Thursday, December 23, 2010

Where Might the Boston PILOT lead us?

When I leading forecasting exercises, helping people to question assumptions and imagine alternate futures, one scenario that participants repeatedly create is one in which museums no longer have nonprofit status.

Why does it come up so often? Because imagination, encouraged to run free, often turns dark, and this scenario strikes at the heart of who we are as a field. It not only points out the vulnerability of our financial model, it threatens our identity. Is there a potential future in which museums’ value as community assets are not tangibly valued through tax exemption, and people’s support of museums is not rewarded with deductions?

Probably, yes, this future exists in the cone of plausibility. One good indicator of its potential is that we see the early signs in the present. For example, President Obama’s deficit commission recently recommended the charitable deduction be eliminated and replaced with a 12-percent tax credit (available to those who had donated a certain percentage of their income.) While the final vote fell short of that needed to formalize the recommendations and send them to the House and Senate floors for an up or down vote, the 11-7 tally for the plan demonstrated substantial support for this approach.

Another example that has been quietly growing for years is the pressure on nonprofits to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes. (Note the ominous acronym PILOT—implying this phenomenon may be leading us into the world to come.)

Yesterday, the Boston PILOT Taskforce released their report with recommendations on how the payments should work in that city. Here is a good article covering the story.

Skimming the report, here are a couple of the things that struck me:
• One of the models the Taskforce considered (and rejected) would have calculated payments based on a fixed rate multiplied by the number of museum visitors. Such models are used elsewhere, designed primarily to apply to hospitals and colleges, where the “units” are beds and students, rather than visitors. What a nightmare that would have been, given that our sector has no standardized way to record admission numbers! And it would penalize museums that subsidize admission and do a good job of attracting robust audiences.

• The formula the Taskforce created for suggested payments is based on the value of city services (police, waste collection, etc.—set at 25% of the property value, since these services eat up 25% of the city budget). Against this, they propose to offset the monetized value of the benefits that a nonprofit provides to the city. Red flag! Flip to that section of the report: sure enough, the benefits so valued have to be ones the City would “support in its budget if the institution did not provide it,” and must be “quantifiable.” Why do I have a bad feeling that museums are not going to be able to make the case for having the benefits they provide to the city recognized in this way? (An instinct supported by the reference to the time the taskforce spent “reviewing the community benefit submissions by the major colleges and hospitals.” Did the museums not even try? I know that major colleges and hospitals are big compared to most museums, but still, the MFA is listed in the report as a property owner on par with some of the smaller city colleges such as Simmons and Emmanuel, and hospitals like Beth Israel Deaconess and Brigham and Women’s.)

I freely admit I am an amateur in tax law and city finance, and I welcome your collective wisdom to interpret developments such as the Boston PILOT program. Do you see other early indicators of threats to the public support we have grown accustomed to? Should we prepare for a future in which we have to quantify our value to society in order to earn this support? Please, weigh in.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Path to Sustainability—Working Together

This is part two of an essay by Sarah S. Brophy, co-chair of AAM’s PIC Green. You can read part one here.

For the museum field, the way to close the distance between activities like Seafood Watch and our present-day reality is to take the green team model from single museums and apply it to institutions: groups of historic houses, museums in design stage, children’s museums, or all the ones in the eastern part of the state. Build on the best concepts from the very valuable Green Museums Initiative of the California Association of Museums, or Chicago’s Climate Action groups, museums, hotels and restaurants, and work in a focused way to learn together and achieve together.

The Block, Peoria’s Riverfront Park didn’t happen by itself, it took The Lakeview Museum, Caterpillar Inc., Peoria officials and voters to get this huge green revitalization project going. And it started with someone reaching out. So ask your peers to help you convince museum suppliers to develop greener options; when you’re looking for more storage space, ask area museums first what their needs are. Band together for energy audits and weatherization en masse to learn together, save money, and make a greater environmental impact. Your neighbor may be having trouble getting started, too.

Making a Difference

I believe that museums must not become complacent. As community members, charitable institutions and educational resources, museums have a responsibility to behave sustainably, and to actively encourage others to do so. But I realize many people believe there is no need to change our present behaviors – individually or institutionally – or they believe that museums should not be advocates for environmental sustainability or any other issue. This is where the concept that “green is local” applies. That’s shorthand for saying green is highly situational. A good green decision for one museum may be totally inappropriate for another.

