Join an open discussion about what happens when museums close. Senior leaders with firsthand experience at a museum that has closed (or come close) will share their reflections and suggestions on what to do and what to avoid during these times of crisis. This session will shed light on the considerations involved and help museum leaders approach closure with a positive attitude.
Carolyn Campbell, Former Director of Public Relations and Special Events, Corcoran Gallery of Art
Bolton Colburn, Former Director, Laguna Art Museum
Sean Kelley, Director of Public Programming and the Senior Vice President, Eastern State Penitentiary Museum
Danielle Ripperton, Executive Director, Children’s Museum of Richmond
Susana Smith Bautista, Ph.D., Museum & Art Advisor, Independent Museum Professional
Leila Anna Wahba, Executive Director & Chief Curator, A+D Museum
Susana Smith Bautista: As we all gather together virtually, we pay our respects to the elders past and present who have stewarded our lands throughout generations. We recognize the enduring relationship between indigenous people and their traditional territories, and we acknowledge the injustices of the past and those that continue today.
This panel is dedicated to the memory of all the museum s that have closed leading to jobs that were lost, communities that suffer, exhibitions that have been canceled and will never be seen, collections that broke apart, and buildings that were abandoned. I’m Susana and I recognize the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles that closed last year.
Danielle Ripperton: I’m Danielle and I recognize the Newseum in Washington DC whose physical space is closed.
Leila Anna Wahba: I’m Leila and I recognize the MET Breuer in New York that has closed.
Bolton Colburn: I’m Bolton and I recognize the Pasadena Museum of Art which probably closed in the 70s.
Susana Smith Bautista: We’d like to ask you to please acknowledge recognize and remember any museums that you remember in the chat.
So, I don’t know if our moderator is here, we was he was having some technical difficulties Sean can you hear us?
Okay I’m sorry we’re gonna skip forward and hopefully, Sean will come back but Sean Kelly senior VP, director of interpretation from the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia, and his participation was really important that we just want to recognize because he is the force behind “Mistakes Were Made” the very popular AAM panel that really brought to light a lot of the mistakes that we all make at museums and this session is really in support of that. In support of sharing not only mistakes but failures, closures, successes, innovations, and so hopefully Sean will be able to join us shortly and talk about his museum as well.
Bolton tell us your story, please.
All right, well let’s go to Danielle.
Danielle Ripperton: Hi Susanna, I’m sorry for the technical difficulties today I know one of the things that we’re all learning from the virtual world is how to keep going even with the complexities that are thrown our way. My name is Danielle Ripperton and it’s my honor to serve as the executive director of the Children’s Museum of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia. I came as the leader to the children’s museum in December of 2019, which was just a few short months before the start of the pandemic. This is a return for me to the museum world while I have spent my career working for non-profit organizations I departed from the children’s museum of Evansville in Indiana when my family moved to Richmond in 2010 so I am grateful and excited to be back in the museum community. Prior to the pandemic the Children’s Museum of Richmond, which is known as Seymour was a four million dollar a year organization with four locations. One in downtown Richmond, a building that we own, and three satellite locations in shopping centers. Two of these satellites were in the Richmond suburbs and then the remaining satellite is in Fredericksburg, Virginia. A town which is about halfway between Richmond and Washington DC. The revenue split for the organization was 70% earned and 30% contributed revenue so the pandemic really slammed us. On March 14th of 2020 when we had to close our doors for the safety of our community.
As those first weeks wore on, we knew that we had to take drastic steps to be able to survive the pandemic. We didn’t have a substantial endowment with very little reserves, and we were paying market-rate rents for the three properties. After a series of staff layoffs, it was clear that in order for us to survive we had to evaluate the locations and their viability. Now if you think of children’s museum s that maybe you’ve visited over the years you can imagine that we had very little in terms of collections that we could even consider selling in order to weather the storm. I’m not sure what the going price for a used dig pit is but it’s probably not very much. So, we ended up making the very difficult decision to close permanently two of our locations. One we had named short pump that was the suburb of Richmond and the other in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The decision came with as much intentionality as we could have, we felt that we could still make a significant impact in Central Virginia with our remaining locations, the downtown being an urban location right across from mass transit. And then our Chesterfield County location which is a Richmond suburb about 30 minutes from our downtown location and we serve more of the rural Central Virginia area with that location. With these closures, of course, we knew that especially in Fredericksburg that the community was going to be losing a vital cultural resource. There was a lot of careful planning. We had a lot of conversations. We went into lease termination negotiations and the communications were all part of the permanent closure process for those two locations. And then, not to mention the physical breakdown of the spaces and how that that logistically worked. In hindsight, of course, there are things that I wish we had done differently. But at the time of the closures which ended up being a couple of months apart because of these terminations and the negotiations there was a great deal of stress in the pandemic, and I know that in the long run, we did the right thing at the right time for the decisions that we had to make sure that the organization overall survived.
