Delaware Offering Lessons on Museum Management of the Wrong Kind IMHO

I’m a 1980s graduate of the University of Delaware, which is a great place to learn about museums because of its affiliation with Winterthur, Hagley Museum and Library, and Longwood Gardens.  Now we’re all discovering it’s also a great place to learn how to mismanage a museum.

Delaware Art Museum

If you haven’t been following the story for the past year, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington is selling some of its collections in an effort to pay off a $20 million debt for the construction of a museum expansion in 2005 and refill its endowment.  They first sold a painting by William Holman Hunt a few months ago and they’re getting ready to sell a couple more items soon, including a painting by Winslow Homer and a sculpture by Alexander Calder.  Their actions were censured by the Association of Art Museum Directors (a group that’s typically reluctant to criticize its members), but the Delaware Art Museum doesn’t care.  In “Museum Under Fire for Selling Its Art,” Deborah Solomon of the New York Times provides the latest painful details.

This case study isn’t finished (and it’ll be a doozy), but we’re learning plenty of lessons already:

1.  People visit museums and historic sites to have a great experience with the collections, not a visitor center or big building.  In 2005, the Delaware Art Museum renovated its 1938 building and added three wings to double its space to 80,000 square feet.  Architect Ann Beha created a beautiful building (she’s also designed projects for the Shelburne Museum and Portland Art Museum) but size and design it isn’t enough to increase visitation or support.  In 2001, membership stood at 3,000 and now is down to 1,600.  The thrill of a new visitor center or bigger museum is fleeting and should only be undertaken if there is a significant and documented need.  Think about the longterm and don’t follow the slogan, “If you build it, they will come” from Field of Dreams.  It was a movie.

2.  Selling collections is too risky and undermines your core reason for existence.  Again, visitors want great experiences with collections, so selling these resources is like killing the Goose the Laid the Golden Egg (MBAs take note:  collections are not unrecognized financial assets).  There are good reasons to deaccession or dispose of collections, but taking care of your financial obligations isn’t one of them.  Secondly, there’s no guarantee that a sale will meet your goals, so think through the consequences all the way to the end.   When the Delaware Art Museum sold their painting by William Holman Hunt a few months ago, Christie’s believed would fetch $8-$13 million.  It sold for $4 million–half of the expectations.  A princely sum, but not enough to fill the hole in the financial report, so now they insist on go backing to the auction block (how many times do you have to repeat a decision before you realize it was a bad one?).

3.  Museums, historic sites, and historic preservation organizations should be led by people who personally care about museums, historic sites, or historic preservation.  Boards nowadays don’t seem to trust anyone with a smidge of interest in history, art, preservation, or whatever the mission is about.  Passion is prohibited.  It seems that they prefer leaders who make decisions objectively and won’t be swayed by feelings of the heart or soul.  At the Delaware Art Museum, the board promoted Michael Miller from CFO to CEO, whose previous experience was at pharmaceutical company.  When the New York Times asked him to name a work of art at the museum that he liked, he replied, “Jeez.  I never thought about that.  Well, I actually like Picasso, but we don’t have any Picassos.”  There are two things wrong here.  The first is that Mr. Miller accepted the responsibility to lead an organization that he didn’t seriously care about.  If the head of the organization doesn’t care about the mission, why should anyone else?  You have to have skin in the game. The second failure was that the board offered the chief executive position to someone who doesn’t seriously care about organization.  It’s not uncommon, unfortunately, and I’ve lost track of how many major organizations have recently hired presidents and CEOs whose primarily qualification was an MBA with no demonstrated interest in the purpose or vision.  I’ve also witnessed pathetic performance by PhDs at the helm, so all passion and no discipline makes no sense either.  We have to rethink our thinking about leadership.  In his opening sentence of Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Jim Collins states, “We must reject the idea–well intentioned, but dead wrong–that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors [which includes museums and historic sites] is to become ‘more like a business.'”  Can we make this required reading for all non-profit board members?

There are plenty of other lessons, such as “know your limits” and “know your fiduciary responsibilities,” but I’ll save those rants for another time.  And unfortunately, there probably will be another time and probably about a different museum or historic site.

6 thoughts on “Delaware Offering Lessons on Museum Management of the Wrong Kind IMHO

  1. madewells

    Great article! The trend toward building large, unnecessary visitor centers is confounding. As are board members who appreciate the collections less than a casual visitor.


  2. thehistorylist

    When I read this I thought of the mess at the Corcoran in Washington, where it seems like the board simply gave up and is trying to just rid itself of the institution and its collection, despite the clearly stated purpose of the founder.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Oh, the Corcoran! Here in DC, it’s been like watching an teenage slasher movie. You keep saying to yourself, “don’t go into that dark room alone” or “don’t walk home at night with the stranger”–but then they do. The Corcoran is currently trying to convince the court that they must break the terms of William W. Corcoran’s 1869 deed to survive. You’ll find the latest in “Closing arguments presented in plan to break up Corcoran Gallery” in the Washington Post. You’ll want to read the comments, too.


  3. Venky

    The CEO’s blind reliance on art auction houses and his lack of introspection on their misestimates are worrisome as well. Why did he not ask for a guarantee from them? I am sure there are many contractual ways to hold them to their estimtate. Even the used car market, which he compares the art market to, offers such lemons contracts. The lesson is not that prices vary in all markets, as he says but that all markets have suckers.


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