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When a Private Museum Has Massive Public Support

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Exterior facade of the Massillion Museum

Even before the 2008 financial collapse only 56 percent of museums received support from local government, and that funding made up about 10 percent of their overall operating budget. The most recent financial analysis by Grantmakers in the Arts reports that total public funding has decreased by about 16 percent in the last twenty years, adjusted for inflation, with local funding contracting by over 8 percent. But a few museums have bucked those trends. In today’s guest post Alexandra Nicholis Coon, Executive Director of the Massillon Museum in Ohio, tells us how her museum has cultivated a phenomenal level of local public support.
–Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight and Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums

Elizabeth Merritt (EM): Alex, tell our readers a bit about the Massillon Museum and about your community.

Alex Coon (AC): The Massillon Museum will celebrate its 87th anniversary next year. We are both an art and a history museum, and we focus on a balance of the two. The Canton Museum of Art is just down the road, and the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum is a neighbor as well. We work closely with both of those institutions, exploring topics together.

Massillon is a blue-collar community, developed with early 20th century wealth, based on the canal and then the railroad. Lincoln Highway runs through our city, directly in front of our museum, and that’s a major thoroughfare for trucking. We are in a very urban environment, but only two miles away you can find yourself in a very rural community. We are adjacent to Amish and Mennonite communities.

In 1996 we moved into a new building a block and a half from our original site, which had been the home of Massillon’s founder. The years 1996-2002 were really rocky after the move, and we went through a period of low visitation. We had drifted away from the community, we had little to no interpretation, and many objects were displayed without labels. Even our opening receptions were not broadly welcoming – people thought the food was too elegant.  While the museum had been a staple of everyone’s childhood and adult experiences, overall it was not a welcoming experience.

EM: Tell me about the museum’s government funding.

AC: We are the only museum in the state of Ohio funded by a municipal property tax levy. (Cincinnati Museum Center received significant support from a county tax levy for restoration efforts in 2014 .) Our levy has been on the ballot every five years since 1988. For 20 years we earned the same amount of funds, from a set property tax valuation. In 2008, recognizing the need to expand resources and programming, we pursued a replacement based on property tax valuations from 2007. It failed in November 2007, but then passed in March 2008, just prior to the economic collapse.

Under the original levy, we were getting roughly $275k in support annually, and after the replacement that went up to $514k. Last year we were nearing the conclusion of a major expansion—we gained 18 thousand square feet, so our operating budget went up. When we went to voters in 2017 to appeal for renewal, we also asked for an increase of one-half percent in the millage, and we got it. Now the millage funds almost sixty-eight percent of our operating budget—$768k of $1.2M.

That said, we are trying to reduce our reliance on the millage, get it down to closer to sixty percent of our income. We are working to diversify our funding and are consistently appealing for donations 365 days a year. We are also running a membership campaign.

EM: That’s extraordinary, Alex. Those numbers put you in the top ten percent of museums, if you rank by government funding as a percent of operating income. To what do you attribute this success?

AC: We are very integrated into the community and into community government. Massillon functions like a small town in terms of its politics. It helps that the museum is literally next door to the municipal building (city hall) so all the city departments are our neighbors. Our mayor is a very active collaborator in our work. I sit on the Community Improvement Corporation and Chamber of Commerce Foundation board.

Mid-sized museums like Massillon benefit from having the power to connect with people who are in positions of affecting funding. We deal with less bureaucracy and red tape. We aren’t beholden to $20M donors because they don’t exist in our community.

We’ve always been a free museum, which has a strong influence on our behavior.  Our staff and board are very thoughtful, collaborative barometers of the community. Many serve on boards of social service agencies, churches, etc. We employ a mix of Massillonians and non-Massillonians, including a healthy number of museum professionals. So we have a diverse staff and diverse community within the fabric of the museum itself. That makes it easy to be very transparent in what we do. That might be harder at a larger institution, which might need to employ a dedicated community liaison.

EM: How does this level of public support affect the way you operate?

