The Future Looks Grim: “Museums and the Pulse of the Future”

by Corinna Kirsch on July 19, 2012 Opinion

In the future...

Museums are dealing with higher taxes and dried up federal funds, and the future doesn’t look much better. So says TrendsWatch 2012: Museums and the Pulse of the Future, a report just released by the American Association of Museums (AAM). It’s a good, important read for anyone interested in seeing how museums have been dealing with the economic downturn, and how they’ve been using technology to help buffer the financial strain. Some of the AAM’s recommendations are still fairly new to conventional non-profit wisdom—like using Kickstarter to fund collections. Overall, the report asserts that museums are  becoming more self-reliant in generating income. One thing is certain: museums are entering a new era.

This new era includes an expanded online presence. Getting the public involved online has been taking place in exhibitions—like the Smithsonian’s online voting for which video games to include in its 2011 Art of Video Games exhibition and more recently, with the Brooklyn Museum’s Go, opening this fall—as well as with fundraising initiatives, like Kickstarter projects and mobile giving campaigns. The idea behind bringing in the public through online engagement is fairly standard: the more people feel involved online, the more inclined they’ll be to enter into the museum IRL. But Kickstarter and mobile giving campaigns enter a different realm of public engagement, one directly based on the simple fact that museums need more money.

The AAM sees museums’ increased reliance on broad-based giving as a new necessity. Due to the economic downturn, accepted models of funding with grants and foundations aren’t so reliable anymore:

In the past, threats to nonprofit status that arose during financial downturns faded as the economy rebounded. Museums can’t take this for granted. Their fate is tied to the rest of the nonprofit sector, and the current economic crisis may be fundamentally reshaping public attitudes and public policy about supporting nonprofits. If this is true, museums have to find new financial models for sustainability. (Page 10)

All this sounds like giving up, and it puts the responsibility for change on museums, instead of putting pressure on governments, foundations, and their own board members. Until the old ways of fundraising have gone away entirely, it’s not time for museums to wave a white flag, not yet.

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