A Mixed Prognosis for Regional Museum Associations

In the United States, museums are served by six regional museum associations that are associated (allied?) with the American Alliance of Museums (AAM):

While AAM is doing well with about $10 million in annual revenues and net assets of $2 million, the regional museum associations are much much smaller by comparison. Their annual revenues range from $70,000 to $600,000, which is 1-7% of AAM’s annual revenues (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Chart of revenues for regional museum associations in the US, FY 2014-16.

That might be acceptable given these associations serve a few states rather than all 50, but a further analysis of their financial condition in fiscal years 2014-2016 suggests that their health is decidedly mixed:

A couple are healthy and strong: NEMA and SEMC, the “eastern” associations. NEMA is by far the financially strongest of the regional associations. Even though it ran a deficit every year, they’ve been minor compared to the size of its assets and it could be argued they are squeezing their revenues as much as possible to deliver services to their members. SEMC may be collecting about half the revenues of NEMA but it making dramatic progress on growing its net assets by generating significant annual surpluses (see Figures 2 and 3). If they maintain this pace, they could equal NEMA’s by 2019 and give them generous reserves to pursue opportunities or as a cushion if the economy falters.

Figure 2. Chart of income (revenue less expenses) for regional museum associations in the US, FY 2014-16. Data for FY 2014 is unavailable for MAAM from GuideStar.

A couple are stable: MPMA and WMA, the “western” associations. WMA collects about the same annual revenue as SEMC but its net assets are less than half, which is comparable to MPMA. Both of these regional associations have experienced fluctuating income but revenues and net assets are steady (see Figures 2 and 3). If they incurred deficits, they were small and were easily overcome by surpluses generated in adjacent years.

A couple need critical care: AMM and MAAM, the “middle” associations. MAAM seems to be struggling with wildly fluctuating annual revenue but also net assets that are close to zero, and AMWM looks like it will join them soon as deficits continue and net assets fall precipitously (see Figure 3). Based on the data available, I wouldn’t be surprised if either one went bankrupt in the near future.

Figure 3. Chart of net assets for regional museum associations in the US, FY 2014-16.

This analysis isn’t intended to wag a finger at the “middle” associations but to consider the health of the museum field as a whole. No doubt every regional association should have a different mix of revenues and expenses to best serve its members, but they should be equally healthy. Deficits, for example, shouldn’t exceed five percent of net assets unless it’s part of a larger strategy. The current situation questions whether the weakest associations should slip into a quiet death or if there’s a need to resuscitate them. If they disappeared, would we miss them? Perhaps the better question is: should we miss them?

Associations provide opportunities to meet, learn, and support each other, which in turn benefits our communities through stronger museums and better public programs. Yet I’ve found that in my work with museums across the country, it is an incredibly isolated environment compared to other businesses, and association membership, professional development, and continuing education are treated as a luxuries. Even taking an afternoon to visit a nearby museum or historic site is regarded as an activity that staff should do on their personal time outside of work, not as an essential learning experience for staff.

Obviously, museums need to decide on a budget that is sensible for them but I hope they will affirm or increase their commitment to professional development, which includes membership in a museum association. On the other hand, museum associations need to rethink their value to their members; it has to go beyond a quarterly newsletter and an annual meeting. Should the board be smaller and based on competencies rather than representation? Do they need to narrow their services and products? For more ideas, read Race for Relevance: Five Radical Changes for Associations by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers (2011).

I’m also wondering about the role of AAM. Weaknesses in the regional associations will affect its ability to achieve its goals for advocacy and a stronger museum field. Could it partner with a regional organization to address a field-wide issue, such as unpaid internships, deaccessioning, or environmental sustainability, that’s too difficult to navigate on a national level? Should it partner with the Institute of Museum and Library Services to build capacity in the regional and discipline-based associations (which could include the American Public Gardens Association, Association of African American Museums, and Association of Zoos & Aquariums)?

Finally, donors and foundations need to more actively consider associations as a crucial part of building capacity and sustainability within the nonprofit field. Could museum associations serve as re-granting agencies that could be more thoughtfully and efficiently respond to the needs of their members? The Lilly Endowment Inc. is successfully using this approach to support local museums and historic sites through the Indiana Historical Society.

I’m hoping that by 2027 all of the regional museum associations are stronger and healthier organizations, but especially the Association of Midwest Museums as it celebrates its 100th anniversary. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed 180 years ago in Democracy in America:

“all citizens are independent and weak; they can do almost nothing by themselves, and none of them can oblige those like themselves to lend them their cooperation. They therefore all fall into impotence if they do not learn to aid each other freely. . . . In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.”