“A Desire for Change.” Here are Five Ideas Animating an Evolving Museum Field

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Susanne Pommer/shutterstock

In 2018, business advisory firm M+D, with support from the Knight Foundation, launched the Arts Funders Forum (AFF) to develop new funding models to help arts organizations engage the next generation of philanthropists. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this charter speaks to a looming existential crisis facing the field, and museums in particular.

Affluent older donors who have been the charitable backbone for institutions are slowly ceding the stage to their heirs, and in the process, galvanizing the greatest intergenerational wealth transfer in history. Organizations’ fates hinge on leaders’ ability to engage these emerging donors, who, unlike their predecessors, tend to care less about gaudy new museum wings and more about social justice, racial equity and climate change.

To advance this work, the AFF produces reports, publishes interviews with arts donors, and holds virtual events, including its December 2020 summit looking at how arts leaders were appealing to younger donors during the pandemic. Earlier this month, AFF Director and MCW Projects Founder Melissa Cowley Wolf hosted a virtual panel with art consultant nico wheadon, Shawnda Chapman of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and Creative Capital founding executive Ruby Lerner, who is now an independent consultant. Wolf, Chapman and Lerner were among the 40-plus arts leaders who contributed to wheadon’s new book, “Museum Metamorphosis: Cultivating Change Through Cultural Citizenship,” in which she contends that a “popular desire for change is evident” across the field and lays out how to get there.

The panel features lots of lively (and blunt!) discussion and I encourage you to watch the whole thing. But for the more time-constrained readers, here are some of the many compelling perspectives that emerged.

Change institutions from within, or build something new?

wheadon stressed the need to understand the “forces that are working against change in our sector.” For wheadon, this means “thinking about how white supremacy and patriarchy shows up in the museum field” while acknowledging that women, people of color and nonbinary communities have “been left out of those places of structural power.” Faced with these obstacles, the field’s thinkers are grappling with whether to build their own institutions, attempt to change the system from within, or strike a balance between these two approaches.

This observation speaks to a key finding in our white paper on giving in the visual arts field, which found that institutional funders were backing away from affluent “legacy” institutions that were insufficiently tackling some of the issues that wheadon laid out, while others leveraged financial support as a means to push for change within them. It’s worth noting that huge museums are still relatively well-positioned to withstand any loss of foundation funding since “top-of-the-pyramid” donors, many of whom prefer conventional gifts such as endowing positions or bankrolling capital campaigns, have kept the funding flowing.

Change requires patience

wheadon referred to writer, activist and facilitator adrienne maree brown’s view that “change is a daily practice” that happens at the individual and institutional level. “The work that a person is doing internally in order to shift both their actions and their rhetoric toward justice is just as important as the kind of broader social movements that carry that change to the collective and to the people,” she said. (For further reading, check out maree brown’s book, “Emergent Strategies,” which Surdna Foundation’s Thriving Cultures Javier Torres-Campos cited as a big influence on his life and career during our chat back in 2021.)

wheadon also acknowledged that change can be in the eye of the beholder — and that’s assuming the beholder can even perceive the change in the first place. Some professionals may be insufficiently trained to perceive meaningful change or the incrementalism of the change. Others may simply be impatient. “Don’t bet all your money on witnessing the change you want to see transpire in your lifetime,” she said, encouraging practitioners to “know your role” and “chip away at it with patience.” 

Since the idea of change can be something of a moving target, wheadon’s book includes case studies of organizations decentering authority and embracing cross-sector collaboration and community partnership.

Nonprofits should resist mission drift “at all costs”

wheadon spoke about philanthropy’s role in fostering change, and her somewhat mixed perspective on the state of affairs will likely resonate with nonprofit leaders, both within and outside the visual arts world. “Philanthropy has to want to change itself,” she said. “I’m less interested in dragging unwilling folks to the table.”

And what if philanthropy doesn’t change? “I think the tool that we have at our disposal is resistance. I think resisting ‘movement capture’ — don’t sell your mission, don’t sell the values behind your work, and resist mission drift at all costs.”

This advice will resonate with grantseekers, considering how common it is for organizations to begrudgingly contort their missions to attain misaligned project funding. It also poses a real challenge because as long as funders remain stubbornly and myopically fixated on the project-based model, the allure of that support, however misaligned, may be too much for nonprofit leaders to resist.

wheadon’s advice to arts organizations is to build a program “that’s relevant to your mission, that directly impacts and serves audiences, sticking to it, doing it. I think in this new model that we’re envisioning, the people will find you and then the money will follow the people.”

Grantmakers must prioritize nonprofit worker wellness

wheadon reeled off other causes for optimism, such as AFF’s rigorously quantitative approach toward surveying the field, how venture capital is trickling into the nonprofit arts world, and an increase in direct support to artists.

She noted that the Ms. Foundation for Women’s work exemplifies the kind of philanthropy that would benefit the broader arts field. A bit later in the call, Chapman talked about how the foundation provides general operating support, rolled an “à la carte” skills training program based on what grantees said they needed, and commissioned research around the kinds of quality-of-life issues that don’t often cross funders’ radars.

“If we’re committed to pay equity, you should understand the landscape,” Chapman said. “We should know what percentage of people have access to health insurance or can afford a sabbatical; what percentage of leaders are facing housing insecurity. Living in ‘survival mode’ constricts our ability to be innovative.… We have to expand our philanthropic lens to think beyond the usual support that we’re giving.”

We need to talk openly about leadership transitions

Lerner stepped down from Creative Capital in 2016. During the Zoom call, she said was grateful that she set aside money for retirement during her 17-year tenure. She also set up a generous 401k match for her entire staff, but was quick to note that countless nonprofit employees lack that luxury.

She referenced two troubling conversations with “field-defining” peers in the field. “They’re not young anymore, and they had virtually nothing saved for their futures. How is this OK?” Giving nonprofit workers the tools to build long-term financial security is “something that I think philanthropy really needs to begin to address in a very deep and honest way,” Lerner said. Although, if funders are reluctant to provide unrestricted funding to pay for overhead and trustees and donors didn’t step in to cover staff salaries during the pandemic, it seems unlikely they’ll earmark support for retirement plans. (I hope I’m wrong!)

This lack of long-term financial security, coupled with a fear of what’s next, often compel individuals to stay on the job, perhaps longer than they should. In the process, they may block the path for talented successors, sometimes to the detriment of the organization itself. It goes without saying that this terrain can be very challenging to navigate.

Lerner said she had valuable “transition conversations” with her board prior to her departure and encouraged boards to adopt a similar practice to help leaders plot their next move. Board members should also talk with leaders early in their tenure about expectations and conditions for the role so that the individual can, at some point, “self-assess and say, ‘It’s getting to be time for me to go so that the organization can plan responsibly,’” Lerner said. “I have also wondered if we should have term limits. That’s another thing nobody wants to talk about.”