Saturday, March 28, 2009

Movie Attendance is Up, Why Are Arts Orgs Failing?

It began with a simple tweet,* "@Afine one in ten arts orgs are on the brink of collapse but movie attendance up - is this a marketing problem?"

The result was three blog posts (here, here and here), numerous comments and a great in-depth, online discussion regarding the business models of arts organizations.

But many people involved in the discussion all came to a very similar conclusion: arts organizations are on the brink of failure because they do not listen to their communities.

Brian Reich, one of the commenters on Allison Fine's blog opines of arts organizations:
...they don’t ask the audience what they want, or try to understand how to fit their work into the busy lives of the people who they seek attention from. They measure success by the amount of money raised or open rates on their email and not the inspiration they offer, people they feed, or happiness they bring. That simply won’t work.

Non-profit social media guru Beth Kanter in her blog responded by suggesting that perhaps what arts organizations needs are social capital impact studies to accompany economic impact studies. Her commenters then posted links to three models for such studies: the MLA London Knowledge Transfer Programme, the Center for Creative Community Development (with a case study from Mass MOCA) and the U-Penn Social Impact of the Arts Study.

What I particularly like about the C3D model is that they offer organizations tools for "evaluating and articulating impact." I wonder if this is a little like an AAM self-study.

But what I find really troublesome about this whole discussion is that sentiment expressed by Brian Reich and shared by so many that arts organizations (this includes museums) are failing their communities by refusing to acknowledge them. The Excellence and Equity report was produced by AAM in 1992. That's more than 10 years ago! I know that change happens slowly, but I would have liked to think that museums at least would have stepped up to the plate more by now in terms of not community inclusion and participation. It should be standard by now in museums: find out what matters to your community and address that!

Which brings me back to a topic that I just can't seem to shake these days: if it is certain that roughly 10% of arts organizations will fail, if it is certain that a portion of those failed organizations will be museums, should we as museum professionals take action to ensure that those museums that are addressing the needs of their communities be spared? Will the museums that aren't meeting the needs of their communities simply be culled through a process almost like natural selection? Should AAM aid in the culling by changing the standards and criteria for accreditation to better reflect the future needs of communities rather than the perhaps out-dated assumptions we have about what museums are and do?

These are some hard questions in many senses, but I think they really do require examination.

*For those not up on their social media lingo, a "tweet" is what you say on Twitter.

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