Wednesday 20 May 2009

Repeat viewing

Last night I spoke at Webstock Mini. I found it a bit overwhelming, because of the calibre of the people who spoke with me and the people in the audience, and reverted back to the state of anxiety I displayed giving my first paper to an art history crowd. Not so hardened after all ...

FWIW, here are my notes, which I didn't stick to enough. My talk was based around fandom, and refers closely to this experience.

* * * * *

In rooms like this, we often talk about online communities and managing online communities. If we filled this room with museum and gallery people, we’d be talking about friends groups and managing membership programmes.

But a word that I’ve been thinking about more recently is “fan”. So tonight I’m going to tell a story about art, the web, money, and being a fan.

To start off, a bit of background.

Public museums and galleries in New Zealand are largely funded by government or local councils. They do have sponsorship deals and some get money from renting out spaces and some have foundations or boards that provide financial support, but by and large they keep the doors open and the lights on and the staff employed through taxes and rates. I think that in the coming financial year we’re going to start seeing cutbacks in our museums and galleries here in New Zealand, as councils look for places to trim spending.

In America, it’s a different story. Public funding does not make up a big part of MAerican cultural institutions' budgets: most rely heavily on wealthy board members, hefty sponsorship arrangements, big membership programmes, entry fees, shop revenue and their endowments. None of these things are doing well at the moment.

To throw some numbers around:

  • In March the Getty Museum, the richest arts centre in the world, reduced its operating budget by 25 percent. In the second half of 2008 its investment portfolio fell from $6 billion to $4.5 billion.
  • The Metropolitan Museum’s endowment generates a third of its annual budget; its endowment has shrunk from 2.9 billion to 2.1 billion, and in this financial year it plans to save $10 million in staff costs, laying off more than 10% of its employees.
  • The Philadelphia Museum of Art had an endowment with a market value of $346 million in July 2008: by December it had lost 90 million off that, and were expecting to lose more.
  • The Seattle Art Museum lost $5.8 million in annual rents when the bank that was its tenant fell over; its endowment has dropped by 27%.

I’ve been following this since about last October, and the numbers never really meant that much to me, until one weekend in April, when the Brooklyn Museum announced major cutbacks. The details of falling income and cutbacks have become familiar, but this time they really hit home for me.

And that’s because the Museum feels like one of my friends. I’m emotionally closer to them and what they’re doing than I am to any of my local art places. But I’ve never been there. I’ve never been to New York, and with exchange rates being what they are, I probably never will.

And yet …

I've been following them online for years. And that’s nothing out of the ordinary for museums and galleries now.

But what makes the Brooklyn Museum different is that they put names and faces and personal voices to everything they do. It’s not the Brooklyn Museum, a big stone building, talking to me: it’s Shelley from the web team and Will from memberships and Deirdre from the Library and Lisa who does stuff with the mummies.

I see their passion for what they do, in the behind-the-scenes photos they post on Flickr, and the blog article about CT scanning a sarcophagus, and the retweets of people’s cameraphone pics from their visits to the Museum. I feel like an insider. I feel special and included.

It’s by doing this that the Brooklyn Museum lets me – makes me want to be – their fan. I want to stick with them through thick and thin, as if they were a soccer team who’d just been regulated, but who I desperately want to see back in the first division.. So of course, when I heard they were in trouble, the first thing I thought was: how can I help?

Inevitably, I found the answer on Twitter. A call had gone out from one of their other web fans, encouraging people to show their support by buying one of the Museum’s US$20 1stfans memberships.

So I sat down and bought my membership. Then I jumped on my blog, and I wrote about what had happened to my friend, and I said that I’d bought a membership, and then I promised to give away 4 more memberships to readers of my blog.

Now, I know $175 New Zealand dollars isn’t going to do anything to mitigate losing $35 million from your endowment. But I felt like I had to do something, and I hoped that by spreading the word I could rally some support. At the very least, I wanted the people at the Museum who have given me so much to know that I cared.

And I guess this is what I see as a key power of the web. It gives those of us who work in public organisations a chance to open ourselves up online, not just to our customers and our users and our clients, but to the people who might want to be our fans.

* * * * *

In a happy coincidence, everything I love about what the Brooklyn Museum does matched exactly with what another speaker, Nathalie Hofsteede from Give a little, recommended in her talk:

Social media has changed the way people engage around causes and charity. The Generation G(enerous) movement is demonstrating that an online demographic can care about more serious issues than how many friends they have on Facebook. Recent times have seen our charities communicate more like corporate brands in appealing to the giving public, however its time to start the conversation again. Nathalie will explore what donor engagement can look like online and how we can help our most treasured charities bridge the gap quickly and survive a recession.


staplegun said...

Nah, it's a good thing - all performers know that if there isn't at least some sort of twinge of nerves, it's not worth going on (for you or the audience).

It was personal and real (even more so live, than re-reading it here). Great stuff!

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to hear about American institutions - we look to them for industry leadership, but we don't realise how different their basic model is. There is also a perception that US museums are 'rich' because of the effort they go to offering benefits to their clientele/fans - but this is just sense when you realise how much they depend on them to survive.