AC: Tax support puts you under the lens of scrutiny of people who fund you every day, at a really granular level. People will notice and comment if something at the museum gets repainted. We have a strong high school football tradition, and people will notice if I wear red on a football day! (Our local team colors are orange.) But we also serve other school districts with rival teams—we have had to explain to our own staff, as well as those of the independently owned coffee shop within the museum that they can’t promote the rivalry banter that includes posting signs like “Beat McKinley” or “Pounce Perry”. We never schedule events on Fridays during football season. There is a huge saturation of churches and non-profit organizations in Massillon, and they hold a lot of activities, so we have to schedule with those in mind as well.

We also have to be very attuned to local sensibilities. We used to be a steel community, and the Republic Steel plant closed in 2006. When we created an exhibition that celebrated the legacy of steel in the community, people lined up around the block to get in. A couple of months later, someone proposed we host a travelling exhibition on art of the Silk Road. It was a beautiful exhibit, but the community was still reeling from losing production to China. A lot of people lost pensions, their livelihoods changed. The community wasn’t ready for that exhibit yet.

EM: What can other museums do to cultivate local government support? What are some of the things you do that have contributed to your success?

AC: Listening to community is key, and so many museums are good at this. Having to develop projects with very limited resources contributes to making museums an essential factor in their communities. We make people feel welcome, as if they have a place here. We never let ego get the best of us, and we always have aspects of programming that are community driven. We have a volunteer-run artist discussion group, and a monthly history discussion group—things like this make people feel they have a stake in the museum. All staff act as our ambassadors, representing the museum out in the community. That’s just part of being an employee.

We are very careful on social media, because we are followed by a lot of influential people in state government. Stark County, where we are located, is very politically divided. It is an important indicator for statisticians and campaign managers. Since 1960 Massillon has statistically determined the fate of the Ohio presidential election, so a lot of high-profile celebrities and influencers come and campaign for their candidates. Republican state leaders have been so supportive of arts and culture and are frequent attendees at our events. As have members of Congress—we always invite them to attend events, and their staff frequent our lunch lectures. Because of that, we are very cognizant that we are always in the spotlight.

EM: You are a long-time participant in AAM’s Museums Advocacy Day. Can you tell readers about your local advocacy as well?

AC: The Massillon Museum participates in advocacy efforts at all levels of government. At the county level, we were present in the Commissioners’ work sessions in support of a bed tax increase to fund arts initiatives; we are among seven arts organizations who now receive annual marketing support through this revenue stream, by way of a grant facilitated by the Convention and Visitors Bureau. We provide impact data to the County Commissioners annually; the objective of this funding is to market the Museum outside the county, to increase tourism to our region. Speak Up for Ohio Museums Day is an initiative run by the Ohio Museums Association. Occurring the first Monday in October, this virtual campaign is designed to engage museum professionals, volunteers, and patrons across all social media platforms in communicating the value of museums.

EM: How is your community changing, and how might the museum need to change in response to those shifts?

AC: We have to appeal to different audiences as the community shifts—particularly the tax payers, young families who will hopefully support our museum and our community for decades. We are still trying to engage the newer generations, so they realize the value of museums. For example, as the population ages, the number of people invested in our football traditions declines. The Paul Brown Museum Gallery and its dedicated mission to topics relating to football are but one facet of our collections and exhibitions. With our recent expansion, the museum gained 47% more gallery space. This includes a community exhibit space which reflects collaborations between the Massillon Museum and community partners like The Links, Boys and Girls Club, and local universities; an application-based gallery for which contemporary artists nationally can apply to show work; permanent collection galleries, soon to reopen, featuring selections from the photography, American Indian, ethnographic, business and industry, fine and decorative arts, and textile collections; and the main gallery featuring a rotation of art and history exhibits annually.

Massillon also has a large population of migrant farm workers. In the off season work many of these people work in industrial plants. (You may remember a news story from last year about the ICE arrest of immigrant workers at a local meat packing plant.) To connect with this community we look for opportunities to incorporate Spanish interpretation, and we participated in an NEA Big Read program, focused on Julia Alvarez’ novel In the Time of the Butterflies, in connection with  Immigrant Worker Project (IWP).  These communities are fluid, so it can be challenging to form lasting connections. Our local schools experience this even more than the museum. We are attempting to see how we can work with the schools and libraries to continue connecting with communities we all serve.

Every day, every year, every five years is different. Keeping the support of the public is always a challenge, there is no room for entropy or apathy.

Want to up your advocacy game? Register now for Museums Advocacy Day, February 24-25 2020, in Washington, DC.
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