Susana Smith Bautista: Thank you, Danielle. Bolton, I know you have a different job now, but you can you talk to us about your former experience in Laguna?
Bolton Colburn: Yes, in 1995, I was the senior curator of the Laguna Art Museum, and we were rolling into a merger with the Newport Harbor Art Museum and just to give everybody a little bit of context. The merger was being driven by a number of forces. One of the main ones was economic the non-profit world was suffering badly because we were in the midst of an economic depression in in the United States and both institutions were way out of cash and beginning to look at dipping into their endowments and there was a 15-year plan that had just been adopted by Laguna Art Museum which had been composed by an Orange County land developer and Orange County at the time was largely being developed as a suburbia and there was a great deal of money in that sector and a great deal of need on the part of developers to attract people to Orange County. So, the plan called for the absorption of other visual arts organizations in Orange County into one museum that would serve the entire county. So as the economy began to go into demise, we had a board and an executive committee who were comprised of a few people that had merger acquisition specialties and they began to talk in earnest about combining both institutions in a corporate merger style. The plan leaked to the to the public in Laguna Beach and the community in Laguna Beach got very upset and there were two quickly there were two organizations that were formed. The motivated museum members and Save Laguna Art Museum and they began to voice their concerns in terms of the press, and this would lead into a long-protracted effort to retain the museum in Laguna Beach. It hit the regional press and was an active issue in all the papers and media for at least a year. It hit a national press and ended up the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal as well.
And there were lawsuits brought mainly because the trustees involved at the time forgot about the Laguna Art Museum ‘s charter and Laguna Art Museum was founded originally in 1918 as an art association and that charter with the art association had its members as voting, its members essentially had voting rights and when something major happened to the institution that’s when they were to be consulted and asked for a vote. So, a vote was brought about the merger. And some people felt that the pro-merger side uh stacked the membership with new members that weren’t necessarily regular members of the institution and lawsuits were brought against the merged institution. And in terms of an eventual settlement the new institution which was called the Orange County Museum of Art gave back the name Laguna Art Museum and the property in Laguna Beach the Newport Harbor Art Museum basically went out of existence uh the old uh non-profit numbers for Laguna Art Museum carried the new institution forward and both the Laguna Art Museum today still it’s a Laguna Art Museum exists today and has a lot of major support from the community which is a good thing. an OCMA which is the new newly merged institution. It’s not new any longer is about to open its new building in late 2022 and it will be at the center of commerce which is basically southwest plaza in Orange County, and it’s been designed by Tom Maine who is a Pritzker Prize-winning architect.
Susana Smith Bautista: Thank you, Bolton. Leila, talk to us about your experience.
Leila Anna Wahba: Well, hi I’m Leila I’m the executive director at the A+D Architecture and Design Museum in Los Angeles. The museum has a really interesting history that, I think is important to note it began in 2001 by Stephen Canner and since then it’s had about five different locations around Los Angeles. So, it is truly a Los Angeles institution. When COVID hit it was living in the arts district in downtown L.A. which was I think the grittiest of all the locations and our audience base was very young? We were next to SIART it was a very lively place so when COVID hit, and everything shut down and we had to close our doors. The silence was pretty deafening and then after the two weeks the initial two weeks passed and we realized in June that we probably were not going to be able to come back anytime soon. We made the difficult decision of letting go of our lease and becoming what we’re calling a hybrid institution. Meaning that we are majorly online right now but as things open up so will we and we’ll begin doing pop-ups around LA in our true nature that we’ve had in our history so yeah that’s our little story.
Susana Smith Bautista: Thank you. So, I’m going to talk a little bit about two museums that I was involved in October 2018 the Pasadena Museum of California art closed permanently following a surprise proposal by the board chair about five months earlier the museum was 16 years old it didn’t have a permanent collection it didn’t have a building assets didn’t have cash reserves it had many years of serious deficits but more than just financial problems that had governance issues. The two museum founders still owned the building and held the museum ‘s lease they lived on top of the museum the entire time and they had two board positions.