Programs like Seafood Watch, on a proportional scale, should be part of most museums’ strategic horizon, but that scope is appropriate only for museums with much experience in environmental sustainability, and the capacity to support such large-scale impact. Green goals will be different for smaller or younger museums, history or art museums, and ones in cities and ones in the country. The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden will be the model for reclaiming abandoned mine landscapes. Montgomery County Historical Society arranged an energy audit; SFMOMA has an amazing program combining art, food, San Francisco Bay, fisherman, scientists and community sites all around sustainability and food; and Strawbery Banke hosts community gardens, and promotes sustainable gardening.

Into the Future

Whatever you do, tell your family, staff, volunteers, members, board members, colleagues, neighbors, funders, suppliers and critics all about it. Explain what you’ve done, what you’re doing now, and what you’re going to do in the future. Then there’s zero room for criticism. There’s also zero opportunity for complacency: the journey unfolds ahead, for you, the public and other museums.

Seafood Watch didn’t start at every seafood counter in Whole Foods. It started with a wallet card at one aquarium. Then it grew. And then other zoos and aquariums joined the team to increase the impact. Seafood Watch can’t be effective at creating sustainable fisheries if the Aquarium doesn’t tell the public and all the rest of us all about it.

Thank goodness they do talk about it because their example gives the museum field a glimpse of the future.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Path to Sustainability—Just Get Started

This week’s guest blogger, Sarah S. Brophy, is principal of bMuse and co-chair of AAM’s Green Professional Interest Committee (PIC Green). Part two of this essay will go up later this week—stay tuned!

Earlier this month the CFM Blog looked into environmental sustainability in museums. Elizabeth asked if ‘good’ is ‘good enough’ or does the planet need each museum to do much more to truly help meet carbon-cutback goals or any other environmental impact goals? She commented that recycling is good and important, but that simple good activity might lull us into complacency; and that The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeaFood Watch program is really what we should emulate in our work.

I agree – almost. I believe fervently that those of us who can, must; but that it’s honest and reasonable to say that many of us have a long way to go to achieve that impact. To get there the rest of us must
  1. just start, no matter how small, and
  2. recognize that green is a team sport – doing it together has that bigger impact we need.
Museums are community resources. Our communities need many things right now, and increased environmental sustainability is one of the most important needs. Thankfully, it’s something museums can become very, very good at. Ten or fifteen years from now our new museums will be Living Buildings, existing buildings will be far more efficient, museums standards will have baseline sustainability practices in all areas, and all the staff, volunteers and visitors will speak green as a first language. Most museums will offer whiz-bang projects like the Seafood Watch/Whole Foods partnership because most museums will be very good at mission-critical work that simultaneously involve environmental sustainability, visitor engagement, and managing technology and media formats to achieve multiple internal and external goals.

For most of us, the way to close the distance between activities like Seafood Watch and our day-to-day reality, is to just get going any way we can. Start from where you are, and with an idea that you want to get someplace else. Educators know to meet visitors wherever they are – at the museum or in the community, as new learners or scholars, with opportunities for contemplation or engagement. Let’s use that lesson to start green practice wherever we can right at this moment: double-sided printing, an alternative to vinyl banners, choosing local food for events, or taking the Smithsonian’s SITES exhibit on environmental sustainability. Then take the next step and the next.

Since green is addictive, you’ll just keep going. Recycling leads to composting and banner recycling; composting leads to research into waste-to-energy, and banner recycling triggers more sustainable banner design; the city and the energy provider join you in creating a community waste-to-energy site, and the banner project becomes a local artist opportunity and then a fundraiser for each exhibit. Along the way you gain knowledge, partners, supporters and good will, and it all began the day you started recycling.

Green is a journey, not a destination. You never ‘arrive’ because one green deed leads to another. Later this week I’ll offer some suggestions on how to take the first step along the road.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Culture Kettle, my new R&D organization — What’s in it for museums?

This week’s guest blogger is Peter Linett, Partner in Slover Linett Strategies, Inc., and member of the CFM Council.

