Entrepreneurial Nonprofits: Van Gogh Museum’s Ambitious Consulting Program

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Van Gogh Museum – museumnacht 2011 / n8

May 4, 2016; New York Times

In every part of the world, elite museums are feeling the pinch. No matter how revered their collections or how august their history, no institution of fine art is without its challenges when it comes to the day-to-day costs associated with managing a major collection. But some museums are apparently more entrepreneurial at finding sources of funds than others. Faced with reduced government subsidies and increased taxes on commercial enterprises like gift shops, the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands has recently announced it will begin offering its professional services to private collectors, corporations, and other fine art institutions.

The program will have museum staff working in a consultancy role to clients by providing advice and support in areas such as collection conservation and preservation, installation of climate control systems, museum management, and the development of educational programs. While museum experts have a longstanding history of sharing their knowledge and providing outreach for other professionals in the business, this is one of the first times a fine art institution has been offering said advisement and other services on a contractual, commercial basis.

Some critics are concerned that too much work on behalf of private clients could raise questions about curatorial independence or cause a conflict of interest for museum staff. The Van Gogh Museum will have to work hard to ensure that the advising and assistance it offers to collectors and auction houses is neither at odds with nor at the service of the museum’s own self-interest. Adriaan Dönszelmann, managing director of the museum, believes that time management, rather than ethical issues, will be more of a challenge for the staff. As of right now, the museum has accounted for their current staff spending 5 to 10 percent of their time on professional services. Participation in the consultancy service element is voluntary for “people who want to be part of this adventure.” Depending on how successful the program is, the museum might hire additional specialists to serve clients.

The returns that the museum expects from the program are modest. At best, Mr. Dönszelmann hopes that the venture will generate up to five percent of the museum’s annual operating budget, which is currently 45 million euros. Though proceeding with caution is favorable, given the newness of the program, it does not seem that museum officials expect the consulting service to ever become a significant source of revenue or to take the place of preexisting income streams. At the time of its official announcement, the museum had not yet brokered any official agreements with clients. The museum is, however, in official talks with several interested parties, and they expect to have a full roster of clients in due course. If all goes well, the Van Gogh Museum might be the first of many museums to begin offering its services for hire to others in the art world.

Though notable because this is the first time an internationally renowned, nonprofit visual art museum has offered such a wide array of consulting services, the concept is by no means new to the rest of the art world. Lincoln Center International, which is the consulting arm of Lincoln Center, offers its expertise in a variety of areas similar to the Van Gogh Museum’s, including planning, building, and construction; artistic programming; audience experience and engagement; operations and financial sustainability; patronage and sponsorship; management and training, and many more.

As museums, particularly European museums, see their audience numbers reduced and their public funding cuts, more and more leaders are turning to unconventional solutions and sources of revenue to build resilience into their preexisting operating models.—Sophie Lewis