January 28, 2009
Brandeis University’s decision to “boost endowment” by closing the Rose Art Museum has been met with shock and dismay. According to the Wall Street Journal, Tony Pals of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities called the move “the most severe cost-cutting step” a university has taken since the economic downturn. Who could disagree with such a statement? The collection itself is worth approximately $350 million dollars, according to Michael Rush, the museum’s director.
This situation is not, however, a first of its kind. Several schools, including Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia and Fisk University in Nashville Tennessee have resorted to such drastic measures in recent times. While Randolph College moved forward, after legal challenges were dropped, with the sale, the Fisk University situation remains in flux.
It is important for all museums and colleges/universities to be aware of the significant risks associated with such a tactic such as breach of contract actions by donors and allegations of charitable intent violations. At the very minimum, a museum must be fully conversant with donor contracts and trusts before undertaking a wholesale auction of its prized work. Rigorous deaccession policies and notice requirements should be implemented and followed by museums to help mitigate donor angst and donor lawsuits. I always recommend that donor agreements include certain language that would address a catastrophic event, such as a museum closing. Although this may not be an immediate concern at the time of the donation, the uncertain economic times call for heightened diligence. At the very least, you will have had the conversation with your donors about the potential for a catastrophic event, however unlikely.
In light of the economic crisis and the economic strain placed on donors and museums alike, now is a perfect time to review your donor contracts, deaccession policies and overall museum purpose. Such a review will not only help ease any latent concerns, it will enable you to adjust your documents and policies to meet the potential for a catastrophic event.
January 14, 2009
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal’s Leisure & Arts section (January 13, 2009) highlighted a novel approach to museum marketing and cultural branding. Italy has called upon the corporate world in an attempt to boost the visibility, value and customer satisfaction of visitors to Italy’s 464 nationally owned museums. Mario Resca, a corporate “self-described turnaround specialist”, has been tapped to improve the physical condition of Italy’s museums, improve museum interactivity and to “add value” to the experience of all visitors to the national museums. Sounds like a noble endeavor, right? Well, a 7,000 person petition, signed by curators of such storied institutions as the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has served as one of the welcome gifts for Mr. Resca. The concerns of his detractors and the petition signatories is that Mr. Resca will turn the museum collections into a “negotiable commodity” while introducing “a process of disposable consumerism” into the cultural history of Italy.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Resca does speak about “benchmarking” and certain business alliances, jargon which is often harsh and unusual in certain museum cultures. Additionally, Mr. Resca has indicated a desire to “make Italian culture a brand, like Ferrari’s Formula One racing team.” From a purely academic viewpoint, Mr. Resca’s ideas may appear to infringe upon what many feel is sacred about art and the function of museums: an escape from the consumerism into an aesthetic experience that serves to preserve our culture while stimulating our senses. From a practical and business standpoint, especially in light of today’s economic trials, Mr. Resca’s ideas may actually help to highlight the essential function of museums and custodians of national culture, while enhancing the overall experience of each and every visitor to a museum under his watch.
The results of this new approach are yet to be determined. It will be an interesting case study to watch to determine whether Mr. Resca can strike the delicate balance of preserving the sacred function of the museum while promoting and marketing the cultural heritage of Italy. Stay tuned….
November 14, 2008
The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today highlighting the opening of the Museum of Islamic Art, which is scheduled for next week. According to the article, the museum, which is situated on an artificial island in the Persian Gulf is aiming to establish itself as the “Met of the Middle East”. The I.M. Pei designed museum is slated to house an impressive array of artwork. The idea is to help build on the idea of art tourism and draw art loves to the island museum. One of the most daunting tasks for this new museum will be to catalog and properly display and care for the treasures that may lie within. The museum collection is largely provided as a result of an emir’s buying spree. The museum’s head of research noticed an 1,100 year old piece lumped in a crowded display case. She removed the piece to a more prominent location. The museum staff will be taxed to be completely organized by opening day, it appears. Time will tell. The full article appears in the Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2008, page W1.