During these challenging economic times, Michael Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History, explains three methods cultural institutions should adopt in order to maintain their influence and importance in society.
The current economic climate poses unique and difficult challenges for cultural institutions. Because they're not in the business of feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless, making their case to donors and convincing them that the needs they meet are in many ways equally important, is especially daunting.
The simple fact is they don't meet those basic human needs. Yet we all know that a society without museums, symphony orchestras, operas, dance and theater would be sterile and sorely missing so much of what makes life rich and fulfilling.
How, then, do those of us charged with leading cultural institutions make our case to donors and thereby ensure our continued sustainability?
First, we must educate our donors so they understand their indispensability. In the case of museums, for example, recent data from the American Association of Museums suggest that, on average, museums rely on annual contributions for 37% of their budgets.
If museum donors decided simply to sit out a year or two, the effect on museums would therefore be devastating. The earned income we generate from admissions, shops, cafes and so on simply wouldn't be sufficient to avoid crippling deficits. Those of us without significant endowments would soon face extreme cuts, or even closure.
Second, today's economic environment makes strategic branding and marketing all the more important. Every cultural organisation must fashion and communicate effectively a coherent, focused and compelling sense of its mission and purpose, why they matter, and what would be lost were the organisation to fail.
For example, in the case of the National Museum of American Jewish History, we focus on our uniqueness as the only institution telling the story we tell - the story of the American Jewish experience - and the importance to all Americans of remembering and re-telling that story.
Once we make those two points convincingly, it's far easier for donors to understand that without their support, something of unique value could be lost.
Third, cultural institutions must remain nimble and flexible, so they maintain their ability to innovate and attract new patrons, visitors and supporters.
At our museum, although we have been open only a year, we're now undertaking a thorough and independent evaluation of our core exhibition with a view to determine its strengths, how effectively it communicates its primary themes, whether there are other themes, subjects or ideas that are missing or require better articulation, and also whether we give our visitors the tools necessary to navigate the exhibition.
We undertook this evaluation because we were convinced it would help us maintain an engaging, memorable and meaningful exhibition about the history of Jewish life in America, because its learnings would help us stay relevant to our audiences and our supporters.
These are challenging times for cultural institutions. But responding appropriately to these challenges can make us stronger and ensure we will be here to meet the human needs that only we can meet.