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Mary Warner, Museum Manager at the Morrison County Historical Society:

Have you heard? The Smithsonian Institution has negotiated a deal with Showtime to create Smithsonian On Demand, a service that will provide digital cable programs for the network using Smithsonian resources. Heres the kicker: The deal allows Showtime exclusive access to Smithsonian resources whilst excluding other commercial filmmakers from using the resources for more than incidental use. The full extent of the Smithsonian/Showtime contract is confidential. It should be noted that 75 percent of the Smithsonians funding comes from taxpayers. The Smithsonian is arguing that the deal will bring in money to finance its mission and also give the public more access to its collections via the digital cable programs. So, local museum professionals, what do you think? Has the Smithsonian made a deal with the devil? Or, are they just being smart capitalists?

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11 Responses to Smithsonian’s Agreement with Showtime

  1. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Of course the Smithsonian has made a deal with the devil! And if they can fall into it, we can too. While we are all looking for alternative sources of funding, this shows us that we need to proceed carefully when dealing with businesses and corporations. In fact, this deal will only make the Smithsonian collections accessible to television audiences who have cable (I don’t), and who subscribe to premium channels (I’ll bet a lot of you don’t). It is inconceivable to me that a filmmakers will not have access to the wealth of artifacts, art, photographs and documents in the Smithsonian collections if they aren’t working on a Showtime project.

    What this reminds all of us is that if we are going to look to for-profit business for support, we need to develop policies that ensure that we don’t sell our souls to get those extra dollars we can well use. It is not worth the money if we cut a deal that makes our collection off limits to any segment of our public.


  2. Mary Warner says:

    I think Congress should be appalled at this deal, if only because they are currently cracking down on other nonprofit practices and making all nonprofits more accountable. If deals like this continue to be made, where will the line be drawn between nonprofit and for-profit ventures? Pretty soon, there’ll be no distinction between us and we’ll lose our tax-exempt status. Without trying to sound too high-fallutin’, nonprofits are nonprofits because we have goals that don’t focus entirely on the bottom line.


  3. David Grabitske says:

    Claudia and Mary have good points that inspire some questions. Just because we are a not-for-profit does not mean that we cannot make profits or have to take a vow of poverty. The distinction is that profits at nonprofits are plowed back into mission-related activities, rather than into dividends for shareholders as they might at businesses. As nonprofit organizations, what are appropriate ways to raise badly needed financial resources? Do nonprofits necessarily have to choose options that require lots of work for very low return? Or, can/should we find fundraisers that have a high return on investment? And though success can inspire questions, how do we as nonprofits discuss our success with government and the public?


  4. Claudia Nicholson says:

    David’s right, of course, and leave it to him to pull out the larger issues.

    I think that sharing success stories is critical for all of us to succeed. I would appreciate it if, for instance, Mark Peterson told us all more about his challenge grant, and the type of relationship-building he had to do to make it come about (when he is ready, of course!). We all have such success stories–especially with fundraisers that were successful far beyond what we expected. I would love to see an extended discussion of successful fundraising stories, including membership building, major donor cultivation, special events, fee structures for educational programs, best practices in grant writing, and everything else.

    The lesson of caution about the Smithsonian deal is that we all know that it must have been an enormous sum of money that Showtime dangled in front of them–way more than they thought they could say no to. My earlier point, badly expressed, is that we need to figure out at what price we could be bought, and then figure out how to prevent it from happening, through policy, and fundraising success.

    I am looking at my fundraising landscape right now, and will be doing so in a much more formal way in the coming year. Because of our institutional history (30 years old, and I am the first professionally-trained director in the museum’s history; and, we just moved into our own building for the first time last year), individual donors are still our best hope for short-term success. In my preliminary talks with significant supporters, I find that there are a number of reasons, each equally valid, that people support us. Learning these reasons will allow us to craft fundraising messages that should resonate with a whole other bunch of potential supporters. Individual fundraising ("friendraising" as development pros call it) pay the biggest dividends in the short term, for an investment of mostly time.

    So what else are people doing?


  5. Mary Warner says:

    The back and forth brings up so many thoughts, but I’ll try to keep it to just a couple.

    Yes, Claudia, effective fundraising is key and we should be sharing our results, and yes, David, it would be nice not to have to work so hard at fundraising. Part of our strategy is our endowments, which are giving us a fairly reliable income, albeit only for a portion of our yearly budget. While on one hand I think the Smithsonian has made a deal with the devil, they are also smart capitalists in finding such an exciting way to share their resources. This is the Age of Information and as museums, we should be in our prime for income-raising services. We just need to figure out a good business model. Content is king and we have content galore.

    However, nonprofits must also be careful not to be subsumed by the business partnerships they enter into. The flash of greenbacks is enticing, but it can very easily knock an organization off its mission. I have seen this personally with granting organizations. How often have we tweaked our grant proposals to fit the wishes of the grantor, rather than be true to our missions?

