Program Perspective: Diversifying Your Donor Base—Beyond Trustees and Members!

By: Suzanne Hilser-Wiles

So many museums suffer what some might consider a “happy problem”—generous support from board members and a robust membership program, but very little philanthropic activity between the two. While board support and a broad-based membership effort are important for the current financial stability of your organization, success in these areas might, in fact, be masking a serious future problem: lack of a true pipeline.

It isn’t difficult to see how this situation arises. Most museums have very small fundraising staffs, so focusing on your most generous donors, very often your trustees, makes perfect sense. At the same time, visible and generous support from a handful of prominent local philanthropists can make some donors feel like their smaller gifts are not as necessary or not as valued by the institution. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the size of a museum’s membership base is often an institutional focus because it tends to drive visitorship and is, itself, an important marker of an institution’s health—the all important “are we growing?” question!

By figuring out ways to grow the pool of donors between membership and board leadership, we are creating not only a pipeline of future prospects for our largest gifts, but also increasing operational support today. So what do we mean when we talk about those donors “in the middle”?

  • For some museums, it means Leadership Annual Giving—donors whose annual gift moves beyond the transactional relationship associated with general membership to an investment in the museum and its programs.
  • For some museums, it means a major gifts program that allows donors to help off-set the costs of exhibitions and programs with targeted gifts that are smaller than those from lead sponsors.
  • For some museums, it means both!

Developing a program for these donors that is manageable for your institution requires thoughtful planning and disciplined execution. Before you get started, here are some things to consider:

  • Do we have annual giving levels that inspire people to “move up” from membership?
  • Are we using messages about philanthropy, not just about benefits, as we talk to these prospects?
  • Have we made these programs simple enough for our staff to manage effectively, but diverse enough to engage a broad spectrum of people?
  • Have we designed donor programs that will attract prospects who are likely to stick with us?
  • Do we have opportunities for program support that are attractive to prospects?
  • Do we have a clearly defined program for recognizing and stewarding these donors?
  • Do we have the support of our institutional partners (in the curatorial departments, finance, and marketing and communications) in these efforts?
  • Have we developed fundraising opportunities that are budget-relieving?
  • Once we identify and engage some of these donors “in the middle,” how will we manage them?

WMA2014_GeneralBannerFor a museum fundraising staff that is small, moving beyond managing the board and membership, not to mention an often heavy events schedule (events—that is a topic for another blog post!), can be daunting. Most importantly, I would suggest the need for a thoughtful plan that begins with the goal—what are we trying to accomplish by focusing on these donors—and reflects institutional resources, focus and financial goals. Many museums have done this well (some of which we will hear from at the Western Museums Association 2014 Annual Meeting in Las Vegas), but most would tell you they still see untapped potential in this prospect pool. However, with a careful plan in place, even the smallest staff can grow and diversify its donor base, moving beyond the board and membership to engage donors at all levels.

View the full session description for Building out Your Mid-Level Donor Base

Registration is open for the WMA 2014 Annual Meeting. Register today and join your Western museum colleagues in Las Vegas!

Suzanne Hilser-Wiles is a Vice President at GG+A, where she oversees the firm’s practice area for Arts & Cultural clients and serves on its senior leadership committee. Before joining GG+A, Suzanne served as the Vice Chancellor for Advancement at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, a free standing, public conservatory. She has held senior fundraising positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and CancerCare, a national organization serving people with cancer and their loved ones.

Program Perspectives: Playing the Numbers—Learning the New Tools of Museum Finance

By Marjorie Schwarzer

A first glance at the Western Museums Association 2014 Annual Meeting Program

Marjorie Schwarzer

Marjorie Schwarzer

My husband and I put it off as long as we could. But after our beloved house’s gutters leaked a greenish slime that was seeping into the wooden supporting beams, we bit the bullet, canceled plans, tightened our belts and ponied up for a new roof. Although the sudden financial bite was large; the cost of not re-roofing would’ve been far greater. And it could have all been avoided if we had just paid a bit more attention over the years to the roof over our heads, strategically replacing it at the rate of a few shingles per season instead of enduring the mightily expensive one-time punch of a sudden major construction job. The silver lining is that we saw a warning sign before our entire home was in danger of succumbing to dry rot. And luckily, we had set aside a rainy day fund that could cover the cost of re-covering our nest. We have resurfaced, safe and sound.

