Money Makes the Museum Doors Open: Museum Funding 101

funding, fundraising, development, museums

Inspired by those protesting the Brazilian government following the fire at Brazil’s National Museum, Marabou thinks its a good time to talk about museum funding and how it shapes the way museums function. Because museum funding varies country by country, Marabou is going to focus on the American museum model for this post. But first, some further background on why people are blaming the Brazilian government for the fire.

It is currently estimated that 90% of the Brazil National Museum’s collection of 20 million specimens/objects/fossils has been lost. The public is claiming the Brazilian government failed the museum by continually decreasing its funding, leading to a building that was structurally on its literal last legs. Without proper funds, staff could not maintain quality standards as expected for a museum of its caliber and size. The Guardian reported that the museum’s budget was around $130,000 in 2013 and by this year had fallen to $84,000. In comparison, New York’s American Museum of Natural History’s (AMNH) 2017 operating budget was $175,000,000 according to their 2017 Annual Report. A director or senior VP of fundraising in a New York City Museum may make an annual salary equivalent to Brazil’s National Museum annual budget. In short, the funding for the National Museum was nowhere near enough to save the institution from ruin, whether by fire or a slow and steady deterioration. So, Marabou asks, who should pay to sustain our museums? Whose responsibility is it?

In the United States, most museums are non-profits and receive a mix of funding: public (federal, state, city), and private (foundations, corporations, individuals). The amount of money given to a museum will vary depending on the institution as well as the size of their Development Department. “Development” is a museum’s fundraising department. Looking at the breakdown of a museum’s development department provides a quick way to understand the museum fundraising process. First, the department will be broken down into sub-departments: Government, Foundations, Corporate, Individual. Depending on the size of the museum and the department, you may have further breakdown within Government and Individual Teams:

  • Government
    • Federal
    • State
    • City
  • Individual
    • Major Gifts (big time donors, including board members)
    • Membership/Patrons (Patrons are the same idea as membership, but higher donations with more museum benefits)
    • Annual Fund (raising money for yearly operating budget)
    • Special Events (galas, luncheons, etc)
    • Planned Giving (when people leave money to a museum in their will)

Development Departments are essential to museums in the United States. There are many people working to make sure museum lights go on and employees get paid. The smaller the museum, the smaller the development team that has to tap government, foundations, corporations, and individual sources. Seeing how much work this is, it is clear why smaller museums sometimes suffer – the development team is stretched too thin.

Since there are entire certificate programs dedicated to non-profit development, Marabou is going to provide a brief overview of where each development team looks for money.

  • Government: will work with federal, state, and city organizations that offer grants relating to the museum’s programming. Ex: The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The funding provided by government organizations will vary depending on the political climate and budgets.
  • Foundations: obviously will tap into foundations, but they can be as large and famous as The Rockefeller Foundation and The Ford Foundation (you’ll see these two names mentioned often on the “Brought to You By” montages shown on public television stations.) There are also small, family foundations and interest-specific foundations.
  • Corporate: This team brings in money from businesses of all sizes – from Bank of America to regional retail stores. This funding can cover overall museum support or sponsorship of events and exhibitions.
  • Individual: The Individual Giving Team is usually the largest (if a museum is lucky to have a team for each sub-department of development). For most museums, Individual Giving is where the most money is raised. Individual giving includes big players like board members. In an economically sound board structure, all board members will be required to give an annual minimum. Board members are expected to bring in friends, foundations, or businesses who will also give money to the museum. This means friends will buy a table at a gala, become a patron, or donate to an upcoming exhibition fund. All forms of fundraising require the ability to build and maintain relationships, but for individual giving, this is especially important. Planned Giving  encourages people to leave money to a museum that they will no longer visit because they’ve passed on. A fundraising dream is to move someone paying at the Membership Level to the Patrons’ Circle and have them continue increasing their donations as time goes on. Marabou finds the work of individual fundraising exhausting and gives people who do it a lot of credit.

Once a foundation, business, or person wants to give money to a museum, there are usually two ways the funds can be allocated: restricted or unrestricted donations. A donor may “restrict” the money they give and say it must be used for a certain purpose, such as for an exhibition or a specific museum program. Unrestricted funds can be used for anything, normally this money goes toward operation costs. Looking at how many players are literally investing in a museum, these players will want to have a say in what the museum does. The bigger the donor’s check, the louder the voice. Although we may not always see it from the outside, the funders are exercising a lot of influence on how a museum is run, from the exhibitions and content to outreach and audience development.

When walking through large museums, especially encyclopedic ones or natural history museums that cover everything from ocean life to minerals, there is often a difference among the galleries. The more dramatic differences can often be attributed to funding. Of course, every museum would like each curatorial department equally funded, but that is rarely the case. Donors want to put their name on something they’ll be proud to be associated with, something interesting to everyone such as a topical exhibition. If the development team is raising money for one exhibition on dinosaurs and one on minerals, you can bet most donors are going to put their money toward the dinosaurs. It can take years to raise money for an exhibition and if that money isn’t raised, then an exhibition likely won’t get fully developed and installed for the public. Now, in the grand scheme of things, dinos winning out over minerals isn’t a big deal. Let’s instead create another scenario where an exhibition about Latin American artists of the twentieth century and an exhibition about European Impressionism (of which there are have been numerous) are both in development at the same museum. Which exhibition will have its fundraising goal completed first? Well, it depends. Who is being solicited for funds? What are those donors artistic preferences? Which art are they, the donors, more interested in seeing? There are many facets to answering which exhibition will get funded first, but Marabou brings up this example because the issues of representation, inclusion, and equity in museums are not just curatorial problems. They are problems that stem from board member and donor influence. If the people giving the money are the ones influencing the decisions, how are museums supposed to represent, reach out and appeal to marginalized populations that don’t have the money or influence to buy into the decision making process and express what they want to see in a museum. Donation sources can also determine if a museum speaks out about a political or social issue. It’s important to ask, what are the political leanings of the board? What is a big corporate sponsor’s stance on a touchy social issue? So much has to be considered when a museum makes a statement or presents an exhibition because the wrong move can result in the loss of funding.

The next time you visit a museum, Marabou encourages you to take a closer look at the donor wall; read the names. Usually you’ll recognize at least a few names and will know that person’s political and social views. If you don’t recognize a name, google the name of a top donor. See what you find. The next time you see an advert for an exhibition or are in the exhibition space, look at who has sponsored it: business, foundation, and/or individual. Look up the sponsors. In short, Marabou says follow the money. Donors are giving much more than money to a museum. The more money someone gives, the more influence they likely have:

  • in museum programming
  • in who works at the museum (nepotism and fundraising go hand in hand)
  • in organizational structuring, and in who else will be giving big bucks to the museum.

If a museum is perpetuating one narrative or the same old story, don’t just look at who has curated the show, but also look at the donors who have funded it.

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