    The Smithsonian, with all the taxpayer dollars that go into it, is the public’s museum. How much of the public is the Showtime deal cutting out?


  6. Mary Warner says:

    Claudia – What organization do you represent? I’m from the Morrison County Historical Society in Little Falls. Glad to see your posts!


  7. Mary Warner says:

    I told you I had lots of thoughts.

    David said <i>Or, can/should we find fundraisers that have a high return on investment?</i>

    This is the reason we do not host many events. Events are time-consuming and costly and do not give us much (any!) monetary return on the investment we put into them. We use events as a way to connect with members and potential members, not as a fundraising device.


  8. David Grabitske says:

    "This is the Age of Information and as museums, we should be in our prime for income-raising services. We just need to figure out a good business model. Content is king and we have content galore."

    I suppose this then is the real issue of the Smithsonian/Showtime agreement. How do nonprofits leverage the information they possess into supportive financial resources without restricting public access to that same information?


  9. Mary Warner says:

    As much as we try to keep public access to our collections, we’d be kidding ourselves to say that ALL of our collections are unrestricted. How many museums have artifacts and documents that are simply too fragile or sensitive in some other way to allow public access? I’m sure the Smithsonian is no different and maybe the Showtime deal allows a "safer" public access than exhibiting or on-site research does.

    Our first priority is preservation, which is followed by access if that access does not endanger the item. The public does not always understand this. We’ve had many visitors over the years wondering why their particular artifact is not on prominent display 24/7. However, they’d be pretty upset if their item suffered some kind of damage from extensive display.

    David asked, "How do nonprofits leverage the information they possess into supportive financial resources without restricting public access to that same information?"

    One of our answers to this question is to produce publications. We produce a quarterly newsletter, in which we regularly showcase artifacts. We have also published two books that are filled with historic photos from our collections. One of these books also contains photos of some of our three-dimensional artifacts.

    In essence, we and the Smithsonian are finding ways to create products from our collections that we can sell to the public, thus solving the preservation/access issues while also attempting to resolve the income-producing dilemma we face.


  10. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Mary: My institution is the North Star Museum of Boy Scouting and Girl Scouting, 30 years old, but brand-new in the community of North St. Paul. We are a regional museum, rather than one tied to a really local area, although the bulk of our collection is from St. Paul (maybe not specifically St. Paul artifacts, but certainly collected by St. Paulites).

    In answer to David’s question about how to make these strategic financial partnerships with business without compromising access to our collections seems to me to be that we carefully and fully consider any business proposal that comes to us, and make sure that it is consonant with the collections management policies on access. If the policy says that the collections will be accessible to the greatest extent possible, outside of restrictions on gift, and a business deal would have the practical effect of restricting that access, then we cannot do it, no matter how much money it is. Painful, but simple.


  11. David Grabitske says:

    From National Council on History, "Washington Update" Vol. 12, #46 (Nov. 29, 2006) by Bruce Craig (editor) and Emily Weisner (contributor).

    In the wake of the recent controversy over the Smithsonian
    Institution’s (SI) exclusive and confidential agreement with Showtime, and recognizing that a new Congress presents new opportunities to derail the controversial agreement, a group of concerned historians, scholars, filmmakers, and others recently sent a letter to Congress demanding action.

    The Business Ventures unit of the Smithsonian Institution has been under scrutiny for some time now regarding accounting and management issues. However the contract entered between the SI and Showtime dramatically increased public criticism. The letter to relevant Congressional appropriations and oversight committees notes that the
    Smithsonian Institution has been under attack by scholars and film makers since entering into a controversial contract that grants the Showtime Network certain exclusive rights to the Institution’s staff, collections, and archives. The letter states that while the details
    of the contract are unknown, it has been established that it includes a "30-year term, a non-competitive procurement" and that organizations such as PBS and the History Channel (to name but two), are all viewed as "competitive," and hence the contract impacts their and other independent film makers potential access to the Smithsonian for programs they wish to produce.

    For months, the Smithsonian has steadfastly refused to release the terms of the contract or address the concerns and criticism to the satisfaction of critics. The letter notes that SI officials have also not responded to questions from the Senate Finance Committee, the House
    Appropriations Committee or the House Committee on Administration. While Congress has authorized the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a study, the draft report remains confidential as well.

    The letter calls on Congress to take action and shed light on the Smithsonian Showtime deal. At the very least, the contract "should be made available to the public and reforms could be instituted that would allow for increased dialogue and consultation with the public before a
    contract is agreed upon." With the House and Senate set to convene to discuss bills left to be conferenced, there is an opportunity to amend bills that limit public access to contracts.

    To view the letter, visit


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