Chapter 1 – Introduction
The title of this book – How to Close a Museum – is really a misnomer, because there is no single resource that will serve as a practical guide for all museums. We recognize an incredibly diverse museum field – from museums with no collections to living collections to encyclopedic collections, to historic homes and university museums, to private museums and public museums with various governing bodies – with legal requirements for dissolution that vary state by state. Each museum will also find itself in varying situations with regards to its Bylaws, Articles of Incorporation, financial condition, community relations, and any legal restrictions or encumbrances. This book focuses largely on nonprofit museums that have received a tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, known as their 501(c)(3), in most cases. While there are many museums that successfully operate as for-profit businesses, their process of closure does not involve a dissolution, pursuant to – and approved by – state and federal legal requirements. Nevertheless, there are some for-profit corporations that have museums (which are nonprofit, part of nonprofit corporate foundations, or part of the for-profit) that also experience permanent closures.
This book is intended to provide all museum staff, boards, volunteers, donors, and students a better understanding about the complex and mysterious process of dissolution – from legal, ethical, and practical perspectives – in order to direct open conversations surrounding a closure that need to take place, to encourage museums to plan ahead, to recognize early indicators, to imagine scenarios, and to consider several ways to react including closure alternatives. This book also focuses on museums in the United States, as laws are different in other countries. For example, national collections in France are “inalienable” and cannot be sold without an act of Parliament. In the Netherlands, if an object was donated it must be first offered back to the donor, and if it was acquired with government funds, it must first be offered to another Dutch museum.
The next thing to clear up, is that this book is in no way meant to encourage museums to close. The fact that this book was written during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, indicates the sad reality that many museums have already closed and will continue to close because of this unexpected external crisis. But actually, there have been, and will always be, natural disasters and unforeseen catastrophes that push some museums over the edge. Many U.S. museums suffered after the 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001, after the Great Recession in 2008, after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the wildfires in California, and museums in Europe suffered during World War II. Many more museums decide to permanently close (or are forced to close) for reasons that are more internally focused, such as mission shift and change of focus, loss of founders and major donors, change in governance structure, and certainly financial problems. Miriam Posner, assistant professor of information studies and digital humanities at the University of California Los Angeles, writes about Failed Museums following the Great Recession. Selecting six museums that closed, she offers this reflection,
These failed museums offer not only cautionary tales and warnings, but valuable illustrations of the nature of collections, the life of artifacts and the infrastructure of cultural institutions. They show us that museums are not handed down from on high. They are fallible, sometimes messy projects that rely on a wide range of stakeholders and networks of support.
This book is intended as a step by step guide to dissolution when museums have made that difficult decision – whether the decision comes unexpectedly or through a planning process – and as a guide for all museums that undergo regular planning processes, and in particular those museums that are experiencing difficulties. The American Alliance of Museums reports that in 2012,
Economic difficulties also spurred increased attention to strategic planning…with 34% of museums reporting a change in strategic plans (including the creation of a new strategic plan) to reflect changes in economic condition. Museums that experienced moderate to severe economic stress were twice as likely to engage in this kind of strategic planning.”
As part of best practices and national (and international) standards for museums that are intended to minimize risk and plan for the future, museums are encouraged to create core documents such as a Collections Management Policy, Disaster Preparedness Plan or Emergency Response Plan, Strategic Institutional Plan, and even a Succession Plan and Code of Ethics, among other plans and policies. The goal is always to preserve the collections and buildings for future generations, and to ensure the safety of staff and visitors. Yet when all these aforementioned documents address that unforeseen future there is one glaring omission; what to do when faced with total failure. Every plan is designed to prevent failure, yet the reality is that museums do sometimes fail because of the many reasons we have just cited. We know that many (and probably more) small businesses and for-profit corporations regularly fail for all these same reasons.
If you are reading this book while you are in the very midst of a crisis (internal or external), you may think that all this talk about planning and closure alternatives is simply useless; there is absolutely no time for that and what you need now is swift action. I hear you because I was there. After 14 months as executive director of the Pasadena Museum of California Art spent trying desperately to save a struggling small art museum with no collection, the Chairman of the Board suddenly decided to propose to the full board that the museum close permanently, and immediately. He notified me two days before the board meeting, at which all board members agreed to close. The final vote was taken five days later, without having asked staff about the museum’s obligations, fundraising, finances, staffing, or programming, and certainly with no plan in hand. As you will read about in greater detail in Chapters 4 and 5, this was not an ideal way to close a museum. It has been a long process of reflection and evaluation, together with former staff and in conversation with the museum field through a panel presentation at the California Association of Museums conference in 2020 (first in-person and then virtually). This book will guide readers on all the steps to take, when to take them, and how to take care of themselves in the course of what will be an extremely stressful and emotional period.
