We invest our time, money, and energy in things that we value. Hence, though it may not be intentional, what we spend our resources on is an unfiltered indication of what we value.
If something is of particular importance to us—a priority—we will dedicate the needed resources to it. While museums are chronically underfunded, they still indicate their priorities in how they allocate what funding they do have. The budget = values concept is true for any company, organization, or person. Where we choose to invest our money, and how much, is a direct indication of how much we value the thing in which we invested.
How does a museum communicate what it values?
Museums communicate what they value through a combination of their mission statement, strategic plan, annual operating budget, slush fund allocation, and development (fundraising) activities. These values are then backed up by the prioritization of programs and projects that are in alignment. What is often not critically reviewed is how the budget communicates the values of the museum—as no program or project can function successfully without sufficient money to do so. Museums are used to periodically reviewing and renewing their strategic plan, program offerings, and activities as informed by what they value. Though the budget is also reviewed on an annual basis, it is not usually viewed through a values-based filter. When reviewing the museum budget to determine what the museum values, we should look for where the most money is going and if the money for each line item actually meets the need. (We’ll get into the specifics of evaluation in the next post).
The Budget v. Priority Incongruity
For many, being constantly conscious of where we spend money is not a normal mode. Additionally, it’s easy to remain perpetually occupied with a scarcity mindset and assume that valued areas aren’t getting money simply because the museum remains underfunded. Yes, that can be part of it. However, more significantly, we also aren’t prioritizing those value areas. Once a museum budget has been formed the categories and line items don’t often change. While this makes sense from the perspective of not wanting to recreate something that already exists, it runs the risk of maintaining a priority status quo that doesn’t actually reflect the values the museum purports to have. This status quo budgeting style risks widening the gap of incongruity between programs and projects that uphold the values of the museum and those that do not.
A Trigger Event Can Force a Budget Reprioritization
It can often take a trigger event for museum leadership to perform an exhaustive evaluation and overhaul of their budget. For some this can be a financial crisis, a natural disaster that caused damage to the collections, or a global pandemic. For example, prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many museums regularly assigned exhibition programs the largest portion of the budget—to the point where exhibitions were clearly the top priority. Now, after navigating the first years of COVID, museums have since shifted prioritization (and budgets) to balance their in-person programs with their digital offerings. Would a better in-person to digital balance have been achieved without a pandemic? Probably not, given just how long we’ve included digital projects, content, and programs as part of daily museum work.
Questions to Think About
- How are museum budget allocation decisions made?
- Is there a multi-stage evaluation process that includes stakeholders outside of executive leadership?
- Is there an evaluative framework in place that centers the what the museum values at the forefront of decision-making criteria?
Whether or not you have direct input into the museum operating budget, there is information that can be used to better understand the current budget and improve the future budget. In the coming weeks, we will review how to evaluate, inform, and influence the museum budget by leveraging the values the museum has committed to.
Rachael Cristine Woody
Rachael Woody advises on museum strategies, digital museums, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. She has authored several titles published by Lucidea Press, including her newest, Prepare for Takeoff: Get Your Museum Digital Project off the Ground. Rachael is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and an always-popular presenter.
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