Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Getty and Disney

The Getty just may be for museums what Disneyland is for theme parks. That statement is meant neither as an act of heresy nor as a slur but rather it is said with respect and awe. And this isn't about "edutainment" either; it's about the recognition that we live in an experience and transformation-oriented economy and making the most of that fact in order to be effective storytellers.

Think about it: what separates Disneyland from regular amusement parks? Disneyland is about more than just rides and attractions, it's about paying attention to every last little detail in order to create an entire cohesive experience. Well, the Getty does that, too, making it more than just a museum in the sense of being a place where one can go to see art.

The Getty Villa creates an entire environment for visitors to explore and experience, resulting in as cohesive a story as ever could be told be Disney! I was up at the Getty Villa last weekend and the Getty/Disney comparison really struck me when I was in the bathroom. A most ignoble of places to make such a realization, but still, the fact that the Getty had included Italian tiles in the bathrooms with wood doors and trim reminiscent of the rest of the decor throughout the Villa made me realize that there wasn't a single aspect of the Getty Villa experience that did not speak to its setting or the collections.

From the floors to the ceilings to the paint on the walls, every design element was clearly well thought out and intentional. For example, the walls in the Gods and Goddesses gallery are a pale sky blue, emphasizing the divine nature of the images in the room. Next door meanwhile in the Luxury Vessels gallery the walls are marble in a variety of deep, rich colors, heightening the sense of luxury and extravagance.

The Villa itself is a replica of the Villa Papyri, an ancient Roman home situated in the town of Herculaneum and belonging to Julius Caesar's father-in-law. The town and the villa were both buried during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, so architectural and design elements for the Getty Villa were also borrowed from other ancient Roman homes. Some of these elements include the peristyle with the trompe l'oeil frescoes along the walls, as well as the out-lying gardens where olives, grapes, pomegranates, thyme and other herbs, fruits and plants that would have been found in a proper Roman garden thrive in the Southern California climate.

The menu at the cafe makes use of Mediterranean flavors and themes and an outdoor amphitheater serves the dual role of hearkening back to antiquity while hosting performances and events.

You can even literally immerse yourself in the art, life and times of antiquity in the Family Forum. Here you can decorate a kratyr (with erasable marker) or pose yourself to be an image on an ancient vessel.

During my few hours of strolling through the exhibits and the grounds for a few hours noting how wonderfully every detail worked to recreate antiquity for me, I wandered into the Stories of the Trojan War gallery and noticed a copy of Homer's Iliad lying on a bench. Alone, I sat down and picked up the book, attached to a piece of Plexiglas that read, "Please do not remove from the gallery."

Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles...

Surrounded by helmets, statues and other materials that if not actually used during the Trojan War could have been used then, suddenly these words carried a great deal more meaning for me than they ever did when I had to read The Iliad back in college.

Feeling a quiet awe, I tiptoed up the grand staircase to the current special exhibit, The Color of Life. Most people today have come to think of antiquity as being very monochromatic--with the exception of the orange and black vessels, most architecture and statuary is pretty much just white marble. But that was not always the case and with the help of scientific pigment analysis, recreations have been made of some artworks as they would have looked when they were contemporary. What a riot of color! Vivid oranges and bold blues, patterns everywhere and animated eyes instead of the blanks we are so accustomed to seeing.

My reading of the Iliad in the Trojan War room and the Color of Life exhibit both compounded the already-complete experience established for me by the grounds, architecture and design of the Getty Villa. But what made my time at this "transformation" destination even better than a trip to Disneyland was the sense of authenticity. Yes, the Villa itself is a replica but ultimately that is just window dressing, a prop to set the stage for the real stuff--the artifacts that I saw in the exhibits: the gods and goddesses, the Trojan War era armor, the statues of the muses and Herakles, and the vases and statues with minute traces of pigment still visible to the naked eye.

All photos by Allyson Lazar 2008

CAM 2008 Session: New and Alternate Funding Streams for Museums, Maintaining Membership Revenues without a Building

Candace Pendergrass, Director of Membership and Public Information at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science was saddled with a tough question when her museum decided to close the building for renovation and expansion: what to do about the membership program?

Rather than freezing all memberships during construction she decided to keep on with the membership program--but that meant that she needed to find new benefits to membership since members couldn't visit the museum at all during construction, let alone for free. Candace and her team recognized that in order to minimize membership loss during construction they would need to be creative in adding value to memberships, they would need to stay in touch with their members and they would need to create easy ways for members to provide the museum with additional help.

Creating Added Value
Local businesses were approached and if they already had discount programs in place, they were asked if they would apply those discount programs to museum members. This resulted in the Club 1555 Discount Program for museum members.

The museum became a Smithsonian affiliate. This meant that museum members now enjoyed all the benefits of being members of the Smithsonian as well.

The museum engaged in several reciprocal membership agreements through the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), Western Museum Group (WMG) and local area cultural partners. In this way, even though museum members couldn't visit the Fresno Met, they could still visit other museums and cultural attractions for free.

Staying in Touch
In addition to quarterly newsletters and direct mail, the Fresno Met also made use of electronic means to keep in touch with their membership during construction via their website, weekly e-news and MySpace. Currently the Fresno Met has over 200 friends on MySpace.

Help Me Help You
In order to make helping the museum as easy as possible, the Fresno Met started offering a place on the membership renewal forms for an additional contribution. They also signed up on Good Search and Good Shop, Internet sites that donate a percentage of the proceeds from online shopping or searching to the nonprofit of your choice.

Ultimately, through all of these efforts, despite the fact that construction has been ongoing for three years rather than the anticipated one year, membership levels and revenue at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum have barely dropped.

Candace's presentation can be viewed here as a PDF.

CAM 2008 Session: New and Alternate Funding Streams for Museums, The Mother of All Rummage Sales and Hiring out Museum Expertise

Mark Medeiros, Deputy Director of the Oakland Museum of California, inspired the room with his description of the Oakland's annual White Elephant Sale--a garage sale to end all garage sales that attracts buyers from all over the Bay Area, nets in the millions and costs almost nothing to produce. The event is entirely staffed by volunteers and the warehouse where it is held was purchased years ago so there is very little overhead. And every now and then, real treasures get found in and amongst the sale items. Sometimes the Museum itself actually finds items for the collection through the Sale!

Mark also talked about a relatively new division within the museum called Professional Services. This division is essentially a museum consulting and exhibition development firm housed within the museum as both a revenue stream and a form of outreach. Properties such as large office buildings or civil spaces such as port authorities hire the Professional Services team to design and install exhibits or consult on collection and exhibition-related areas.

Monday, March 17, 2008

CAM 2008 Session: New and Alternate Funding Streams for Museums, The Importance of Financial Planning for Museums

Mike Warren, President and CEO of Turtle Bay Exploration Park, drew upon his years as a City Manager to offer these three recommendations for how museums can succeed financially. A PDF of his presentation can be found here.

1. Have a Three-Year (Minimum) Financial Plan.
Nothing is more crucial to the stability and success of a museum than sound financial planning. Too often museums make the mistake of thinking that because they are nonprofits that means that they aren't supposed to make money or focus on finances. Nothing could be further from the truth. Strong museum leaders must be able to read basic financial statements and understand basic accounting principles in order to ensure that the museum is financially sound and has adequate funding to support its mission.

2. Focus on the Endowment.
Revenues brought in through contributions and donations should go into an endowment rather than into a general fund that supports operating costs. This may seem counter-intuitive to a lot of museums, but it is a recommendation based on taking the long-view approach to planning rather than the short-term approach of trying to put out financial fires. A strong endowment will ultimately enable the museum to increase revenue through dividends and interest.

3. Diversify Revenue Streams.
Turtle Bay has a number of sources of revenue, including a variety of annual fundraising events, renting blockbuster traveling exhibitions such as Titanic or Body Worlds and soon they will be developing some of their vast property, most likely adding a hotel or other visitor services-oriented elements.

CAM 2008 Session: New and Alternate Funding Streams for Museums

I'll allow my bias to show for just a moment here and say that I was incredibly excited for my own session. Why? Because of the strength of the topics addressed by the speakers on the panel! In fact, even now, a few weeks post-conference, when I think about what Mike, Mark and Candice had to say, I get excited all over again. I remember when we were still in the planning phases for the conference and the four of us had a conference call how thrilled I felt as, after listening to each other talk about their respective presentations, the unanimous reaction seemed to be a deep interest in what the other presenters would be sharing.

For my part, I introduced the topic (a PDF of my presentation can be found here) by emphasizing the need for alternative forms of revenue generation. According to the 2006 California Museums Study produced by CAM, for that fiscal year, California museums expected a 3.8% decline in revenues despite the fact that museums in general had seen a 38.3% gain in revenues in the previous year. I then briefly described a few of the alternative revenue generation strategies that seemed to be enjoying some success in the nonprofit sector according to both the museum revenue generation survey that Orinda Group performed last summer and the ongoing research we have been doing in looking at alternative revenue streams and more specifically e-philanthropy (a topic I will be speaking on at the 2008 Western Museums Association conference in Anchorage this fall).

The three strategies I focused on were:

-- Partnering
-- Use of Collections
-- Web 2.0/Social Media

As I mentioned in a previous (live-blogging) post from the Re-Imagining the Museum session, Shawn Lum actually described two great examples of partnering and use of collections going on at the Vacaville Museum. Candice from my session had great examples of use of social media, too. But I also had my own examples to strengthen my arguments as well.

Respondents from the 2007 Orinda Group Museum Revenue Generation Survey (pdf) spoke in glowing terms about partnering with corporations to produce DVDs, videos and coffee table books and mentioned things like wonderful DVD sales.

The Boston MFA has already seen great success from its MFA Mobile program, a website that offers downloadable images from the collection for use as cellphone wallpaper. It is a paid service and apparently so far Monet's "Water Lilies" is the most popular download.

But what really astounded me was just how much use of social media has exploded in the museum world in just the past few months. When I was preparing my talk (pdf) on this subject for the Mountain-Plains conference in September, there were 180 museum profiles on Flickr, almost 5000 museum-related groups on Flickr, 100s of museums on MySpace, 1000s of videos tagged "museum" on YouTube and almost 4000 museum-related groups on Yahoo Groups. Facebook was not really much of a factor yet in the museum world.

Now there are over 200 museum profiles on Flickr with almost 7000 museum-related Flickr groups, over 4000 museum-related groups on Yahoo Groups and there are over 500 museum-related groups, over 500 museum-related events, 165 museum pages (organizational profiles) and 11 museum-related applications on Facebook. Museum usage of social media has universally increased in just six months. Wow. I look forward to seeing what the next six months will bring!

CAM 2008 Session: More Than Setting the Goal, Seven Steps to Reviewing Institutional Health

Museum consultant Gail Anderson discussed organizational life cycles and reminded the audience that museums, just like people, need annual health checks. What are some of the signs of a healthy organization? Transparency, consensus of purpose, good communication, an involved community and a solid bottom line are some of the symptoms of health, but there are others as well. Here were seven steps that Gail recommended for performing an annual health exam for your museum.

1. Bring in an outsider and have the staff make a list of what they consider to be attributes of a healthy museum and then rate from 1-10 where they feel the museum ranks for each of these attributes. Let three or so attributes rise to the top.

2. Track benchmarks in the timeline of the museum's history; patterns will emerge.

3. Step back, take all the staff off-site and ask how everyone felt the museum did in terms of reaching the goals for that year.

4. Learn to say, "No." Make a list of annual tasks and one of special activities and see what can be cut out.

5. Ask questions before considering taking on a new activity.

6. Track time in increments of 15 minutes--see where time is actually spent.

7. Finally, strong leaders are crucial for the health of a museum, but equally important are change-agents from within the ranks. Make sure that the museum has staff members who are willing to take up the banner for new initiatives and foster change and growth. Help these change-agents by giving them the support they need.

CAM 2008 Session: More Than Setting the Goal, Metrics

Leslie Perovich, Vice President for Marketing at the Discovery Science Center in Orange County spoke about the importance of the effective use of metrics in achieving success in museums. A PDF of her power point presentation can be viewed here.

Metrics are employed in every aspect of the Discovery Science Center--from employee performance to exhibits, the successful use of metrics has helped the museum to increase its operating budget from $2 million five years ago to its present budget of $9 million.

Staff compensation is based on metrics, with bonuses offered every quarter to those staff members meeting or exceeding their goals. Exhibit metrics consist of looking at the number of exhibits that are inoperable more than 5% of the time and less than 95% of the time in order to determine total exhibit availability. The number of and time taken to respond to and resolve all exhibit, computer and facilities requests are tracked.

Absolutely everything is quantified and all the numbers are transparent--all staff members are aware of what the numbers are and where they stand according to the metrics. This fosters a sense of accountability--quite the opposite of that culture of entitlement mentioned by Janice Lyle's friend--and results in everyone striving to do their best, perform at their highest potential and be as efficient as possible at all times.

Imagine That

It comes as little surprise that the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution will be an academician. Lawrence Small, the previous Secretary, held a background in banking, fitting nicely with the trend over the past decade or so of museums moving closer to running according to business principles. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, in fact, it is a move that I personally applaud. However, Small tainted the name of business in the eyes of the museum world through his extravagant spending and compensation. Thanks, Larry, for setting the museum world back a step or two.

But looking at the credentials of G. Wayne Clough, newly appointed Secretary and current President of Georgia Tech University (go Yellow Jackets!), I feel heartened and optimistic for the future of America's Attic. Dr. Clough has both a solid academic background (multiple degrees in civil engineering--a subject near and dear to my own heart since my grandfather was a civil engineer and my father works in that industry as well--and a long professional history of serving as a professor and administrator at top universities around the nation) and administrative and management skills. He has experience serving on national councils such as the President's Council of Science and Technology and the National Science Board. And, given the current state of the Smithsonian and Congress' recent decree that the Smithsonian needed to start raising some of its own money through fundraising, Dr. Clough managed to raise more than $1.6 billion in private gifts during his 14-year tenure at Georgia Tech. Welcome to the museum world, Dr. Clough!

CAM 2008 Session: More Than Setting the Goal, Combating the Spirit of Mediocrity and Culture of Entitlement

After her friend's declaration that the nonprofit world "tolerates a spirit of mediocrity" and has a "culture of entitlement," former Palm Springs Art Museum Director Janice Lyle wondered if these statements could be true and decided that yes, they were. But if museums want to accomplish anything, they cannot accept mediocrity nor feel entitled and everyone must "step up to the plate." But how then to combat these barriers to success? Janice emphasized the importance of creating priorities and follow-through. Selecting one goal as the sole priority will ensure that the goal is successfully--not just adequately, but successfully--met.

In order to really focus on a sole priority, everyone must be on board and the team must be comprised of dedicated, proactive problem-solvers with a focus on delivery of services to the public. The board must also both be on board and do their part. Many boards are too large and are populated with members who are there for social or prestige reasons rather than to accomplish goals. Demanding a (financial) re-commitment from the board with real consequences for inaction (such as removal from the board) can help to pare down boards to only those members who will serve the team well.

Janice also stressed the benefit for museums using a business model, stating that doing so forces museums to "look at the hard questions." Business analysis is "good and healthy" and critical analysis is crucial to success. Janice encouraged museums to "be bold" and "unflinching" in the face of difficult issues, to "look for the elephant in the room, paint it pink and learn to dance with it." This is how real solutions for real change can be implemented.

CAM 2008 Session: More Than Setting the Goal, Spirit of Mediocrity and Culture of Entitlement

Consultant and former Palm Springs Art Museum Director Janice Lyle led the session with a comment posed to her by a friend that the nonprofit world "tolerates a spirit of mediocrity" and has a "culture of entitlement." Janice wondered if this was true, but as soon as I heard those words, I knew I was in the right session. The largest single barrier to change, growth and success in the museum world is the organizational culture that stems from this tolerance of mediocrity and culture of entitlement.

I'll digress from the session for a moment to briefly state from where I believe these problems stem. As nonprofits, there is a ubiquitous sense of having to "make do" and "do without" based on the fact that there never seems to be enough money to adequately fund all of the programs, departments and initiatives that a museum would like to be able to fund. In fact, in tougher economic times, hard decisions must be made and as often as not, vital programs are cut or greatly reduced. Because of this, it is almost necessary that museums tolerate mediocrity--almost, but not quite.

Also as nonprofits, museums have been somewhat free from the market demands that for-profit businesses must face. Museums have been privileged to base programming on what they feel the public needs without much accountability and scoffing at the concept of a bottom-line. I use the past tense "have been" because this is no longer really the case, despite the fact that some museums may still be clinging to this sense that they are entitled to determine what the public should see and how visitors should use their museums. Somehow the word "should" often accompanies a sense of entitlement.

But beyond just this sense of museums that they are the holders of knowledge and know what is best for the public, there is also a sense of entitlement in terms of both money and their own existences. The concept of having to justify the existence of an organization in the nonprofit world is a foreign one, whereas in the business world it is simply part of the workday. Museums feel that they deserve governmental and private funds simply because they exist and are museums and in this day and age, that simply is not enough. Many museum practitioners may still balk at the idea, but this session really drove home the importance of recognizing that yes, museums are businesses, too.