The parts that are most relevant for these desperate situations are Chapter 2 on Legal Considerations, Emergency Appeals in Chapter 4 (Planning), and all of Chapter 5 (Step by Step). I cannot stress enough how important ethical considerations are to this process – which are discussed in Chapter 3 under the intentionally cryptic name of Above and Beyond. Consider this chapter as your intimate advisor and use the talking points when you have those difficult conversations with Boards of Directors, with funders, staff, or as you lay awake at night trying to find answers and not forget anything. The responsibility that all museums have to society, the public, their cultures and communities (regardless of their governance or structure), should be foremost in their thinking when they plan to operate, just as when they plan to close. The relationships that museums have forged over years of service and partnerships will guide the decisions they make, and how they choose to close. Be very clear that you do have a choice. Communities and members can be a vital ally during these critical times – supporting and defending museums such as with the Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan or the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, or communities can angrily rise up against museums with public protests and lawsuits, sometimes forming incorporated organizations and creating alliances with museum staff. These examples include the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa Valley, California, the Laguna Art Museum in California, and the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington D.C., among many others. In these unfortunate cases, opposition is directed at museum leaders and not at the institution itself, which critics are desperately trying to preserve. This book will help readers to prepare for resistance, both internal and external, and learn from the examples of other museums.
The case studies that are included throughout the book focus on the conditions of closure and not as much on why the museums closed, how the closures could have been prevented, or what went wrong, which would require a separate book for each case because of their complexity. They are meant as a snapshot to understand how different types of museums under various conditions faced different challenges and outcomes. I was fortunate to connect with many museum professionals who were involved with these cases. Some former staff are eager to discuss their experiences and reflect on lessons learned, in the hopes of helping others in the museum field. Other former staff are constrained by non-disclosure agreements that they signed upon departing the museum, and others have their personal reasons for not wanting to discuss the difficult museum closures that they experienced. If you find that one of these cases resonates with your own museum experience, I encourage you to try and contact individuals involved and dive deeper into researching that particular closure.
It is important to note that not all the case studies ended in permanent closure. Many stories of museums came very, very close, but instead survived for different reasons that are discussed briefly in the case studies, and in greater detail in Chapter 4. Planning helps us to imagine several alternate futures and how your museum might react and prepare accordingly. AAM’s Center for the Future of Museum’s founding director Elizabeth Merritt writes about the importance of forecasting and scenario planning, especially when faced with the worst-case scenario of the highest impact. This type of planning can alert museums to crucial indicators and red flags so that you can identify and potentially minimize risks, thereby avoiding permanent closure. Some of these closure alternatives include mergers and acquisitions, scaling down, and emergency appeals. Yet even the herculean efforts that museums make to survive do not preclude the need to always consider the possibility of closure and to plan accordingly.
There are many ways to close a museum, as you will read about in the case studies, and not all of them require a legal dissolution process. It is necessary to understand all these distinctions, because during times of crisis we often see headlines and official reports about museums closing. While the crises are dangerous indeed, remember that not all museum closures are final, and not all are disastrous. Chapter 4 will discuss the lifecycle of a nonprofit, which can explain how certain museums plan for closure by voluntary dissolution, ensuring that their museum’s legacy, collections, and staff are well taken care of for the future. Museums can decide to merge their buildings and collections, sometimes resulting in a completely new organization with a renewed focus. Chapters 3 and 4 will provide tips on how to best plan a merger, what questions need to be asked, and when a merger becomes an acquisition. Regardless of the amount of time you have to plan, these questions will lead your museum to consider its values and priorities; what would you sacrifice first to save the museum, and what needs to remain for your museum to still function and provide a public benefit? Is it your staff, executive salaries and bonuses, unused collections, public programs, or property? You will need to weigh the priorities of your own museum – its history, Bylaws and Articles of Incorporation – with the needs of your community, the standards and guidelines of the professional museum field, and certainly the law.
Read this book when your museum has decided to permanently close, read this book if your museum is going through difficulties or significant changes, read this book if your museum is in the process of strategic or scenario planning, and finally, read this book before you even think of starting a new museum. Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) was quoted in The Winona Times as saying, “When one door closes another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” We may also know this popular saying as, “Every cloud has a silver lining,” or in Spanish as “No hay mal que por bien no venga.” Closure is not the end, and not every closure can be considered a failure. Can your museum recover, and if so, will you innovate, improve, and shift your focus? Imagine what that would look like. Disruptions can lead to innovation, improvisation, and growth, for organizations, as well as for communities and for individuals. No matter what happens in the end, every museum has a legacy, which can be shaped beforehand with planning, open conversations, and thoughtful decisions as discussed in Chapter 3. Be open to the closure planning process, which may offer non-traditional ways to adapt or to give back, and which also may bring last-minute miracles. Museums should close with the same integrity and dedication that they operate. This is the best way to provide public benefit.