Last week, I was at a talk by Dr. May Al-Ibrashy, the force behind Al-Athar Lina, an amazing initiative which sets out to conserve the heritage of al Khalifa in Historic Cairo and conceives it as a driver for community development. After the talk, someone from the audience asked her why Al-Athar Lina are not better known and why do they not try to raise more awareness about their work. She answered that she does not want more people to know about them, that it would only complicate things. She said that the work her organization does is community-based and only the people involved in it need to know about it.
I come from a business background, even worse, marketing, so this went against everything I had learned during my four years of undergrad. I couldn’t help thinking “wow, this is a terrible business model”. Except, that’s the point, cultural organizations are not businesses. I found a blog post on Nina Simon’s blog titled “Are Cultural Organizations Built to Fail to Scale?”. In it, Simon lists the reasons why cultural organizations are not scaling. Many of these reasons explained Dr. Al-Ibrashy’s stance. Simon explains how cultural organizations do not scale because it goes against their mission. The goal is local engagement (although that does not necessarily mean geographical locality). In the case of Al-Athar Lina, the initiative aimed to engage two groups, the community living in the area where the restoration projects are taking place (Al-Khalifa) and the people who are interested in the preservations and restoration of these heritage sites (government/ NGOs/ Aid groups/ enthusiasts), this works because it’s an effort concentrated on these limited projects, scaling it up will only turn it into the mammoth workload facing the Ministry of Antiquities, which inevitably turns into inefficiency.
Efficiency is one aspect of business that cultural organizations should be held accountable for. In 2013, the International Journal of Cultural Policy published a paper titled “Evaluating the efficiency of museums using multiple outputs: evidence from a regional system of museums in Spain” by María José del Barrio & Luis César Herrero”. In this paper, museums are quantitatively evaluated and their efficiency is determined. The paper does not acknowledge that cultural organizations should also be evaluated in terms of their cultural value and impact on the community. While money is important and crucial to the functioning of any cultural organization, breaking even and relying on fundraising are perfectly acceptable financial situations. Cultural organizations should not be put in a position where they have to cut certain programs or projects which generate losses or do not generate enough income in favor of other more profitable ones. Just because non-profit organizations do not get to keep their profits, does not mean they are not pressured to make more money to reinvest into their organizations, caving into that pressure takes away much needed support to less popular projects and causes.
In terms of scaling up, while I agree with Nina Simon that cultural organizations can not and should not scale up, there are always exceptions to the rule. Looking at museums, The Louvre has opened Louvre Abu Dhabi. The new museum finds a balance between the original Louvre and the local community in Abu Dhabi through careful and deliberate curation. Looking at NGOs, Simon herself mentions Goodwill and YMCA as exceptions to her own rule. However, very few cultural organizations can successfully scale up and it should not be a main goal for any of them because it might actually hurt their cause.
María José del Barrio & Luis César Herrero (2014) Evaluating the efficiency of museums using multiple outputs: evidence from a regional system of museums in Spain, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 20:2, 221-238, DOI: 10.1080/10286632.2013.764290