Saturday, October 10, 2009

Who Gets The Money?

HYPOTHETICAL SITUATION: The city has a grant to evaluate local museums. In the end, two good museums and five bad museums will receive sizable amounts of cash to address key areas. Who gets the money and why?

First of all, let me say this - if you can't earn your keep, maybe you shouldn't exist? Isn't it about time cultural institutions were run like the small (and not so small) businesses that they actually are? Isn't it about time they developed actual revenue streams beyond ticket and merchandise sales? Donors are always welcomed and encouraged but how much can these places rely upon the government for support? I mean, tax breaks and other services provided by the government are acceptable to a point, but can the business model actually be to beg for money every year?

I'm not a capitalist. I just don't trust the rag tag bunch of goons who run the government (city, state or federal). Come on ... they wanted to give Comcast millions of dollars in tax breaks by deeming the Comcast Tower site as a Keystone Opportunity Improvement Zone. The Keystone tax breaks are intended for disadvantaged areas struggling to attract business and people. Um, the tower is at 17th and JFK, not 3rd and Indiana.


I don't think you need to compare the various institutions in order to determine the best or worst. To me, it really comes down to the mission/ purpose of the institution and whether they live up to that mission.

If the city is going to dole out the grants, there has to be significant benefit to the public within the mission of the various museums. How do you determine public benefit? Good question. The simple criteria would be number of visitors, but it's also important to factor in potential - could an organization better serve the public if they had more funding?

If the city is controlling the purse strings, there should also be significant relevance to the local community. Relevance is another idea that is difficult to asses. Basically, the institution should provide a product that speaks to the local/ regional audience (an Atwater Kent would therefore score higher than a Barnes Foundation, for instance).

An evaluation of this sort would actually be a great publicity tool for the cultural community. It would force them all to evaluate their institutions. The results would be controversial, of course, because the 493 places that did not receive a grant will bitch and moan about cronyism, favoritism and general unfairness (like lack of money to compete, preconceived notions, etc).

The places that received the money would be obligated to document their use of the grant in furthering their community reach or their local relevance. The good museums would be expected to build on what they have whereas the bad museums would have to make steps to achieve their potential.

Personally, any talk of money absolutely disgusts me. I'd rather see museums and other institutions fall under the realm of universities. Then, museums become a prestigious asset with a built in audience (in theory) who can use the collections for further research. Museums would be an amenity for the students. And the burden of a museum's financial survival would be lumped into the university's overall budget.

Just a thought.

1 comment:

  1. OK George, you've really thrown the gauntlet down now. A "rag tag bunch of goons?" Is that what I am? I beg to differ on the earned income question. Cultural institutions are not just leeches sucking on philanthropy because it is easy. I think cultural organizations have gotten pretty sophisticated about maximizing earned revenue from a wide array of sources. Of course there is room for improvement, but I think to assume they should "carry their weight like any other small business" misses the point of their nonprofit mission and public value. As for standards to be applied to museums, and by extension all cultural groups, I think there are an array of criteria on which public support is - and should be - based. Because it is public support, clearly service to the public - public benefit - must be a key criteria. But public benefit comes in many forms. In terms of your examples I would argue that both Atwater Kent AND the Barnes on the Parkway offer significant public benefit, but in different ways. Generation of tourism and economic impact is clearly one criteria, visitorship is another, Serving a specific community or population is a factor. Preservation and interpretation of our cultural heritage is important. Serving underserved populations is a factor. Appropriate stewardship of resources is very important - will the money be spent widely and well? And, of course, quality of artistic product, exhibition design and educational interpretation are also all critical factors. Will public resources leverage private resources? This is also important.

    On the revenue front, it is important to note that on average cultural organizations get only about 10% of their income from public funding (local, state and federal combined). American cultural organization rely relatively little on government support. 40% of revenue comes from contributions from individuals, corporations, foundations and fundraising events. And the remaining 50% comes form earned income - tickets/admissions, fees and tuition, concessions and gift shops, royalties, etc. Of course, these are averages that vary considerably by disciple and type of organization. One thing to keep in mind - if you eliminated all philanthropy, much of our culture would become available only to the rich, who can afford to pay for it, and also significant risk-taking would be sharply diminshed. The system we have now in effect attempts to maximize revenue by charging as much as possible for tickets and admissions while also trying to maximize attendance. This in effect leaves some of the "value" that we as a society and as individuals place on the cultural product uncollected, and the vehicle of tax-deductible contributions is the mechanism by which that value is monetized and captured.

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