Unfortunately, arts and cultural organizations have not been so lucky. Many do not know how to recognize the warning signs of potential financial danger. Even more do not have a sufficient rainy day fund to cover unforeseen messes. This was true even before the Great Recession. A report titled Getting Beyond Breakeven, commissioned by the Pew Trust in 2007, found almost 40% of nonprofit cultural organizations were slowly oozing resources. Their operating expenses over the years were flat, but income was falling, meaning that “green stuff” was slowing leaking away. If this trend continued, they risked collapse. Working with outmoded tools for measuring and assessing warning signs, they were continuing to patch up crumbling budgets with layoffs and shortsighted cost-cutting rather than making over-arching changes to their operations. Obviously an already shaky situation took a turn for the worse during the Great Recession. Many arts organizations emerged with less working capital and resources than ever to cover basic infrastructural needs.

The consequences of not recognizing and responding to financial and other kinds of organizational warning signs are dire. They go beyond the short-term pain of layoffs, and canceled programs. By not continually assessing where they stand and making adjustments as well as bold moves when necessary, non-profits risk for-profit corporate takeover, compromised missions and the loss of a precious community resource.

A desire to help empower everyone who works in museums to get in front of financial and structural challenges was the motivation behind Playing the Numbers: Learning the New Rules of Museum Finance, a session I will be co-presenting with Dr. Robyn Raschke and Deborah Frieden at the WMA 2014 Annual Meeting this October 5-8, 2014. The purpose of the session is to review and explain simple techniques of financial analysis that you can use to gain a coherent and clear picture of your museum’s financial and administrative underpinnings.

Robyn Raschke, an innovative accounting professor at the Lee Business School at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is a passionate museum visitor who is excited to meet those of us who work behind-the-scenes in institutions that she loves to spend time in. An inspiring teacher (yes, financial accounting can be inspiring!), she will focus on how museums might adapt the Balanced Scorecard approach to financial planning. More comprehensive than the familiar SWOT method of diagnosing an organization, Balanced Scorecard was developed in 1992 at the Harvard Business School for identifying, measuring and, most important, integrating your organization’s key attributes and goals. The technique has since evolved from an attractive but passive document into the “daily marching orders” for an organization’s staff and board. Its framework not only provides performance measurements, but also helps organizations identify what should be done and measured.

Since one common strategy for improving and upgrading an organization’s infrastructure is a capital campaign, it seemed wise to invite an expert who has seen it all! Deborah Frieden is well known in our field for her rigorous work leading complex capital improvement projects for museums and other community resources. She will review techniques for determining whether and how to take on a responsible capital improvement plan for your museum.

I’ll add to the Monday morning session by leading you through some ways to measure your organization’s fiscal strength with a few deceptively simple calculations that are part of the re-tooled graduate financial and cultural management course I teach at University of San Francisco.

So: load up on coffee, charge up your calculator and get ready to count some beans with us in Las Vegas at the Playing the Numbers session. We hope you’ll leave with some useful tools for staying on top of your museum’s finances and planning for a safe and sound future.

WMA2014_NumbersPersp2

To register for the 2014 Annual Meeting attend this session, please click here. ‪

Marjorie Schwarzer is Administrative Director at the Graduate Museum Studies program at University of San Francisco and a former WMA board member and program committee co-chair. She holds an MBA in non-profit finance from the University of California, Berkeley, has a roof over her head, enjoys crunching numbers (sometimes).