Elizabeth Merritt was kind enough to give Culture Kettle a shout-out in this blog when I announced its founding back in October. She and I share an interest in all things innovative in the museum field, and she’s been an ideal provocateur and connector as I’ve developed this startup.

What is Culture Kettle? You can read more about it in my own blog post last week, although as you’ll see the concept is still coalescing. In a nutshell, it’s a new organization dedicated to R&D in the cultural sector. The “R” will be exploratory research studies that ask new questions about how arts and culture experiences work — and more importantly, could work — and for whom. The “D” will be the development and testing of new approaches, sometimes radical ones, with real audiences on an experimental basis. Those audiences will be conscious participants in the experiment, partners in the exploration and evaluation of new possibilities. Not all of those possibilities will work, of course; R&D runs on failure as well as on success. The idea is to close the circuit between research and innovation so we create an engine of new knowledge about people want to engage with cultural content.

By “culture” I mean more than museums. Later this month we’ll announce Culture Kettle’s first Innovator in Residence, someone who’s a visionary voice in the classical music world. We’ll also work with innovators in the museum field, of course, and have already benefitted from the wisdom of several great thinkers and do-ers. As some of them have pointed out, there’s already a good deal of innovation going on around the museum community, some of it in well-established institutions and some in “indie” venues and ventures led (mostly) by a younger generation of museum practitioners. One function of Culture Kettle could be to help document and evaluate those experiments — using new methods and asking new questions that fit the spirit and intentions of those experiments better than traditional evaluation approaches do — then aggregate and extrapolate from those findings and share the evolving picture with the field.

But there are also questions I’d like to investigate that aren’t currently being tackled by others. So we’ll develop some projects from scratch within the Kettle. That doesn’t preclude us working with creative museum people and risk-tolerant museums, although in some cases we’ll want to install an exhibit in a rented space rather than an existing museum — a storefront, an empty factory, a black-box theater. Working on neutral ground may have advantages in terms of both the preconceptions that audiences bring to the experience and the freedom that museum professionals bring to dreaming it up.

The conceptual freedom of museum people and institutions is on my mind a great deal these days. This is not a question about creativity, by the way. You can have all the ideas in the world but operate in an environment that licenses only certain directions and degrees of exploration, and tolerates only certain kinds of risks. There’s a reason that Peter Greenaway’s “Last Supper” vision, a multi-media, immersive, and theatrical installation currently at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, isn’t at the Met or MoMA. It breaks most of the unwritten rules of museum display, such as the one that says art museums offer direct, unmediated encounters with authentic works of art, the “real thing.” (There is no authentic object in Greenaway’s installation, at least not in the usual sense; Leonardo’s masterpiece is an obvious digital replica.) And the rule that says it’s the museum’s job to get out of the way of the artworks, interpreting them as unobtrusively and objectively as possible so that it’s the artist’s vision the visitors see, not the vision of the installation’s creators.

What if we took this Last Supper not just as a provocation about Leonardo’s masterwork but as a provocation about art museums? For years I’ve been wondering why museum curators, who often allow artists to come in and transform the gallery experience completely, rarely give themselves the same license to work intuitively, creatively, subjectively — the freedom to make it strange and therefore seen and felt afresh. In Culture Kettle, we can find out what happens when curators, exhibition designers, and other museum professionals work like artists, or rather play like artists.

That’s just one of many questions I’d like to stir around in the Kettle. I’d love to work in the science and history domains as well as art (although art may play a role in those projects, too). I’d love to tackle issues of participation, spirituality, politics, anger, humor, sex, and irony (something rare in museum exhibitions but essential to other forms in our culture). I’d like to play with exhibits that fall under no museum’s mission purview, because there’s more to life than what’s covered by the traditional museum categories of art, history, science, natural history, living collections, and so on, and exhibits could be a powerful expressive medium in other realms. (Experiment: open your favorite general-interest magazine, say, the New Yorker, and imagine each article as an exhibit.)

If any of this strikes you as exciting, please consider this a call for cronies and collaborators. I’d love to hear your ideas and suggestions: post a comment below or drop me a line.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Visit from the Loan Officer

For a decade or more I've had the privilege of co-authoring an annual Xmas poem with Sally Shelton, collections manager of the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and John Simmons, principal of Museologica. This year we look at a potential future in which St. Nick has transitioned into a higher paying profession, and pays a visit to our fictional museum in his new capacity. May it not come to pass....

