Museum Trends & Challenges

In difficult financial times poorly led (hired management) and poorly governed (boards of directors) companies and NGOs suffer dearly.

The recent economic crises has eroded the assets and cut income of many museums throughout the country and the weakest ones are closing. It’s Darwinian survival of the museums: those who make the fewest dumb decisions get to live.
Take a quick look at what has happened recently and then consider what we can learn from these events that will guide you in making career decisions. Throughout the museum world cuts in revenue caused predicable reactions: programs cuts, reduced operating hours, and staff pay-reductions or lay-offs. And closure of institutions that have been around for decades. These impacts are not evenly distributed throughout the museum world. Given a choice would you opt for a safer, more secure pay check?

As examples of how the economy impacts museums, consider two of the largest and most prominent museums: the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Los Angles County Museum of Art. Both suffered drops in their financial assets of 23% during the recent economic downturn. Other museums suffered the same or worse results in their portfolios. Museums use income from their investments to help make up the shortfall between expenditures and earned income (ticket sales, gift shop profits, etc.).
So losses in their portfolios lead to cuts in income and that dictates cuts in expenditures.

Consider the cases of other museums that couldn’t tightened their financial belts tight enough. The Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo, Fla., the Claremont Museum of Art in California and the Las Vegas Art Museum have all closed, and the Fayetteville Museum of Art will soon follow. The Fresno Metropolitan Museum will close and sell off the collections and exhibits to pay back the loans it took in a misguided scheme to grow the museum. Civic leaders, philanthropists, and dedicated museum staff worked years to create these institutions and now they are gone.

The economy contributed to their demise, but more responsible was poor planning and governance by boards. You can’t prevent the economy from going south, but you can protect yourself (a bit) by working at a museum that is well run and financially sound.
Tough economic times make poor leadership and governance more visible, but how can you spot them before the hammer hits? One gauge is looking at the longevity of museum staff. How long have senior staff worked for a museum? High rates of turnover suggest that the board isn’t cohesive, aren’t supportive, or doesn’t know what they want.

The Museum of Science and History in Jacksonville had one period of about 6 years during which they had 5 different directors. That’s a sure sign of board trouble. The directors (managers) weren’t incompetent, the board was.

Long tenures are no insurance against incompetence, but suggest internal squabbles are under control. Long tenures with no accomplishments suggests the board is too lazy to take action. Long tenures with solid growth and community support are where you want to be.

Poorly funded museums neglect maintenance and are slow to repair and replace exhibits. How do the bathrooms look? It’s easy to cut back custodial staff when dollars are short.
If you see the same decaying exhibits year after year you can assume either there is no will or means to change; both indicate problems you may not want to associate with. Museums that don’t have changing exhibits, like the defunct Pacific Northwest Museum of Natural History, don’t generate new attendance and don’t attract previous attendees. If nothing changes, there is no compelling reason to visit. And, as attendance declines, so do the fortunes of the staff.

Look for variety and excitement in a museum’s programs. The job of museums is to generate interest in learning about all facets of life. Each different program attracts a different segment of the population and a dynamic museum tries to draw all the segments. Static or unchanging programs suggest calcification of staff and probably a steady or declining audience. In the parlance of sports, it takes a big motor to keep a museum going. If you can’t see and feel a big motor, the museum may be coasting downward.

Ask for a copy of the museums strategic plan and their most recent financial statement. Just asking the question and seeing their reaction will tell you something about the museum. (Most museums will be hard pressed to provide a strategic plan – even if they have one. It’s usually filed away where no one can find it). If they agreeably provide these to you that says a lot. Review the financial statement with an accounting-savvy friend, preferably one familiar with nonprofit statements. Is there an unqualified letter from an accounting firm in the financials? Does the museum have reserves? Are they spending more each year than they are earning? What percentage of the budget is going to fund raising or management? Hopefully most of the budget is dedicated to delivering programs and exhibits for the public.

Talk to the staff. An institution in decline vibrates differently than one that is successful. Staff on a sinking ship are on edge. Some may be filling multiple positions; some may be filling job applications elsewhere. They know things are tight and it wears on them. Any museum can go through periods of economic distress. For some, economic distress is just the way they do business. They lurch from one problem to the next. It never gets better and then, when the economy tanks, it gets worse. Don’t be there when it does.

Sign up for our newsletter!