We distributed the equipment and furniture and computers and all of that to local nonprofits. We gave our entire art library to a local public art magnet school and with a few works of art that we found that didn’t have documentation, we donated them to other museums that focus on California art so that museum is now permanently dissolved unfortunately. I was also involved in I was hired by the University of Southern California in after it had just taken over the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena and i purposely distinguished between a takeover and a merger because while much of the Pacific Asia Museum was retained its collections, its building, its name, its programs internally it changed so drastically and it was completely unprepared to go from being a small community museum to a university museum . They were desperate. They were already talking to auction houses about selling off the collection. A board member was the interim director, and the university was just as unrealistic. It thought that the museum would be able to attract millions of dollars quickly and that it would be self-sufficient in just three years. It didn’t happen. But the good news is that eight years later now the future is very bright with its second new director, major renovations completed, and a solid relationship with the university. They lost some funders, but they gained some other funders. They lost their library that was folded into the university library. They gained a new audience and they even retained most of their docents. So, that’s my story and I am going to go back to Sean.
Who was able… Oh I’m sorry, Sean joined us and then he left us again? All right we will keep looking out for Sean.
So, let’s go back to Bolton.
Bolton, your example was an example of how the community really fought the museum ‘s closure and won. Was this an example of a merger gone bad? Can you talk about how to choose your partners wisely? How to tell your museum community? When to tell your museum community? Tell us a little bit about…
Bolton Colburn: Yeah, well, obviously, they should have involved the community on this in this discussion dialogue from the get-go. And obviously the fear is that once you open that up for community dialogue that it may get shut down quickly because people get concerned. But from my perspective the main error that they made was not guaranteeing that Laguna Art Museum was going to have its physical campus in Laguna Beach. And the idea was out there, and somebody had said it somewhere along the line that was going to eventually sell that site and move out of Laguna Beach entirely so that was sort of the death. Now I think for the community and that community is sort of built up around the idea that Laguna Art Laguna Art Museum is the core of its arts community there in Laguna Beach sold itself and sold itself for a century as a as an art town. So, it was interesting seeing hundreds and hundreds of people come out of the woodwork from the community to support the place. And it’s all it’s a little too bad that they weren’t out there supporting it prior to the merger. That they it took something like the prospect of merger to upset them enough to become involved.
Susana Smith Bautista: Danielle your ability to close two out of your four venues was a really hard decision. It’s what I like to call a closure alternative. Can you tell us about this really hard decision and who made the decision? How was it made?
Danielle Ripperton: Sure, one of the things that I can’t say enough about was the staff leadership and the board leadership teams that were in place because there were many conversations and decision metrics to be able to get to the decision that we ultimately made. The group worked really well both together but also separately in their own purviews and their own rules and responsibilities to be able to come to the final decision. And it was a, it was a shared decision across the board and staff. One of the things that i appreciated the most about our board at the time was when they met in late April 2020, they set forth a series of priorities as a motion for a way for us to operate during the pandemic because you know even in April, we had no idea how long the pandemic was going to last. I think none of us could have guessed that we would still basically be in its effects now. But they had the forethought to say we’ve got to figure out what are these operational priorities that we live within while our strategic plan is on pause. And first and foremost was how do we make sure that the organization as an entity survives. And the primary focus being the downtown location as that mode for survival, so we did our best, of course, to be as kind to staff as possible. We knew that we were pausing the strategic plan but then basically it gave this operating framework for me to lead the organization and for the board to be the backing entity during this time. And that’s it’s really how we function and we’re still functioning as we go into our next strategic plan is under that set of priorities from April 2020.
Susana Smith Bautista: Great, thank you, Danielle. Leila, yours is another example of a closure alternative. Another really difficult decision that you had to make. Can you tell us about that decision? Can you tell us how uh how you’re doing now and how it’s really changed how you think about the future of your museum and your staffing?
Leila Anna Wahba: Well so I can say that this is the decision was very difficult. Of course, a building is kind of, you know, emblematic of a museum a lot of the time but we were lucky enough to kind of realize that our strength in that moment was our staff because we are very small, we had the ability to keep all of them. If we gave up the building and so we kind of decided to go with the people over the building. And to us, I think it was the right decision and what it allowed us to do is keep all of our staff but also change our staff’s kind of direction and our focus into the digital which was difficult at first. We redesigned our entire website. It gave us a chance to kind of look at our archive and understand where our gaps were and how in the future we could become more of a repository for the history of LA. So that’s been really exciting for us. As we start to build a digital archive in that sense and again focus on people so actually speaking to designers and architects who’ve made the City of LA what it is today it’s given us that kind of breathing room, which is really cool. We’re doing super well. We’re starting to look into our first pop-up. Hopefully beginning of August which is a very sensory-focused show. I won’t say too much but it’ll be a celebration of being back for sure.
