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Museums Can Lead the Next Renaissance

Category: Advocacy

Prepared Remarks of Laura L. Lott
President and CEO, American Alliance of Museums

Welcome session from Museums Advocacy Day 2021

February 22, 2021

Good morning, museum advocates! Welcome to Museums Advocacy Day 2021; this is always one of my favorite weeks of the year.

Even though we are meeting virtually this year and I only get to see your smiles and hear your enthusiasm through a computer screen, I still love seeing and experiencing the true power of our Alliance.

The bright side of having a virtual Museums Advocacy Day is that we have double the number of advocates meeting with Congress this week—nearly 650 people from every state and DC! Not to mention the hundreds more who are calling and emailing their members of Congress as we speak.

For those Alliance members in southern states who were hit hard by winter weather this month, we are thinking of you and are here to help however we can.

Thank you for taking time to make the case for museums. I truly believe it has never been more important.

Before we talk policy and advocacy, I just want to recognize this moment we’re in together.

In my December year-end message to the field, I admitted that I have uttered a few—well maybe a lot—of four-letter words in the past 12 months. Some are not appropriate for this group of esteemed professionals. But I do not mind sharing with you that I have felt fear, rage, and even sick since the pandemic swept around the world a year ago. That fear and rage is not just about the pandemic, or the structural racism that has been on full display.

I feel rage about what the shutdowns are doing to our museums and the field. It makes me sick that many talented and passionate museum employees are losing their jobs—many of them people of color and primary caretakers who have been disproportionately impacted. I fear that the predictions about one-third of all museums shutting down are coming true, harming the people and treasures in our irreplaceable institutions.

While it is clear the pandemic still has a grasp on our country and we see great divides among people and across our communities, I found two new four-letter words to channel for 2021: hope and bold. I wake up every morning trying to be hopeful and bold. I urge you to start every Congressional meeting tomorrow with those two words in your head and in your heart.

Why hope? I think we all have hope in science, medicine, and technology that delivered a vaccine to the world in record time, and landed us on Mars just last week! Hope in the confrontation and reckoning with our country’s past and addressing the influence that history continues to have today. Hope in the strength and resilience of our democratic process and our capacity for bridge-building. Hope in you: museum professionals across this country who have not only weathered this period but have done so while continuing to prioritize service to your communities in remarkable ways.

Having hope does not mean we are naively saying everything will be fine in the end, or that things will go back to “normal” in a few months. Our nation’s recovery is certain to be slow. And museums will not, fully at least, ever return to the way things were. There are myriad challenges ahead. But our museums have the opportunity to be leaders in rebuilding, to be the promise for recovery, and catalysts for reimagining our communities stronger than they’ve ever been. Museums can lead the next Renaissance.

This is the message I hope you will share in your meetings tomorrow. The policymakers in Congress need to understand how our museums are vital. Vital to our education system, vital to rebuilding our economy, vital for our mental health, and vital for building unity in our communities through fostering understanding, empathy, and belonging. We can illuminate and elevate the voices and histories of those whose stories have not been told and we can help to fill critical education gaps for our nation’s students.

There is no place for hesitation or fear in the next steps we, as a field, will take in the coming weeks and months. We need to shout from the rooftops that museums have much to offer and a critical role to play in rebuilding our nation.

And therein lies my second four-letter word for 2021: bold.

We must boldly challenge the status quo, rethink outdated models, and lift up the many brave individuals in museums across the globe who are leading us into new frontiers. We must boldly tell our stories to our elected officials starting now, and we will need to keep telling them in the weeks and months to come.

While the past twelve months have been miserable in so many ways, our collective museum advocacy work and accomplishments, together, have been a bright spot. Advocates, you had enormous wins in 2020. What we, together as an Alliance, accomplished in government funding for museums set new records; a level of federal funding for museums never before seen in the 115-year history of the American Alliance Museums.

Congratulations, museum advocates, for being bold and making your voices heard in 2020!

The amazing staff at AAM, led by our Government Relations & Public Policy Director, Barry Szczesny, and Director of Advocacy, Ember Farber, worked day and night all year to track legislation, pursue relief funding opportunities, provide data to Congressional offices, and call on advocates at critical moments. Advocates generated nearly sixty thousand messages to Congress this past year! That’s just through our system; I’m certain the actual number of calls made and messages sent is even higher. And they worked!

