Last week was Museums Advocacy Day and this week is Historic Preservation Advocacy Day, so Congress is getting lots of visits from people who care about our nation’s history and culture.
Museums Advocacy Day has improved each year. The schedule is well organized and the training and materials are thoughtfully assembled to give everyone a clear idea of what might happen during a congressional visit and the priorities for requests (with lots of good background information so you can speak about issues confidently). At the top of the list was a request for “robust funding” for the Office of Museum Services at IMLS, protection of the charitable deduction, and permission for museums to be eligible with schools for federal teacher training funds. Even if you weren’t able to join us, the American Alliance of Museums provides lots of information and ideas for advocacy at home (although the handy “Issues at a Glance” from the Advocate Handbook doesn’t seem to be available online).
IMLS, NEH, NPS, NFS, and NEA talked about their needs but they didn’t seem to be aware they were speaking to museums. They repeated information from their websites and the usual talking points. When asked, for example, about the geographic distribution of grants, NEH responded that, “we provide grants to every Congressional district”. Sure, but that answer implies that funds are distributed equally to every district. In the handout IMLS provided me for my home state, of the 38 grants awarded to Maryland from 2009-2013, 25 went to Baltimore (of which 4 went to the National Aquarium and 8 went to the Walters Art Gallery). I love the Walters, but ahem, getting 20 percent of the grants seems a bit much. We know it’s not possible to distribute funds equally, so let’s talk about the decision-making process because it can appear unfair. If federal agencies aren’t willing to be honest with us or if they’re unaware of the facts, it’s hard to advocate for them and counter charges that they are elitist.
In the afternoon, Elizabeth Merritt led a session on the emerging growth of hybrid or public benefit corporations that combine elements of non-profit and for-profit organizations to be released from the strictures of either one. She referenced Dan Pollotta’s book Uncharitable (which argues that the non-profit form of governance restricts innovation and responsiveness) and Peter Singer’s and Bill Gate’s contention that is more ethical to cure blindness than support a museum. Conny Graft, Anita Durel, Liz Maurer, and others contributed to an interesting discussion on how museums need to demonstrate their value to elected officials, who are increasingly questioning the tax exempt status of non-profit organizations, such as hospitals, Broadway theaters, commercial colleges (such as the University of Phoenix), aquariums, and the National Football League. Unfortunately, the discussion drew to a close far too early.
The next day we made our appointed rounds to the various offices of our senators and representatives (how AAM manages to coordinate all these visits astounds me). I often assume this is a time-wasting effort and that our elected officials don’t really pay attention to these visits, but every year I do this I’m reminded that the halls are filled with other advocates (particularly veterans, who are easily spotted in their khaki caps). If we’re not there, other groups are happy to take our place and promote their cause.
Good summary, Max. I have been doing Advocacy Day for six years now and always I am amazed at the effort the AAM staff puts into this. How grateful we all are at what they do! And these efforts seem to be making a difference. This year, congressional staff that I met with seemed more eager to meet with us than ever before. And the two reps who I encountered along the way actually knew why we were in their office. These things take time to build and clearly things are building for the museum community.
My take away from this is your point about the Walters Art Gallery. No one compiles this information but we should. I’d bet dimes to dollars that 75% of the Endowments & IMLS resources go to the richest and biggest 10% of museums and that 95% goes to the richest and biggest quarter or worse. That leaves 5% that touch only SOME of the 75% of our museums that are small to mid-sized and I am sure half our museums – if they ever looked at the guidelines for any of these programs – immediately figure it’s unscalable. Even worse – it would be interesting to know what percent of the museums with budgets under $500k (not exactly small by the way) ever apply for grants from these Federal agencies and what percent are turned down. Bet very few try and that they have a high failure rate when they do. The assumption is often that these smaller museums are incompetent or aren’t open enough days a year or whatever. But in terms of bang for the buck, they are actually relatively efficient and do an irreplaceable job preserving and presenting our American culture material at the level that matters most – LOCAL. Ironically, if AAM et al could harness this vast army – the 100s of 1000s of staff, engagement members and trustees of these smaller orgs – they really would have an advocacy army that would go way beyond touching each Congressional district. But why should they? Why should organizations untouched by Federal agencies take time to advocate or their budgets – because that’s what this is. This is NOT Museums Advocacy Days – this is a day of advocacy for the budgets of national organizations that give grants to the richest 20%+/- of museums – small to mid-sized – apply at your risk. This is a big issue and it has, so far as I know, never been honestly faced at the national level or in places (like AAM) where the beneficiaries gather to plot their advancement. I am all for big museums too – but this inequity has got to stop.