoyed by nonprofits, why true philanthropy (giving without expecting anything in return) is being replaced by “deal-making” and why there is so much confusion in the profession about what a museum is.
For more of my thoughts on this issue, I encourage readers to revisit my 1994 book “Museum Governance”. This was written for museum board members but few, I fear, have read it. I particularly recommend Part One of the book and chapters 9 and 11 in Part Two. These should flesh out what I am trying to say in this abbreviated post.
In a nutshell, there is a bright and secure future for museums if they truly commit to their nonprofit status in both word and action and demonstrate to the public that what they offer is unique and important.
P.S. I recognize that many other types of nonprofits are guilty of straying off course but nothing changes if this is the excuse used by others to do nothing.