Program Perspectives: A Changing Las Vegas

Jerry Schefcik

Jerry Schefcik

Dear Colleagues,

I am excited to welcome you to my home city of Las Vegas for the Western Museums Association (WMA) 2014 Annual Meeting. Nevada is celebrating its Sesquicentennial anniversary this year, and as I reflect upon where we’ve been, it brings to mind all that is new here in Las Vegas. This year’s theme, “Expect the Unexpected,” is certainly apropos!

We all know Las Vegas as an entertainment and tourist capital, but more recently it has been going through a cultural renaissance. Many new museums have opened with more in store for the coming years. Downtown Las Vegas is undergoing a transformation with many new small businesses, a designated Arts District, a monthly First Friday, the Container Park, the Smith Center, and a renewed sense of community. The emergence of new museums that are uniquely Las Vegan is helping to define who we are. Of particular interest this year are specific conference sessions that focus on Las Vegas’ unexpected art venues and our uniquely Vegas collections.

We Las Vegas museum professionals certainly look forward to illuminating our cultural institutions for you, our peers. The Evening Events—Vintage Vegas: The Mob Museum & the Neon Museum, and Atomic City: The National Atomic Testing Museum—promise to give attendees a special insight into my city’s museums. Pre-Conference Tours can also show you the richness of southern Nevada, from the Hoover Dam and Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, to the Clark County Museum, Lost City Museum, Wetlands Park, Valley of Fire State Park, and two amazing studios that are becoming house museums. I particularly look forward to the final afternoon of the 2014 Annual Meeting as the entire conference moves to the Springs Preserve. This is truly a free-choice programming aspect, as attendees will have the opportunity to learn and connect with one another during regular sessions, in the galleries, on special tours, and at WestMusings | Ten Minute Museum Talks.

A view of the Las Vegas skyline from the Springs Preserve

A view of the Las Vegas skyline from the Springs Preserve

I was honored to serve on the 2014 Program Committee, and while it was an intense experience, it was also very rewarding. This year, our focus is on training, networking, and specific professional tracks that include Business, Leadership/ Careerpath, Collections, Technology, Visitor Experience, and Community Engagement. I can speak on behalf of the Program Committee by saying we gave careful consideration to each session proposal and the programmatic flow. I am pleased with the over 50 sessions and workshops that we selected. These sessions and their panelists represent the most thought-provoking topics facing museum professionals today.

The keynote speaker this year, Mark Hall-Patton, will be a highlight of the conference. Don’t miss it! He brings years of museum experience, astute observations, a disarming sense of humor, and a spot-on evaluation of the relevance of museums.

I am looking forward to the 2014 Annual Meeting in October as my colleagues and I welcome you to Las Vegas. There is 1 week left for the Member Early Bird Registration rates! Non-members can still save if they become members and register!

Register today and save!

Jerry Schefcik
Director of Galleries
University of Nevada Las Vegas

The WMA 2014 Scholarship Fund Needs You!

The Western Museums Association (WMA) supports museum professionals around the Western region (and beyond!). One way we strengthen the field is providing scholarships, a vital component of WMA’s mission, and we need your help! The Wanda Chin Scholarship program funds participation and travel to the Annual Meeting by professionals who might otherwise not be able to attend. Support learning and professional growth by donating an item to the Wanda Chin Scholarship Fund auction.

Thank you to those that donated auction items at WMA 2013. Your generosity allowed us to provide 14 scholarships to attend WMA 2014 in Las Vegas. Here are the 2014 Wanda Chin Scholarship recipients who you have helped:

Congrats to the recipients of the 2014 Wanda Chin Scholarship!
Katharine Baldwin-Corriveau, John F. Kennedy University
Alexa Beaman, University of San Francisco
Molly Fierer-Donaldson, Lost City Museum
Tim Glenn, The John Wesley Powell River History Museum
Shannon Kraichy, University of British Columbia
Crystal Mason, Hi-Desert Nature Museum
Barbara Mumby, John F. Kennedy University
Leilani Lewis, Northwest African American Museum
Rachel Luni, Wilbur D. May Museum
Ryan Pinter, University of San Francisco
Cho Rao, University of San Francisco
Eleanor Sandys, John F. Kennedy University
Molly Wilmoth, Washington State Historical Society
Katherine Yee, San Diego Museum of Man

Since 1997, the WMA Annual Meeting has featured a Silent Auction in the Exhibit Hall, as well as a spirited Live Auction during an Evening Event. The proceeds from these auctions directly fund the Wanda Chin Scholarship program, which helps to subsidize travel and participation in the Annual Meeting for professionals who might otherwise not be able to attend.

