Monday, May 10, 2010

Recommended: Are Museums Nonprofit or For-Profit?

Though Toronto in general is Banksy-crazy right now (I saw a bunch of photographers huddled around one of the suspected-his fresh images on Spadina near Queen this afternoon), I'm for some reason in the title of the new documentary about him, "Exit through the Gift Shop." On the great Center for the Future of Museums blog, former Smithsonian counsel Marie Malaro has this to say about shaping the financial future of museums (though her examples are American, particularly as they relate to current US crises around nonprofits, I'd say the principles apply in Canada too):

The position the museum community now finds itself in should have been foreseen at least 30 years ago. By the early 1990’s museums were becoming more and more market oriented. The bicentennial boom of the 1970’s and early 80’s with its out- pouring of grant money for museums was over and many museums were left with new buildings and programs that were costly to sustain. The solution for many was to embrace a more entrepreneurial approach to acquiring income.

The first steps were tentative but the spirit of competition soon took hold. Museum shops were moved to center stage in museums and some even ended up in shopping malls. Exhibitions became “events” not supported by philanthropy but by corporate sponsorships which are nothing more than business arrangements with for-profits organizations. “Lending for profit” became common place and museums joined the bandwagon only to be diverted when marketers began singing the praises of “branding”. And, not surprisingly, those holding major management positions in museums began to compare themselves with managers in the for-profit world and demand similar compensation packages. It is growing harder and harder to tell whether museums are nonprofit or for-profit organizations by the way too many operate today and just about every problem now facing museums is due to the failure of museums to understand and adhere to their nonprofit status. Let me explain this sweeping statement.

We support a nonprofit sector in this country and afford it many privileges because we expect that sector to offer our society services and products that cannot be provided by our government sector or our for-profit sector. In other words, nonprofits are expected to stand apart from the other two sectors and put their special privileges (great tax advantages, government encouraged philanthropy, freedom to accept volunteer services and a public willing to volunteer,) to good use so they can provide their unique services and products to the public. When the nonprofit sector forgets what its distinctive role is (when what it offers cannot be distinguished from what the other two sectors provide) it places in jeopardy its special privileges, and the good will of the public. This is why we see so many attempts by governments to curtail tax exemptions enjoyed by nonprofits, why true philanthropy (giving without expecting anything in return) is being replaced by “deal-making" and why there is so much confusion in the profession about what a museum is....

In a nutshell, there is a bright and secure future for museums if they truly commit to their nonprofit status in both word and action and demonstrate to the public that what they offer is unique and important.

I'm not against gift shops per se; I actually like to browse them a fair bit. But I tend to worry the same way Malaro does--that museums must remember they are nonprofits and commit to that in word and in action. (This is also the basis of my continuing concerns about rising museum admission fees--museums are mandated as nonprofits to provide access, yet are shutting more and more people out economically speaking.) It is worth reading the full post here. She also has a book on museum governance, if you're interested.

Image of possible Banksy rat in Toronto from Torontoist

No comments: