Monday, March 17, 2008

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.

No comments: