March 12, 2013

Failing Museums: Endowment versus Engagement

Two recent news stories highlight “lack of endowment” as the reason for the failure of two very different museums, the Higgins Armory and LA's Museum of Contemporary Art. 

The Higgins Armory, in Worcester, Massachusetts, has struggled for several years and just announced that they would be closing their doors and transferring their collections and what is left of their endowment to the Worcester Art Museum. A statement from the board says that the "Higgins’ biggest challenge is our lack of a deep endowment."

LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) has been in economic trouble for several years. They are now in discussions to merge with the LA County Museum of Art. The museum's explanation for their problems? "there's nothing that a hefty infusion of endowment cash could not solve.” (LA Times article)

From my (admittedly distant) perspective, The issue is not lack of endowment, but lack of engagement with the museum’s potential supporters, ranging from visitors to major donors. Both museums have failed to address the fundamental question that people ask when asked to give up their money, whether it is $10 for admission or $10 million for endowment: "Why does this matter to me?" 

It is easy to say “If only we had more money, we could do wonderful things!” It is much harder to say “We do wonderful things! Won’t you support us?” 

Any museum can keep its doors open if it has a deep endowment. Many manage just fine with hardly any endowment at all. It is easy to say “If only we had more money, we could do wonderful things!” It is much harder to say “We do wonderful things! Won’t you support us?” The real challenge is generating enthusiasm among many different constituent groups so that funding comes in from all kinds of sources, admissions, donations, and contributions towards endowment. "Lack of endowment" is simply the most convenient explanation, and one that shirks responsibility. 

I'd like to see these museums ask themselves "Where did we fail to engage people? What could we have done differently to build support?" Probing answers to those questions might not help the Higgins and MOCA, but they may help other museums that are struggling with similar issues.

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