Archive for September, 2010

Museum Life: Behind the Curtain

September 20, 2010 3 comments

Lately I’ve been thinking about museums founded by or for well-known individuals. Media is buzzing about a proposed Jackson Family Museum in Gary, Indiana while relatively new facilities such as The Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Center and the Muhammad Ali Center have 5 years of operation thus far.  Yet the 42-year-old Roy Rogers Museum recently closed, the group working on a Debbie Reynolds Museum just filed bankruptcy, and last week the Liberace Foundation announced the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas will close its doors after 30+ years of operation. Meanwhile Graceland continues to attract visitors decades after Elvis left the building. The structures for such places range from nonprofit to for profit to a mixture of both. While the museum profession requires that an institution be a nonprofit and open to the public to earn the name, there is no legal responsibility to the word itself.

C.W. Peale, founder of the Philadelphia Museum

The reasons these institutions are created vary from altruistic philanthropic legacy to tax breaks to pure unadulterated ego and attention to which a celebrity is accustomed… often these are combined. If you expand the definition of celebrity to include well-known figures in general, many U.S. museums owe their founding to big names with a personal mission– think Andrew Carnegie and  Solomon Guggenheim.

While my capitalist self would not suggest stopping anyone who can establish a museum, my nonprofit/government professional self suggests they question in-depth whether they should. When personally focused organizations are founded, either the celebrity or people very close create a passionate message about just how much the world needs the new organization. I’m sure some genuinely care about the philanthropy, but can also be financially dependent and remain on board with whatever will continue their income. Whether or not the museum benefits society in any way (and I believe that it should) is completely dependent upon the people who run it… no institution exists without the individuals who often end up as mythical as the Wizard despite the cultural and financial power they hold. In some cases, benefits abound. In others, they are difficult to discern.

I believe now more than ever we as a society need to pay attention to what is behind the curtain and participate in the dialog about the management of nonprofits in general and museums in particular. While IRS guidelines and state regulations exist regarding establishing and running nonprofits, proactive analysis by government agencies does not. Indeed doing so is debated due to what some term “immeasurable benefits” that are difficult if not impossible to quantify .

Yet on the individual level, how many of us as donors use sites such as GuideStar to research who is handling the money and making decisions in these organizations? Do we offer feedback when we like or don’t like what is offered to the public?  How many of us as employees speak out if we uncover improper behavior, despite the fear or reality of losing our personal livelihood?

The American Association of Museums has an accreditation program, but it is voluntary, requires a fee, and there are no negative consequences if a museum is not accredited. I have never heard that a visitor walked away or a donor based a decision on whether or not a museum is AAM accredited. Codes of Ethics are also widespread in the profession, but again people are not rewarded or punished for following or not following them in any meaningful way. Only if a law is broken and publicly discovered will you hear that an institution suffers a penalty. Likewise we do not yet have a formal mechanism to recognize or reward the “stars” of the nonprofit world for exhibiting ethical behavior and managing resources well

Many voices are proposing stringent analysis, even a social sector “stock market” of sorts that uses an economic model to measure ROI. But for now we should urge any nonprofit museum Board to ask itself these questions and make their answers publicly available:

1. Why are we legitimate in seeking or maintaining nonprofit status?

2. Do our bylaws clearly define our purpose and responsibilities? Have our Board members signed a copy?

3. Is our Board the most representative and qualified group of people we can find, and how will we ensure they receive ongoing training regarding their responsibilities?

4. What experts will we rely upon for consultation and advice?

5. Does this business model make sense to people who (gasp) do not care about the subject matter as much as we do?

6. What are the qualifications of the people we will entrust to run the organization? How will they be trained and evaluated regularly?

7. How will we report what we do on a regular basis to the public and the IRS?

8. Is our income model diverse and responsive enough to mix earned revenue, fundraising and investments in reasonable proportion?

9. Is our expenditure model participatory, flexible and prudent? Do we budget for both short and long-term goals with priorities clearly delineated?

10. How can we keep the museum relevant and therefore sustainable for years to come?

Museums are an attractive form of philanthropy, particularly for those in the public eye.  But now more than ever we need to take stock of these institutions in measurable ways.  Matthew Bishop and Michael Green write on page 277  in Philanthrocapitalist: How the Rich Can Save the World:

In turn, the media, politicians, and civil society should engage constructively in the debate about the proper role and the impact of philanthropy—and if they are wise, philanthropists should encourage and lead that debate, rather than wait until something (presumably bad) makes them the subject of it. Philanthrocapitalists are destined to be increasingly important public figures; so they had better get used to it.

Find Out More:

AAM Accreditation:

Philanthrocapitalist Website:

BoardSource- excellent resources for Board training: