Monday, November 30, 2009

What’s Innovation Look Like? And How Do You Measure It?

A few weeks ago, we used this space to invite museums to participate in the Nonprofit Listening Post Project at Johns Hopkins University. Reminder: the LP Project is a national research initiative designed to identify the challenges facing the entire nonprofit sector, including cultural organizations, human service agencies and community development groups. The LP Project also highlights solutions to the challenges. Now there’s a brand-new blog about the Project and its findings.

And it’s not too late to participate in the next LP research sounding, which will look at both problems and solutions. Here is what Lester Salamon (one of the country’s leading experts on the nonprofit sector) and his team at Johns Hopkins have to say:

The Obama Administration has indicated an eagerness to support programs that “work” and to promote “promising innovations.” But it is far from clear what it means for programs to “work” or how this can be demonstrated. Moreover, in the quest to identify these “promising innovations,” most attention has been focused on private businesses and new social entrepreneurs, rather than on traditional nonprofits. But as the results of our previous surveys demonstrate, there is far more innovation and creativity in the nonprofit sector than is widely recognized.

The purpose of the next LP Sounding is therefore twofold: 1) to document some of the innovation that organizations such as yours have been pursuing; and 2) to assess how you gauge the success of your programs. In the process, we hope to identify some of the barriers to innovation, and to the scaling up of innovations, that you face. We hope to share the results with the White House Office of Social Innovation
—the federal office charged to help mobilize volunteers, to catalyze partnerships between nonprofits, foundations and social entrepreneurs, and to foster an environment that nurtures nonprofit success and innovation—and with a broader audience.
So, do you think your museum is innovative? Are you feeling outside pressure to evaluate and measure what you do? Do you want to help museums have a voice in the nonprofit sector? Then think about turning your museum into a Listening Post.

For more information, contact Hillary Belzer at Johns Hopkins University: or Philip M. Katz at the American Association of Museums:

Monday, November 23, 2009

Towards a New Mainstream?

When we talk about the CFM forecasting report Museums & Society 2034, this figure always makes museum folk sit up and take notice.

Changing composition of America (U.S. Census Bureau/Reach Advisors)

It dramatizes the growing disconnect between the population of the U.S., which is becoming increasingly diverse culturally and ethnically, and the core audience of museums, which continues to be mostly Caucasian. In only a few decades, our society will be “majority minority.” California, Texas, Hawaii ,New Mexico and the District of Columbia have already achieved this status. What does this presage for museums? Can we continue to go about our business, hoping that new audiences will come to know and love us? Do we need to change the way we think, talk, hire and plan in order to establish our relevant to diverse audiences? Or are we evolving towards a post-racial America in which the major challenge will be reaching the tech-savvy, highly engaged “myCulture” generation, whatever their ethnic and cultural heritage?

On Wednesday, December 9th LA Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez (author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America) will help us explore these and other questions in the 2009 CFM lecture. The lecture will take place at 6:30 pm, at the Embassy of Canada in downtown DC. Attendance is limited, but we would love for you to join us—please RSVP to to reserve your seat.

If you can’t attend the live lecture, fear not! We will webcast it on Wednesday, January 27th at 2 pm EST. The webcast will be accompanied by moderated chat rooms, and Mr. Rodriguez will join us online for Q&A. Watch the CFM website for registration information and a discussion guide to the lecture.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dialogue Centres—Wave of the Future?

This week’s CFM guest blogger is Robert Janes, editor-in-chief of Museum Management and Curatorship, Chair of the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley and former president and CEO of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada. (Hence the spelling of “Dialogue Centre.”) This post is adapted from Robert’s recently published book Museums in a Troubled World in which he explores the meaning and role of museums as key intellectual and civic resources in a time of profound social and environmental change.

“Although much has been written, and much said, about the role of the museum as a forum, or the more fashionable museum as agora, little has been done to consciously nurture the visitor’s active participation apart from the passive consumption of museum services—exhibits, shops and restaurants. Museums might consider departing from their preoccupation with exhibitions, and replace or augment them with a dialogue centre.

The model I have in mind is the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada part of Simon Frasier University. The Wosk Centre describes itself as “an intellectual home and an advocate for dialogue.” At the Centre, practitioners, researchers and students of dialogue probe the nature of dialogue—that process of interaction whereby open-minded discussion leads to mutual understanding and positive action—and they nurture it in practice. The Centre has ergonomic seating for 154 participants and is arranged in concentric rings for maximum interactivity, with each desk equipped with technology to enhance dialogue.

A dialogue centre is also part of the Science Museum in London, and is a stylish, purpose-built venue designed for experimental dialogue and ‘blending of the best from science, art, performance and multi-media to provoke discussion and real engagement with the key issues of the day.’ Activities at the Dana Centre include stand-up comics debunking science myths, updates on radical research, and handling sessions of rarely seen objects from the Science Museum’s collection, as well as debates on modern science. State-of-the-art digital facilities link the Dana Centre with anyone who has online connectivity, including mobile phones.

A dialogue centre is a tangible focus for visitor interaction, and could even be used to explore the future of museum exhibits from the visitors’ perspectives. This is an opportunity for the rhetoric about museums as ‘forums of public discussion and safe havens for dialogue’ to actually assume tangible expression. It is highly unlikely that public space in museums, no matter how monumental it is (and there is more and more of this space every year) will ever produce much more than admiration and fatigue. Visitor interaction, as idealized in the forum/agora aspiration, is not going to happen with people standing around as passive observers. Museums are one of the few public institutions that can assume leadership in nurturing active visitor involvement, and dialogue centres are a means to this end. Dialogue centres are a commitment to the future and one which all museums should seriously consider in their renovation or building plans.”

CFM Addendum: notes on dialog center-like activities in U.S. museums

Giving Voice: A Role for Museums in Civic Dialog cites a number of examples of museums using space and programming to promote dialog.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has invited opposing sides of the garment industry together to listen to an educational program and then discuss all sides of the issue.

The Brooklyn Museum Elizabeth E. Sackler Center for Feminist Art has a “presentation space to promote dialogue and exchange about the exhibits and related issues represented in the galleries.”

The new Center for Civil & Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia will not be an “artifact-driven museum”, but rather “a nexus for dialog and understanding about the universal struggle for civil and human rights.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bidding War for New Museum

Back in May I fantasized about a future in which cities bid for museums, competing with offers of support and location, in order to attract valued cultural amenities. Now this is is actually happening in California, where Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and an anonymous contender are vying to be the location of Eli Broad's new museum.

I'm not sure whether this is quite what I had in mind--this article reports that "Broad would be paying for all but a small percentage of the design and construction costs" while Santa Monica is offering to pony up about $1 million towards construction, and offering a lease on the site for a "nominal amount." Still, it's kinda nice to see cities trash talking each other in pursuit of cultural amenities. Maybe the next step will include courting organizations that aren't bankrolled by billionaires..

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

You Get What You Measure

Two watch words often thrown about regarding the future of museums are “transparency” and “accountability.” The former is getting easier and easier to achieve—what excuse is there, really, for not having your museum’s audited financial statements, institutional plan and key policies available on the web? Heck, you can put the institutional plan up as a wiki document while you are writing it, and call for comment. You can even put your budget up as you are writing it, ditto.

“Accountability” is thornier because it entails some common understanding of “accountable for what and to whom.” On the face of it, it seems quite reasonable to demand accountability from nonprofits. If a museum is asking for public support, it should be able to report that it is doing some public good.

The problem is that the very act of measuring and reporting on a person or an organization changes their behavior. You get what you measure, and this can have unintended consequences. Just look at the No Child Left Behind act, which many feel have gutted art education, sports, music and many other “extras,” not to mention diverting attention from fostering reasoning or creativity, in order to “teach to the test.” Even in schools that don’t game the system outright by lowering standards, or trying to transfer underperforming students to someone’s classroom or school, or providing students with test results (i.e., cheating) this has a stifling effect on a well-rounded liberal education.

So what are some of the measures proposed for museum accountability, and what effects might they have on museum behavior?

• The classic measure leading the annual report is attendance. This is not as easy as it sounds to measure, but gives some intuitive indication of how many people are exposed (and potentially benefit from) the museum’s content. On the other hand, as a measure of success this has being accused of fueling growth for growth's sake and “pandering to the lowest common denominator.” Indeed, some museum people dream of limiting museum attendance to provide the kind of private experience usually only enjoyed by staff. (Or at poorly attended museums.) I seem to remember that when Emily Rauh Pulitzer, the founder of The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts was planning her museum in St. Louis, she dreamt of limiting visitation to 50 people per day.

This article suggests we give weight to dwell time. Traditionally measured by exhibit evaluators or docents through laborious observation, it is now technologically possible to track a visitor by a GPS signal or RFID tag using their phone or other mobile device. The classic citation is that the average museum visitor spends 3 seconds in front of a work of art (does anyone even know where that statistic comes from?) Is longer always better? Might it encourage long label copy, requiring people to puzzle through reams of wall text? And how do you weight intensity? Being blown away by Michelangelo’s David for 10 minutes may form a life-long memory, while playing with a museum interactive for an hour may be quickly forgotten.

