Q & A: Museum Ethics and Board of Directors Fundraising

Q: A recent New York Times article noted the very large donations ($10 million!) expected of donors to Manhattan’s large museums (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/03/arts/03center.html). Museums need the money, but: how should museums strike a balance between their need for board members with different skills (fundraising, professional services, publicity, mission-related), and broadly represent the community, when the expectations of donations are so high? How can museums create a Board of Directors with members that can help achieve success on many levels, not just financial? Is it ethical to stack a Board with members that will raise the most money or plan the best parties?

A:
Steve Lubar
Professor, American Civilization and History, and Director, John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, Brown University:

Students in my cultural policy reading group were, mostly, furious, when they read the New York Times article noting the size of the contributions expected of board members of Manhattan’s large museums. The context is important: we had been reading essays on the importance of wider participation in cultural decision making, of opening up cultural institutions to new voices, and the democratization of cultural policy. And here was proof, perhaps, that this was just a façade; that institutions were still run by wealthy elites. Was the talk of openness was just that, talk? Everyone acknowledged that museums needed money, and that rich boards were one way to raise it. But how might that need be balanced with the other needs of the institution?

First, though: why is this an ethical question?  There’s nothing hidden here.  Everyone knows that rich people sit on museum boards, and the names of the board members are easily available.  There might be some hypocrisy here – museums are for the people, a forum for civic discussion, but…the folks who make the decisions are those who can afford to pay the bills.  And, to be fair, the chair of the Met board makes clear that there are other ways to get on: “we have people who can give nothing but are good at understanding what makes the museum great.  Some people are culturally adept or know people in the city.”  So expertise in the arts, or political or social connections, can open up boards to those who can’t spare a few hundred thousand dollars.

One way it might be considered as an ethical question is a fuller exploration of where the funding for museums comes from. If the wealthy people on the board of a museum provided all the funding for the museum, then their control of the museum would be perfectly reasonable, and fair.  But very few museums, and certainly not those described in the article, are fully supported by wealthy donors and board members. They receive city, state, and federal funds, city services, sometimes city land, and a vast range of other support from taxpayers. Many of the donations of the wealthy supporters are tax-deductible, another form of taxpayer support. It would be difficult to derive the percentage of public funds supporting museums, one that included not just direct but also indirect support, but it’s hard to imagine that it’s not significant. So there is a fairness issue here: taxpayers are supporting the museum, and rich people are making the decisions about its programs. That seems a valid ethical concern. Taxpayers should have a say in board decisions, and one way to do that is to expand the diversity of the board.
Another ethical concern is the way that the board might use the museum for their own ends, mixing fund raising with their social life. Again, this is a necessary part of raising money for museums. But many museum staff harbor deep resentments about the time they spend organizing fund-raising social events for board members and their friends, galas and parties that bring in money, but take time and energy away from the work of the museum. Fund-raising is a part of the work of the museum, but it’s important not to be distracted by it. A board more concerned with social standing than the board of the museum should keep this in mind.

Finally, we consider the important role museums play in the way we define our culture. We should hold museums to the highest standard; they are a public trust not only in the eyes of the IRS and the law, but in the way that they help shape us as a nation, as a society. They tell us who we are, and a diverse board, selected for more than their fund-raising prowess, can help hold museums to their highest aspirations.
Like so many ethical questions in museums, those related to boards and fund-raising can often be settled by openness and transparency, and by keeping the mission of the museum foremost. Arguing from mission can help drive more diverse boards: a board that represents the diversity of the community can make the museum more responsive to the community’s needs, and more successful. The fundamental job of the board is to make the museum succeed, and fund-raising is only one aspect of that work.

A:
Amy Levin
Professor, Women’s Studies and English, University of Northern Illinois

When I was in graduate school and teaching summer classes for kids at our local museum, one of my closest friends, who worked in the museum’s education department, held a party the night of the museum’s grandest annual benefit—her party was for people like us who were involved with the institution but couldn’t possibly afford the gala. At the museum, several proposed acquisitions were on display, and benefactors could write checks toward the purchase of their favorite. In my friend’s crowded living room, we stuffed dollar bills in plastic beer cups labeled with the names of pizza toppings. We ordered the ones that collected the most dollar bills. Then we literally rolled up the rug and danced to the loudest rock ‘n’ roll we could stand.

Members of museum boards are often expected to help stage luxurious galas—and to attend them, checkbooks discreetly tucked into tuxedo jackets or evening purses. A stellar night out with a lavish goody bag is one of the rewards of beneficence and service.  I have been told by upper level employees of museums that the boards composed of the wealthy and influential help everyone; contributions pay not only for acquisitions, but exciting public programs and free days.

Yet these celebrations are also reminders of the origins of museums out of complex interactions of class, nationalism, and the patronage of newly rich capitalists seeking status. For public museums to represent the interests of our proudly diverse country, a checkbook can’t be the main price of admission to the board. There must be room for people who prefer pizza to Pimms, who can afford T-shirts but not tiaras. Those with knowledge and expertise help shape the museum’s course and enhance the experiences of collectors on the board.  Individuals with links to community organizations, particularly those representing populations that have traditionally stayed away from or felt unwelcome in museums bring a different kind of richness to the table. They can help build new audiences, grow generations of future benefactors, and educate novice collectors.

In closing, I return to the question: How can museums create a Board of Directors with members that can help achieve success on many levels, not just financial? The answer is not difficult or even original.  Museums create such boards by recognizing that monetary wealth constitutes only one kind of richness; by developing a deliberate strategy for populating the board with people who can contribute in different ways; and by welcoming these individuals equally.

 

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