IMLS’ Revised Grant Guidelines Need Revision

In May, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)–the national agency devoted to museums and libraries–released a new set of proposed guidelines that would significantly revise their grant programs for museums (and that includes historic sites, historical societies, house museums, and preservation organizations).  Initially, these changes were proposed to go into effect without comment from the field, but fortunately enough museums spoke up that director Susan Hildreth changed her mind and announced she would welcome comments–but the comment period ends on Friday, July 6, 2012.

According to IMLS, the guidelines affect the Museums for America and National Leadership Grants for Museums programs, however, the impact is much larger because these programs are proposed to consume two other grant programs: Conservation Project Support and 21st Century Museum Professionals.  Claudia French, deputy director for museums, proposed the changes so that the grant programs would align better with the IMLS strategic plan and make it easier for grantees and IMLS staff.

Here are the major changes that caught my eye:

1.  One deadline to rule them all:  January 15.  Currently, the deadlines for Museums for America is January 15 and Conservation Project Support is October 3–offering sufficient time inbetween to adequately prepare applications.  Now everything falls right after the new year and you’ll be preparing applications during the holidays and year end, when you’re distracted by events and year-end fundraising.  If IMLS wants to serve the museum field (in library parlance, its patrons), it would set application deadlines after February 1.  Indeed, I’d suggest two deadlines for MFA:  February 15 and August 15.  This provides museums more opportunities to apply, so if they miss the deadline, they don’t have to wait another year to apply (plus an additional six months to find out if they are funded).

NOTE to NEH and IMLS: the turn-around schedule on most of your grants is so slow and chances of getting funded so low, that it’s a major deterrent to many organizations.  There are increasingly less painful and more convenient sources of funding, which is making the projects you fund less relevant and innovative in the context of the whole field.  You need to head in the other direction:  a pool of small grants with a faster turnaround and higher funding ratio (NEH’s Preservation Assistance Grants are a great model but needs to spread to other programs).  IMLS’ goal to reduce the application processing time by 50% by 2016 is admirable and strongly supported.

2.  One grant program to rule them all.  Museums for America (MFA) is proposed to become the catch-all grant program for nearly anything and everything a museum does, whether it costs $5,000 or $150,000.  It will support education and interpretation, community engagement and capacity building, and collections care and management. That certainly simplifies things, but remember, you can only submit one grant application but you’ll have to choose one of the following categories (although you can submit as many applications as you want) [statement corrected on 6/13/2012; see below]:

  1. “Learning Experiences”: education, research, exhibits, website, social media, publications
  2. “Community Anchors”:  strategic planning, staff training, financial management, technology enhancements, community programming
  3. “Collections Stewardship”: collections management, conservation, cataloguing, rehousing, surveys, and environmental improvements

This is the major concern expressed by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), who believes this change poses a “real threat to conservation funding and the long-term care of collections” because “exhibition or education proposals, for instance, would be pitted against conservation proposals.”  For conservation, this is a serious issue following the recent demise of Save America’s Treasures and despite the findings of the Heritage Health Index.  If IMLS wants to serve the field by improving museums’ abilities to offer learning experiences, become community anchors, or be better stewards of their collections, it would be far better to create separate distinct grant programs for each of those areas, rather than force applicants to choose one at the expense of the other.  If IMLS doesn’t have the capacity to manage these grant programs, they can partner with other organizations, as they have with the American Association for Museums for the Museum Assessment Program or Heritage Preservation for the Conservation Assessment Program.

If your organization works at a statewide or national level, you’ll find the issues are the same for the National Leadership Grants (also proposing a January 15 deadline and an application restricted to one area).

Next Steps

So far, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, American Association for State and Local History, and Association of Children’s Museums have expressed concerns but no word from the American Association of Museums, the American Association of Art Museum Directors, or the Association of Science-Technology Centers (members of which regularly receive grants through IMLS).

So it looks like it’s up to you.  If you have concerns, please send them to by Friday, July 6, 2012.  Of course, if you have thoughts I didn’t mention, share them in the comments below so that others may consider them.  You’ll find the proposed guidelines online, however, without a redlined version, it’s difficult to understand what changes are being proffered:

Why is IMLS Proposing These Changes?

IMLS states that,”the guidelines for these programs have been revised to align with the IMLS Strategic Plan.”  That explains the funding focuses on “learning experiences,” “community anchors,” and “collections stewardship,” however, there’s nothing to suggest that grants should be combined and have a single annual deadline to be managed more efficiently or to reach their goals more effectively.  They may believe that a single deadline will free up the rest of the year for their staff to work on other projects, but they’re misleading themselves.  As a major funder, they’ll continue to manage grants throughout the year because projects start and stop at various times.  Secondly, their focus should be on serving museums, in the same way museums focus on serving visitors and libraries focus on serving patrons.  Sure, we’d get a lot more done if people only visited once a year, but that doesn’t meet our goal of providing public access.

But I also think there’s a bigger issue beyond the strategic plan.  There are regular murmurs in the museum field that IMLS does a better job responding to the need of libraries because librarians are so much better organized to advocate for their mission than museum professionals.  I believe that’s partially true but I also see many signs that IMLS doesn’t have experienced advocates for museums on its staff, unlike the library side of the agency.  That’s quite obvious when you compare the heads of the two divisions.  The deputy director for libraries is Mary Chute, who holds a Masters of Library Science and has more than 20 years experience working as library professional, most recently in the long-established Delaware State Library.  Claudia French, the deputy director for museums, worked for five years as the director of the new California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts.  Previously, she worked at Goodwill Industries, Girl Scouts, and two foundations devoted to LGBT and AIDs issues.  Those may all be good organizations and she may be an intelligent and nice person (I’ve never met her but will give her the benefit of her appointment) but umm. . .they’re not museums and she doesn’t have much museum experience by a long shot.  The deputy director for museums is a major national position and she or he should be the major advocate for museums.  “Museums” may be its middle name, but boy, IMLS doesn’t give me much confidence.

6/13/2012 Correction:  The draft guidelines allow organizations to submit as many applications as desired, although each application must fall within one of the three categories (Learning Experiences, Community Anchors, Collections Stewardship).  It’s great that you can submit more than one application, of course, that gives the advantage to large organizations with fundraising departments, especially if there’s just one annual deadline.  I had previously stated that you could only submit one application per round.

3 thoughts on “IMLS’ Revised Grant Guidelines Need Revision

  1. John C. Larson

    Thank you for this alert and clear presentation of some of the significant changes. I would agree that with your observation on schedule and grant accessibility. IMLS has done a lot of good but has a difficult process to successfully access. Unfortunately, odds of a grant are small for a variety of reasons which is very frustrating to the small museum.


  2. Sarah Brophy (@greenmuseum)

    I too struggle mightily with the en masse deadline. The bulk of applications – for applicants and reviewers – just seems unweildy and unnecesarily unbalanced. Double deadlines in a year would split this. If this is not possible, a deadline of after Feburay 1 is an absolute must.

    I understand their interests in combining aplications and awards within a fiscal year, but the cost to do so is prohibitive in manpower and brainpower.


  3. Sandra

    It seems to me too that having only one application deadline would increase the turnaround time in the review process. 1000 applications arriving all at once, vs. 500 arriving in January, and 500 in August. The latter seems more efficient to me.


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