[as published in MuseumNext and featured in Arts Journal]

There’s an old adage that everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten. One thing we were taught was to share. But how well did we learn it? For art museums, their future likely will be determined by their ability to share: their platforms, their authority, and, perhaps most tangibly, their collections.

In business school, I learned that leverage—and specifically financial leverage—was a driving theme of contemporary economic opportunity. While financial leverage continues to rule (and sometimes wreck) economies to this day, the bigger lesson was that, much like sharing, you can multiply your returns through a focused deployment of only a subset of your overall assets.

Leverage starts with overcoming the conceptual challenge of ceding control today over something you own outright in expectation of greater benefits down the road. In commerce, for example, an entrepreneur can use their equipment (an essential resource) as collateral for a loan that will fuel growth and financial return. In the museum world, there’s enormous potential stored in the museum’s permanent art collection – not as a financial asset, but as a lever for amplifying impact. Unfortunately, museums too often consider their collections to be exclusive, resulting in much of them never seeing the light of day. For most museums, the collection is sequestered in storage, “protected” from frequent or novel uses.

Fortunately, there are now three forces (at least!) prodding us to revive sharing as model behavior.

  1. Museums can’t acquire enough art. Art is expensive and often unavailable for museum acquisition. Not only do market prices put works out of reach, collectors and other private players often have better access to the most desirable works. And, quite simply, there’s a finite supply of works by any artist, be they blue chip, emerging or newly “recognized,” living or dead.
  1. Museums aspire to tell inclusive stories. Contemporary scholarship and cultural storytelling demand expansive access to relevant, multi-perspective source material, not just the material traditionally anointed as “museum quality”. Even the most encyclopedic museum (always a misnomer) lacks that breadth. This is especially true for art by artists who have been actively excluded from the mainstream canon.
  1. Museums can lower logistical hurdles to sharing. Along with the cardinal sin of jealously guarding their own treasures, museums face barriers of liability and cost, asynchronous technology, and donor restrictions. In other words, (1) transactional friction (e.g., loan forms and terms; insurance and shipping costs; carbon emissions); (2) customized collection management software that is not compatible across institutions; and (3) the well-intentioned, but limiting conditions imposed on some gifts of art. Evolving best practices, the sharing of cost and liability, improved technology, and an expanding definition of collection ownership are flattening these hurdles.

Coinciding with these conditions is the emergence of institutional humility. Art museums are accepting that they are no longer exclusively ordained to control the narratives around cultural production, but rather must collaboratively engage the communities they aspire to be a part of. Thus, the push for multi-perspective and collaborative work such as group curation, audience-written interpretation, and programming that gives equal time to voices not beholden to the academy, but rather to their own experiences and acquired wisdom.

From theory to practice: a California example.

University of California, Irvine’s newly forming Institute and Museum of California Art (IMCA) is pursuing collection sharing as a core aspect of its operation and mission. This initiative is based on an appreciation of the essential requirement for exploring the vast breadth of California Art: having as much of it available and accessible as possible. IMCA humbly acknowledges that no one collection, not even its own founding art trove, provides that range. It is endeavoring, therefore, to develop a technological, logistical, and collaborative platform for sharing across academic, municipal, and private museum collections. This will radically shift how scholars can approach their work, as well as how museums can engage with their peers and the public.

IMCA is building porosity and generosity into its founding documents and collection strategy. Over the next year, IMCA and select peer institutions will convene conversations to produce the initial requirements for such a sharing platform. Over time, more users and collections will join the structure, multiplying the range, relevance, and access to the shared content.

This fresh approach to collection sharing is influenced by a long history of museum collaborations. Three other examples include: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Autry Museum of the American West’s 2017 agreement to make their collections mutually available to each other; the Tate in London and the Museums of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco’s partnership since 1997 with the New Art Trust to co-acquire time-based media art; and the Five Colleges and Historic Deerfield Museum Consortium in Massachusetts 25 year long integration of members’ collections in a shared database. Key to the utility of each of those arrangements, however, is the vitality of the specific relationships among the participants. As long as the individuals are in alignment, exchange happens. Furthermore, none is either seeking or well-suited to adding more partners. The IMCA model, on the other hand, will propose an operational approach that welcomes participants who might not know each other well and who might not otherwise even consider themselves as institutional peers. Furthermore, IMCA intends to be open with its learnings, enabling other sorts of sharing consortia to borrow and expand upon this model.

The first step, as noted above, is for our institutions to embrace sharing what we have in order to make all of us better. And what we have is art.

Campus-based art museums have long been compelling and differentiating aspects of Higher Education. They can now also become key allies as colleges and universities work to reestablish their relevance and attractiveness in the post-pandemic “next normal.” Museums can help rebalance relationships with students and regional communities, countering some of the pandemic’s undermining of the campus as a desirable destination. What follows is a guide administrators and museum leaders can use to strengthen their mutual post-pandemic recovery model.

Three observations as moderator of a directors’ panel at a Teaching with Museum Exhibitions conference: 1. The academy, including many museum professionals, often (incorrectly) perceives that “expertise” and “collaboration” are in opposition. 2. Students embrace collaboration as an attitude, not as a tool. 3. Academic museums are the most accessible and partner-ready collaborators on campus.

There’s big data, there’s your own organization’s internal data (aka hyper-local data), and, increasingly, there’s Goldilocks data—the “just right” blend of timely information, relevant context, and affordability. All three types can improve resource utilization and operational outcomes. Acquiring the data that serves you best, however, is challenging. What follows is a glimpse at the kind of data you might want and the hurdles to acquiring it.

Culture Strategy Partners

Posted in the American Alliance of Museums Center for the Future of Museums blog

Admit it: every once in a while it annoys you that commercial offerings often out-rank your museum on the public’s To-Do list. In my interactions with dozens of museum leaders, this lament comes up all the time. We’re all too aware of the many reasons for this, including the fact that alternatives to museums—movies, sporting events, shopping, hanging at the coffee house, and so forth—are “easy” for the consumer to understand and use. Retailers and popular entertainment cater to audiences’ desires and devote large marketing budgets to influencing consumer expectations. This habituates their audiences, and hence yours, to certain rules for enjoying consumer-focused offerings.

Culture Strategy Partners

Authored in conjunction with Peter Linett and The University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center Distributed via the AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums and the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries

Like other kinds of cultural organizations in these early years of the twenty-first century, art museums on college and university campuses are facing the challenges both of adapting to and influencing a new and still-shifting cultural landscape. Longstanding assumptions about the roles, aims, activities, and audiences of cultural institutions are being reconsidered, even as audience interests, expectations, and behaviors are rapidly evolving.

Failure is not an option if you can’t define success

Even before the 2008 credit and business meltdown, in the ten years from 1998 to 2007 at least 10% of the companies on the Forbes 150 list have closed, been acquired or otherwise faded away. This includes notable giants such as Bankers Trust, Compaq, DEC, and Enron (ignore more recent casualties of Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, Bear Sterns, etc.). We know this is normal business activity and are always only slightly surprised, but not shocked, when any given company collapses, is merged, or is pared down and sold for scrap.

Culture Strategy Partners

Published in The Art Newspaper April 2009

The near-death experiences of Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, among other more recent tales of woe, provide graphic evidence of the financial stresses bearing down on museums. These events highlight the need for solutions that are healthier than closing down, selling a collection, or being subsumed by a larger enterprise. Fortunately, better options exist. The one I recommend has the advantage of employing assets that museums already have in place. All that is required is embracing that quintessential childhood behaviour: sharing.

Culture Strategy Partners

Published in Curator – The Museum Journal July 2010

In this unsettling world, to whom should museums look for a much-needed does of optimism? Believe it or not, I suggest we look to Frank Oppenheimer, one of the handful of men responsible for building the only atom bombs ever used in war. Curiously, a man who helped develop weapons of mass destruction also contributed a rubric for building an exemplary museum. (The rubric is summarized in this article.)

Culture Strategy Partners

Guest Blogger – Slover Linett Strategies November 2010

“Our colleague and collaborator Tom Shapiro, a partner at Cultural Strategy Partners, was one of the lucky few (okay, lucky 350) who attended Chicago’s homegrown TED a few weeks ago. The conference took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on October 14 and 15. I asked Tom to share a few thoughts about the gathering with our readers. Here’s Tom’s take.” – Peter Linett

I found TEDx Midwest immensely enjoyable and often engrossing. It was fascinating to witness both the “TED-ness” of the event—a communal, anticipatory giddiness of being privy to something “important”—and the speaker’s talks themselves. While listening in the darkened theater, I observed three themes, not about the content, but about the conference as a whole.