Friday, March 7, 2008

CAM 2008 Session: Re-imagining the Museum in the 21st Century, Museums as Nodes

Vanda Vitali, Executive Director of the Auckland Museum, spoke about the importance of museums in the 21st century becoming nodes rather than centers. This idea is central to the strategic and information plans of Naturalis, the natural history museum in Leiden, Netherlands. According to Dirk Houtgraaf of Naturalis, in the past, Naturalis has been "a building with a collection and a network built around it," but in the future, it will be "a network organisation with a building and a collection."

The point that both Vitali and Houtgraaf are making is that museums need to focus less on what goes on within their own walls and more on what society needs from the resources and information that museums have to offer. As part of vast networks of information sharing, museums can do more to fulfill their missions and meet the needs of their communities--and the world--rather than as single, insular, individual institutions.

Similarly, museums in the 21st century should focus on concepts rather than exhibits. Too often exhibits are seen as end-products in themselves, rather than the concepts and information that they convey. If museums focus more on exploring the most effective methods for sharing the information that they hold rather than on how to turn information into exhibits, museums will serve an increasingly vital role in society as a whole.

Vitali and Houtgraaf have collaborated on a recently published book that addresses some of these ideas entitled, Mastering a Museum Plan.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

CAM 2008 Session: Re-imagining the Museum in the 21st Century and Improving Exhibits

Carlos Ortega of BRC Imagination Arts mentioned in his presentation for "Re-imagining the Museum in the 21st Century" six methods for improving any museum exhibition. Here is my take on his six methods:

1. Emotional Before Intellectual
Museum visitors respond to emotional pleas and resonate more with feelings rather than ideas.

2. Visual Before Verbal
One of the strengths of exhibitions as educational tools is that multiple senses and (not to beat a dead horse) multiple intelligences can be appealed to. If visitors really wanted to do a lot of reading, they could have just stayed home and read a book. Besides, every picture is worth 1,000 words.

3. Tell Less, Intrigue More
This hearkens back to the timeless writing advice: "Tell less, show more." Again, museum exhibitions are not and should not be text books. Besides, what better way to draw in your audience and really make them care than by adding a little mystery, wonder and intrigue?

4. Think Big
This stems from one of the basic principles of brainstorming: start big; you can always get smaller and more focused later, but it's impossible to start small and then grow an idea larger. When dreaming up exhibits--or engaging in any form of brainstorming--let your imagination run wild and do not automatically say "No" to any idea just because it seems too outrageous, impractical or, well, big.

5. People Like People--Use Them
Visitors are more engaged, more attracted to stories about people. After all, personalizing and humanizing ideas and concepts makes them more relevant to the lives and experiences of visitors. So use the story of a particular individual to help relate your exhibit themes.

6. Shorter Attention Spans
It has been said many times: we live in a bite-sized, snack culture. You can blame MTV for this if you like, but at this point it really doesn't matter why people have short attention spans; it's only important to know that they do. If you can't convey what you need to in the first paragraph, your message will be lost. (Yes, I recognize the irony of my typing this with my proclivity for long posts.)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Recap of CAM 2008

Last week was the California Association of Museums annual conference. This year it was held in centrally-located Fresno and three members of the Orinda Group executive team were in attendance. The evening events at the Fresno Art Museum and the Downing Planetarium at Fresno State were both well-planned and a lot of fun (not to mention with great food). Sadly, we missed the opening night event at Table Mountain Rancheria; apparently it was phenomenal.

I myself attended five sessions and chaired/presented at a sixth. In subsequent posts I'll speak about each one in turn, but for now I'll just briefly list them:

SESSION 1B: Web 2.0 (Part 1): What’s All the Buzz? Using New Technologies to Educate and Increase Participation
SESSION 2B: Web 2.0 (Part 2): Brainstorming the Possibilities
SESSION 3C: Museum Geeks: The Next Generation
SESSION 5C: New and Alternate Funding Streams for Museums
SESSION 7C: Re-imagining the Museum in the 21st Century
SESSION 8C: It’s More than Setting the Goal—Methods for Achieving Success

In addition to the sessions I attended, there was also a strong emphasis on how museums can "go green" in all areas of the field, from exhibitions and building to administration. The entire conference itself was "green" from discouraging paper hand-outs and encouraging downloadable hand-outs instead to offering attendees the opportunity to off-set their conference carbon footprint.