No Money, No Mission: Strategies for building a financially strong museum

“Talk about money, and everybody shows up!” Ann Metzger remarked to a standing-room-only crowd at the Monday morning ASTC 2015 session “No Money, No Mission: Strategies for building a financially strong museum.” Metzger, the Henry Buhl, Jr., co-director of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center, convened a group of chief executives to discuss the “nitty gritty” details of how their institutions have become financially sustainable in order to accomplish their educational missions.

David Chesebrough, president and CEO of COSI in Columbus, Ohio, said that reconciling money and mission is a “false dichotomy. We can’t have impact, which is what we’re really about, if we’re not sustainable. We can’t be sustainable if we’re not great at what we do.” He explained how COSI came back from a “near-death experience” of bankruptcy to becoming financially sustainable. COSI now rents out parts of its large building to outside organizations that not only help pay the rent but also provide added educational experiences for COSI visitors.

“Nonprofit needs to be our tax status, not our mindset,” Chesebrough said, stating that research shows that value perception is more important than price. “At COSI, we kept adding value and we kept testing the price point,” he said. Now that COSI is financially sustainable, Chesebrough said, it is doing a better job of achieving its mission, including engaging underserved audiences. He encouraged science centers to ask themselves: What are the needs in your community? What are you passionate about? What can you do better than anyone else? What’s the resource model that goes with that?

Next, Deborah Barnhart, CEO of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, explained how her center has gone from being in debt to becoming 100% self-sustaining on operational revenue. Half the center’s revenue comes from education programs, including its famous Space Camp. Another income-generator is a weekly beer garden, which features German food, local beer, a live band, and dancing—and they even allow dogs into the museum during this event! Barnhart recalled having to make difficult decisions, including laying off staff, to become financially sustainable. “I am unapologetic about the need to be financially responsible,” she said. “Money is not tawdry thing—it’s a necessary thing to accomplish your mission.”

Kim Herlev, director of Experimentarium in Hellerup, Denmark, described the center’s plans for a new building and a new, more stable business model.  By 2017, the center plans to earn about half its income from admission and reduce its dependence on government funding and grants by half. “We will have a much more commercial approach to what we do. We are not philanthropic company; we are commercial company,” he said. The new building will have a large outdoor exhibition, more indoor exhibition space, and commercial facilities, including a new restaurant, shop, and conference rooms. “Our new strategy is simple and focused. There will be a new commercial focus, a limited project portfolio, more science content, and a common goal that everybody is a part of.”

Finally, Henry Schulson, executive director of Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee,  explained this small institution’s approach, including collaborating with several other museums to share resources and approach the state for funding as a unit. Also, the museum has been raising its admission prices almost every other year without much pushback from the community. “If you don’t raise your price, will the quality suffer? If you have to make a choice, always go with quality.”