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Transparency and Museums – Walking the Talk Part 1

Museum TransparencyOne of the things I’ve been proud of during my time here at the IMA is the museum’s commitment to institutional transparency.  It’s always just made sense to me to concentrate on doing the right thing first, and then sharing as much as possible with others. (See, Mom… I wasn’t tuning you out all those years)  If you’ve followed this blog for very long, you’ve probably heard us talk about the IMA’s Dashboard a time or two.  Well, it’s hard to believe, but the Dashboard turned two years old in October!  I thought this would be a fitting time to spend a bit of time talking about the how’s and why’s of transparency and IMA’s experiences in running the Dashboard during that time.

I had originally authored this as a paper to be published in print form, but I think it will actually work better in a blog format like this one.  I’ve really appreciated the feedback and input readers have contributed to my last few posts, and would love your thoughts on this text as well.

Perhaps the most prevalent concern shared by peers about adopting similar approaches to transparency is a latent fear of the unknown, or a feeling that sharing the gritty details with the public will be too overwhelming and therefore misconstrued.  I’m happy to say that the wheels haven’t fallen off the IMA’s apple cart yet, hopefully this series will illuminate some of the benefits we’ve seen from taking these steps.

Walking the Talk – Part 1

The concept of Transparency has received significant attention in the media and online recently.  This attention comes at a time when public doubt in corporations, government and corporate executives is at an all-time high. High profile failures of some of the nation’s largest and most trusted institutions have shaken our assumptions about what had always seemed to be untouchable industries. Museums have always jealously guarded their trusted place in the public’s perception, but is there a risk that this trust will someday be lost?  As caretakers of this trust, what is the best way to foster open communication about the challenges and opportunities that face us as we try to achieve the mission of our museums?  As comprehensive and easy access to operational information becomes the norm, how can museums embrace this as an opportunity and confront internal fears about sharing their performance metrics with the public?

A Working Definition of Transparency

To begin, we must first come to a common understanding about Transparency. Institutional Transparency is a concept that is notoriously difficult to define precisely.  Principally, Transparency can be defined as the open sharing of information regarding a museum’s operations and performance.  But questions soon arise regarding what to share, when to share, and how to share it. These issues are much more significant for museums to consider when crafting an organizational stance about Transparency.

Museums and museum staff members are always striving for the best. We craft strategies that seek to make our program offerings vital and engaging to our community.  We seek to build our collections by acquiring important works of art.  We take extensive measures to protect and preserve the works in our care. We attempt to run more and more efficient operations by carefully crafting our budgets while, at the same time, seeking to increase our earned and contributed income so that we can continue to be effective in fulfilling our mission. If we’re honest, we would all agree that we succeed in some of these areas and fail in others.  We are not afraid to admit among ourselves that we are not yet the perfect museum which we strive to be, yet we seldom talk about these challenges to our constituents and donors.  We share a common fear that exposing these negative facts about our museums will result in condemnation from the press, a loss of respect in the community, and perhaps most significantly financial loss from decreasing membership or donor revenue.  As a result, our staff works hard to control the flow of information and shield the museum from negative consequences, crafting careful rationalizations which attempt to address and make up for our short comings.

Transparency in our institutions has a goal of counteracting these tendencies | realities with a type of radical authenticity.  Our culture values authenticity and looks for it in our public officials and the institutions we trust. For a museum, authenticity means sharing both the good and the bad in addition to the reasons, circumstances, context and challenges that face us everyday. Transparency then, is the ongoing discipline of practicing radical authenticity and demonstrating to the public whatever degree of integrity and operational excellence our museum possesses at the time.

This notion flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of our public relations and marketing departments who for years have sought to protect us from negative public sentiment and donor frustration. Some express concern that too much Transparency would be a bad thing.  Like any tool or technique, too much of a good thing can indeed be harmful.  When considering issues of Transparency we must do so thoughtfully and carefully, with a goal of maintaining an institutional integrity which is beyond reproach and at the same time, maintain a commitment to an open and authentic relationship with our constituents.

Several common challenges will help illustrate these issues. Museums must consider carefully, for example, their stance on sharing the purchase price of works of art in their collections.  Does doing so, enhance or harm the public’s understanding and relationship with these works of art?  Will sharing this information allow the museum to evaluate or improve its performance in some areas?  What impact, if any, would this action have upon the broader practice of art collecting? At the IMA, we have chosen NOT to share the purchase price or valuation of accessioned works of art in our collection. In addition, we have chosen that we WILL share the valuation of works slated for deaccessioning as well as the prices realized from their sale at auction and then listing the ways these proceeds are used towards the acquisition of new art for the collection.

