More museum freelancers are using co-working

Over the last couple of years I have been working on a small start-up museum. The project has included Museum Master Planning, Building Renovation, Museum Exhibition Design and Project Management of the exhibition fabrication and production. Just over the last couple of years I have seen a significant change in the staffing of museum design and fabrication. I see the “Gig-Economy” as having a large impact on museums.

As background most museum exhibition projects are created using one of the three models below:

  1. In-house design, fabrication and project management. I am seeing fewer and fewer museums having in-house design and fabrication.
  2. In-house staff and freelance, design, fabrication and project management. Again seeing fewer museums with any in-house full-time staff.
  3. In-house project management. I am seeing this as the largest group. Museums having one or two (overworked) project managers that manage capital cost projects, the project managers manage outsourced design consultants and fabrication.

A few models for starting a museum:

  1. Hire in-house designers, fabricators, and project managers and design and build the exhibitions in-house. I do not know of any new projects using this model.
  2. Hire a design firm and then hire a fabrication firm to fabricate the designers plans. Most new museums are created using this method.
  3. Similar to above, but parts of project are sub-contracted to multiple vendors. Less expensive than option 2 and usually results in more creative projects.
  4. Design and Build, one firm that designs and fabricates new museums in one shop. Many of the design and build firms have gone out of business.

For clarity when I say “freelancer” I am referring to designers, curators, registrars, art handlers, installers, fabricators, and researchers.

Given that most projects now use in-house project management and outsourced design and fabrication, I am seeing the gig-economy as having a large effect on museum design, and fabrication. With this project that I have been working on I have seen:

Impact of the Gig Economy on museum design and fabrication:

  1. More difficult to get freelance workers to think about the “big picture”. Freelancers are being paid less and working more and want clearly defined projects without discussing the project objectives.
  2. Freelancers are over worked and are taking less responsibility and less adherence to schedule.
  3. Communication is more difficult, freelancers working on more projects and have less time for communication.
  4. I have seen many firms of more than three or four staff go out of business, more smaller or individuals doing freelance work.
  5. In-house project managers are overworked and most often not trained as project managers. Often there has been a decision to outsource capital projects and the “last person standing” becomes the project manager as a “catch all”.
  6. Less research on projects, items such as publications, in gallery print-outs, on floor programming becoming less (although there is greater demand).
  7. Very difficult to assemble and coordinate project teams. Team members working on multiple projects and have less time for meetings and communication.
  8. Projects as less profitable and freelancers being paid less. I know from a museum point of view this is difficult to understand, but at some point freelancers leave the field and businesses close. I have seen many museum designers and fabricators go out of business in the last five years.
  9. Less billable time, items such as hiring freelancers is not billable time, and it is taking longer to find people. More interstitial work, work that does not fall into one clearly define area and is not billable. Greater need for integration between casework, AV, graphics, installation with less willingness on the museum side to pay for project integration.
  10. Less collegial project teams people are over worked and worried about the future
  11. Less general knowledge of the overall collection gained from years working with collection, and possible connections between objects and/or donors.

Future Predictions:

  1. At some point in the near future this will become unsustainable, there will not be enough freelancers for projects and with people leaving the museum field, projects will take longer time and will happen less often.
  2. Visitors are demanding more experiential museums and there is less funding and less labor to achieve the visitor desired experiences.
  3. More pop-up museum experiences
  4. Fewer encyclopedic museums

Possible Solutions:

  1. Create Guilds and Unions
  2. Create fellowships
  3. Change to greater governmental funding (unlikely).

If the trend continues I am seeing future of less thoroughly researched projects that are smaller in scale and less in depth experiences.

What do you think ? Please leave your comments and feedback below, thank you, – Mark.

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