Season 3, Episode 2: The One Where No One’s Ready
Reference: Everyone is taking a long time to get ready to go to a museum dinner event where Ross is giving a speech for donors.
Joey: Whats the matter, Ross? You nervous about your speech?
Ross: No… You wanna hear it?
Joey: Am I in it?
Ross: Uh huh. Yeah, right after I thank everyone for giving money to the museum I sing a song about the wonder that is Joey.
Everybody wishes that someone would just come along and give him or her a million dollars, but that never happens. The same is true for museums. Museums have donors who do give upwards of a million dollars, but it doesn’t happen just off the bat (and if it does, you should probably be a little weary).
Museums find donors in a variety of ways. Sometimes the average museum visitor will turn into a donor if they have the right visitor experience. Other times donors are introduced to the museum by other donors or board members. Either way, donors become donors because they are interested in the museum and a relationship has been cultivated. Donors want to know they are appreciated and that their money or object is going to the right place (and they should be—most museums in today’s economy would not survive if it weren’t for generous donors who believe in the mission of the museum). Donors who are very generous are usually given special access to things in the museum that the public is not—such as invitations to special events like the one depicted in this Friends episode. The event the friends are attending is a dinner that the museum is putting on for donors, which features a speech by Ross, one of the curators/paleontologists on staff at the museum. Presumably, donors give objects or money to a museum that has collections they are interested in. For example, a donor may give the Museum of Prehistoric History a million dollars because he or she is interested in dinosaurs. The development staff may then set up a meeting or dinner for that donor with Ross, a paleontologist. The donor will be happy because he or she is able to talk with Ross one-on-one about dinosaurs and the museum is happy because they will now be able to build a new wing in the museum where they can install that giant T-rex skeleton that’s been sitting in storage for decades.
Sometimes donors give money for specific reasons such as to purchase a work of art, to endow a curator’s position, or to start up an educational program. When museums are able to pinpoint a donor’s specific interest (e.g. John Doe loves Modernist painting and has a passion for education), the museum will be able to ask for an appropriate gift when the time comes to make the ask (John Doe would probably be happy to fund a program that helps elementary school children think creatively through looking at Modern Art and participating in an art activity). That’s not to say dealing with donors is always easy. Sometimes donors have a particular reason for donating that is contrary to the museum’s goals. Many people are familiar with Catherine Reynolds, who tried to donate $38 million dollars to the Smithsonian Institution to create an exhibition dedicated to American heroes. It turned out that Ms. Reynolds wanted a say in who would be depicted as an American hero in the exhibition. In the end, this was not a decision that the Smithsonian was comfortable letting someone else make, so the donation was withdrawn. Museums have to be careful that the voice they are using in exhibitions is theirs (or one they approve of); giving donors too much power has the potential to turn sour very quickly. Museums do need money, but donors with the wrong intentions have the potential to ruin a museum’s reputation. If a museum has cultivated a good relationship with a donor, that donor will trust that the museum will know how to use the money most appropriately, in a way that would make the donor happy.
Donors make all kinds of stipulations when they are giving objects. A common request donors make is that their donated object be on display all the time and never be lent or sold. This is just not feasible. Objects cannot be on display all the time because of condition concerns, the need to rotate objects for viewer interest, or the museum’s collecting policy gets adjusted. (Even the best Monet needs a rest or vacation!). However, when a donor just will not relent, a museum will sometimes take a great object with donor restrictions. In these cases, the best situation is to try to (politely) explain why the donor’s request is not feasible and strike a compromise.