2013 Wanda Chin Scholarship recipients

2013 Wanda Chin Scholarship recipients

Below are suggestions for contributions that work well for the WMA Silent and Live auction purposes. Please read through these ideas and get inspired, and do not be afraid to ask colleagues, gift shops, favorite merchants, or friends to donate to these fun events.

  • Items representing Las Vegas or San Jose (the location of the 2014 and 2015 Annual Meetings, respectively) generate enthusiasm for the host-city, and give incentive to extend stays to include visits to the area’s resorts, restaurants, and tourist destinations.
  • Items that highlight a specific locale can help frame auction items. In the past we have received items from: a wine-growing region provides opportunities for wine tastings, cases of wine, tours of several wineries; a ski area donates passes to a ski lodge, overnight accommodations, lift tickets; Native American tribes have donated hotel and recreational packages.
  • Members of all regions are encouraged to consider offering vacation homes.
  • Museums’ gift shop items have also shown good results at the auctions, often with jewelry or other decorative items.
  • Museums are encouraged to consider offering behind-the-scenes tours, a tour of collections with the registrar or collections manager, a tour with the curator of a special exhibition, or a meal in the museum’s café.
  • Consultants can offer to extend their services to a museum for a day or specified period, or could reduce their fees if hired for given period.
  • Donations of frequent flier miles are a great compliment a vacation package, add value, and give incentive to bid.
  • Museum exhibition catalogs and memberships are great donation items for the auction.
  • Theme baskets are great donations for the Silent Auction. They can showcase a particular museum with items from its gift shop, or can have other focuses such as regional wines, foods, crafts, arts, flora or fauna, special toiletries, or children.
  • Art and collectibles from private collections is often attractive to bidders.
  • The best auction items are generally experiences and opportunities that cannot be purchased, are not commonly available, and are truly “priceless.” These types of items allow auctioneers to generate enthusiasm for, and bring in high returns from bidders.

Personal connections to shop owners, resort managers, vintners, etc. are invaluable when soliciting successful donations. However, even with an existing relationship, the solicitation may require a formal Letter of Request to the potential donor that explains the mission of the WMA and how the revenue from the sale of the item will be used. Please note that donations are tax deductible. Many establishments also require several weeks of advance notice with a formal appeal to process the request.

Please consider donating to this special cause. The WMA relies on you, its friends, fans, family and followers, to make attendance to the Annual Meetings available for all museum professionals.

If you are interested in donating, please contact Program Coordinator Lauren Valone.

Donation forms can be found here.

Program Perspectives: Building the Soul of Las Vegas

Dear Colleagues,

Dawn Barraclough

Dawn Barraclough

It is no secret that Las Vegas has experienced some pretty extreme growing pains. The population exploded from 45,000 to 2 million in an unprecedented rate of growth over the last 60 years. Since the economic slowdown in 2008, the population has been holding steady bringing Las Vegas out of an infancy fueled by the motto bigger, newer, faster to a more contemplative, adolescent phase. The prosperity experienced in the early 2000’s prompted the beginning of a cultural renaissance in Las Vegas as buildings were built and institutions established. Locals and visitors wanted to know how did all of this come about, how did this oasis in the desert affectionately known as sin city come to be a traveler’s mecca drawing 40 million tourists every year? Then in 2008 the growth stopped, abruptly, everywhere, and survival became the focus. As the economic recovery has since taken hold in Las Vegas, the city is re-engaging with the cultural renaissance that started more than ten years ago and is flourishing once again.

