Jewish Museum in Philly Faces Cuts. How Can NMAJH Rebound?

The National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) is feeling a pinch after several years of lackluster fundraising and growing costs.

The museum – inaugurated in 2010 and housed in a $150 million building on Philadelphia’s Independence Mall – is cutting 36 percent of its staff. Twelve of these positions were eliminated outright, with an additional six to be cut in the coming months. Other services inside the institution are being cut, curtailed, or consolidated. The museum will shutter its cafe and redistribute staff to take care of other responsibilities, and will begin closing on Tuesdays.

Ivy Barsky, the museum’s chief executive, discussed the cuts: “We’ve had to make some really difficult decisions, but it’s in order to sustain a bright future for the museum.”

These are tough days for institutions that celebrate, document, and/or preserve Jewish experience and history. The Trump Administration has suggested a staggering $3 million cut to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s federal funding, which makes up 5 percent of the institution’s overall budget.

In response, more than 60 members of congress have drafted a bipartisan letter decrying the move, which reads in part:

In our view, the mission of the museum has never been more important, particularly as the number of anti-Semitic attacks around the world rises.

Anti-Semitic attacks have grown in number since the emergence of the bigoted, online alt-right movement that works to indoctrinate internet users into hate ideologies. A number of Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated over the past 6 months, including one in Philadelphia, home to the NMAJH.

This sad social reality only underscores how essential these institutions are for cementing equality for historically marginalized groups.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, fortunately, probably won’t endure the proposed cut. There is some simple math at work here: with Trump’s disapproval ratings reaching historic highs, his more unpopular proposals that make fellow Republicans bristle probably won’t progress much further. As the strongly worded bipartisan letter from congress indicates, the proposal to cut funding to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum is unlikely to go anywhere.

But for NMAJH, life is more difficult. On paper, the museum seems to do well; it has a membership base of 6,000 and a retention rate of around 90 percent, which is higher than many other institutions. The museum also enjoys a spot on one of the most celebrated stretches of museums and historical buildings in the United States. Nonetheless, financial problems persist.

So how can it emerge from its financial troubles? NMAJH’s leadership will have to make some hard choices. The museum, for example, may consider rebranding. Visitors of described the title as long and ungainly. Others view it as a museum for Jewish people as opposed a museum about and celebrating Jewish people.

Renewed online efforts are also likely in order. In this day and age, nonprofits need to function like media companies. By building relationships with its constituents online, NMAJA could grow its already solid membership numbers or stand out in a crowded field of Philadelphia-based historical and cultural institutions.

It may also be time to think outside the box. A number of institutions are experimenting with virtual reality. Such immersive exhibits could position the NMAJH as a next-gen cultural institution and elevate its profile.

Rebounding from financial difficulties is a struggle many nonprofits face. But if an institution’s mission is vital – which NMAJH’s most certainly is – it’s worth looking forward to a better future, so long as there is an elevated commitment from stakeholder groups (on both the local and national levels) and a strong willingness to persevere.

Philanthropy Saves Monuments, How About Infrastructure?

There’s one thing everyone can agree on: the United States’ infrastructure needs an overhaul.

While a contentious debate over funding rages on, there is a demonstrable consensus that cracking roads, neglected bridges, and outdated technology not only pose a threat to the country’s economic viability, but also to the physical wellbeing of its people.

Another country is facing similar issues involving rote maintenance and the elusive funding necessary to pursue it. To account for the difference between the two cases, just trade a power grids for aqueducts.

Italy has had difficulty paying for the conservation and refurbishment of its extensive catalog of amphitheaters, churches, and various artifacts from its long and storied history. Along with many of its southern European peers, Italy has been slow to emerge from the recession. The country has sizable public debts, and Rome officials oscillate back and forth between filing the city for bankruptcy. In this cash-strapped climate, channeling public resources to highly expensive historical conservation is exceedingly difficult.

Tourism is an essential component of Italy’s economy, and state officials needed a solution. They turned to one area of the Italian economy that has weathered the last decade’s downturn – the fashion and luxury industry.

A variety of high-grossing corporations have stepped in to ensure the maintenance of Italy’s national patrimony. Tod’s, an Italian fashion company, is paying to refurbish the iconic colosseum. The company Fendi has shelled out $4 million to restore the Trevi Fountain. Bulgari has donated $2 million for revitalization efforts for the Spanish Steps.

Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, discussed the public-private partnerships that are currently shaking up the country’s funding system:

Our doors are wide open for all the philanthropists and donors who want to tie their name to an Italian monument. We have a long list, as our heritage offers endless options, from small countryside churches to the Colosseum. Just pick.

Many Italians find Franceschini’s words troubling. While finding the necessary funding for such a trove of priceless artifacts and buildings is important, there are nonetheless a host of ethical questions for the Mediterranean nation. Will these partnerships usher in the commercialization of publicly held assets? Will good intention give way to future privatizations? Are these practices here to stay?

Italy is new to the corporate philanthropy scene. Public-private relationships of this nature are more common in the United States, which has an entrenched tradition of business philanthropy. Indeed, the United States has seen its share of philanthropists propping up national landmarks.

In 2012, David Rubenstein – the billionaire head of the Carlyle Group – donated $7.5 million to restore the Washington Monument in the country’s capital. After the famous obelisk sustained damages from an earthquake, the National Parks Service struggled to secure the funding necessary to repair the structure and to reenforce it against similar calamities in the future. Rubinstein – who has also contributed to the Smithsonian and the U.S. panda reproduction program – stepped in to front the cost.

As unfortunate as it may be that national symbols such as the Washington Monument in the United States and the Colosseum in Italy require private support, they may nonetheless carry a lesson for how the philanthropy sector can fill some of the gaps in infrastructure funding created by government inaction. By marrying art and infrastructure, private-public relationships can formulate and execute fundable projects. A provincial bridge does not carry the same import as the Lincoln memorial, but in recognizing the value of public art and its fundamental relationship with public infrastructure, creative philanthropic thinking can find solutions to these pressing issues.

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