Friday, August 3, 2007

Metrics of Success

What makes a museum a winner?

A recent issue of NEMA News, the newsletter of the New England Museum Association, featured an abridged version of a piece written by Maxwell Anderson for the Getty Leadership Institute, "Metrics of Success in Art Museums" (full article here). Published in 2004, he proposes that three indicators: exhibitions, attendance and membership, are currently used by many to measure success in art museums. He proposed an alternative framework of 11 new metrics--and as I read it, I wondered how those metrics might apply to the small museums and historical agencies that are at the core of my work. In order to be adopted, Anderson comments, these new metrics must be "directly connected with the core values and mission of the art museum; be reliable indicators of long-term organizational and financial health, and be easily verified and reported."

So let's see:

1. Quality of Experience--as Anderson says, the most important factor in any museum is the quality of a visitor's experience. In art museums, the artwork itself is sometimes the most important factor. But in local history museums, that rocker from Great Aunt So and So just doesn't cut it. The one area where local history museums sometimes do well here is that visitors enjoy personal attention--for those who like a one on one tour, a local history museum is often the place. But confusing hours, badly written labels, and just big rooms of "stuff" do not an engaging experience make. As well, Anderson importantly notes that looking at the demographics of a community compared to the demographics of museum visitors is important. If all your visitors are over 75 years old, you might not be reaching all of your community. Big points to those small museums who work hard to engage their visitors.

2. Fulfillment of Educational Mandate--In New York State, museums are chartered as educational organizations by the New York State Board of Regents--so in this state, at least theoretically, museums should be thinking in this direction--not just in taking care of (or storing) objects. As my colleague Laura Roberts was noted (and I believe she was quoting someone else)--do we want to be in the warehouse business? Just because you're chartered as an educational organization doesn't mean you're meeting this mandate. How many school groups come? Are your school materials connected to school curriculums? Have you thought about life-long learners? How about life-long learners who learn differently than just hearing a monthly lecture? How do you reach new residents in your community? Or people who have been left out of the historical record?

3. Institutional Reputation--both local and larger. Some thoughts on local reputation--if I stopped on the street in your town, could someone tell me where your museum was? Even if I was only two blocks away? I've certainly had people unable to do that, which perhaps suggest that you're not connecting much with your community. How many volunteers do you have? How consistent are they in their commitment to you? Interestingly, Anderson also suggests asking visitors directly to articulate the museum's core mission. I'd love to see those percentages at any institution!

From local to larger--safe to say, few local history museums have national reputations. However, I do believe that attracting funding (state and federal) to your institution is a way of broadening your institution. Even the smallest historical societies can be successful here--and it's a way of measuring yourself against the big guys--and nice for your community to know that their local place can do that!

4. Management Priorities and Achievements--do you have a plan? Do you use the plan? And what percentage of those goals and objectives are you actually achieving? Do you do an annual budget? I can't tell you the number of all volunteer organizations I see who don't do a budget, just rely on the money in and money out theory. This theory guarantees that you won't move forward as an organization.

5. Caliber and Diversity of Staff--For Anderson, "the caliber of a museum's staff begins with the number of curators and educators on the payroll as a percentage of total staff size." In a small museum, the director perhaps, has to wear all these hats. Perhaps it should measure the amount devoted to exhibitions and education, as compared to the keeping the doors open (lawn-mowing, snow removal) kind of functions. I think for small museums this also means that board members have to educate themselves about what makes a well-qualified staff, consider what appropriate pay is, and commit themselves to finding support for the position or positions. In another direction, I see an increasing number of small museums who are also looking for directors of development. If you have a staff of three or less, you don't need a development director--this is appropriately the work of the board and of the director, working together. Diversity--still a critical, oft-un-addressed issue in the museum field and organizations should seek employees to represent the diversity of their community.

6. Standards of Governance--Anderson suggests an assessment where trustees are asked to article the museum's core purpose and how it has been advanced over the past year. Great idea, and useful to any size organization. He also suggests that trustees be asked annually to differentiate the division of responsibilities between board and director, and to give an example of how that worked in the last year. I see uncounted numbers of organizations with director/trustee issues. They're not impossible to resolve, and I think often of several board mentors early in my career as a director that supported and challenged me, giving me great models to learn from.

In governance, don't forget the make-up of your board. Anderson suggests how many trustees donated works of art or a sum equal to or greater than the museum's operating budget over the last five years? Those tests may not work for small organizations, but how about--
how many board members contribute to the annual appeal (that's above and beyond the membership)? How many attend some sort of program during the year? How many are able and willing to speak about the museum to other community groups? More questions from Anderson: How many board members are members of minority groups? How many are members of other art museums? or, any kind of museum? Do board members visit other museums of any type? Have they sought out or taken advantage of board training opportunities?

7. Scope and Quality of Collection--One measure Anderson proposes here is the number of artworks on display. For small museums, a reversal somewhat might be in order. Do you display everything you own? If you do, probably not that interesting? Have you developed a collecting plan or do you just take everything that comes in the door?

8. Contribution to Scholarship--Do staff or volunteers publish in any fashion? It could be regular columns about history or the collections in a newsletter or in your local newspaper. Is this kind of article more than just a recitation of facts or genealogy, but an article that provides an integrated approach to the topic? Do scholars use your library/archives? Do staff speak at conferences--either about a topic, such as the New York History Conference, or about museum issues, such as the Upstate History Alliance/Museum Association of New York conference?

9. Contributions to Art Conservation--Not a critical focus for many small museums, so perhaps this metric is better framed around the ideas of basic collections care. What is the storage like? Do staff and volunteers understand professional standards and strive towards them? Do they seek out training?

10. Quality of Exhibitions--This metric comes back around to the first one about the visitor experience. He suggests judging exhibitions by the degree to which they contributed something--and I would suggest that this might be measured, in a survey sort of way, by measuring if exhibitions presented caused visitors to see or understand their community in new ways. That understanding can be developed by careful attention to both content and design--with of course, the Big Idea of an exhibition always at the forefront of each project.

11. Facilities Contribution to Core Mission--"Architectural conceits" and vast halls mentioned by Anderson are rarely seen in small museums. But adequate space to house your collection, create engaging exhibitions and provide educational programs is vital for small museums. But this might not mean more space--more organizations should be encouraged to work collaboratively in communities, sharing space, time, people and resources.

Want some other ways to think about your museum's success?

Look at AAM's standards for accreditation at

New York State's Standards for Museums and Historical Organizations, found at the Museum Association of New York's site

and to assess exhibitions, Beverly Serrell and others worked on the Framework for Assessing Exhibitions, which can be downloaded at here, or found in her book, Judging Exhibitions, A Framework for Assessing Excellence.

Photo: Winner at the Delta County Fair, Colorado, by Russell Lee, 1940, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress.

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