So, without further ado, led by red-nosed reindeer with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver Futures! We bring you... the Loan Arranger!

On the night before Xmas, throughout the museum

‘Twas totally quiet, a damn mausoleum;

The offices empty, except for our claimants,

All because, gosh, we were late on some payments.

(OK, so we’d stretched when we took that last loan,

But it was so easy! Just pick up the phone,

And voila! A mortgage so big and so splendid,

More money than any trustee comprehended.

It bought us a curvy new Gehry addition

The pinnacle of our director’s ambition.

But now, stroke of midnight, the loan had come due,

And I knew that our mortgage wouldn’t pass peer review.

Hark! There was Loan Santa, cigar in hand,

Over the rooftop, preparing to land.

Skidding across our titanium curves,

I heard him cry out with great gusto and verve:

“Now Buffet! Now Volker! Now Merrill and Lehman!

Come on Fannie Mae! On Greenspan, and Krugman!”

Out he leapt, landing square on his Pucci-clad feet

“Hallo,” He called out “I’ve come straight from Wall Street!”

“Fear not!” he continued, “I’ll not let you default,”

And plunged down the vent with a grand somersault.

Scrambling inside I found him in collections,

Tallying objects, noting his selections.

The fluid collections provoked an epiphany:

“These could hasten your early return to liquidity!”

He poo pooed taxidermy; the conclusion was tacit:

Preserved with arsenic they were—toxic assets.

The fossils were tagged for early foreclosure

“We’ll sell them,” he cried, never losing composure.

“In China I know that they’ll fetch quite a penny,

So don’t ask which ones, just ask me ‘how many?’”

He explained that auctioning New Guinea weaponry

Would help to defray that negative equity.

He enthused over panthers whose shipment was pending:

“Now that’s what I call predatory lending!”

He gathered our registrars, deployed in swarms,

And put them to work auto-signing his forms.

“I know” he observed, “You’re all working part time”

“You should have been leery of that term ‘sub-prime.’

Curators linked arms, defending the vault.

“Oh really,” he sneered, “would you rather default?”

I cried that his moves were moral abrogation

“Nonsense,” he demurred, “financial innovation.”

“Would you rather have squatters lay claim to your foyer?

Be sued by your broker, not to mention your lawyer?”

And opined, packing specimens into his crate

“You should have avoided ‘adjustable rate’”

When the shelves were all bare, file cabinets empty,

The museum pillaged from attic to entry,

He brushed himself off and leapt onto his sled

Checked the straps, grabbing one last axe head.

Looking me in the eye he sagely concluded

“Its your lust for grand space that left you denuded”

I heard him cry out, fleeing into the night:

“Here’s my advice to all--next time rent it outright!”

--Elizabeth Merritt, Sally Shelton and John Simmons wish that your holidays will never be sub-prime.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Hard Look at Sustainability, Part I: How Pretty Good is the Enemy of Good Enough

Since CFM first gleamed in AAM’s eye, I have had fascinating discussions with members of the Association’s Green Professional Interest Committee (PIC Green). After all, if we don’t figure out how to live sustainably, the future looks pretty bleak, right? After much thought, I conclude the most helpful role that futures studies can play in the dialog is to help people envision what futures their actions might create, extrapolated out to decades hence. That (after all) is when we find out whether the green steps we have taken are both appropriate and sufficient! So, this is the first post in a series designed (as my friend Pinky says) to “gently poke your brain” and encourage you to take a fresh look at what we think we know about green.
What could be bad about these little, everyday, sustainable actions?
  • Recycling office paper
  • Banishing bottled water from your vending machines and installing more water fountains
  • Turning up the thermostat for AC in collections storage by 2 degrees
  • Composting your food service waste
“Nothing,” (I bet you are saying), “these are all good things!”

Yah, they are pretty good. But are they good enough?

The problem with small, good things is they can make us feel good. And feeling good can make us complacent. Complacency can keep us from assessing whether what we are doing, overall, is enough to achieve the intended effect. Like stopping global warming, or reducing human-generated environmental toxins. Or (big picture) building a healthy, sustainable, equitable society that will still be here in a few hundred years.