Susana Smith Bautista: Oh, I can’t wait and I’m glad that I’m in LA to be able to see it in in real life.
So, I uh just published a book called “How to Close a Museum.” Thanks to Roman and Littlefield for really believing last spring that this was an important topic and I have the link in the handouts and there’s a discount for the book but it’s a practical guide and the first chapter is about the understanding the legal requirements surrounding closing museums. So, I wanted to talk just for a minute about the legalities of what that means to close down a museum and it’s important to remember that dissolution is a formal legal process that kicks off when the board votes to permanently dissolve. Not every closure is a dissolution. Most cases this is called a voluntary dissolution but sometimes it becomes involuntary when the Attorney General gets involved with cases of fraud, internal dissension, failure to pay taxes, which becomes an administrative dissolution. Also, inactivity for more than a year is grounds for involuntary or compulsory dissolution. So sometimes when people say oh, we’re just gonna turn the lights off and we’ll come back uh when things are better you still have to be doing your educational and your activities that are in your mission, your bylaws, your articles of incorporation, …
So, I wanted to talk a little bit about the two examples that I mentioned briefly the Pasadena Museum of California Art and the Pacific Asia Museum and to remind everyone that as non-profit museum s are public benefit corporations that also makes some social and cultural institutions with a responsibility to not only follow the laws that govern them but the unwritten laws that we know go back to the ancient Greeks who understood these as customs and traditions that are unshakable. One of the chapters in the book is called “Above and Beyond” because these are the considerations that we need to talk about that are above and beyond just the legal requirements. For example, if we consider the legally required distribution of assets to other nonprofits what if we think about recipients in terms of restitution or the ability to address historic and current issues of inequity and injustice? Does the public benefit more from your museum staying open or closed and which part of the public? Funders are highly aware of situations that may be legal but that they consider to be suspect or unethical which happened in in my case. This was a long-time problem that the museum just did not face. Boards usually think about their responsibilities to the museum s but how often do they really think about the public benefit of their actions. Right, when museum s close people lose jobs, communities lose cultural spaces artists lose opportunities.
So, we wanted to open it up right now to questions. We know that this is a really difficult topic, and we are here in the spirit of sharing and transparency just as Sean would say mistakes were made. Whether they’re mistakes that were externally happened right, whether there’s a pandemic, or a recession, or internal we all want to talk about how we can prevent more museum s from closing.
So, I’d like to ask all the panelists to unmute themselves.
If you can put your any questions that you might have in the chat, we can also talk amongst ourselves and, but we really are here to just talk openly about situations we’ve all been involved in either closures, near closures, or closure alternatives. So, I’m just going to throw the first question out to everybody. When do you know that point when you stop planning to save the museum and you start planning to close down?
Just jump in I’m not going to call on you.
Bolton Colburn: Well, you know that’s a that’s a good question Suzanne, and I after thinking about this panel for a while one of the questions I had is it, and this is in addition to your question, is do some organizations need to go out of business? Do some more organizations, I mean, is it part of their life cycle to do that? And I think one of the things that happens with a lot of institutions is that they instead of going out of business and they adopt a somewhat similar but different mission with a new title that’s part of a little bit different plan. In essence, is there a life cycle for a non-profit and then a more practical answer to your question, Susanna, is I think you know when you’re out six months in terms of being able to pay your vendors and you don’t have any money in the bank, I think it’s time and you don’t have a prospect or you know a bunch of trustees that are going to step up to the plate to help you through that financial time that’s time to pull the plug.
