Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

How we fund our work matters

Installation view, “Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise” at SculptureCenter, New York 2017. Photo: Kyle Knodell.

Mary Ceruti, How to Raise the Money You Need to Run a Thriving Museum—While Preserving Your Independence, ArtNet, 11 September 2018

The director of SculptureCenter proposes a few best practices at a time when it’s never been more expensive to operate a cultural institution.

It’s never been more expensive to run an art museum than it is right now. From rising everyday costs for shipping and insurance to the growing need for programming that expands beyond the confines of the gallery space, the resources required to serve our communities are swelling by the day. Meanwhile, foundation support for the arts has declined, and donors who do give have adopted increasingly specific criteria. They are simultaneously seeking transformative change and measurable results.

The result of these colliding factors is that museums are under unprecedented pressure to develop new and sustainable revenue sources to fulfill their missions. In doing so, however, they must explore entrepreneurial strategies for generating income without compromising their role as informed, fair narrators of cultural history and arbiters of cultural debate.

This challenge has no easy, one-size-fits-all solution. The right path can look very different depending on an organization’s mission, its assets, and its community. But the perception that a museum’s programming might be driven by any individual donor’s agenda or its own interest in growth and expansion erodes the public’s trust.

Over the past few years, several articles have pointed out that a disproportionately large number of solo exhibitions in major American art museums have gone to artists represented by a small handful of galleriesand that commercial galleries are increasingly funding museum exhibitionsof work by artists they represent. There is a legitimate concern that the artwork exhibited, collected, and canonized will be preselected by the commercial market, or at least appear to be. This trend tends to concern large institutions that work with established artists represented by established galleries—the kind that can afford to foot the bill for exhibitions.

With regard to smaller institutions, we might make a case that the role of the commercial sector in supporting the non-profit sphere is to be lauded. In many cases, especially when done through benefit events and annual gifts (as opposed to exhibition underwriting), it reflects a recognition of the important work these smaller organizations do for the larger art community—identifying experimental art practices and supporting artists well before they have built an audience or secured gallery representation.

How, when, and for what purpose support is given to an institution—regardless of its size—and how that support fits within a larger fundraising plan can make the difference between a perception among audiences of undue influence and a healthy engagement with the entirety of the art ecosystem.

How We Fund Our Work Matters

If museums of all sizes are to grow into our increasingly complex roles as stewards of material culture and platforms for cultural discourse and bring our audiences along with us in that journey, two things are critical.

First, we must conduct our fundraising in ways that preserve our curatorial independence on which the public trust depends. Second, our fundraising activities need to work in concert with, and not compromise, our values as an institution. At SculptureCenter, the non-collecting contemporary art institution in Long Island City where I serve as director, we’ve given this subject a lot of thought. Based in New York, where the commercial art market dominates so much of the conversation, we are committed to providing artists a space outside of that market to create and present new work.

The growing normalization of gallery support for museums is part of a larger shift in arts funding—and philanthropy in general. Individual donors increasingly expect to see direct and visible impact of their gift in the short term. This might take the form of a renovated gallery, increased attendance, or positive press coverage.

Of course, no one should be expected to part with their hard-earned money without an understanding of what that money will accomplish. But funding that is narrowly targeted at an individual project and the practice of measuring a gift’s impact over a one- or two-year period ignores an important reality about art: It often reveals a context or a condition that we don’t immediately recognize. This makes it difficult to measure the impact of truly innovative art in the short term.

The initial unpopularity of artistic movements such as Impressionism or Cubism are often cited as examples of this. But often these things play out in more subtle ways, like when a young artist has the opportunity to show for the first time or take a new direction in their work. This may not bring in crowds or even any reviews, but it might be the difference between the next Andy Warhol giving up their art career completely or soldiering on. An out-of-the-box exhibition like the incredibly influential “When Attitudes Become Form” in 1969 led its curator to Harald Szeemann to resign under pressure, but it eventually changed the way we think about the role of a curator and an exhibition.

For this reason, general operating support is the lifeblood of museums and helps to ensure artistic risk-taking and independence. This kind of funding is the least glamorous and often the least appealing to donors, but also the most essential. It can be put toward whatever is most needed with no strings attached, whether that is light bulbs, health insurance for the staff, or a small programmatic experiment.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Mr Brian Oldman, South Australian Museum PO Box 234 Adelaide, South Australia 5001 Australia, © CAMD 2022
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