Fundraising: Oui or Non?

As government funding for the arts has fallen (as it has in most European countries), museums are trying to fill their budget gaps by asking the public to contribute.
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Over the holidays there was a fascinating article in the New York Times that revealed the attempts by French museums to use crowdsourcing to raise money. As government funding for the arts has fallen (as it has in most European countries), museums are trying to fill their budget gaps by asking the public to contribute. Much of the money is going to acquisition funds for new art works since these funds have shrunk by more than 50 percent over the past three years.

The article reminded me of a class I taught in Paris several years ago. I was invited by a branch of the Ministry of Culture to discuss the American approach to marketing and fundraising. Having worked in Europe and having taught extensively outside of the United States, I knew that I had to be careful not to use examples that would only make sense in the American context. I also took pains to explain that American fundraising expertise was rooted in the separation of art and state we have suffered since the Puritans came to America. It is not that the American system is better; it simply was a necessity in a country that did not believe in large direct government subsidies for the arts. But as European governments were forced to cut funding, it was clear -- to me at least -- that these techniques could be useful there as well, as they had proven to be at the Royal Opera House during my tenure there.

The audience filled the beautiful Théâtre de l'Atelier and responded very positively. At a reception following my talk I was asked many follow-up questions; it was clear that the arts managers present were already confronting government cutbacks and were looking for solutions.

A week later I learned that there was one person present who did not appreciate my talk: a member of the French Ministry of Culture. He believed my talk was really American propaganda aimed at convincing the French that our system of funding was better than theirs. He said I could not come back and teach again. I was deflated. And I have ever again had the opportunity to teach in France.

But I have taught in many other European countries and remain convinced that private fundraising will become a far larger contributor to revenue for many European arts organizations.

My hope is that they will go beyond crowdsourcing techniques, which, while relatively simple to implement, still only produce rather modest amounts of money. The Louvre recently raised $654,000 from an appeal; this is impressive but one must evaluate the amount in the context of a budget that is over $350 million, more than half of which comes from the government. If government funding in France continues to fall at current rates, it will take far larger sums of money to make up the difference. A meaningful major gifts program will be required in the relatively near future. This will require a far more personal approach to fundraising than crowdsourcing can offer.

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