Danielle Ripperton: I think it’s a good case for museum s along the way to always have a great board in place. Right, so, if you have the right people on your board that are asking the right questions part of their responsibility you know the duty of care, duty of loyalty, duty of obedience, which are the things that they are beholden to, they have to make sure that the fiduciary piece of the museum is understood by all. And I can’t say enough about my board in this process because they were the ones with the forethought to say what are what are the financial analysis of all this. Like how long can we go without making a major change and what’s that major change going to look like, and… You know I got into the nonprofit world because I wanted to do good, I wanted to expand. I wanted to grow. I wanted to see the next generation of children. I didn’t get into the nonprofit world or the children’s museum realm to shut down a children’s museum. I mean that breaks my heart and I did not want to do that, but they were the realists who were saying we are not going to survive and it’s going to be to more of a detriment to the community by not doing something drastic now than waiting until it’s way too late which is when it’s talking about the dissolution process. So, I feel like this is a good case in point for having good board governance all along and good board members who are always in the pipeline to be a part of the organization.
Susana Smith Bautista: Yeah, I really would like to encourage everyone to plan for closure. And what does that mean, right? It doesn’t make sense because all we do is we plan to keep our museums open. But I think the more that we can really accept the reality that either you’re in a tough situation you know it’s coming you know this is a strategic forecasting that Elizabeth Merritt talks so importantly about and to plan for it and say okay this is a possibility that could happen and what do we need to do to prepare for it just in case that time comes. Because that time when it comes it usually hits you, it blindsides you, so the I think the more that museum s can be prepared for understanding the process for even thinking about the just the dispersal, the distribution of assets, right, I mean how is your community going to going to continue to benefit?
So, let’s talk about the community and the funders and you know what do you tell them? You know again Bolton you know Bolton had an experience with his community and it would have been great for the community to be supporting the museum this whole time. There’s been there’s been great examples of crisis appeals US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, last year of course the Detroit Institute of Arts right where the community just completely came and supported the museum, but that support has to has to be there.
Leila Anna Wahba: I mean I think like in terms of community I mean it’s the same word basically it’s communication. How do you communicate with your community while also listening? So, for us it was a really hard challenge to explain to them we’re not going to be in this same spot anymore but we’re still here for you, we still exist, we’re coming back. It’ll be okay and communicating that was really difficult because people hear your book closed, you’re not an exam anymore. So how do you explain to them that you’re still there and for us it was going really full-fledged into like programming and seeing all the parents that work home alone with their kids and also working so we went really hard on to creating programming for children that they were able to enjoy access and that’s kind of how we stuck with our community.
Susana Smith Bautista: Bolton, can you talk a little bit more about the community organizations that save the Laguna Museum organizations and you know they were trying to save the museum, but they were opposing this new museum right, the Orange County Museum of Art. Can you talk about maybe that contradiction and how the community has continued to support the museum?
Bolton Colburn: You know, I you know it’s an interesting thing because I think museum had lost touch with the local community, and i think it was on a it was on a trajectory not unlike a lot of museum s which tends towards professionalization. And it used to be that you were really trying to develop a national profile and a lot of times you know those ties to the community had dried up or some of them had gone away for various different reasons because uh the trustees were interested in your national profile as an art museum and in fact that profile that way of thinking was backed up uh with government support through the NEA and this is pre Jesse Helms. when there was much more support for exhibitions and collections in in the in the 80s than there is now. And I think museums have since that support has dwindled and gone away to a large degree, museums are really having to go back to their local communities to find a similar kind of support to make that up. And I think they have to become they had to become more relevant for that community. So, the merger was a real wake-up call for the citizens of Laguna Beach who always considered a birthright that the museum was there but didn’t really consider how it was supporting them. Well, in turn, the museum wasn’t really supporting them in terms of supplying them with exhibitions and programming that addressed their interests and needs so once those two things sort of came into focus and the wheels of programming could begin to address the community and the museum understood that the community was there willing to take up to take up the museum to support it was great. Now Laguna Art Museum was in a really fortunate position in that the demographic in Laguna at the time of the merger was climbing rapidly and it’s probably one of the wealthiest communities now on the coast so that’s all-good news for the art museum.
Susana Smith Bautista: So, let’s talk about mistakes and let’s talk about risks because both of your closure alternatives were really big risks. I don’t like talking about mistakes, but risks and I think sometimes we’re afraid to take risks because we’re afraid to make mistakes. But when you have at stake the closure of your museum, I think you do want to take a risk and it’s worth it so how can we be not so afraid to take risks and to try something new and to embrace mistakes if they happen?
