COULD IT BE True Of Your Museum Too?

I once asked Eric Siegel, the Director of the New York Hall of Science, why museums are innovative shining stars on the leading edge of culture seldom. He commented that as non-profits, “museums are built to survive, never to succeed.” Unlike startups and rock and roll superstars, museums aren’t organized to shoot for the moon and burn up trying. They’re made to plod along.

Maybe it is time to change that. Year Last, I met Mark Allen, the creator of Machine Project, an extremely cool “post-educational” space in LA that is part art gallery, part workshop space, part mad scientist party central. They host events like Dorkbake in which people design their own Easybake-esque ovens and then bake cakes in them. Next month, the space has been converted into a magic forest.

At one point, Mark commented that they have a “deliberately unsustainable” business model. Quite simply: do great stuff while you can, and when you can’t take action anymore, stop. This is the model that governs most businesses and creative endeavors. It’s the reason terms like “jump the shark” can be found.

Most companies, rock bands, and sports activities teams are only brilliant for so long. They begin to slide Then. Of course, the current financial crisis demonstrates what goes on when companies create artificial life support systems to prolong themselves far beyond their ability to provide great products and services. The unusual part of Mark’s declaration isn’t the acknowledgment that Machine Project will only can be found as long as it is pertinent and good; it is the desire to close up shop when the quality ends.

It’s incredibly uncommon for a business or company to get deliberate unsustainability. Most want to provide consistent jobs because of their employees so their families can be secure. They want to provide quality products that are reliable over the long term. They want to promise constant services that consumers can mortgage lender on.

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That’s why Television shows leap the shark. When they can, they’ll claw their way through as many months as is possible. The problem arises when the desire to sustain overcomes the desire to be awesome and more resources go to surviving than succeeding. That is abundantly clear regarding US automakers and banks, whose current arguments for financial support rest on the need to endure, not their ability to achieve success.

Is it true of your museum too? For some museums, awesomeness has never been area of the mission declaration or core services. Elizabeth Merritt from AAM wrote a provocative post the other day about the financial future of museums in which she suggests, among other things, that 20% of museums should be permitted to fail in the coming decades.

My observation, after thirty many years of working in the field, is that museums have an amazing ability to survive in the most adverse environments. They will be the stickroaches of the nonprofit world–sometimes it really does seem like you can’t destroy them with an atomic blast. More often than not some improbable deus ex machina saves your day: for example an urgent cash gift or a free building. Mind you, this often only saves the distressed museum from closure-it does not cure the fundamental dysfunction.

The museum may simply struggle along for another ten years prior to the next potentially fatal crisis. The underlying dysfunction that Elizabeth mentions is an inability to concentrate on anything but survivability often. To create it, museums need to survive AND succeed. These include jobs for employees and programs that address a societal gap not provided by other organizations or businesses. For example, maybe your museum provides job training for at-risk youth and your community depends on your consistent ability to do so. What drives people through your door, gets them thrilled, and links them with your articles passionately?