Comments to Sheldon Museum Annual Meeting 11/12/19

We have over 6000 non-profits in Vermont with annual revenues of some $6.5B and assets of over $13B. That’s one non-profit, or “for-mission,” as some prefer to say, for every 100 Vermonters. Sounds outlandish but remember that the non-profit community covers a vast array of needs: education, healthcare, social safety net, criminal justice, the environment, civic endeavors, the economy, trade associations, and our cultural community. The cultural non-profits include seven principal groupings: the arts, museums and galleries, history, folklife, libraries, and humanities. And each of them has its own subspecies.

Overall, in the business sector we create jobs, opportunities, and tax revenue. In the government sector we try to maintain order and fulfill commonly shared needs. And in the non-profit community we do everything that the first two sectors don’t and some that they do. More specifically, in the cultural non-profits we feed the mind and spirit and work to build community.

As someone who has lived here for 72 years, I’m amazed by Vermont’s volunteer workforce – tens of thousands of people from all over who work for free to make our state and its communities better places to live, work, and learn. I’ve often said that if every volunteering Vermonter went on strike for a month, the state, its 255 municipalities, and many vital institutions would grind to a halt.

In my long life, I have twice chaired the VT Arts Council and the VT Folklife Center. I’ve also chaired or served on the boards of other related cultural enterprises. I know how vital these jewels in our crown are.

But we have challenges. Most non-profits survive on both earned and philanthropic revenues. A few get block grants from the government sector. The tenuous balance of earned, granted, and philanthropic revenue is constantly in flux, creating challenges for us all.

But I would suggest that the much greater challenge is society’s migration from a love of site-based experience to on-screen, vicarious experience.

The delight of my childhood was being loaded into the family’s Ford Fairlane wagon together and traveling the Northeast to see the sights: Williamsburg, Plymouth, The Shelburne Museum, Niagara Falls, national parks, zoos. We wanted to see and experience things we had heard about but had never seen. At day’s-end, we’d drive into a Howard Johnson, have some ice cream, and then go to bed talking about what we’d seen and dreaming about what was to come.

It breaks my heart when I see young people walking around your gem of a museum, or Rokeby, the Fleming, The Old Stone House Museum, Billings Farm & Museum, or Shelburne Farms or Shelburne Museum staring at their cellphone screens.

We all know that in general attendance across the country at museums is down. We also know that the philanthropic and foundation communities are besieged with requests for funds to make up for declining memberships and entrance fees and, though they have vast resources, they are changing their strategic focus towards connecting cultural experiences with beneficial societal change.

Let’s think about our options together.

Museums by nature collect, curate, preserve, contextualize and exhibit objects. Thus, a museum’s long-term survival is predicated on enough people knowing of them and wanting to visit and experience them in situ. But to get people in the door, we must adopt and deploy new strategies.

First, I’ve long believed we must digitize and curate online as well as on shelves. Our oral histories, music, artwork, texts, photos, old movies, and artifacts must be digitized, contextualized and made available online exactly as we do in our museums. Instead of being diminished by the world of screens, we must learn to turn them to our own advantage. They’re here to stay.

I have long advocated for the Vermont cultural non-profits to band together and ask the NEH / NEA for a major grant to do so. This both accommodates and attracts emerging markets for our collections and, more important, extends our resources to researchers, tourists, and interested parties all over the world.

By way of example, a scholar in Finland researching spiritualism and seers who try to contact the dead would find a wealth of information in the Solomon Jewett collection at the Sheldon, perhaps enough to want to pay the museum a visit and write about it in his own work.

I feel strongly and have often said that public broadcast must be a critical partner in our work. Vermont-PBS and Vermont Public Radio blanket the region with compelling content. In this age of feature films being made on iPhones and iPads, their technical franchise as producers is giving way to a greater mission as curators and broadcasters of relevance. Our cultural non-profits have the stories, images, histories, and music that are the raw material of great cultural programming. We must explore and work together.

On the grounds, many of us are starting to use core collections to create events that attract new people to our museums: a dinner of 18th century Vermont farmhouse cooking, a 19th century one-room school class to which local school kids are invited and taught (and disciplined) by the local schoolmarm, or a day in an 18th century courthouse with time in the stocks if found guilty…  and the like.

Finally, and this is the cutting edge… how do we use our collections to make a  better world? I talk a lot with development professionals and philanthropists and am hearing a consistent theme. It’s no longer enough to ask for money to pursue your mission or to survive. Foundations and philanthropists want to know explicitly how you are going to use your cultural assets to help make a better world. How are you honoring diversity in your outreach, your employment, and on your governing board? Are you reaching out to and partnering with indigenous peoples in an effort to better understand and manage their artifacts in your collections? How are you using your assets to educate, heal, invoke understanding, and strengthen community?

Increasingly, philanthropy is looking for an activism plan as part of our grant requests and they’re willing to fund it, but want to see and understand how it will contribute to a better world. “Activism” is not about making a political statement. It has nothing to do with liberal or conservative values. Rather it cultivates common ground where intellectual and emotional borders are broken down and new communities are built – something our whole country is crying out for. We can be part of the healing process.

I hope you’re ready for the future because it’s here.