Danielle Ripperton: I feel like our biggest mistake in the whole process was that we didn’t have enough of those personal conversations as we should have and if I could do anything differently going back, it is that piece exactly. I think you know at the time you’ve got a lot of stress and we were you know we’re all living life up here and we needed to settle down and think through all of the different people that we should have called and if I could do anything again it would be to have more of those just really honest conversations with people who had given so much of their time to starting a museum and to making sure that it continued. And the conversations that we did have were not easy but there was no one that said you know for the detriment of the organization we want to see you do this no matter what. They understood why the decisions were made and it was just that those conversations were really hard but what I wish I had done is either myself had more of those conversations or enlisted you know a small group of people whether it was, you know, leadership, staff members, or board leadership to join me and having those one-on-one phone calls or zoom calls or whatever it was at the time because nobody was meeting in person to say this is why we’re making the decision so that they didn’t hear about it through an email or a letter. And I wish that we had done more of that in terms of the communication strategy.
Susana Smith Bautista: Are you saying, Danielle, that you wish you would have done more after you made that decision or before in preparation of making the decision?
Danielle Ripperton: I think we talk to the right people in making the decision and I think you know of course everybody wants to be consulted and you wish that you could consult everybody right but at the end of the day you can’t. But there was a period of time that we knew it was going to happen, but we were trying to, I think, to Bolton’s point trying not to let the news leak out. So, we were trying to have everything in a short period of time. Maybe if we had expanded that by 12 hours or 24 hours, we could have had more of that, you know, insider knowledge of the people who really had given their heart and soul to the organization and been able to tell them firsthand as opposed to the more mass communications. So, it was really in the implementation of the closure announcement.
Susana Smith Bautista: I found with my experience at the PMCA it was really hardest on staff you know staff were very angry that they didn’t know earlier, and you know of course it had to be just at the board level at the very beginning and a few senior staff.
You know we had to wait about a week.
For the board decision to be final and staff were just really angry that they didn’t know immediately.
Bolton Colburn: I think you know it; in the situation the Laguna Art Museum was one in which the, it was really board driven by these two institutions and staff was kept out of the picture as well as most of the community to Danielle’s point it’s I mean that was a big mistake.
Susana Smith Bautista: Yeah, you know I feel that with our with our funders at least in our community that that we have to learn to change the narrative about how we talk about these risks and these changes and we have to you know be able to really turn it into a positive and explain to them how hard it was you know and how we worked together as a team. We found innovative solutions. We, we, you know, made a change to the way of operating that we need to be comfortable really telling this telling the story of how hard these things are instead of people focusing on you know or your two venues that were lost or your buildings that were lost or you know whatever is lost because we know that there is a lot of loss involved but how we turn that over.
Bolton Colburn: You know, Susana I’m sure you’re aware of this, but I think in terms of non, I’m not sure if this is actually legally binding, I think it may be but when your organization gets into difficult financial positions it’s incumbent upon the board to personally bail it out. and there’s actually insurance we used to buy for the board that would insure them from that liability which was really interesting and kind of twisted and ironic …
It’s almost …
It’s really, I think hard for a museum if you’re in a situation where there’s one or two or three people on in your board on the executive committee that are really carrying the ball and moving that an agenda forward or trying to do something like a merger without really spreading that out into more of an umbrella situation. where there’s a lot of people carrying the you know carrying the cause so to speak.
Susana Smith Bautista: Yeah Leila, can you talk about your funders and how they reacted or how the board you know whether they’re external funders or on your board and…
Leila Anna Wahba: Oh yeah definitely so our board was really reactive, and it was a positive reaction they went along with what we decided and looking at the building and they were very supportive in terms of the funders. What was really difficult was pivoting up their recognition because that is a really big point for them. And their buy-in is kind of how to get recognized in our community. Now and so it’s been kind of it’s been about growing pains and figuring it out but what we’ve found is there’s so much power in the digital, in understanding our audience that not unlike any other website we can kind of find out who our audience is and who our funders are now going to be able to reach more directly and it seems to have really energized a lot of them. Some of them, it’s still hard to explain what the concept is these are the people that are actually gonna see your logo on the page just to put it really literally. But I think there’s a lot of positive in that and then I also think that when we do go back to the physical it’s taught us kind of the importance of data so which we didn’t really have before.
Susana Smith Bautista: So, we again we welcome your questions your comments we know that some of you have recognized museum s in the chat and we thank you for that. There are museums, of course, they’re closed during the pandemic, but they’re closed before that.
Portland Children’s Museum in Oregon that was a very recent closure. The American Textile History Museum, the Institute of Texas Cultures in San Antonio so many reasons that museum s can close, and some are external, some are internal but what we’re trying to do today is not only talk about possible closure alternatives, how to handle the closure, how to prepare for a closure?
