AN ONGOING DISCUSSION IN THE HISTORY MUSEUM COMMUNITY (and I suspect in other cultural communities) has to do with its saturation of organizations. Practically every county or parish in the United States has at least one history museum, historic house or historic site. At least one. In some areas of the country, it's impossible to travel ten miles without landing on the doorstep of a local history museum.
Almost all of them are nonprofit entities, which means they are organized around a board of trustees, committees and legions of volunteers. They rely on philanthropy and perhaps some government, foundation and corporate funding. They own property that runs the gamut from one-room schoolhouses to whole historic districts, recreated villages, airplane hangars and everything in between. And then there are the multiple millions of collection items in their care.
Nonprofit cultural institutions, whether they're a storefront theater workshop or a major symphony, are heavily resource dependent all the time. Their board seats must be filled, their committees must be active, their staffs and volunteers must be producing programming and garnering support, their audiences must show up.
Two sobering reports were recently issued by the National Endowment for the Arts and Americans for the Arts that discuss the decline of audience participation in all traditional arts and cultural organizations, yet the formation of traditional arts and cultural organizations remain on the increase. This obvious disconnect, I think, is the result of default mode thinking on the part of organization founders (and encouraged by community leaders, elected officials and governmental incorporators) that a nonprofit organization is the remedy to addressing community - or in some cases, personal - need.
As a result, the starting question always seems to be: how do we start a nonprofit organization, be it a museum, an arts center, a community theater, a you name it?
I think we're asking the wrong starting question. The question is not should we form a nonprofit entity, but something more like
- how should community history be preserved or taught?
- what is the best way to showcase and build the capacity of our region's artistic talent?
- how can artists of all types participate in schools?
- how can non-traditional arts and culture participants share their talents, experiences and passions for what they like to do?
Photo: Orange Question Mark Button from jhhwild