Deaccessioned Artworks from the IMA's Website

Deaccessioned Artworks from the IMA's Website

Museums often depend on catering and space rental revenues to contribute to their operating budgets. To make a blanket statement saying that we will always share comprehensive financial information for all of our departments would mean that we would reveal financial information which would damage our competitive advantage against other catering and rental operations. Obviously, doing so is not in the best interests of the institution.

Rather than attempting to determine which information is eligible to be shared, perhaps the best approach is to instead discuss which sorts of information should not be shared. This would certainly cover sharing information which would break laws, breach contracts, violate trust or compromise privacy. Each of these situations would constitute a loss of integrity on the part of the museum.  This leaves a vast set of information that does not violate these caveats resulting in a freedom to share many different facets of museum operations.

Is it possible for a museum to share too much information? Do we risk placing an inordinate amount of emphasis on the sharing of information without a clear understanding of the expectations of our audience? Blogger Jeff Brooks examines this in his posting about the IMA’s Dashboard.

“It would be easy to say it’s too much, that it’s too arcane, too detailed, too boring for donors to care about.

But remember, one person’s boring factoid is another’s hobby. Or hobbyhorse. By putting it all out there, the Indianapolis Museum is telling its public that anyone who cares is an insider. Is it possible someone will go ballistic about their electricity use, or their ownership of possibly plundered art? Sure. But it’s not likely. And their openness defuses these things — much more effectively than trying to keep secrets.

If the information is too much, nobody will look at it. Even so, the very fact that they’re sharing it makes people respect the museum more. And who knows what info-sated donors might choose to do for an organization they feel trusts and respects them?” Jeff Brooks, “Museum opens the books to anyone who cares”, Donor Power Blog, December 3, 2007,

Looking at the question from a different perspective raises an interesting rule of thumb. If an investment of staff time and effort will be made measuring certain statistics, then museums should choose to measure those things which will offer insight to change or improve our future performance, and shy away from those measurements that will not impact staff actions no matter what the results.  Perhaps this seems too obvious at first glance, but the careful selection of statistics that matter is part and parcel to operating as a transparent institution.  Creating a needle in the haystack model of information sharing does not result in better information for the public, or museum staff for that matter.

In the coming weeks we’ll continue to look at a variety of issues at play when seeking to implement transparency in practice at your museum.  Next week we’ll focus on the underlying reasons why transparency is a good idea, and one that all museums should seek to adopt.

Again, we’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions to these ideas.  The IMA has a few years of experience in this area, but we still find that we’re learning more and more each day.  I’m sure if you focus hard enough, you’ll find some discrepancies or deficiencies in our efforts… in fact, we hope you do!  At least then we’ll know about them and can take steps to fix them!  Thanks in advance!  -Rob

Filed under: Art, Musings, Technology

16 Responses to “Transparency and Museums – Walking the Talk Part 1”

  • avatar

    Thanks for this timely post! I’m taking a look back as well and thanks for interview. I’ll track back here in a minute.

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    PS I used your image. I credited it back to your post. Hopefully that is the right place and it is an image that has an open license on it …

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    This is a great post. To gauge the health of someone we use a thermometer to see if additional steps are needed to make them healthy again. The Dashboard can be seen as the institutional thermometer. By gauging it, the community can jump in at rough times to administer the “medication”. You guys are great! Keep pushing the envelope.


    Chris Alexander

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    I’m glad to see this series! I’m an art world novice: can you explain why an institution would choose to display the value of deaccessioned but not accessioned works? What’s the difference, besides who owns it?

  • avatar
    Rob Stein Says:

    Thanks Chris!

    I love the analogy! I think the comparison to a thermometer is a great one. Your point brought to mind another aspect of transparency and performance metrics that compliments what you are saying here.

    I think it’s easy to focus on the open sharing of performance metrics as a way for organizations to sniff-out areas in which we might improve – and this is indeed true – but to add to what you’ve said here… metrics are also valuable for highlighting areas in which we are succeeding!

    There is an important staff morale factor at play here, and metrics – shared openly – are a double edged sword. They do show us our deficiencies, but they also demonstrate the things we’re good at, and indicate when actions we’ve taken make a difference.

