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Revisiting the Borgias

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
This Throwback Thursday post revisits an issue I touched on back at the beginning of the financial crisis, in 2009: how the decline in traditional funding sources and the increasing inequality of wealth in American are shaping the behavior and image of U.S. museums. Since I wrote this post, the wealth gap has continued to widen, as most of the dollars generated in our modest economic recovery have gone to those who are already well off. The questions I pose at the end of this post are as relevant as they were five years ago, if not more so.

(Note this post was written while Alliance staff were analyzing the results of the last field-wide financial survey. You can read the Alliance’s ongoing coverage on how museums have fared in the economic crisis on our Annual Condition of Museums and the Economy Reports. We’ve moved our data collection online, and you can contribute. Login to the AAM website and select Edit Profile (from the gray navigation bar at the top of the page). Then select the My Organization tab. Here you’ll find two links: one for Organizational Profile (which allows you to enter or update your museum’s basic contact and demographic information) and one for Operational Data (where you can enter information about your museum’s finances, facilities, staffing, attendance and collections). The Alliance encourages all museums to provide this information and keep it up-to-date. Current data, used in aggregate, helps us better serve you and better advocate for the field.)

The New Borgias
Adapted from a post originally published Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In Superstruct, the Alternate Reality Game from the Institute for the Future that ran in 2008, player Phil Deely wrote a story titled “The New Borgias.” Deely posited that, in the game’s fictional future of 2019, the wealthy few dominate and control cultural institutions in the U.S. As with many hypotheses explored in the game, this one seems very plausible the more I mull it over.

Deely’s story came to mind this past week as I helped pummel the data from AAM’s latest financial survey into shape. I have no doubt that once we crunch the numbers, they will document profound damage. Unlike the period following the terrorist attacks of 2001, when individual museums or regions suffered but the field as a whole was sound, the effect of this economic crisis is pandemic. It may also be long lasting: in the CFM forecasting report Museums and Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures authors James Chung and Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors point out that it took Japan a decade to climb out of the financial hole created by the bursting of their real estate bubble. This suggests that our recovery could be equally protracted. However long our current recession lasts, things will get grim for museums and other cultural institutions. Government support, endowment values and individual donations and foundation support are already in decline. This leads to the obvious question—in the future, where will the money to support museums come from?

Which brings me to Deely’s prescient story. Per the old joke, crooks rob banks because that is where the money is. Museums, while too virtuous to resort to theft, follow the money just as assiduously. In the future, that money may be found exclusively in the pockets of the rich. Museums and Society 2034 observes that our society has a large and growing wealth gap. The ranks of the poor are growing, while the middle class slips in its relative earning power. The top 5% of households in the U.S. earn one third of the total earned income, and the top 0.5% (roughly 500,000 households) account for 14%. These top earners are taking a financial hit too, but they still have large amounts of money available for discretionary spending. A D.C. realtor recently underscored this point: explaining why the mortgage crunch was unlikely to interfere with the sale of the Icelandic Ambassador’s residence (priced at over $5.6 million), he noted that people buying over the $2 million price point tend to pay cash. Indeed.

We have seen several examples of the wealthy playing white knight to museums threatened by financial dragons. Most recently, Eli Broad rode to the rescue of the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art, spearheading development of a $75 million recovery plan which included an offer of as much as $30 million from his own foundation. On the face of it, what a fine solution! If the wealthy are willing to follow the example of Andrew Carnegie and invest in society by investing in its cultural institutions, why not let them assume the responsibility?

The problem is, museums know from long experience that whoever provides the money calls the shots. Money from prominent donors usually comes with very explicit agendas. One journalist suggested, for example, that in “rescuing” MOCA Broad was in fact watching out for his own financial interests: the closure of MOCA’s downtown location could threaten his financial interests in adjacent real estate.

In my experience, Broad’s willingness to wield the influence that comes with patronage exemplifies the rule, not the exception. To cite just one other example, consider the Experience Music Project founded and funded by Paul Allen. In 2004, four years after opening, that museum scrambled to downsize when Mr. Allen repurposed a large portion of their space as a science fiction museum and hall of fame.

The Borgias, the Medicis and the Broads of this world have been marvelous supporters of culture. We all have benefited from their patronage. But their support has, perforce, shaped the arts and, by extension, our own values and tastes, to conform to theirs. Their influence is in large part responsible for the perception that we now work so hard to reverse—that museums are elitist, unwelcoming and, well, patronizing. As Museums and Society 2034 discusses, younger Americans expect opportunities to contribute to the content presented by museums and take an active role in creating their leisure experiences. Communities expect museums to be responsive to their needs and concerns.

So before we cede control of our museums to the new Borgias, I suggest we pause and ask: Can you create a truly democratic museum, one that responds to the expectation of its audience and community and by so doing becomes a vital part of society, with aristocratic funding? And if we don’t like the effect patronage will have on museums, what is the alternative?

Stay tuned for future posts exploring our options…

Next week we will reprise and update Pt. II of this post, on alternate financial models for the future
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  1. The wealth may become more concentrated, but has giving followed the same trend? Historically at least, lower-income people are more charitable than their wealthy counterparts. Perhaps instead of chasing the big money, we should focus on engaging–and empowering–the many people with less money but more inclination to give. Sounds more pleasant, democratic, and potentially sustaining to me.

  2. This is a very important topic that has broad implications on the question: Who do our cultural institutions serve? Are they doomed to continue to be tailored to suit the needs of an ever-reducing pool of white, wealthy elites?

    I recently looked at this question through the lens of race. Are our cultural institutions, even as they espouse uplifting and virtuous missions, inevitably forced to become—or continue to be—by, for and about the tastes of those who fund them? At what cost?


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