Making molehills out of cliffs

Great (albeit harsh) thoughts from Adrian Ellis on the present and future state of museums in this economy. He posits that business of museums internationally has been shaped and hewn in service to the ultra-rich, leaving the institutions particularly vulnerable to the whims and toils of that constituency. Says Adrian:

These institutions have been significant beneficiaries of the growing
and, to many, morally indefensible disparities of wealth throughout the
world. It has left them heavily reliant on, and overly attuned and
attentive to, a narrow constituency whose long-term appetite or
capacity for support is highly questionable. The sector has come to
rely disproportionately on the very wealthy, and on the role that
museums can play as mechanisms for the translation of wealth into
status, and status into power.

The steep contribution curve (with the vast majority of all money coming from the tip-top few) is therefore in need of a softer slope, in the form of more, smaller donations. Problem is, the arguments for supporting the arts among the very rich don’t resonate particularly well with those who might join the smaller donor crowd. And it will take museums (and other cultural institutions) some time to retool their rhetoric.

Adrian also suggests that minor alterations won’t suffice, even though radical reconstruction will be difficult for conservative boards and defensive leadership. Although desperation may be the mother of innovation:

The alternative to the open-minded exploration of radical alternatives
is a sombre one, in which the energies and ingenuities of the sector
are devoted increasingly to the support of a dysfunctional
pseudo-mission: that of maintaining appearances at any cost, even if
the museum becomes a sort of “living dead” organisation, in which any
capacity for aesthetic or intellectual endeavour is sacrificed to the
goal of keeping the institutional ego protected.


  1. says

    Wow, that’s some tough love from Mr. Ellis.
    In the past, some arts fundraising staff may have felt that the ROI on cultivating anyone but the super-rich was too small to justify.
    I’m guessing one reason for the smaller return is our tendency to want to use one message for everyone. And for expediency, that message tends to be whatever resonates with the wealthy.

  2. Teryn H says

    I think the best way to attract smaller, less wealthy donors is to make museums feel like they belong to those people. Non-profits are supposed to be available not for the owners but for the good of the community.
    Sometimes museums are not welcoming for the community. They may seem too uppity or stuffy. They seem elite. That can be a turn off for less wealthy people for two reasons. First, they assume that the museum is already getting enough support from the rich. And second, they may not feel like their contributions would mean anything because they would be “small.”
    If museums want to attract more donations from lower income brackets they need to tailor parts of the museum experience to those people. Unless visitors have a connection with a museum they will not want to donate to it. Simple things can be done to build connections between the prospective donor and the museum. For example, creating more interactive exhibits is a simple way to get visitors engaged in *using* the museum regardless of how rich they are.
    Museums must also make sure to show donors what their donations do! Make it known that each dollar counts!

  3. Leta Willcox says

    I think that part of the reason that museums only recieve a few large donations as opposed to more numerous but smaller donations is that museums tend to scoff at small donations. For instance, I know of a small museum which encourages donations, but you can’t even become a member of the museum ‘friends’ for under $5,000 a year. Most people, especially in today’s economy, can’t afford to give away that kind of money even if they want to. As a result these people don’t donate anything because they feel that the museum wouldn’t accept or appreciate it. If museums want more patronage from a large group of people they need to let people know that every little bit counts and that it’s important to them. But they shouldn’t make them feel as though a small amount doesn’t matter to them; it only hurts them in the long run.

  4. Charlotte says

    I think that every donor, no matter how small, needs to feel like his or her gift is valued. Obviously board members and other wealthy patrons are going to give the most money, but that doesn’t mean that not every gift matters.
    I worked at an arts organization who had specific events for smaller donors (and even a young professionals fund raiser) so that these people could come together and not feel overshadowed by the huge donors. I think that this was a good way to acknowledge the small donations, and make them feel just a worthy as the bigger donors, since most people think that the wealthy people get invited to special events.