The Art of the Turnaround, Revisited

The Art of the Turnaround, Revisited

When I started as director of the Haffenreffer Museum, two years ago, Michael Gerhardt, a professional interim director who was then interim director of Mt. Hope Farm, suggested I read Michael Kaiser’s Art of the Turnaround. It was good advice.Image

Kaiser gives ten rules for turning around an arts organization. You can find versions of them on many websites: here’s the version from a useful interview with Kaiser at Minnesota Public Radio

  • 1. Someone must lead.
  • 2. That someone must have a plan.
  • 3. You can’t save your way to health.
  • 4. Focus on today and tomorrow, not the past.
  • 5. Extend your program calendar.
  • 6. Use both institutional and programmatic marketing.
  • 7. Have only one spokesman.
  • 8. Focus fund-raising on large donors, but don’t aim too high.
  • 9. Restructure the board if needed.
  • 10. Have the discipline to follow the rules.

Reviewers of the book have noted that much of Kaiser’s advice is not as useful for small organizations as for large. It might seem to have even less applicability to a small university museum, with its restricted fundraising and governance.

But I found Kaiser’s advice valuable. Here’s how, and what I wish I had paid more attention to, looking back.

Rules 1 and 2: “There has to be a leader and the leader needs a plan.” I should have taken this to heart more quickly. The challenge in coming into a new organization is that what’s most obvious is how much you don’t know about it. You don’t even know the right questions to ask. How to lead, and make a plan, when you’re trying to figure out how the place works? It took me six month to figure this out. I spent too much time doing what was easy for me to do – what I had done as a curator – and not enough time planning and leading. (I have tried to help the next director by giving him some clear sense of the museum’s open questions, ongoing challenges, and hard-to-find resources.)

The answer to that lies in what I think is the most important of Kaiser’s rules, number 4: Focus on today and tomorrow, not the past. It’s a waste of energy to spend time rehashing the past, Kaiser says. But much more than that: institutions need to look forward. This is especially the case with museums. Museums have a great deal of inertia. It’s hard to overstate that: Museums are defined by their inertia. There is good reason for this. Museum collections don’t change easily, and serve (on the one hand) to anchor the institution, to keep it focused, to keep it centered. Or (on the other hand) to keep it from changing. Museum staff, their expertise built over many years, is loyal to the collections, sometimes more so than to the organization, or to new ideas.

Museum don’t move quickly, and so they are defined, more than many organizations, by decisions made in their past. Museum employees spend a great deal of time rehashing the past. Rule 4 can help overcome that.

Rule 6 applies especially well to a university museum: Use both institutional and programmatic marketing. Kaiser urges us to think beyond marketing programs and to market the entire institution. A university museum is about a wide range of services. You can sell individual programs, but it’s more important to also sell the whole idea of the museum. Institutional marketing takes many forms at a university, but a lot of it is just getting the word out and being open to ideas from students, staff and faculty. Universities are full of ideas!

Rule 3, “You can’t save your way to health,” applies in a special way to university museums. I take it to mean: get out and do things. Show the university that you’re an exciting place. Spend money on projects and programs that make a splash. One of the most difficult challenges for a museum director is to balance the competing needs of taking care of the endless needs of the collection and the costs of more ephemeral public programs. There are museums that have succeeded by going either way. I took from Kaiser’s Rule 3: do things that makes splash.

The other rules seem less immediately useful to my work, because of the way that university museums are structured. But perhaps that just means that I should have taken them more seriously: About those big donors, and restructuring the board… advice for the next director!

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