    Especially in hard economic times when many organizations are struggling, celebration of good performance is really important!

    Thanks again for your clever analogy! -Rob

  • avatar
    Rob Stein Says:

    Hey Nina,

    Great question! Thanks for piping up.

    This may be a bit like the blind leading the blind, but I’ll take a stab. :) I’m sure other kind souls can kick in comments if they differ from my thoughts here. :)

    Your question about why not share valuation of works of art online is a valid one, but there are a number of factors to address here:

    1. Consider the way collections have grown over time. Gifts of art are made, museums purchase works from acquisition budgets etc… In our case, the IMA is 125 years old and many important works were acquired many decades ago. The original purchase price of a work of art in the 1950’s is now woefully inaccurate w.r.t. its present day value.

    2. The mission of most art museums essentially boils down to something like “collect, preserve, and interpret the world’s art”. As a result, most in our field hold that capitalizing the value of an art collection (like we would a building, equipment, or land) is anathema w.r.t. that mission. Art museum’s exist principally to protect the collection and improve it overtime. We would not, for instance, sell a Rembrandt to cover a shortfall in our operating budget during a bad economy. This explains – at least in part – the kerfluffle that has arisen in a couple of high profile instances recently.

    See here:

    and here:

    3. For art museums to provide valuations for their works of art, we would essentially begin to function as art appraisers. This would undoubtedly exert undue influence on the market value for works of art in our care and future works by the artists who create them. This places museums in a precarious situation ethically in relation to the works we care for and the for-profit art market.

    4. This is a bit of the MasterCard arguement… when is a work of art truly priceless? What value would we assign to the best work in our collection? And where to we draw the line in saying that one work is more valuable than another. Now, I’m not trying to be a punk and say that we don’t make value judgments all the time, just that the role of art museums should be to encourage visitors to see past the material value of a work to the imperishable value of the artist’s creative intent and the works place in history and culture.

    Regarding Deaccessions: The important distinction here is that museums use a deaccesioning process to _improve_ their collection. This should always be done with care and the utmost clarity and transparency. But this is not always the case. If museum collecting strategies and practices could benefit from perfect foresight, then perhaps deaccessioning would not be needed. However, this is not the case. When, for instance, a museum has 100 examples of a certain type of lace – 90 of which are damaged, partial or “not as good” as 10 exemplars… They may choose to deaccession those 90 so that they can better care for, or acquire 10 new exemplars.

    It’s the IMA’s stance that any proceeds derived from the sale of works of art through deaccession are redirected to the art purchase fund and used to improve, enhance or expand the IMA’s collecting areas. On our website, we clearly show what works are sold through deaccession, and which works are purchased and added to the collection with those proceeds.

    See here: for that linkage.

    and here: for our detailed policy document

    Again, I’m a bit out of my element here in explaining some of this, but then aren’t we all? :) Others please feel free to chime in and offer your take on this excellent question too!

    Thanks for the great question Nina! -Rob

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    Hi Rob,
    Thanks for these thoughts. I understand much of what you write, but it is confusing that an art museum is effectively a waypoint along a piece’s journey through the world that is unmoored from financial valuation. Pop into the museum rabbit hole and financial value becomes a non-issue. Pop out, and the $$ value reemerges. I understand the reasons why, but it is a bit odd and makes me want to learn more about the relationship between the commercial art world and museums.

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    Jane Says:

    After reading this post, and taking a look at the deaccessioned artworks page, I noticed you (as in the collective IMA) use the terms deaccession and disposal interchangeably on your website. You get it right in your deaccession policy, though: accessioned works can be deaccessioned. Deaccessioned works can then be disposed. On your intro blurb you mention unaccessioned works possibly being deaccessioned (when you mean they could be disposed), and works whose title has been gained through an abandoned property law being accessioned or deaccessioned (when it would be logical to just dispose of the unwanted material after title has passed to you, rather than accessioning them and then deaccessioning them).

    Deaccessioning removes an object from the collection, but does not change ownership of the property, or remove the property from the premises. Disposal does those things.

    It’s a pet peeve of mine that museums themselves can’t get their terms straight. How is the public supposed to understand the difference?

  • avatar

    Great informative post. Like the thermometer analogy. You definitely have an impressive way of expressing your ideas.


  • avatar
    Timmie Says:

    If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.

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