How to create a narrative about a closure working with boards. I think Danielle, you’ve had a great and Leila great experience working with your boards and pivoting with the funders. We just wanted to leave you with some final words of encouragement to learn from mistakes, to talk, share, listen, and confide. As Danielle said it’s really hard to know when to do this and how to do this and with whom. Unfortunately, when you’re in discussions about closure or closure alternatives you can’t be as open and transparent as you would like to be so it’s really making that decision of who needs to be involved and then afterwards having a really good communication plan. There is life after closure. Innovate think out of the box any last words panelists?
Danielle Ripperton: I do want to recognize there was a question in the chat for Sean. We’ve been trying to get him back online to be able to share. I don’t know if there’s a way for us to be able to share afterwards uh with attendees through AAM but we’ve been trying to get him back online to be able to speak about Eastern State Penitentiary.
Susana Smith Bautista: Yeah, we’re so sorry that Sean, is Sean, was a big part of this this panel and not just with his “Mistakes Were Made” but with his own museum that has been going through a lot of difficult changes as all museums have.
Bolton, Leila, Bolton any last words, suggestions?
Leila Anna Wahba: I just want to say thank you for putting this together. Like you said, it’s really difficult to kind of talk about these topics with other people in other museum s because you have this kind of not legal kind of emotional need for protection of your institution. This a really beautiful forum.
Bolton Colburn: Yeah, I just wanted to say something about the importance of your programming in relationship to your community and or and I shouldn’t say community because I think it is its plural communities and I think…
having programming that hits at the core of the interests of your communities…
You know is probably the most important thing you can do as an institution to ensure that to ensure your relevance and to be able to carry yourself forward. If you’re, and if you’re not doing that and you’re going out of business you might take a look at that. Leila’s got a something really interesting going on because she’s tapped into a community, and she can see it online which is amazing, and you know with all the analytics that you’ve got online it’s got to be gratifying.
Leila Anna Wahba: It really is yeah.
Susana Smith Bautista: You know we just we can’t stress enough the importance to know your community. We are here as public benefit corporations to really be serving our community and we have to know that community we have to have a good relationship with our community because there will be tough times and there will be times when we’re going to reach out to our community and need them. As we all know, during this pandemic and it’s going to be a lot easier and more authentic if we’ve already established that that relationship that rapport.
Danielle Ripperton: When I think Susana that’s one of the incredible things that your book is bringing to this too is how do you go about this process and when there’s no resource to be able to figure out how you take the next step or what does the legal dissolution look like. Thank you for the museum community being able to have a resource to be able to talk about that because it’s not an easy conversation and it’s not what anybody wants to be thinking about. But it is an important conversation because there are some very critical steps that have to happen. So much gratitude to you for your leadership in this in this space.
Susana Smith Bautista: Thank you it was it was a bit cathartic for me because again you know when I talk about turning around the narrative and turning around a situation this is what I wanted to do. So, I had a really bad experience closing down a museum that I really hope no one has and I hope that you know you get inspired by these closure alternatives because it’s a hard experience. And I turned it around into something positive and I wanted to write a book, and this is really it. I started at the beginning of the pandemic because that’s when I realized that a lot of museums are going to close down. Of course, we know that AAM had their prediction that many museums, a third of museums, which thankfully has not come true because of a lot of the hard work on museum s and foundations and sponsors. But I knew that it was my time to turn my story into something that would help other museums. And again, it’s a topic that we don’t talk enough about so I’m really glad that we had this panel today to talk about it. I’d like to you know offer ourselves as resources for anybody that’s listening and wants more information. Contact us, contact me. My, the information for the book is in the handouts. I also printed the resources from the back of the book as a handout which no in no way means that you have to do it alone. We are a field. We have colleagues. We have people that we need to rely on so this is what this is all about. It’s about coming together leaning in to help each other through hard times.
Oh, Sean is on the phone. Can you speak though on the phone can you hear me? Yeah, welcome, Sean.
Sean Kelly: Oh man, I’m going to go back to your slide that’s when you talk about failure then you get this endless set of excuses. I cannot get still to this minute. Can’t get my computer. I just tried dozens of times it bounces me out. I’m so sorry.
Susana Smith Bautista: Okay introduce yourself.