As an urban dweller I have been fortunate to live in some of the most beautiful cities in the U.S.—Denver, Washington D.C. and San Francisco—each with a very developed, traditional, cultural climate and immediately discernable sense of place. The landscapes, architecture and museums in these cities almost instantly provide a feeling of the “soul” of each city and connection to the people who came before. Here in Las Vegas you are hard pressed to find a building over 50 years old, the landscape is an unyielding desert and until very recently, unless you knew where to look, finding a museum to learn about this place was difficult at best. In a town dedicated to the latest and the greatest in excess and indulgence, constantly evolving to meet the needs of visitors here for only a short while, how do we find the soul of this bright light and, now, big city?

Fremont Street, 1950s — Cliff Segerbloom, Nevada State Museum, Las VegasJay Florian Mitchell Collection

Fremont Street, 1950s — Cliff Segerbloom; Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas, Jay Florian Mitchell Collection

Although I was skeptical upon first arriving in Las Vegas over 10 years ago that I could find a sense of “soul” here, I have grown to love this desert city. In addition to and beyond the bright, flashy, fast paced Strip that is quintessential Vegas, I have found all the elements that can create the soul of a place for current and future generations exist. Make no mistake—this is not a city for the meek; grit, determination and perhaps a little bit of luck are requirements for survival here. From the harsh desert summers to the accessibility of just about any indulgence you can imagine 24/7, Las Vegas has been fashioned to fulfill every human whim, regardless of the consequences. However, we have a great opportunity at this point in Las Vegas’ development to tell the story; the good, the bad and the ugly of our strange and fantastic history. We can learn about Las Vegas architecture through the preserved signs at the Neon Museum. The Mob Museum shows us how the wise guys and peacekeepers of the past shaped and perhaps still continue to influence our present. We can learn all about water and natural resources in the Mojave, and early settlers at the Springs Preserve. At the museums on the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) campus we can see how this unique city is shaping the artists of the future. The National Atomic Testing Museum chronicles the historic desert test site, the popular (possible) mythology of aliens, and reveals that even nuclear testing was turned into entertainment here. And we have our own museum celebrity Mark Hall-Patton, keynote speaker for the upcoming WMA 2014 Annual Meeting, longtime Las Vegas history expert, and national television personality who’s recognition has greatly increased visitation for his three museums.

I am so grateful for the interactions I’ve had with the museum professionals I’ve met locally, statewide and regionally, and have been privileged to work with over the past few years. I am new to this; my background prior to working at the Springs Preserve was in the technology industry, and although I’ve always loved museums I couldn’t until recently put into words why I am so passionate about helping with the cause of culture in Las Vegas. We have to know where we’ve come from to help to steer our future. Cultural institutions ensure that new generations of Las Vegas residents feel connected to and will preserve their desert home. Las Vegas will survive for the tourists but for the people who live here a cultural experience is the key to experiencing the soul of this place, while having connections, community, and ultimately a fulfilling life.

The recharged cultural movement in Las Vegas, exploring the many facets of the story of how this city came to be and what it is today, is fueled by storytellers from many diverse cultural institutions who have joined forces. The Las Vegas Museum Alliance (LVMA) founded in 2013 was the direct result of non-profit cultural institutions, museums and nature centers in Las Vegas coming together to put in a bid to host the Western Museum Association (WMA) 2014 Annual Meeting. As LVMA prepares for the WMA meeting in October we are also working together as a cohesive self-help organization, pooling our resources and sharing our experiences.

LVMA_LogoThe LVMA membership is varied and eclectic; the 27 member institutions of the LVMA have joined forces creatively rising to the challenge of making the voice of culture heard in a very competitive and saturated marketing arena. Since forming the Alliance, brochures containing information about all of the institutions in two formats have been distributed throughout the city and region. A website was created—www.vegasmuseums.org—as a central portal to member museum’s individual websites and as an online resource for specials, events and activities throughout Las Vegas. A Facebook page and twitter account for LVMA are in the works. We are getting the word out with the help of community partners such as CBS affiliate KLAS-TV Channel 8’s “GR8 Museums” promotional campaign for locals in 2014, and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is gearing up to launch their first “Las Vegas Museum Month” in October 2014, exposing the cultural opportunities in Las Vegas to tourists on a national level.

There is a pioneering tenacity and deep generosity of the people in the LVMA and community partners who dedicate their time, energy and expertise to exposing the soul of this unusual city and it is an honor to be included in this quest. We are excited to be hosting the WMA 2014 Annual Meeting in Las Vegas and hope you will take full advantage of all our home has to offer. Enjoy the unexpected as well as the expected!

The deadline for Member Early Bird Registration is July 31, 2014. Register today and save! Non-members can still save on registration by becoming a member. Learn more about membership here.

Dawn Barraclough
Public Relations
Springs Preserve
WMA 2014 Host Committee Member

Member Spotlight: The Lost City Museum

The Lost City consists of a series of archaeological sites that run for 25 miles along the Muddy River Valley near the town of Overton in the Moapa Valley of Southern Nevada. In 1924, brothers John and Fay Perkins from Overton, informed Nevada Governor James Scrugham of the Native American ruins. Governor Scrugham then enlisted the help of archaeologist M. R. Harrington who was at that time associated with the Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Harrington verified the importance of the archaeological sites, and named them Pueblo Grande de Nevada, the grand city of Nevada. He recognized the artifacts as belonging to the Anasazi (now called Ancestral Puebloan) civilizations that had flourished in the American Southwest for over 2000 years. He began excavations on the site in 1924 and continued off and on until 1938.

Fay Perkins, approximately 1940.

Fay Perkins, approximately 1940.

The name Lost City was given the area in the mid-1920s by the press. Pueblos were constructed and a train brought people to view a pageant with Native dancers and actors.

Union Pacific advertisement for the Lost City.

Union Pacific advertisement for the Lost City.

During the 1930’s, the waters of Lake Mead rose as a result of the construction of the Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam). Under the direction of Harrington, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked to excavate the sites and ultimately protect the Ancestral Puebloan artifacts. In 1935, CCC workers built the Boulder Dam Park Museum (now the Lost City Museum) for the National Park Service to house the artifacts that were being recovered from the excavations. The building is now on the National Register of Historical Places.

The Boulder City Museum (as it was known before the Lost City Musuem) being built, circa 1935.

The Boulder City Museum (as it was known before the Lost City Musuem) being built, circa 1935.

 

The Lost City Museum, present day.

The Lost City Museum, present day.

The Lost City Museum has since been under the direction of multiple organizations. During World War II, the National Park Service used the Museum building as its Overton headquarters, keeping the Museum open to the public for a few hours each day. During the early 1950’s, Clark County provided funds for a caretaker to run the Museum. In 1953, the National Park Service turned the Museum over to the State of Nevada and removed their nationally owned artifacts. Private collectors loaned artifacts to the State to fill the Museum. It was not until 1955 that the Museum was officially funded through the Nevada State Department of Buildings and Grounds and was renamed the Lost City Museum.

Pueblos behind the Lost City Museum.

Pueblos behind the Lost City Museum.

In 1973 and 1981, new galleries were constructed with funds appropriated by the Nevada Legislature. In 1971 and 1973 additional funds were appropriated to purchase the loaned artifacts. The Museum became one of the seven museums managed by the Division of Museums and History Division of the Department of Cultural Affairs of the State of Nevada in 1979.

A model of Pueblos.

A model of Pueblos.

The Museum is constructed on this historical excavation site. The walls of the 1981 gallery were built around the foundation of a Pueblo complex, thus protecting it and making it one of the displays. Visitors today will also see a recently updated exhibit that tells the story of the the excavations; information about the geologic and cultural history of the area; a special exhibit with an overview of the last 150 years of Nevada history celebrating Nevada’s Sesquicentennial; and a display that changes monthly of the works of one or more local artists. In addition to the three exhibit galleries, there is a small orientation theater; a research library; a museum store; outdoor archaeological and historic exhibits, including reproduction pueblos; and a picnic/barbeque area. Every year the Lost City Museum hosts a variety of children’s activities, Native American Day, a special Christmas Open House, and other programs and activities.

