Running an Art Museum for Fun and Profit, Part II: When It’s Time to Slash and Burn

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Most of this decorative frippery could be dismantled and sold as scrap metal. (photo credit: Valerie Everett via photopin cc)

Last weekend’s suggestion-box entry regarding possible economic improvement measures at the Indianapolis Museum of Art wasn’t intended as the launch of a new MCC series, merely a one-off, tongue-in-cheek response to other online reactions. Then again, I wasn’t expecting to see the IMA recapture the headlines this soon.

On Monday local news sources confirmed that our city’s largest art museum has eliminated twenty-nine employees (11% of the total staff) as part of their ongoing efforts to stem the losses from previous years’ shortfalls, and as part of new director/CEO Charles Venable’s plan to minimize budgetary dependence on the museum’s endowment fund, which weathered considerable battle damage during the 2008 recession. I don’t envy the position in which Venable and his survivors now find themselves, though I’m a little bitter that they didn’t even try any of my awesome ideas before swinging the axe of doom.

My suggestions were aimed at attracting larger crowds from multiple social strata, particularly those who eschew the IMA because of an intense allergy to art. More feet and eyes means more potential spending, or at least more opportunities for enlightening and tantalizing the masses with their exhibits and their distinctive architecture. My underlying theme was one of tolerance for residents of all neighborhoods great and small, even those with the scariest crime rates and filthiest supermarkets.

Alas, the average business operating on a for-profit paradigm has but two choices during lean times: earn more or spend less. If my proposed IMA-exclusive transmedia exhibition, “Lolpets: the Secret Kingdom”, has indeed been rejected as a frivolous nonstarter without so much as a single focus-group session to tear it apart first, then perhaps it’s naive of me to think that the IMA has a prayer of attracting any newcomers beyond the existing fan base. I suppose I can understand that line of thinking — comic book shops suffer from that same state of cliquish stagnation. But is it too late for you other owners, directors, and CEOs out there to salvage your own art museums as well?

If your art museum struggles likewise to inveigle new dollars from your local constituents, then the only alternative may well be to cut spending, reduce services, tighten belts, and take advice from self-help books written by the Ebenezer Scrooges of our time. If that’s the way the art game has to be played in today’s world, then by all means, let’s roll out those drastic austerity measures. Depending on how brazen and careless you’re feeling, consider one or more of the following suggestions:

* Hire neighborhood kids to mow the lawns instead of trained pros. If all those expensive flower bulbs can’t survive the teen mowing onslaught, then they weren’t meant to be anyway.

* Ditch the luxurious cafe altogether; fill the niche with a few water fountains and a chips-‘n’-candy vending machine.

* Post a notepad next to every piece on which visitors can add a tally mark confirming they actually viewed and contemplated said piece instead of bypassing it. Every Sunday evening, the five works with the lowest number of tally marks are consigned to eBay.

* Disconnect the HVAC; encourage patrons to bring their own hand fans or dress in layers.

* Since admission is free anyway, replace the concierge and the entire information desk with a single poster-sized map (think “mall directory”) and a motion-sensitive, talking Elmo doll programmed with five different welcome messages. If the economy recovers, send Elmo to eBay and hire an 80-year-old Wal-Mart greeter.

* Discontinue any and all traveling exhibitions unless a famous movie star agrees to promote them in person.

* Rent the top floor to another, more successful company. See if the folks at ExactTarget have quadrupled their profits and workforce again and need yet another location to stack some extra programmers.

* Revoke museum memberships from those who never buy anything when they visit. Clearly they’re heartless freeloaders taking advantage of you in your time of weakness. If they really appreciated what you do for the community, they’d totally go above and beyond the baseline membership fees and empty their wallets on your doorstep every time they show up and say hi. Guilt-trip them if you must.

* Shrink the museum name. Thousands could be saved on printing costs for ads and brochures if the unwieldy “Indianapolis Museum of Art” were shortened to just “IndyArtSeum”. (Yes, I realize “IMA” is even shorter, but you still have to waste space and time explaining the acronym. If you don’t, people will start pronouncing it “Ima” and eventually segue into easy “Ima [insert insult here]” jokes at your expense. Ditching the lengthy moniker and its easily distorted abbreviation is the way to go.)

* Price everything in the gift shop at $1.00. Everything. It’s clearance time. All that merchandise, especially those coffee-table books and imported cubicle knickknacks, really needs to move. Before April 15th, if possible.

* Discontinue the official site and let the domain expire; relocate your content to a Facebook Page instead.

* Make those upscale after-hours dinner parties BYOB.

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