This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of museum review, a benefit of AAM membership.
Dayton Art Institute’s journey to accreditation has helped the institution become more financially stable and inclusive.
“We want you to run a ship in a bathtub,” Acting Director Linda Lombard told me when I was hired to lead the Dayton Art Institute (DAI) in October 2011. The museum was in crisis and sinking. financially, and the building suffered from years of deferred maintenance. The collection had seen little in recent curation and the staff felt broken.
The museum had also made the difficult decision, after maintaining its accreditation for 39 years, to withdraw accreditation earlier that year due to the situation it found itself in. But 10 years, a pandemic, and a successful accreditation process later, the DAI is a revived and thriving museum.
The accreditation process allowed us to get our house in order and our proverbial ducks in a row. We set goals for what we needed to accomplish, update, and document. We had in-depth conversations with leadership and the board. If we hadn’t committed to becoming accredited almost 10 years ago, we probably wouldn’t have made the progress we have, and the ship would have been stuck in the tub.
But I’m moving forward. Let me start with a bit of history for context.
A history of financial problems
The DAI, one of the best medium-sized art museums in the country, was founded as a school in 1919 as the Dayton Museum of Arts. Originally occupying an impressive home in downtown Dayton, Ohio, the museum quickly outgrew its prime location. Julia Shaw Patterson Carnell, a prominent community leader, has pledged $2 million to endow the museum and raise the funds needed to construct a new museum building.
Construction began in 1928, and on October 29, 1929, the stock market crash triggered the Great Depression. All benefactors withdrew from the project, leaving the museum unfinished. Carnell worked with the board to use the funds she had donated for the endowment to complete construction of the Italian Renaissance-style structure, which opened on January 7, 1930. Although the community had been thrilled with the new world-class museum, DAI was left with little to no endowment and has been chronically understaffed ever since.
In September 1994, the museum announced its largest-ever capital campaign to fund a major renovation and expansion. The DAI reopened in June 1997 with over 35,000 square feet of additional exhibition space and completely renovated permanent collections galleries. This again thrilled the community, but it cost $16 million in bond debt. Two other market downturns left the DAI with no way to cover debt that was due to mature in 2022 and, out of necessity, the museum was drawing 8-10% a year from the endowment.
Right the ship
Fast forward to 2011. “Run Michael, don’t walk. We do not have time to lose. It was good advice from then-Chairman of the Board, Rob Connelly. And we ran. We first tackled the leaky roof with a mini campaign to fix it and develop an annual roof maintenance program. We then tackled the debt by creating a “Fund the Debt” savings account, so as not to dip into the already weak endowment. We raised funds and diverted $300,000 from every unrestricted estate gift over $500,000 until we had less than $1 million in debt remaining, and we paid it off.
In that first year, we reduced drawdown to 6% and averaged 5% each year thereafter. We then strategically considered our next major milestone: 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the DAI. It was time for us to make transformational changes through building renovations and grow the endowment through the Centennial Campaign.
In 2020, we have started our second century, and the year has started with a bang. We had raised over $16 million during the campaign, with the endowment growing from $16 million to over $28 million. The museum was undergoing a nearly complete renovation of the exterior of the building as well as the historic front hill, museum galleries and education floor. We continued to present world-class exhibits, educational programs and community events. We were thriving, not just surviving, and then our world shut down on March 13 due to the pandemic.
Like most museums, we moved quickly to determine how we could still serve our community while closed. Fortunately, we were already a small team, so we were able to keep all staff full-time and only furlough part-time non-security and facilities employees, who remained on site throughout. Our curatorial and education teams have produced some brilliant new digital content. Our marketing and events teams presented meaningful virtual events, and our development team worked hard to continue raising funds and inspiring our members to stay with us. Our management team not only led its departments, but also served as a leader for crisis management.
To use that overused 2020 term, we’ve “pivoted.” We figured out what we could do to keep staff engaged while working from home. We fought isolation with virtual happy hours and dance parties at the end of all staff meetings with a surprise song like “I Will Survive.”
In 2021, COVID concerns as well as social and racial unrest have made dialogues and reflection difficult and evocative. The DAI and all the museums have had to figure out who and what we want to move forward. DAI had been working on diversity and inclusion for several years, and 2020 confirmed that we needed to be intentional and committed to making more transformational change. In October, the Board voted unanimously to create a new permanent IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility) committee and embed our IDEA work into everything we do, from acquiring artworks to art, exhibitions and programs to staffing, volunteers, board representation and vendors, as well as how we reach and welcome new audiences to the museum and create a sense of place.
The role of accreditation
Pursuing accreditation has helped put us on the path to continued financial solvency today and in the future. Throughout the accreditation process, we carefully considered our responsibilities and financial goals. This introspective reflection has enabled meaningful dialogue between the management team and the board to prevent the museum from going into debt again while increasing our investments and investing in the DAI team.
We are now making decisions and plans asking ourselves, “How will this affect our accreditation status? For example, we are now raising funds for capital projects and not moving forward until the funds are committed and usually near the end of payment. We have also established a Facility Replacement, Renewal and Special Maintenance Provision Fund (PPRRSM) to ensure that DAI can fund major capital projects identified by management and the facilities and finance committees. Additionally, we continue to commit to increasing our endowment and reducing our endowment levy to ensure a healthy future for DAI.
In the end, we decided to face museum accreditation head-on during the pandemic. What better time, right? Despite the challenges this posed and having to transition from the usual in-person site visit to a virtual visit, the DAI is now proudly accredited by the AAM once again. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of our Accreditation Team, led by Janice Goodrich, Assistant to the Director; Jerry Smith, Chief Curator and Director of Education; and Monica Walker, Director of Human Resources and Administration, and with input from almost everyone on the museum team, we received accreditation with flying colors.
What awaits us
As I look to the future, it is always bright and always challenging. In fact, 2022 and 2023 promise to be as tough financially as when I started 10 years ago, but in a different way. We are preparing for how we will emerge from the pandemic positioned to live our IDEA and our organizational missions while stabilizing our budget, increasing our investments and caring for our talented DAI team who have worked so hard to make all the magic happens during one of the most difficult times in the museum’s history.
We are now positioned to move forward, not in crisis but strategically. We are focused on continuing to grow our endowment and reducing the endowment to 4% or less. We have started raising funds for the PPRRSM fund so that we can be proactive rather than reactive to future capital needs, and our Board of Directors is committed to working with the management team to make the necessary investment to attract and retain a talented and diverse workforce. . Our journey to accreditation served as a palette as we painted the canvas of our more financially stable, inclusive and artistic future.
As the song says, we will “survive”. No, make that “We will prosper!”