Friday, November 7, 2008

Before You Start A Museum, Read This.

We've written previously about the closing of COSI Toledo (here and here) and the issue of sustaining a museum once it opens.

I'm happy to report that on the third try, the voters of Lucas County have passed a 5 year tax levy to provide support (read cold hard cash) to COSI Toledo.

This gives the fine folks at COSI Toledo (that's the current name, but it sounds like that might change soon, as they distance themselves from COSI Columbus) a little breathing room to restart and continue building ties to the local businesses and schools.

However, this tax levy brings up a dirty little secret about museums: they don't, or can't, generally support themselves on earned income --- museums need constant infusions of cash (via endowments, tax levies, generous donors, government grants, or winning lottery tickets.)

Well, o.k., the lottery tickets are a slight exageration, but really the odds of starting a museum that continues to grow, expand, and thrive (as opposed to constantly struggling and becoming shabby) strictly on earned revenue, are high odds indeed.

That's the part of the story that never comes up when the feasibility documents with the rosy budget and attendance figures are passed around. That doesn't mean that new museums shouldn't get created, but you better make sure your source(s) of outside cash are firmly in place.

What do you think? Should anyone try to start (or restart!) a new museum in today's economic climate? Let us know in the "Comments Section" below.

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  1. Building a museum is like making the down payment on a house. Keeping it going is like paying the mortgage-which has to be done month after month. So many expansions and start ups get into trouble because of unrealistic projections. I'd say that even if the outside sources of funding are in place, they could slip away and might need to be re-thought. The only things that are absolutely certain are that earned income is not going to sustain a museum, and that it is a continuous process of invention and re-invention.

  2. I think that starting a museum is a lot more like getting a restaurant off and running rather than a house. It's a complex manifestation of communication + consensus, intelligence, innovation, and vision. A few months ago I cornered Chuck Howarth in our office and asked him "what makes a great master plan" when starting out. He had some useful insights that I posted.

    We are working on a new museum project and helping them create their legacy. I see so clearly that it's the culture you establish (and better nurture) that is more important than the building.

    As for your question about whether it's a good idea to launch something now- I'd sure hate to hear "no". That said, the economic climate means people will work harder, and hopefully smarter when starting out. Which hopefully insures a better result...

  3. I'm currently in the final stage of launching a children's museum in a midwest area that has no children's museum within 100-miles.

    My team and I have explored our options and decided to go "for profit" route rather than non-profit for one major reason - it compels us to operate within best practice standards and avoid the "charity" mentality I see too often in my visits to museums around the country (US).

    Unfortunately the children's museum sector is now "big business" in that too many musuems are trying to build out exhibits which they have no business attempting given their budgets - the consultants taking big fees, the builders overpriced and at the end of the day for nothing more than needing hand-outs from the community for something many museums should have and could have done without. Instead they could have invested their resources in exhibits children actually use and enjoy!