Mission Driven on a Capitalist Superhighway

Mission Driven on a Capitalist Superhighway

3 min read

Will museums always be monetizing from here on out?

For this post-Labor-Day short week, this thinkpiece in The Guardian about the apparent end of the neoliberal experiment, in light of Brexit and the Trump/Sanders surge in the US, made me think of another socio-economic contradiction that impacts those of us in the museum field: the elite wealth that makes our public-minded, non-profit work possible here in the US.

*JP Morgan monetized, so you don't have to*

The situation is never completely cut-and-dried, but museums, especially major ones in Europe, are much more reliant on the public sector than in the US (more on the EU role here and international projects here). Like with all public-vs-private debates, the positives and negatives ebb and flow depending on a host of factors; as with the weather, wait long enough and the models will switch positions in terms of desirability.

But I'm less interested in models and more in contradictions, like the one bedeviling digital content, which can't seem to convince users to imbibe the horrible ads, especially on mobile, that pay for the content that users want for free. (A great quote from that article: "Capitalism sucks when it comes to providing things that have real worth, like high-quality news. It struggles to offer those things, what economists call 'merit goods,' at the best of times.") Quality, unfortunately, costs; when it's quality for the public good, no one wants to pay for it.

Wealth resides on most art institution trustee boards, yet the US regularly convulses over public funding for the arts. I came of age about the time that Ronald Reagan's administration started trying to slash NEA funding, which actually happened during Bill Clinton's years in the White House. (That article's link to the report of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland is interesting reading for the implication that survival-of-the-already-fittest should carry the public funding day, and we can all guess what that means.) And while the overall funding numbers from all sources have improved for large institutions (like the one I work at, The Met), like with so many areas of our winners-get-the-ball civilization, there are haves and have-nots. (See previous posts on digital skills and artwork information.) You can guess which communities are most affected by the funding disparities.

One day someone else from the entertainment world will run for president … (Frank Hodsoll fought for NEA funding as head of the department under Reagan)

Large American museums exist is a strange penumbra of money, surrounding the cultural sector like a dark matter halo. A related irony is that many people who go into the non-profit sector are unfamiliar with business practices and can end up shielded from business concerns—while other people learn to be skilled fundraisers and thrive. Like in academia, those who find the money often become department heads and senior administrators (this is no judgment on their art-historical skills, which are more likely than not considerable). Fundraising may put them over the top in the eyes of their boards. In an economy where selling is everything, that's true in almost any profession.

<img style="float: center; width:100%;"src=/content/images/2016/09/dark-matter.jpeg">
A false-color image of arts funding …

Monetary deformations show up all around the museum world. My part of the produce aisle, art-book publishing, is sometimes freed from many of the profit-loss concerns of mainstream publishers through the practice of subvention (a subsidy to allow for publication). Once upon a time, publications without any general audience would have been greenlit, but times have changed and that's rarely the case any longer.

Across museums, projects a few years ago which might have been approved as non-monetizing and completely mission-driven would now have a much harder time being approved unless donor pockets were very deep. And even projects otherwise supported are still trying to drive audience as an indirect way of monetizing. In publishing, digital is no sure route to monied riches—just as e-book self-publishers have found out the hard way that making money in digital is easier dreamed-about than done. Museums are still working on digital formats that inspire readers the way that print does. The need to monetize either muddies the waters or clarifies the hell out of things.

Having a mission and trying to make money is a delicate dance. Medium, whatever its statements about the betterment of humanity, has to figure out how to serve its readers and its authors and also make money. Facebook … well, you know. Maybe the digital riches will fund something nice.

I work on a bit of everything in museum content. I find human solutions to tech problems. I geek out on workflow. No, really. I learn and teach and write everything down.