Headlines regarding the The Metropolitan Museum of Art have brought valuable themes and strategic priorities to light within the cultural industry.
Data suggest that the top source of information for cultural executives – those great brains running our cherished museums, gardens, historic sites, performing arts organizations, and other visitor-serving institutions – is newspapers. The cultural industry on the whole still isn’t one to talk openly about its biggest challenges or greatest failures, so it stands to reason that newspapers – and inquiring reporters – may provide the most straightforward access to honest conversations.
Perhaps no other organization has shined a light on the future of cultural organizations and the challenges that they face today than the Metropolitan Museum of Art has over the past year. It wasn’t always pretty. With financial woes that jumped into the public’s attention with hiring freezes and layoffs in 2016, to management issues, to a major gift to help find solid ground, to standing up for artwork, leadership changes, and to an entry fee for out-of-state visitors… The Met may have made more headlines than any other cultural institution in the last year.
While the Met has been the subject of the headlines, many of the broader themes highlighted are not unique to the Met at all. At least, not if cultural organizations are honest with themselves.
If 2017 was about coming to terms with the role of trust in cultural organizations’ missions, then 2018 may be about figuring out how to change the cultural organization business model so that it is sustainable and so that these organizations can be sure to exist long into the future.
I think that the cultural industry may have the Met to thank for opening our institutions to these critical conversations and making important themes top-of-mind.
Heads up: Though we track them, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is not an IMPACTS client. While I see that several staff members subscribe to this website via email (Hey there, Met!), I do not work directly with them. This article is an honest moment of gratitude regarding their work – intentional or not – in sparking positive change and conversation within the cultural industry on the whole.
The importance of the Met’s position in facing challenges
Cultural organizations frequently face challenges and are confronted with opportunities to evolve. These two, closely related conditions may make the Met a relatively impactful institution within the cultural industry to spearhead important conversations.
A) The Met makes headlines.
Boasting over seven million annual visitors, The Met is one of the most visited museums in the world. It’s one of the top things to do in New York City on TripAdvisor. As such, it makes sense that its happenings make headlines and may be of international interest. The Met Gala draws celebrities and a great deal of press, and that adds to its revered reputation. This is an institution that is well attended and in the public eye.
B) The Met is respected by the public.
The Met often has among the strongest “best in class” metrics among the 224 cultural organizations that we monitor at IMPACTS. The Met reliably maintains positive reputational equities, which means that the public generally views the Met as succeeding in measurements related to visitor experience and execution of their mission. This may be the reason why it makes headlines when even minor things go haywire: It’s respected.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is a leader – no doubt about it. And perhaps that’s what makes following this institution such a powerful case study over the last year or so. Nearly all of the headline themes associated with the Met have been written about other cultural institutions. The Met is not even close to the only institution that’s moved from free to having an admission fee, for instance! It’s far from the only institution that’s had leadership changes or management challenges. The spotlight is shining on the Met because it’s big, it’s respected, and it’s a market leader.
Even the most avoidant, reality-denying cultural leader may be unable to close their ears to the themes and conversations highlighted by happenings at the Met. It’s no longer about “opting in” to critical topics like inclusion, funding, diversity, integrity, or engagement. In part thanks to the Met, cultural leaders may now need to “opt out” of them to close their ears. That’s harder.
Conversations that these headlines may have brought to board rooms:
Headlines regarding the Metropolitan Museum of Art have shined a light on several areas within the cultural industry – and the museum industry in particular – that are in need of conversation, same-paging, data, expertise, and evolution. These conversations seem to be thriving in the cultural world right now.
The Met’s story of financial woe underscores the reality that running a cultural organization costs money, and that money needs to come from somewhere. The Met’s story also includes an element of government funding, adding a critical element to the conversation. Whether folks “agree” with the Met’s approaches or not, the conversation is critical within the industry. In the past seven years that I’ve been working with IMPACTS, I haven’t encountered nearly as much inquiry and curiosity about funding models, in general, than I am encountering right now. Hallelujah!
To what extent does free vs. not-free admission pricing impact attendance? Not much, as it turns out. But the topic of admission pricing is an critical one that may now have a larger seat at the board table. This relates to conversations about funding models, but also important conversations about who visits cultural organizations and how big of a barrier “cost” is (or more accurately, is not) to this audience. This conversation is often emotionally fueled rather than data fueled (which is weird, because human behavior in terms of visitation is measured in visitation numbers, not feelings). That said, it’s important.
And how important is attendance as a metric, anyway? Is it most important? What is most important? Certainly, attendance is important insofar as it relates to earned revenue opportunities by way of paid admission and how it may impact philanthropic, grant funded, and government support. And speaking of attendance, how important is reaching new audiences? (We already know this last answer from an attendance outlook perspective: It’s super important.)
Diversity and inclusion
The topics of diversity and inclusion seemed to be wrapped up in conversations about admission pricing in various editorials about the Met. This entanglement is a bit problematic (because not all nontraditional visitors to cultural organizations are low-income), but it feeds into very important conversations about inclusion. Cultural organizations have a ways to go to welcome different kinds of audiences – and racially diverse audiences, in particular.
When an organization starts charging admission, what happens to visitors who cannot afford to go? They need other access opportunities – and, ideally, more effective ones. The Met’s admission pricing seems to have opened up new conversations about this within the cultural industry.
Leadership and management
From the board, to executive leadership, all the way to staff members… The Met carried out layoffs, rearrangements, and changes. These things certainly happen at cultural organizations from time to time, but the happenings at the Met put these conflicts into the spotlight. It also shed light on interesting questions: Which staff are worth investment and which are not? What’s the best background for an executive leader? How should strategic priorities be determined?
Most of all, these issues seem to have brought about the common utterance of a curious, hopeful word: SHOULD.
“Cultural entities should be free.” “Cultural entities should welcome all visitors.” “Cultural entities should not cut staff.” “Cultural entities should have leaders that do X.” “Cultural entities should have management that considers Y.” Exploring these “shoulds” may be helpful in bridging the gaps between market expectations and industry realities.
No cultural organization today is immune to the realities of a more sophisticated, connected, and data-informed world.
I think that we are quite lucky to have a market leader leading the way – not necessarily by making exclusively A+ strategic decisions at every possible turn (if that’s even possible), but by highlighting critical conversations. This type of leadership may have been far from the Met’s direct intent when facing financial hardship, but it certainly is an outcome that benefits an entire sector.
Our industry is lucky to have market leaders in times like these – not to share the framed successes, but to confront the truths and hard questions…
…and, in doing so, fuel the industry at large in critical conversations.