Commentary on James B. Gardner- "Ethical, Entrepreneurial, or Inappropriate? Business Practices in Museums"

Speaker: James B. Gardner- Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs, National Museum of American History
Title: Ethical, Entrepreneurial, or Inappropriate? Business Practices in Museums
Commentary by: Xue Wang, graduate student in M.A. in Museum Professions program; IME travel stipend recipient

James B. Gardner, Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs, National Museum of American History, at the Smithsonian Institution, presented “Ethical, Entrepreneurial, or Inappropriate?” during the first session “Identifying Problems/Negotiating Solutions.”

Gardner’s lecture was the only presentation at the conference that focused on the ethics of business in museums. His talk addressed the ethical issues that museums must address in this new era of entrepreneurial activity and accountability.

Gardner discussed the current economic crisis and presented the financial challenges affecting museums. Gardner believes we have to come up with creative solutions to our problems, not wait for larger economic changes to trickle down. Museums operate in the public trust, and unethical activities are never justifiable. For example, Gardner argues that museums should restrict the sale of assets to cover operational costs.

Gardner questions the way museums earn income through “commodification” such as product development and blockbuster exhibitions. He stressed that the market should never drive the mission of the collection and the museum. Other ways to generate income include education programs and blockbuster exhibitions.

Gardner identifies ethical concerns that can arise during fundraising, such as conflict of interest, donor recognition, confidentiality and donor influence. In the end, he stated that there was a difference between the concepts of a museum as a business and the business practices of a museum. The museum should not be viewed as a business. Gardner concluded that there is not a need for new standards, but we do need to reconsider how to more effectively apply existing standards to business practices to make our museums more ethical institutions.

As a graduate student in Museum Professions taking a course entitled, Principle, Practice and the Environment of Arts Administration, I mostly agree with Mr. Gardner’s points. Many museums and art institutions are cutting their budgets in a response to the economic crisis. Some even adjust their mission or business strategies to cater to the needs of the market. This is often against ethical practices and the public’s trust. An alternative could be to develop their programs and products. Mr. Gardner’s speech may not be a solution to individual problems, but it is inspiration for us to think about the ethics in museum entrepreneurial activities.


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