How to Raise the Money You Need to Run a Thriving Museum—While Preserving Your Independence
The director of SculptureCenter proposes a few best practices at a time when it's never been more expensive to operate a cultural institution.
It’s never been more expensive to run an art museum than it is right now. From rising everyday costs for shipping and insurance to the growing need for programming that expands beyond the confines of the gallery space, the resources required to serve our communities are swelling by the day. Meanwhile, foundation support for the arts has declined, and donors who do give have adopted increasingly specific criteria. They are simultaneously seeking transformative change and measurable results.
The result of these colliding factors is that museums are under unprecedented pressure to develop new and sustainable revenue sources to fulfill their missions. In doing so, however, they must explore entrepreneurial strategies for generating income without compromising their role as informed, fair narrators of cultural history and arbiters of cultural debate.
This challenge has no easy, one-size-fits-all solution. The right path can look very different depending on an organization’s mission, its assets, and its community. But the perception that a museum’s programming might be driven by any individual donor’s agenda or its own interest in growth and expansion erodes the public’s trust.
Over the past few years, several articles have pointed out that a disproportionately large number of solo exhibitions in major American art museums have gone to artists represented by a small handful of galleries and that commercial galleries are increasingly funding museum exhibitions of work by artists they represent. There is a legitimate concern that the artwork exhibited, collected, and canonized will be preselected by the commercial market, or at least appear to be. This trend tends to concern large institutions that work with established artists represented by established galleries—the kind that can afford to foot the bill for exhibitions.
With regard to smaller institutions, we might make a case that the role of the commercial sector in supporting the non-profit sphere is to be lauded. In many cases, especially when done through benefit events and annual gifts (as opposed to exhibition underwriting), it reflects a recognition of the important work these smaller organizations do for the larger art community—identifying experimental art practices and supporting artists well before they have built an audience or secured gallery representation.
How, when, and for what purpose support is given to an institution—regardless of its size—and how that support fits within a larger fundraising plan can make the difference between a perception among audiences of undue influence and a healthy engagement with the entirety of the art ecosystem.
How We Fund Our Work Matters
If museums of all sizes are to grow into our increasingly complex roles as stewards of material culture and platforms for cultural discourse and bring our audiences along with us in that journey, two things are critical.
First, we must conduct our fundraising in ways that preserve our curatorial independence on which the public trust depends. Second, our fundraising activities need to work in concert with, and not compromise, our values as an institution. At SculptureCenter, the non-collecting contemporary art institution in Long Island City where I serve as director, we’ve given this subject a lot of thought. Based in New York, where the commercial art market dominates so much of the conversation, we are committed to providing artists a space outside of that market to create and present new work.
The growing normalization of gallery support for museums is part of a larger shift in arts funding—and philanthropy in general. Individual donors increasingly expect to see direct and visible impact of their gift in the short term. This might take the form of a renovated gallery, increased attendance, or positive press coverage.
Of course, no one should be expected to part with their hard-earned money without an understanding of what that money will accomplish. But funding that is narrowly targeted at an individual project and the practice of measuring a gift’s impact over a one- or two-year period ignores an important reality about art: It often reveals a context or a condition that we don’t immediately recognize. This makes it difficult to measure the impact of truly innovative art in the short term.
The initial unpopularity of artistic movements such as Impressionism or Cubism are often cited as examples of this. But often these things play out in more subtle ways, like when a young artist has the opportunity to show for the first time or take a new direction in their work. This may not bring in crowds or even any reviews, but it might be the difference between the next Andy Warhol giving up their art career completely or soldiering on. An out-of-the-box exhibition like the incredibly influential “When Attitudes Become Form” in 1969 led its curator to Harald Szeemann to resign under pressure, but it eventually changed the way we think about the role of a curator and an exhibition.
For this reason, general operating support is the lifeblood of museums and helps to ensure artistic risk-taking and independence. This kind of funding is the least glamorous and often the least appealing to donors, but also the most essential. It can be put toward whatever is most needed with no strings attached, whether that is light bulbs, health insurance for the staff, or a small programmatic experiment.
Rules of Engagement
Responsible fundraising is not a one-way street. Regardless of whether funds are unrestricted or designated for a specific project, an institution’s fundraising methods should always re-enforce its mission and values.
It seems obvious, but it’s worth saying that no donor should have influence over the curatorial and programmatic decisions of a museum. SculptureCenter is a non-collecting institution, so our exhibition and education programs are the core of our identity. Over the past 15 years, we’ve come up with a few simple guidelines that ensure our curatorial decisions are made independent of our fundraising activities.
- Bring the audiences you care about into the discussion.
The decision to include important constituencies in your organization’s governance structure can help hold you accountable. In our case, this means artists participate on the board. SculptureCenter was founded by artists and their presence and perspective on all aspects of our operations helps to ensure that our activities, including our fundraising, are in keeping with the way we want to engage and support the artist community.
- Share information appropriately.
Curatorial staff only shares upcoming exhibition information with the board or potential donors after shows are confirmed and scheduled. The board still exercises oversight and has healthy conversations about whether the program is fulfilling our mission. But these discussions happen after the fact as an evaluative exercise—not a prescriptive one.
- Transparency is key.
Transparency—internal and external—is critical. Exhibiting artists, curators, board members, members of the fundraising team, and ultimately funders all need to know what the funding plan looks like for a given project. We make sure to list funders clearly on all exhibition materials and on our website. If a donor requests anonymity, all parties need to be comfortable that the reason for anonymity is unrelated to any potential conflict of interest.
- Money isn’t always the most important thing.
Our annual spring benefit, Lucky Draw, is one of our most important fundraisers—but it also illustrates how institutions have to make difficult decisions in order to stay true to their values. For the event, approximately 220 artists donate artworks. The same number of guests are invited to select a work of art in the order their names are drawn by lottery. At Lucky Draw, all of the artworks are “sold” for the same price. A Richard Serra print or Carol Bove sculpture is presented alongside a work by an emerging artist unknown to 95 percent of the art professionals and artists in the room. There is no doubt that we could raise more money and ask fewer artists to contribute if we turned this event into a silent auction. And it’s fair to argue that we are leaving money on the table by not getting top dollar for that Richard Serra. But by keeping the event more like a raffle, everyone has the chance to go home with a great work and the proceeds are raised through a collective effort of the artist community. This kind of support is consistent with our values of inclusivity and our focus on bringing attention to under-recognized artists. The event is aligned with our mission and celebrates the spirit of the community in which we work.
This approach, which I think of as “mission-aligned fundraising,” enables our institution—and others who choose to follow similar guidelines—to build authentic relationships with all of our constituents: artists, audiences, and donors. It also enables us to stand behind our program with confidence, knowing our decisions have been made independently.
We are living in a volatile moment in which political and cultural debate often happens at a fever pitch and museums are negotiating their position as sites for proposal and dissent. In the midst of this, all of our activities—from exhibitions and educational programs to, yes, fundraising—must reflect our core values if we are to maintain the trust of the public.
Mary Ceruti is the executive director and chief curator of SculptureCenter in Long Island City, New York.
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