Radical Transparency in the Corporate Museum

Janes’ chapter on Debunking the Marketplace made me curious about alternative ways museums (and other non-profit institutions) might convey the relationship between their funding needs and their programming.  Janes observes that the financial work museums perform burdens them with “myriad complexities and pressures that have nothing to do with the inherent purpose of museums.” (99) He then annotates a (fictional) museum director’s daily schedule with a series of “reality check” descriptions designed to illuminate the power of political and financial decisions in day-to-day museum stewardship. (101)

I am wondering what this exercise suggests about the potential of radical transparency to change how people understand the state of arts funding (and other non-profit projects).

I very much admire a model set forth by journalist Naomi Klein. On the website for This Changes Everything, a recent film and book collaboration between Klein and her husband, she offers “An Explanation of Speaking Fees.” On the page, she explains how paid speeches fit into her family’s income now that she writes independently and is also responsible for paying researchers and production staff. The full version is quite interesting, but here are some highlights.

…The truth is that I only do a handful of such speeches a year and they subsidize all this other unpaid or marginally paid work. Not just for me, but for an amazing group of people who are also working hard on things that are valuable but not economically valued in our current system.

I sometimes hear from students or professors at a school who are upset by the fees quoted—how can I preach anti-capitalism while getting paid thousands of dollars to speak? Why won’t I donate my time to “the leaders of tomorrow?” (That came from an MIT professor, who presumably draws a hefty salary). There is sometimes an assumption that if I was paid a fee once, I must be getting it every time I leave the house (rather than a few times a year). Others assume that if I turn down a speaking request it must be because of the money—and not simply that I have surpassed the number of days I can reasonably spend away from my three-year-old.

I get it. I remember being shocked as an undergrad that anti-establishment writers who I loved were being paid thousands of dollars to speak at my school. And as a writer, I fervently wish that there was a way to make my work consistently available for free, whether books or speeches. I just haven’t figured out how—not with the kind of overhead that research-intensive non-fiction carries.

Klein has a different incentive than most museums to clarify her finances because her professional writing comes from an explicitly anti-capitalist framework. But given that museums see much of their work as community-oriented (or at least not-for-profit) it is interesting to imagine how this level of transparency might change the relationship between museums and the public.


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