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Building Alliances and Strengthening Your Community Outreach: An Outlook on Alternative Funding Methods for Museum Expansion

Alexis Harden and Isabelle Montesinos

Two women on Zoom

L to R: Alexis Harden and Isabelle Montesinos on Zoom

In the United States, arts and culture institutions depend on a unique system of funding to achieve their visions for exhibitions and programs. Budgets are crafted around several channels of revenue including contributed income, government funding, and earned income. According to the 2020 Trends Watch report published by the American Alliance of Museums, art museums receive forty-two percent of their support from contributed income.1 However, government subsidies and earned income alone are sometimes not enough to sustain arts institutions. So what happens when museums rely too heavily on private philanthropy?  

Private donors, foundations, and corporations play an integral role in the longevity of arts and cultural institutions. Contributed income can have a significant impact on institutional behavior; a funder’s passion and money may influence decisions made by a museum’s executive board. In her Artnet News article on museum governance, writer Julia Halperin quotes artist Andrea Fraser who argues, “The fundamental problem is a system that ascribes to people with wealth a kind of entitlement to leadership and authority.”2 American philanthropy has created a hierarchical culture in which some museums are increasingly dependent on wealthy patrons to accomplish their programming goals.  

How can museums strengthen their relationship with the communities that visit their space and partake in offered programs?  

When museums are mindful of the narratives and contexts of their environments, they’re able to make fair and rational economic choices. Art helps us explore these contexts, generate new ideas, and create a blueprint for interpersonal and community development. Museums, in our vision, are the incubators of these economic and evolutionary processes. At the root of an effective and ever-developing relationship between institution and individual are transparency and visibility. Therefore, we believe financial accountability should stem from an open and equitable relationship with the community. When we give, in this particular fashion, we look to reduce some of the barriers that prevent awareness of a contribution’s trajectory and how it is recycled back into the community.  

However, establishing a loyal relationship with an individual constituent is challenging; it requires trust. Museums may find it difficult to build a network of individual funders at varying donation tiers who are committed to an institution's exhibitions and programming. Possible reasons for this disconnect could be due to a lack of acknowledgment or follow-up after a donation that indicates how the funds were used. Some constituents may think donations below a certain amount could be disregarded and unaccounted for, therefore potentially weakening the perspective audiences have of an institution and its ability to be inclusive. Persuading local constituents requires them to be invested in the museum’s mission—that investment can come to fruition if people are offered a governing role in that space. Over time, small amounts begin to grow and can provide a source of income for operations that foundations and the government may not fund. While boards are essential in the sustainability of an institution, loyal individual support can be crucial for a museum’s development.  

At times, suggestions for improvement can feel inaccessible and unrealistic because they lack an understanding of circumstances. Are there ways to achieve a measurable impact through attainable practices? 

To begin this process of alternative funding, we suggest institutions look toward creating consortiums. Alliances are becoming popular forms for creating solidarity among art museums and organizations. The consortium method empowers museums to expand and share resources alongside other institutions with similar missions, goals, and belief systems. While these institutions may share, to some degree, overlapping core beliefs, the nature of this practice is not embedded in fostering a new financial framework with museums that are identical to one another; but rather a commitment to building with neighboring institutions with their own unique identity. The goal of this emerging methodology is to create a robust network among museums to serve as a vessel for increased patronage, engagement, transparent donations, and community representation. 

When museums come together to form a consortium, they get the opportunity to implement a new system of practices driven by shared resources, program advancement, and transparent donation. This framework calls for museums to be self-developing, prompting one another to expand from within. Like-minded institutions can grow financially by creating an environment where funding is generated from mutual aid. Ideally, this is developed through a collective structure created by the museums who wish to integrate this methodology in their operations. However, the nature of the consortium cannot be a homogenous approach simply because museums and arts institutions are incredibly varied. Therefore museums should be charged with the responsibility to be observers of their communities just as much as they are implementers of dynamic institutional processes. With no understanding of community context, this alternative funding method cannot thrive. By creating a sustainable framework, institutions can continue to bring to the forefront their work, which broadens and diversifies the arts and cultural narrative.  

Practices such as platform digitization and joint programming create space for individuals to retain control over museum cash flow while reaping the benefits of an expansive museum consortium, which, at its core, is a community-centric entity. The traditional form of a donation from large corporations can divert the voices of the communities of which these museums are supposedly representing. It strips individuals of the autonomy of a proper cultural and financial investment. An integrated product such as a shared digital platform across the consortium offers audiences an opportunity to directly engage with inter-institutional sectors. This site is a gathering space that allows people to donate equitably among departments at art institutions. Implementation of digital platforms for museum donations is an effective way to render more diversified contributions. As a result, individuals are motivated to contribute because there is a way for them to be directly involved in the end result of their contribution. The consortium is an alternative method for producing earned income. It avoids focusing on the transactional exchange of a membership and instead centers on offering the community a voice and participatory role at the institution. A website or free app for patrons to support specific areas such as educational programming, building maintenance, exhibitions, etc., prompts museum boards to appropriately circulate funding among one another. Through this practice, patrons get to experience a tangible impact from their contributions and gain agency in the way museums serve their communities. Moreover, the consortium finds itself in a position to mature in its programming, staffing, and exhibition presence.  

Investments in museums, art centers, and the like are ultimately community investments. 

Financial contributions from community-driven donation pools offer an effective and significant exchange for museum expansion and inclusive representation. The goal of creating a consortium is to share resources that establish a sense of trust and unity. We want to move away from a scarcity mindset. If museums and art organizations come together as consortiums, it allows for an exchange of shared resources, staffing, and job opportunities. Ideally, the process would start with internal conversation generated by museum leaders. These individuals would discuss how to develop this project across museums. This conversation would transition to each leader's respective staff who would then create a framework for how their institution can apply this method. The value in the consortium method is its ability to be adaptive; museums must entrust staff who are committed to adjusting this model as time progresses. Not only does it help establish an organization’s values to the public but also helps them understand why people value your space. Museums then have the opportunity to disburse funds to develop and grow where community members get to see themselves appropriately reflected. A consortium gives back to the communities by broadening the programming that brings them together.  

We hope that through our discussion on equitable funding, art museums and other cultural organizations can begin to create these consortiums that promote transparency and allow individuals to boost their engagement with local organizations and shift how they have been traditionally funded. Through this process, we look toward cultivating the involvement of the next generation of art supporters and elevating the work of nonprofits.  

The consortium method is just one of many potential ways to improve museum donation processes. If you were on a museum board, what alternative financial and/or donation practices would you work to integrate into your institution? What do you hope would be the impact?  

Endnotes

1. Julia Halperin, “In an Age of Political Division and Dirty Money, Can Museum Boards Ever Be Immaculate? Some Think They Have Found a Solution,” Artnet News, September 12, 2019, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/boards-museums-money-2019-1600507.  

2. Elizabeth Merrit, "Trends Watch, The Future of Financial Sustainability,” Center for the Future of Museums, American Alliance of Museums, 2020.