Foster. Create. Develop. Diversify…
Museum leaders need real plans, not just buzzwords
By Adrian Ellis. Comment, Issue 211, March 2010
Published online: 25 February 2010
The American Association of Museums (AAM) has 15,000 individual members (mostly staff and board members of US museums), 3,000 institutional members (museums of art, but also history, science, biography, etc), and 300 corporate members of various sorts. It has just published a strategic plan, called The Spark, the first such plan in the organisation’s 104-year history according to its president, Ford Bell. It is a modest document in word count if not in aspiration. The first page outlines a set of beliefs and values with which it is difficult to argue (namely courage, creativity, inclusiveness, excellence and openness). The second and concluding page asserts four goals: excellence (again), sustainability, advocacy and “alignment”. Alignment means making sure that the AAM’s mission, business model, structure, alliances, etc, all line up in the same direction.
Each of the four single-word goals is followed by some bullet points with self-directed injunctions as to how they might be attained: for example: “Foster excellence through professional training,” and “Develop, deepen and diversify business opportunities.” The document is silent as to the financial and organisational implications of these goals for the AAM or its members.
Its creation was preceded by a professionally facilitated process of consultation, beginning with the board and membership of the AAM and extending to public bodies and other actual and potential stakeholders. It will be followed by an implementation plan in a few months. Notwithstanding the stated goal of openness, it is not the AAM’s intention to publish this. The Spark is, of course, not a plan at all—it is a set of broad aspirations, the realisation of which will in turn depend on a plan that is as yet unarticulated. It’s like taking the title page and chapter headings and calling it a book.
The habit of baldly asserting aspirations—often ones sufficiently vague not to invoke dissent—and calling it a plan, strategic or otherwise, is uncomfortably common in cultural planning. In the case of AAM, this is unfortunate, as there has probably never been a more important time for museums individually and collectively actually to plan, with intelligence, application and seriousness of purpose. Planning means working out a set of goals that further—or simply protect—the existential purposes of the institution, and then refining those goals and the paths to them until there is a robust institutional consensus as to how they can be achieved and by when. If there are no goals, there is no way of choosing a direction; but if there is no credible path mapped out as to how to reach the goals, however glorious, then it’s not a plan—it’s an untested assertion.
A strategic plan is not simply a document, especially not one comprising only headlines. It is a well-grounded and clearly articulated account of organisational means and ends. That plan is unlikely to progress unless there is a common understanding and endorsement of those means and ends amongst all those involved in making it a reality.
At the best of times, museum directors and their boards tend to be antipathetic to planning. They understandably dislike the jargon with which the whole exercise is often unnecessarily clothed. But they also dislike the overt declaration of institutional ambition explicit in the task of planning, and the participative process that is required to reach a factually grounded, publically defensible consensus about those means and ends.
A more common museum modus operandi is to use ambiguous, florid language and such deference as the institution can command to keep things open and fluid. I once heard this process described, in a brilliant, exculpatory euphemism, as “post-strategic thinking”. Any planning documents that are generated in the line of duty tend to be reluctant responses to third parties—mostly funders—and spun to meet those third parties’ expectations. “You are interested in what the arts can do for the cognitive and fine motor skills of infants? What a happy coincidence, we have a plan here that…”
This all works pretty well if you know what you are doing as a museum leader: not least when the financial challenges have routine and incremental solutions that you understand, and that can be manoeuvred into place; and when your professional shibboleths are generally in good repair—in other words, normal times.
In a field that is understandably conservative, the radical examination of means and ends implicit in any authentic planning process is unlikely to appeal. Things have got to get pretty wild before you are forced so far out of your comfort zone as to re-examine means and ends.
The question that most preoccupies leadership today is: Do we need to rethink fundamentally or can we tough it out?
I would assert that the museum sector is in a period of abnormality, and that therefore we need to plan. Accelerating demographic change; technology morphing at warp speed; seductive leisure options exploding; leisure-time imploding; an education system that increasingly regards museums much as the fireman regarded the book-people in Fahrenheit 451; our wilful, underfunded expansion of the sector, and a partially stalled claim on the agendas of urban regeneration, tourism and community building… Museum leaders have a lot on their plates that is unfamiliar. Above all, they have a set of rules and mores by which their institutions are run (those shibboleths again) that are no longer as compelling to the wider communities in which they operate.
These are times for planning—honest, granular, unexpurgated examination of goals, their rationales and wider resonance, and a realistic assessment of the resources needed and on what scale they can be met.
The AAM and other overarching bodies like it have a responsibility to help museums face these issues in as informed a fashion as they can. It is pretty much their raison d’être. They are genuinely vexing challenges and we need a plurality of approaches tried and documented.
I hope the AAM will in the event publish its plan, as opposed to the chapter heads, when eventually completed. Without it, it will be impossible to know whether The Spark has the capacity to catch and provide warmth and succour.
The writer is a director of AEA Consulting and a regular contributor to The Art Newspaper. The AAM’s strategic plan can be found at www.aam-us.org
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