Marrying Culture and Commerce in Today's Museums

Marrying Culture and Commerce in Today's Museums

Museum leaders today must fight a two-front war — the well-known mission battle and the financial stability and growth battle. Finding a balance between the two requires uniting culture and commerce.

At the Henry Ford, we are, first and foremost, a mission-driven organization with a clear vision for where we want to be in a few short years from now. Our mission and vision statements convey both an identity and purpose for the institution and a broad strategic direction for achieving its potential. But today, lofty and noble statements of being and purpose, no matter how well and widely understood, are not sufficient to generate let alone guarantee success. Something more is required.

That additional element is a clear understanding that we are both a mission-driven museum complex and a multi-faceted, complex business. A successful museum represents a marriage of culture and commerce. And just as in marriages of committed individuals, to be successful we must pay careful, continual, dedicated attention to establishing and maintaining the appropriate and often delicate balance between what can otherwise be competing and incompatible interests.

Like other cultural institutions, we must operate according to sound business practices while staying true to our mission. We must grow our revenue without jeopardizing public accessibility to what we offer. We must control our costs without diminishing the quality of our product or capacity to serve. We must respond to ever-shifting audience demands while remaining faithful to our founder's intent. And we must never lose sight of our critical educational purpose.

Moreover, we must find ways to be relevant and attractive to contemporary audiences while maintaining our role as steward of our nation's past. We must be both attraction and museum, listener and presenter, teacher and student, master of our mission-fit content and servant to the public.

For all nonprofit museums, achieving and sustaining this balance requires a keen and deep understanding of the environment in which they operate. Environmental factors can and do significantly affect business operations and, therefore, an ability to meet one's mission and serve one's institutional purpose. Being a nonprofit educational institution does not make an organization immune from many of the same issues currently challenging for-profit enterprises.

Like for-profits, museums must contend with skyrocketing healthcare costs and steeply rising expenses in retiree programs. Museums increasingly operate in environments where there is even greater competition for the attention and discretionary dollars of business and leisure travelers who constitute important parts of our market. It also costs museums more each year to deliver our messages to our markets through advertising and promotion.

When times are tough for the business community, there is less money available to host catered events on our sites or to partake in the sponsorship opportunities we offer. There's also less money available for direct philanthropic support from the corporate sector for organizations like ours. However, that support is critical to our ability to develop new products, make capital improvements, or enhance technological support structures to meet new business needs and opportunities.

These are not challenges that museums can successfully address through loyalty to mission and fidelity to purpose, alone. We must recognize that we are also businesses often of considerable size and scale and we must operate wisely. Our reputations, fortunes and futures depend on delivering compelling, memorable visitor experiences; educational value; and hospitality and service. But we must also develop sustainable business models to increase our revenues and reduce our costs.

In addition, museums like other nonprofits must get the right people on their boards, people who understand and are dedicated to the museum's mission but who also possess the requisite skill sets of modern business entrepreneurs. To find and recruit that combination of talent and disposition, museums might need to look outside of the traditional not-for-profit museum industry.

Another essential component is a commitment to collaboration. That idea is literally etched in stone on the donor wall of the Josephine Ford Plaza entrance to Greenfield Village on our campus. Above the arch, the inscription reads: "Everything of significance we do today, we do in partnership with others." While collaboration has become something of a buzzword today, it is also a practical imperative.

Going back to my earlier analogy, any marriage of committed individuals, no matter how well their interests and ambitions are aligned and integrated, can fail in some measure if it remains an isolated relationship. To be strong, to be effective, to be healthy and successful, our individual organizations need external relationships. We must carefully cultivate numerous, lasting, and mutually beneficial collaborative relationships with individuals, organizations, businesses, and other entities throughout the public and private sectors. Potential partners range from global corporations and major governmental units to small neighborhood and ethnic community-based organizations.

Nurture each side culture and commerce equally and consistently. Your patient and dedicated application of the principles I've described could be just the thing to keep your museum's "marriage" intact.

Patricia Mooradian is president of The Henry Ford, located in Dearborn, Michigan. Founded in 1929 by automotive pioneer Henry Ford, the complex includes the Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, the Henry Ford IMAX Theatre, the Benson Ford Research Center, the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, and Henry Ford Academy, a public charter high school on its grounds.