• Some museums brag on the number of exhibits (temporary and permanent) mounted in a give year. This may be a measure of staff creativity (and energy) but does it necessarily benefit the audience? Staff often presumption that changing exhibits fuel repeat visitation, but I know from many, many years of reading MAP and Accreditation Program self-studies and reports that this is not always true. And if most visitors only comes once or twice a year (no matter what the exhibit schedule) how do they benefit from the resources used to create a more ambitious schedule? Could valuing number of exhibits in and of itself burn resources without leading to more public benefit, while leading to staff exhaustion and burnout? (Not to mention tapped-out sponsors.)

• Another popular measure for the annual report is collections acquisitions. As you may know, I have long argued with respect to collections plans that more is not always better. Collecting more stuff may gratify curators and donors without necessarily benefiting the public commensurate with the resources (space, supplies, time) eaten up by new acquisitions. But using acquisitions as a measure of success inherently values more stuff over more nuanced values of the good derived from collections.

• Many people feel that the gold standard for accountability is measuring outcomes in some way, shape or form. Surely this is the ultimate solution to answering the question “how is the world different because your museum exists?” IMLS promoted this approach to measuring success of museum projects when it adopted Outcomes Based Evaluation (OBE) about a decade ago. This approach, since quietly abandoned, required museums to track changes in knowledge, attitudes, behaviors or life conditions of the audience. While it sounds great at first, such measurement quickly becomes both challenging and problematic. Challenging because many of the potential outcomes would only emerge in the long term, and are hard to track and measure. Problematic because it values concrete measurables and (by implication) devalues experiences that fuel open-ended imagination and inspiration.

• Here’s one that I haven’t seen actually used, but is certainly reasonable given the current economic climate. With museums (and other cultural amenities) more and more often being touted as economic drivers, isn’t it reasonable to track the actual effect? Financial Return on Investment would report on much revenue is being generated for the community for the money invested in the museum. Put aside for the moment how tricky this is to track, and how easy to fudge. If this becomes a major measure of accountability, won’t museums be driven to value visitation by non-local audiences over their own communities? (And wouldn’t museums then be vulnerable to public support being diverted from museums to other organizations that can show they bring a larger economic ROI?)

In a future shaped by an expectation of greater accountability, it behooves museum practitioners to choose measures that we feel are appropriate and can be implemented without disproportionate investment of resources. So weigh in—if your museum had two choose three measures to report on each year, in order to be accountable to the public, what would they be?

Friday, November 13, 2009

A New CFM Resource

In case you haven't noticed, CFM launched an e-newsletter a few weeks ago. Edited by AAM's Asistant Director of Research. Phil Katz, Dispatches from the Future of Museums presents weekly content on trends, projections, museum innovation and tools for the future. The latest issue includes links to articles on the new Irvine Foundation report on trends shaping the social sector, demographic data on the Baby Boomers, forecasts from the travel and tourism sector and a creative program at the Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wis. that helps Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers through art.

You can subscribe to Dispatches here.

And before you write to me and comment: yes, Dispatches has advertising. Tasteful and appropriate advertising, we hope. This generates a bit of income to offset AAM's operating costs for CFM. (Museums aren't the only nonprofits in search of new business models!) We appreciate our advertisers' support, and hope that you check out their goods and services.

If you have suggestions for items to include in Dispatches or in the Research Roundup, let us know. Phil can be reached at

Friday, November 6, 2009

2009 American Life and Culture Report

Back in April, we encouraged CFM readers to participate in a new study of cultural consumers, the American Life and Culture Survey. (AAM was a co-sponsor of the project.) The preliminary results of the survey have now been released – and they show that “cultural consumers curate their lifestyles to make ends meet and keep life meaningful.” Plus, they keep consuming even when the economy is suffering.

The research was led by Patricia Martin of LitLamp Communications. She and her colleagues pay particular attention to the generational shift in cultural activity that was also explored in CFM’s report on Museums & Society 2034: the Millennial generation is composed of creators, engaged in composing, writing, making and using social media to share their creations, while Boomers are still predominantly consumers of cultural experiences and collectors of art. They find that while both groups spend an average of more than 3 hours a day online, Boomers are more likely to be seeking information than creating content.