Beginning last March, we were successful in ensuring museums were included in multiple COVID-19 aid packages, including over a billion dollars for museums for first and second Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) forgivable loans and other programs. This was not a given. Other types of nonprofits were not eligible for PPP, and some of you will remember how zoos, aquariums, and originally all museums, were written out of the 2009 stimulus bill. Many directors have told me the PPP program has been a lifeline for their museum, allowing them to keep staff employed and museum doors open.

And I am so proud that museums, at the eleventh hour, were included in the $15 billion small business relief fund dedicated to shuttered venue operators, formerly known as “Save Our Stages.” In addition, museums have benefited from enhanced charitable giving incentives and Refundable Employee Retention Tax Credits. IMLS, NEH, NEA all received CARES Act funding and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to museums last summer. The FY21 appropriations package included a $2 million increase for the Office of Museum Services at IMLS, the sixth consecutive annual increase, for a total of $40.5 million this year. And the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities each received $5.25 million increases for a total of $167.5 million each.

Advocacy works.

So, with some of the largest funding levels the museum field has ever seen, does that mean we it should take it easy in 2021? No way! This is a time to be bold and to do everything in our collective power to help our struggling museum field.

Sadly, this pandemic has provided an overdue wake-up call for Congress and decision-makers who have not always understood our business models, or our value. You have helped carry the message that museums across the country are struggling with the devastating impacts of being closed and from dramatically reduced attendance even when they can open.

As this group is well aware, Alliance survey data shows that one out of every three museums may shutter permanently without immediate support. That represents the loss of twelve thousand museums and 124 thousand jobs. More recent survey data has confirmed the financial state of US museums is moving from bad to worse.

Despite these hardships, museums are continuing to meet the needs of their communities—from providing spaces for remote and virtual classrooms to lesson plans, engaging online learning opportunities, and drop-off learning kits to teachers and families. From donating supplies to feeding hungry community members to serving as vaccination sites and addressing vaccine hesitancy, museums are demonstrating the many ways they are vital to their communities.

And, looking ahead, museums will be vital to the nation’s recovery and the recovery of communities, big and small, urban and rural, all across the country.

Advocacy every year and throughout the year is important, but every four years we have a crucial window of opportunity to make our case for museums to a new and newly elected audience. As always, this year there is a lot of competition for their attention.

My colleagues will go into detail today on our messages and “asks” but here is the top-line message I want you to share tomorrow: The vast majority of Americans—who can’t agree on much these days—96 percent want federal funding to go to museums and would think positively of their elected officials taking legislative action to support museums. Because our publics know we are vital to the nation’s recovery.

In closing, I want to reiterate, while we are in unchartered territory, none of you is alone. In fact, I am proud to say that the museum field has never been more united in our work to champion museums and nurture excellence.

I especially want to welcome our four hundred first-time attendees, our student advocates, our trustee advocates, our corporate sponsor, Blackbaud, and representatives of our forty-nine partnering organizations.

Together, we are a force!

I also want to take a moment to note the passing of long-time museum consultant Art Wolf, one of our generous donors and steadfast supporters of Museums Advocacy Day. With us in the early days of this annual event, Art strongly believed in the importance of coming to Washington to meet with elected officials and in speaking with a unified voice for our field’s interests and needs. He leaves a legacy of distinguished service to our community, and we will miss him for his passion and commitment to making the world a better place through museums.

One final note about something that may be on your mind. During this time of great turmoil and divide across our political landscape, how do we put aside our personal politics—and our emotions—on a range of concerning issues beyond our field-wide legislative agenda for museums? The simple answer is that we cannot afford not to. We must take this opportunity with our elected officials to make the case for museums, to stay focused on the issues you will learn about today, and to use the time we have with elected officials wisely.

There are a lot of very contentious and very important issues facing our federal government. But the moment we start talking about other issues, we lose our chance to make the case for museums during Museums Advocacy Day.

I know that this audience is not shy. I know you all love to talk about your own institutions. Please personalize and localize your stories as much as possible.

Throughout the pandemic, AAM has been sharing information constantly with decision-makers. What we cannot do—what only you can do—is tell the local stories about your museums and why they matter to your communities.

So thank you for making the time to participate this week. Thank you for your support of our Alliance; there is no Alliance without you.

And thank you for speaking up for museums.

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