The June/July issue of American Craft (an art magazine) has an interesting article about the failed merger between the Museum of Contemporary Craft (MoCC) and the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA). MoCC closed in April and the interview makes it clear the hoped-for synergies between MoCC and PNCA never developed. The people interviewed, especially on the now-defunct MoCC's side, have been quick to tout independence of museums as a core value. A staffer is quoted as saying: "We were told time and time again, 'You are to spend no more than 30 percent of your working hours on museum projects." The college projects would always trump the museum projects." Another says: "When you are independent, your programming takes a certain form. You are addressing broad communities. [After the merger,] Our focus shifted to serving students to faculty. [The new perspective [didn't work]."
This narrative about MoCC's sad demise (its exhibitions included Dropping the Urn by Ai Weiwei and Gestures of Resistance including Theaster Gates, leaving no doubt regarding the quality of its programming) was also apparent in a February blog post on the American Craft website when the news first broke that MoCC would close. The blog post provides more background on the history of MoCC's financial woes, which seem to have been triggered by a 2007 move to a new location, right before the Great Recession hit. The post's author notes: "The merger with PNCA seemed a lifeline to save an institution struggling with lingering relocation expenses during the economic downturn in 2008 [...but...] PNCA had its own financial difficulties and, in the years before its joint administration of MoCC, the college came within striking distance of losing its accreditation."
Later, we read: "More ominous is the seeming disregard by the college of the mission of the museum and the work it interprets. The move to jointly administer the museum in 2009 now appears to have been a Faustian bargain; it preserved MoCC for the time being, but put its future in the hands of an institution that doesn’t appear to care greatly about contemporary craft."
In the case of MoCC and PNCA, this might well be an accurate description of the pitfalls of nonprofit affiliations; however, while the blog post keeps its focus on the woes of MoCC, the people quoted in the June/July issue of the magazine seem at times to be drawing conclusions about the validity of nonprofit affiliations in general, along the lines that losing one's independent is bad.
But to give an example, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival has been affiliated with DeSales University in Center Valley, PA for two decades and this affiliation has allowed the DeSales theater students, who are trained in one of the best programs in the country, to tremendously benefit from observing and learning alongside seasoned actors every summer. PSF has been able to serve the broader community through the WillPower tour every fall (where young actors bring Shakespeare to high schools in PA, NJ and DE) as well as through "Shakespeare 4 Kids" productions in the summer. The PSF productions are held in the Labuda Theater where DeSales students have their own theater productions during the school year, allowing top-notch facilities to be used year-round. PSF's artistic director also has an appointment in the Division of Performing Arts, as do members of PSF's technical staff. Students benefit tremendously from the festival's presence on the university's grounds every summer.
Going back to MoCC and PNCA, it seems that the problem originated from a lack of structure to create the synergies needed to make the affiliation a success. The magazine article talks about meetings to suggest new curriculum that didn't go anywhere. What they might have needed, I'll suggest, is an approach in line with John Kotter's Leading Change framework:
- Establishing a sense of urgency. (You don't have round after round of meetings if you have a sense of urgency...)
- Creating a guiding coalition. (Both sides seem to be at each other's throat.)
- Developing a vision and strategy. (They do seem to have had some sort of high-level vision, although it might just have been paying lip service to what some people knew the vision should be.)
- Communicating the change vision. (Nothing about that is mentioned in the article.)
- Empowering employees for broad-based action. (This doesn't seem to have been the case.)
- Generating short-term wins. (There are very few student-related success stories.)
- Consolidating gains and producing more change. (This didn't seem to have happened.)
- Anchoring the new approach in the culture. (They never got to that point.)
It is a pity that the story ends in a seemingly acrimonious divorce between MoCC and PNCA. The students could have learned a lot from seeing the operations of a real museum up close. If too few students at PNCA were interested in craft and museums, this could have been the opportunity to develop a flagship summer program to bring in students from other institutions and give them hands-on learning. It would also have helped keeping the college's facilities operating year-round, increasing operating revenues, in addition to raising PNCA's visibility. So many missed opportunities here... What a shame.