Museum Strategic Planning, Part II – Museum Feasibility Study

Mark Walhimer Museum Planning, Museum Strategic Planning, Starting A Museum 1 Comment

Future museum

“What is a Museum Feasibility Study?”

We are currently working on a feasibility study for a new Museum / Art Center in New York. I thought it would be a good idea to continue our series about Museum Strategic Planning. As is often the case I would like to offer a definition of a museum feasibility study, starting with a definition of Feasible:

Feasible – “Capable of being done or carried out ‘a feasible plan,’ capable of being used or dealt with successfully : suitable.”

Museum Feasibility Study – “Proof or disproof of the financial and mission of a new institution or expanding institution’s success.”

A Museum Feasibility Study is the next step of the 10 Steps to Starting a Museum.

Too often museum feasibility studies first look at a geographic area and the existing museums and attractions, and then look at the potential visitation of a new museum or expanded museum. I have been on staff at four museums and worked with more than fifty museums as a consultant. Often I see, “Build it and they will come” based on overly optimistic Feasibility Studies and/or Feasibility Studies that don’t consider mission, potential business models, and the future of museums. I have seen many institutions get into long-term trouble with a myopic museum feasibility study. Therefore, this is how I see Museum Feasibility Studies:

Components of a Museum Feasibility Study
Area Demographics: Research the area demographics and population trends, i.e. “Is the local population growing or shrinking?”, “What is the education level of the local population?”, “Who are the largest employers in the area?”, and “What is the city/area’s socio-economic status?”
Business Model: Possible institutional business models. For instance, “Admission Based”, “Donor / Sponsor Based”, “Rental Income”, etc. and percentage of overall visitation.
Visitor Demographics: Define Visitor types, i.e. “Seniors”, “Families with young children”, “Singles”, etc. and percentage of overall visitation.
Area Partners / Competition: Includes list of major institutions in the surrounding area as potential partners and/or competitors with information such as location, website, admission prices, and annual visitation.
Area Tourism: Major attractions and areas of interests for tourists including historic sites, museums, outdoor recreation, shopping, agriculture, and so forth.
Visitor Trends: Look at various age ranges, durations of stay, accommodations, areas visited, and reasons (for vacation, business, or to see family or friends).
Benchmark Case Studies: Consider the business models of three to five comparable or varied institutions by researching their founding history, programs, organizational structure, admission prices, partners, and operating budget over several years.
Recommendations: Outline the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats facing the organization with consideration of mission/vision and the community profile.
Conclusion: Create a clear and concise summary of the findings, from evaluations to recommendations, and offer next steps.
Supplemental Materials: Include all relevant visual aids or appendices.
Bibliography: List all sources used throughout the study, i.e. demographic data from the U.S. Census, organization websites, articles, etc.

Best Practices
Future Planning: Best case scenario is that the plan of the feasibility study will be in place in three years – one year for planning, one year for fundraising, and one year for construction. Plan for at least five years out.
Plan for the Visitor: Visitors are not numbers. It seems simple, but a possible high attendance without a supportive visitorship is of little value, creating a second year dip. Museum visitorship should grow in the second year, not shrink. If your visitorship is decreasing in the second year, you are not connecting with your visitor base.
Draft Mission: I don’t think it is possible to create a realistic museum feasibility study without at least a draft of the mission statement. The mission can be very simple, but at least it is a starting point for a Board of Directors to review.
Peer Review: Politely ask Directors of your benchmark case studies if they would be willing to review your feasibility study and make comments. The data of the feasibility study may be of help with their planning.
Only Half Listen: Many times a founder or board member has a vision of the planned museum and only wants validation of their vision. This is fine if the data and visitor experience supports the founders / board members’ vision. But if it doesn’t, you are doing a disservice by rubber-stamping the vision.
Partnerships: This can be very sedative. You want the information of the study to remain confidential, but you also want to understand potential partnerships and collaborations. Without understanding the potential partnerships and collaborations, you may only be creating a Straw Man.
Plan for your Benchmarks: Once you have narrowed your potential business models, choose your benchmarks and plan your study according to the benchmark, no matter the location.
Be flexible of the of museum type: A client contacts you and requests a feasibility study for an “Art Museum.” It is tempting to create a Museum Feasibility Study based on an Art Museum similar to the one in the next county, but that may not be the best fit for the location.
Look beyond Non-Profit: The museum’s competition will be beyond other area museums. Try to understand the needs of the area.
Plan for the building: Be very general, but try to understand how the proposed museum will use the building.

Too often, I have worked with clients who in their second or third year of operations have found that their Feasibility Study was overly optimistic and find themselves laying off staff and changing programming. I believe the best practice for feasibility studies is to remain “visitor-centric,” always bringing the study back to the potential visitor and how each group of visitors will use the yet-to-be-created institution.  Contact me about having us help with your Feasibility Study.

Comments 1

  1. I believe that there are at least three topics that might also be considered:
    1. Nature and possible support from government: local, state and federal.
    2. Uniqueness of the product- not another historical museum dealing with a theme found in the next town!
    3. Potential to capture local schools through an education program.
    Desmond Kennard
    Principal Consultant
    Museums in the making

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