I’m not arguing museums shouldn’t do these small, good things. I am saying that we in museums should consider, before diving into a recycling program or putting solar panels on the roof, the effect we want to have on the world, and assess how and whether our actions, overall, help reach that goal.

Reality Check!

How do we assess how we are affecting the future with the steps we choose to take? One way is extrapolation. Remember the classic admonition from childhood: “don’t do that! Just think, if everyone did that then….

Yah, just think…
If every museum in the United States turned off one office computer each night and over the weekend, the weekly savings in electricity costs for the country would be around $15,000 (a rough estimate using Department of Energy
statistics and assuming a typical cost of 10¢/KWH).
That’s about 195 thousand lbs of CO2.

To meet President Obama’s goal of reducing US carbon emissions 80% by 2050, the nation has to shed about 4,670,705 thousand metric tons a year.

Suddenly I feel small and powerless.

Before museums feel too good about our efforts to save energy, we should remember that, with only 20,000- some museums in America, the cumulative effect of what we can do is still pretty small.

But—(cue optimistic, upbeat music) collectively we serve over 800 million visitors annually, and that’s not counting the people who access our information over the web. If we can change their behavior…now we’re talking impact. Then the question becomes, how can we influence their behavior? What actions can museums take that effectively catalyze the crowd?

That’s a tough question to answer, but I’m pretty sure some of the factors that need to be weighed are:

  • Are our “green” actions visible to the public, and do we explain how and why we do it? Modesty isn’t a virtue when you are trying to set a good example.
  • How many people will we reach? Are we targeting a programmatic audience, all visitors, the broader physical community, or (potentially) any user of the web?
  • Is the behavior we want to encourage simple and doable enough to overcome people’s innate inertia, or (alternatively)
  • Is it fun and compelling enough to get them to do it anyway?
  • Will the sum total of behavior change significantly improve some aspect of societal/national/global sustainability? This could be through direct action (installing solar panels, choosing sustainable foods, driving less) or indirect action (donating to causes, supporting policies, voting for candidates.)
Case in Point
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s
SeaFood Watch program is a fantastic example of influencing huge numbers of people to make everyday choices that improve the sustainability of aquatic systems. Poor food choices have contributed to the near-extinction of many species (Chilean Sea Bass), collapse of entire fisheries (the Grand Banks), and created new threats to water quality (commercially farmed salmon). In 2009, Americans consumed 15.8 lbs of seafood per capita, for a total of 4.833 billion pounds. Since MoBA’s program is disseminated via the web, text messages, and a really cool iPhone app, it can influence not just its 1.8 million annual visitors, but users nationally and internationally who may never visit the museum. So (to measure it against the criteria above):
  • It is highly visible and accessible
  • It reaches tons of people
  • The behavior it encourages (ordering off a menu, making a purchase at a grocery store) is very low energy
  • It is both fun and compelling
  • The sum total of its effect is potentially very significant.
What about the rest of us?
“Sure,” I can hear you say, “give me $50M a year and I’ll change the world, too!” But I believe you don’t have to be a huge organization like MOBA to have a significant impact on your community. One of my absolutely favorite environmental activist organizations is a pretty small nonprofit called
Kanu Hawaii. With a budget of ~ 300k it has mustered almost 13,000 people to make personal commitments to “sustainable island living,” by creating a vibrant social network that functions both virtually and in the real world, and is visible, doable, fun and compelling. (I particularly love that they project the cumulative impacts of the commitments their community members have made.)

I would love to write up “small can be effective” examples about museums integrating “green” into their operating principles. I do know of a lot of individual projects like installing
solar panels or wind turbines, building green storage facilities, or helping other museums integrate green practices into their exhibit development. But I don’t enough about all the good green things being done in our field to profile them as they deserve. So here’s my challenge to you—tell me about what your museum doing to make us, as a society and a species, more sustainable. How does your suite of activities stack up against my proposed criteria? What is your goal for cumulative effect? Write in and share…

If you are interested in the work of PIC Green, please contact Luke Leyh at for general and membership information. And be sure to check ‘PIC Green’ on your AAM membership renewals.