What are the Goals of a For-Profit Museum?

A few months ago, I wrote about The Business of Museums, essentially arguing that museums need to identify ways to measure value other than income and visitor numbers. This stemmed from a lengthy discussion on linkedin, in which a colleague argued, “Are there reasons to mount an exhibition that doesn’t appeal to many or that appeals to people that can’t afford to come? Perhaps, but what would be the point? The point of exhibitions is numbers in the door (why have it if no one wants to see it?) even if the exhibition is free….I’m not sure how a museum shows how it serves its public successfully except by numbers “through the door” (whether digital or physical or some other measure).”

In one of my more emphatic moods I would argue that non-profits acting like businesses is ruining many of our cultural treasures, as well as hospitals, K-12 education, and universities. Perhaps this is why I was so fascinated by the Wheels O’ Time Museum, which is a privately owned business with shareholders, and still a model for how non-business-related priorities can drive practice.

The Wheels O’ Time Museum is in my hometown of Peoria — which, while not well-known as a museum mecca, currently boasts two museums, a zoo and a wildlife park, a botanic garden, and a historical society; a children’s museum is opening here in 2015. Wheels O’ Time is a privately owned, for-profit museum. As implied by its name, cars form the heart of the Museum’s collection, although they also collect clocks, musical instruments, and historical artifacts, and offer quirky displays like a barbershop quartet and a tiny motorized circus. I know very little about cars, but here are some examples:

1925-26 Velie

1925-26 Velie


Glide Automobile

The Glide Automobile; in this photograph the car owner is dressed as Teddy Roosevelt.

Most of the cars do not belong to the museum. They belong to local collectors, who pay the museum to store their cars. Along with the cars on display, the museum stores additional cars during the winter, when it is closed to the public. By combining the functions of display and storage, Wheels O’ Time remains a profitable enterprise: storage fees and visitor admission fees ($6.50 per adult, $3.50 per child) are sufficient to fund the museum. Since its inception in 1977 the Museum has been able to balance income and expenditures. Wheels O’ Time operates with a paid staff of two, supported by about 50 volunteers. They are open six months a year, and during that time welcome about 7,000 visitors. Last year, visitors came from 49 states and nearly 30 countries. They are listed as the first attraction for Peoria on TripAdvisor. The museum has even grown at a slow but steady pace – from one building to four, diversifying collections and exhibitions as they have grown. They take on projects based on the availability of interested and capable volunteers. They are only now involved in what Bragg considers their first fundraising effort, to restore a 1931 Ahrens Fox fire truck – and this fundraising effort is being spearheaded not by the museum, but by a local firefighters group. If you are a for-profit museum that makes money off of storing large objects, how do you measure success? Not based on visitor numbers or income: the site manager, Marcia Johnson, was unable to tell me how many visitors the museum receives, and had to direct me to a volunteer for that information.  While she would not discuss income, the museum does not set financial growth as a goal; rather, it looks to balance income and expenditures. When asked how she measures the success of the Museum, Marcia answered with this list:

  • the museum is extremely friendly
  • we enjoy our visitors
  • we enjoy our artifacts
  • we are able to maintain things, have nice working conditions, and draw volunteers who enjoy it.

She added, “Of course we want people to come and of course we want to stay in the black, but our stock holders realize when they invest that it’s not going to be a money-making proposition. It’s something that serves the community, and is a place for people to store their treasures. It’s a labor of love – the people who work here love the artifacts, love the history, love showing them to people.” I’m inspired by Marcia’s response. Maybe this reveals how new I am to the Midwest, and small museums (I moved here from New York City last year) – are there many museums around that would describe their goals in this way?

11 thoughts on “What are the Goals of a For-Profit Museum?

  1. There feels like something non-museumlike about this org. Both AAM and ICOM have non profit status in museum definition. ICOM also adds “in service to society.” I too like their attitude to audiences but if they had to make a hard choice between visitors and investors seems like they would be oblig to their share holders. When push comes to shove their most basic oblig is to provide storage rather than to serve their community. Maybe some kind of hybrid.

    • I’m not sure one needs to be a non-profit in order to be “in service to society” – witness Khan Academy. But I think that’s an important question to ask right now – what is the relationship between non-profit status and mission-driven work that serves society?

      Wheels O’ Time in particular has shareholders who signed up expecting to lose money, and envisions some day becoming a not-for-profit – I don’t think they see their basic obligation as to provide storage, and in a land-rich place like Central Illinois there are certainly many other places people could store their cars.

  2. Like Gretchen said, as soon as I saw this post I thought that this organisation would not count as museum by the ICOM definition, which stipulates that a museum must be non-profit. That doesn’t mean a museum can’t turn a profit from its operations, it just means (as I understand it) that any profits must be re-invested back into the institution and not be distributed to shareholders. If the shareholders invested in this expecting to lose money, is it in the true sense a “for profit” organisation? Irrespective of its legal status, one could argue that it isn’t.

    • Interesting point, Regan. I don’t think it’s really a “for-profit.” Really I think I mis-titled this post – what I am really interested in is the idea that museums can define value in ways other than numbers through the door and money raised, and I find it ironic that the museum I found that best articulated alternate measures of value is not a not-for-profit.

    • It’s not illegal, if that’s what you are asking. It is like any other business, without the tax benefits of a not-for-profit.

  3. I found this blog looking for information on setting up a small private museum that specializes in Social Realism art work and artifacts that I have collected abroad over the 30 years of frequenting current and former war zones as a writer and documentary filmmaker. My collection of Chinese Cultural Revolution art has been exhibited seven different times at universities and local museums here in the west (ASU, BYU, UVU, U of Easter Oregon…) but we have no permanent exhibit space. The Soviet collection has been exhibited once (UVU). We have yet to display the Vietnamese War art from the North Vietnamese collection. We have a facebook page Red Paint Collections (which I don’t keep up on) and my friend, another journalist, doc filmmaker living in the UK just set up his own little museum through AIM. Is there anything I need to do legally to call my entity/collection a museum? I know that most museums are non-profit and that assumption is made when people here the word museum… but is there anything I need to aware of calling my collection a museum? I hope this makes sense.

  4. Thank you, Rebecca. I read your article through my studies in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Program. I come from hospitality in the for-profit sector and am switching gears mid-life to enter museums and non-profit work. What I heard from your piece is that fiscal opportunities can enhance nonprofit status. The example was a good one of adapting a small property and demonstration of service to the community. The mention was that they would like to receive non-profit status eventually. How would this change the property overall?
    Many thanks,
    Rebecca Monaghan

  5. I recently saw a museum association’s definition of a museum that started out ‘not-for-profit’. I am wondering whether museum associations have some legal copy write on the term and require them to be non profit, even non members. I think anyone who has a collection of old stuff people will pay to see should be able to call the building or room a museum. And that profit isn’t a dirty word. Doesn’t Graceland function as a museum?

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