Here are some of the “take-aways” from the report:

• The best way to engage the creative cultural consumers is by linking to their existing pursuits, provide participation platforms that that give them the opportunity to be recognized for their work.
• Cultural consumers value health and the environment, and are willing to pay more for products that fit their healthy, green criteria.
• While cultural consumers in general value the use of collective revenue for efforts that increase knowledge, they prioritize K-12 education and public libraries as amenities that should be valued and publicly funded, while viewing support of public universities and museums as personal choices that should be left up to the individual.
• One good piece of news for museums is that cultural consumers are highly politically engaged. More than 90% stay up to date with political news and vote. That makes them valuable potential advocates for museum-friendly policy and funding.
• Ninety percent of them agree that arts and cultural organizations help to keep the local economy strong and to create growth.

The report is intended to help marketers understand the cultural values and social dynamics that are driving consumer behavior. It’s also designed to spark discussions within the cultural community, where some people may be surprised (or intrigued) by Martin’s argument that “cultural consumer’s attitudes reflect the core American beliefs in the power of the individual, the value of a good education, and the possibility of success.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Making the Most of the Traditional Business Model

Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of CFM has encouraged me to share some insights from my experience as director of the Children’s Museum of Richmond (CMoR) in dealing with the current economy. Elizabeth has confirmed my feeling, based on conversations I’ve had at the Association of Children’s Museum’s national conferences, that CMoR is a leader with regard to earned income. Our earned income makes up 72 percent of our operating income, compared to a median of 48 percent for children’s museums generally, and puts us well into the 90th percentile of earned income for museums overall. I brought our assistant director of marketing to the conference in April—she attended a session on “new and unique” earned income possibilities and came away stunned that we were already doing every one of the ideas shared, plus many more. We have to be entrepreneurial with earned income because, as you will see, the other traditional sources of support are even more challenging for us.

We have a non-profit sage in Richmond, a former board member of my museum, who advises most of our significant local organizations on strategic planning. He is a former Fortune 500 CEO who got much more interested in non-profits, and teaches at both UVA and VCU Business Schools. He tells all of us who run non-profits to strive for “forward funding” – defined by him as not spending your unrestricted contributed income in the year it is raised, but rather raising it – and then being able to budget it for use in the next year. Of course, the challenge is to make it one year without those funds so you can use them the next year. We can’t do it currently – not even close.

Fund-raising is hard for museums right now. I hear from donors pretty consistently that they are moving gifts away from “cultural” institutions and instead investing in organizations that provide food and shelter. We try hard to make the case that if young children don’t have places to play and learn, they won’t be the creative people we need in the future to help solve the world’s problems. It is a good case, but it doesn’t have the immediate impact in some donors’ minds of feeding a starving child or healing a sick child. My board chair has heard enough from donors with this perspective that he has concluded the best way to steward the donors we have is to leverage their support by squeezing every possible earned dollar we can from those who use and benefit directly from our services. Our donors express strong appreciation for this approach. Now, if we want to raise money for capital projects, particularly new exhibits, everyone steps up and we have very little challenge here. It is the operating support that proves difficult to raise. So we have been borrowing from the university model and asking for “scholarship” support directly to offset admission for economically disadvantaged children. The response seems to be much stronger to the case for expanding “access” rather than supporting operations. This is a win-win solution. We are happy to have more children-especially those who rarely get an experience like that we can provide, and the scholarship support drops to the bottom line as soon as a child has a visit. The donor feels great that a specific child had an enriching visit they would not have had otherwise thanks to their support.

My organization does not receive any government support either. We get one $30,000 grant from an arts consortium that is funded by several area municipalities, but we are on notice that that program will probably not survive next fiscal year.

These challenges, plus the culture of my board of trustees—full of young entrepreneurs who don’t have fund development connections and experience—have put increased emphasis on our earned income. I have a strong internal staff capacity in marketing that has proven to be very creative and effective in devising new products that people seem quite willing to pay for – for example, layering in extra benefits and selling higher priced memberships. We are also exploring a “sibling strategy” of leveraging our brand to offer a smaller version of the museum in areas where the demographic density of our visitor profile is much higher.

As I scan the horizon, I can see where the pressures we are experiencing are likely to impact other organizations like ours. The steps we are taking will hopefully position us to thrive in the future. Because we believe strongly that children need to play in order to learn, and families need to know how critically important learning opportunities outside of a traditional school setting are to building creative, life long learners. But if we can’t make payroll – that mission can’t be fulfilled.

I hope that we, as a field, can keep this conversation going. I am thrilled to know that CFM is looking ahead at these issues and more.

Karen S. Coltrane

President and CEO
Children's Museum of Richmond
2626 West Broad Street
Richmond, Virginia 23220
804.474.7033 direct