A pithouse in front of the Museum.

A pithouse in front of the Museum.

Visit the Lost City Museum, as well as Michael Heizer’s landmark piece Double Negative and Valley of Fire during a pre-conference tour at WMA 2014! Learn more here.

Program Perspectives: An Interview with Mark Hall Patton

By Lauren Valone

Mark Hall-Patton

Mark Hall-Patton

With his more than 35 years of experience in the museum field, Mark Hall-Patton will certainly have stories to share during his Keynote Address at the Western Museums Association (WMA) 2014 Annual Meeting. In addition to 14 years as a Board member of the Nevada Museums Association where he served as President from 2000–2002 and 2008–2010, he has also served on the California Association of Museums and WMA boards. Mark is regularly seen on the History Channel’s Pawn Stars as a visiting expert. He has also appeared on American Restoration and Mysteries at the Museum.

In this brief interview, Mark gives readers a taste of Las Vegas and Southern Nevada.

How are Las Vegas’s and Southern Nevada’s culture and museums unique?

Las Vegas and Southern Nevada have a unique history, which is presented in the museums here. Given a history, which includes unique foci, including Atomic Testing, Gaming, and a water table that brought settlers, the railroad, and eventually a large community, our museums tell this fascinating story. We Las Vegan museum professionals have to tell the story with a backdrop of massive advertising for alternatives to what we offer. We also have to realize that we do not have the resources to outshine the glitz and glamour of the strip, and must focus on our core stories to bring our visitors to the museums. One other point to make is that visitors to Las Vegas are normally not coming for a museum experience, so we have to recognize that when we reach out to them.

 

Many museums rely on tourism in addition to their local community. How does the Clark County Museum System approach both types of visitors?

The Clark County Museum uses every avenue possible to get the word out about the Museum. As we do not have an advertising budget, it is not possible to take out ads, so we are active in speaking to local groups. We also have the media access which comes from my being on Pawn Stars, and that drives both tourists and locals to the museum. We actively work with the Clark County School District to bring in school tours, and seek out any free source of advertising, including an active Facebook page and working with our Clark County Museum Guild supporters through their social media efforts. In terms of tourists, much of that is now driven by Pawn Stars who come in from 151 countries to visit and meet people from the show, including the museum administrator.

 

The Clark County Museum System consists of a 30-acre site covering pre-historic to modern times, and a collection of restored historic buildings in Las Vegas, Boulder City, Henderson and Goldfield. You are also the administrator for the Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum and the Searchlight History Museum. What are some of your lessons learned when telling such an expansive story?

The stories often overlap and intersect, and we can use these intersections as a way to cross-pollinate between museums. We can interest visitors who arrive by air in the history of Clark County through the Aviation Museum, which can bring people to the County Museum, and if there, we can be sure they are aware of the Searchlight Museum. I also find that you have to bring the stories down to the personal level, using the story of a family or a house like the Henderson Townsite House to make accessible the greater story of World War II and its impact on Southern Nevada.

 

You have extensive experience consulting start-up museums, have served on association boards, and were even a past board member of the WMA. What advice do you have about developing strategic plans for museums?

I think it is necessary to be realistic in planning. At one point about 15 years ago, I sat my staff down for a five year planning effort, and started by saying that over the next five years we would not be getting any more staff, money or space—now what were we going to do with that time? The resultant document was a great plan and allowed us to accomplish quite a lot, both internally through directed effort, and externally by building up our recognition within County Government and the greater community. Planning should not be, in many cases, the “don’t worry about what we will need to accomplish this, just say what you think we should do” kind of document. Those tend to become great space holders on shelves, but seldom are accomplished.

 

Leadership is a very important topic among museum professionals. What advice do you have for becoming an effective leader?