Sean Kelly: I’m Sean Kelly from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and I heard Susana’s wonderful and very flattering description of my interest in talking about mistakes. I’ve always thought that talking about mistakes uh with colleagues is both, well, it’s a nice way to break the ice and you learn more. I learn more from when people are willing to honestly admit the mistakes they made in the last couple of years. I didn’t actually host this session. I started it, I think 10 years ago and did it for many years. And in 2019, I didn’t toast it and in 2020 was canceled because of am but I had grown a little bit wary of talking about mistakes in such a lighthearted way. When the field itself was even before the pandemic and even before George Floyd’s murder the field was really looking at serious mistakes that we’ve made in our collecting practices, in our way that we raised money, and just felt like I was getting a little tired of talking so much in such a playful way about mistakes. And seeing like your other conversations that were happening elsewhere. So, anyway, that has been my interest and Susana was kind enough to call me about the book and we talked a lot of last summer. At the same time that I think so many of I was in the same boat that so many of us were in last summer where we were literally looking down the barrel and started that violent image closing this museum and we ended up laying off staff. I always swore we would never lay off staff, we’ve run the board of directors and our CEO, Sally Elk and I have run our organization very lean. We’ve built up a substantial financial reserve and we swore even in the first months of the pandemic we would never lay off staff, we burned through our financial reserve in months, and ended up laying off staff.
So, when Susana called me last summer it was a painful but people said the conversations but also really wonderful to talk to a friend who had been through it on a level through it and actually close the place. Like a lot of museum s, we’ve come to the other side of this and we’re on the rebound, but it will take us years and years. If we ever do get back to our previous financial strength. So that’s pretty, I think all that I was going to say and I apologize for being so disruptive, Susana, I was supposed to be the moderator today so that
Susana Smith Bautista: That’s okay that’s okay. We have five more minutes so I would love just to hear some final words from you about well I know you’ve been listening in. So maybe thoughts on any of this final words for our listeners about your museum or any other museum?
Oh, I don’t know I …
Sean Kelly: It was a painful set of conversations and I just admire that you that you wrote the book. Susana and you gathered us here to talk about it and I think that there’s nothing when something is scary. That first step is to acknowledge that scary and to find some friends who’ve been talking through it or have been through it before and so I’m just you know naming it and being here I think does take a lot of the sting away and one of the messages that I keep getting. When I hear this conversation is that there’s life after closure perhaps not for the museum itself but at least for the staff and often for the collections and thought Bolton brought up a good point that some museum s there is a life cycle for some museums. But we shouldn’t take it as a given that every museum should be around in perpetuity. Although I’m a museum person to my core and so of course I believe that every museum that possibly can be say it should but here in Philadelphia, we’ve lost a set of them. We’ve lost our Philadelphia History Museum the Atwater can it’s extraordinarily painful as a native Philadelphian to see that close.
And I thought Danielle’s point was really well taken that none of us got into this work to sit here and make these horrifying charts. Which I bet lots of people in this conference, in this presentation right now, who are joining us, spent a lot of 2020 looking at spreadsheets of which of their co-workers are going to get laid off. Which other coworkers are going to be asked to take pay cuts? Which our leadership team did here, and you think man is this what I got into the museum field for? You know that just it just felt so counter-intuitive, and you know at some point I realized talking to some colleagues and some friends that it was a form of grief. You know, and there’s so many things to grieve in 2020. But we were grieving that this sort of vibrant work that we many of us thought we were doing here flip and turn into spreadsheets of layoffs and pay cuts and closing the building and so forth. It’s very difficult but helpful to be here with friends to talk about it and helpful I hope that the field is, at least on this front, on its way back to being more financially healthy. We obviously have a lot of other conversations that we’re just getting started on. But I think that’s those are most of my reflections, Susana, I can actually see you all now finally. And I can see you like that you can’t see me, but I can see you all here on my screen. So, mistakes are made I’m sorry I can’t be more part of a panel tomorrow.
Susana Smith Bautista: You know and sometimes mistakes are out of our hands we need to acknowledge that, right, its things are not always our fault, but we do our best and again thank you for your hard work to save museums. Thank you for your hard work being here everyone. It has been a really hard year, but we know that this is this is not the only time that museums have faced crises and difficulties and it’s not the last but hopefully, we’ve learned from it and there’s life after closure. There’s life after the pandemic. Thank you all. Thank you AAM. You can buy the book even if you don’t need to learn about what it means to close the museum thank you.
Sean Kelly: Thank you, everybody, thank you all.