Have a clear vision for your institution, and make sure you are actively and vocally following it. Listen to your staff, and make sure they understand and are part of that vision. Are you serving your community, or waiting for them to serve you (with more resources, space, etc.)? Is your staff aware of what their role should be with the community? Are you aware of what your staff is thinking? Leadership is not yelling or directing, it is making sure your staff is with you in the direction you are going, not getting lost or walking away. Always remember that leading in a void is rather ineffective.

 

Can you relate any of your experiences working on TV shows to working at a museum?

Working in museums brings a number of ethical challenges, which are somewhat magnified on television shows. Boards, staff, volunteers, visitors all can ask for efforts which are not in keeping with museum ethics at times, and television crews do this on a regular basis. It is important to know your boundaries, and not let yourself be pushed outside of what is appropriate. You are on your own in controlling what you are willing to do and whether what you are being asked to so is ethical, and you have to take that responsibility seriously.

 

How has working on TV shows changed they way you think about museum public/media relations, as well as how you interpret objects and stories for the public?

I don’t think it has changed it. My brother once described my role on Pawn Stars as “Mark on steroids” meaning that I have always understood artifacts as teaching tools, and now have a greater podium. I find now that I have a greater podium from which to speak, and a concomitantly greater responsibility to try at all times to get what I say right and within the bounds of good museum practice. On a different level, I am also aware of my role as presenter of the museum field and our work to the public, and often take the opportunity to explain why I say and do what I do, and how it is informed by my professional background.

 

Your book Asphalt Memories discusses the origins of street names in Clark County. What is the most interesting street name story in Las Vegas?

My favorites are two intertwined stories, that of Colanthe and Gilmary. When Larry G. McNeil of McNeil Construction, which built the Basic Magnesium plant and later built subdivisions and a number of other buildings, wanted to name a street for Florence Murphy, the first female vice-president of a scheduled airline in the United States, she refused. Eventually she said alright, but only under the condition that he use her real first name, which she hadn’t used since the age of five, and that he name a street for his real middle name which he never used. Hence, Colanthe and Gilmary Avenues. Florence was the person who told me the story initially, and it was one of the tales that led me to write the book. After the book came out, McNeil’s grandson visited me, and I told him the story. His response was “That was his middle name?”

 

What can WMA2014 attendees expect from your Keynote?

I hope they will have some laughs as well as some information that will help them think about whether they want to work with the media as I have. There are good and bad stories to being in the media, no matter how good the final product can be for your institution. I also hope they will find it at least enjoyable enough to stay awake, since it is first thing in the morning.

 

What is the most unexpected piece of information is about Las Vegas?

It is a very nice place to live and raise a family. My wife and I have raised two children here, a daughter who is a hydrogeologist in Reno and a son who is heading to graduate school this fall. There are wonderful historic and natural areas here, which are readily accessible, often within minutes of the Strip.

 

What would you like to say to attendees as they prepare for WMA 2014 in Las Vegas?

It may be warm and it may be cold. That may seem a little self-evident, but do check the weather forecasts before you pack. Take advantage both seeing the Strip and getting off the Strip. Among other things, the Las Vegas Strip, which is in Clark County not Las Vegas, is a unique walk (wear good shoes) and an All-America Road. And finally, plan to have a good time. We are pretty good at providing one.

 

Register for WMA2014 and attend Mark Hall-Patton’s 2014 Annual Meeting Keynote Address. Additionally, he is a panelists on two sessions—Revenue Diversification: Your Museum as an Event Venue or Film, and Photo Shoot Location and Collections That Can Kill: Safe Handling, Display, and Storage of Hazardous Materials and Weapons.

Learn more about the 2014 Annual Meeting here.

Lauren Valone is the Program Coordinator for the Western Museums Association. She has served on the Marketing Committee of the Waterworks Museum, and as Web Content Manager and Production Manager of Publishing and Social Media for an independent publisher. She holds an MA in Museum Education from Tufts University, a BA in Studio Art, Photography from Lewis & Clark College, and has been published in and copy-edited for the Journal of Museum Education.