Creativity on a Shoestring?

One of the big questions Linda and I have been working to pin down is whether you can be creative on a small budget. Based on our own experiences working in and with small museums, our gut reaction is to say yes, you absolutely can be creative on a small budget, and in fact, sometimes lack of funding forces you to be even more creative than when you have resources.

On the other hand, when we asked you about barriers to creativity in our survey back in May, lack of resources topped the list as the number one barrier, cited by a third of respondents. Here are some of the comments people made:

It takes money to staff some of my big ideas and money to bring them to life.

There are lots of things we would like to try, but we can’t afford it. Our staff does amazing things with a very small budget, but it reaches a point when creativity is stretched to breaking. On the other hand, we can’t afford to be traditional either.

I am very new to my position, but upon first impressions, it seems that a lack of resources prevents creativity. A very small budget and a very small audience are challenges for us.

I think our lack of substantial resources make us more creative, but sometimes executing creative ideas does require funding.

Two of these responses acknowledge that you can be creative on a small budget, but only to a point—you can make some improvements but you can’t actually transform your institution without more resources. While we too have certainly felt the pain of having a really great big idea and no money or staff to execute it, we don’t want lack of resources to be an excuse for sitting on your hands and doing nothing. And we are also holding out for the possibility of full-blown transformation through creativity. See, for example, Nina Simon’s post this week about doubling attendance at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, using public programs with budgets of less than $100.

Doing things the same way you’ve always done them (or the same way everyone else does them) versus implementing creative ideas and solutions is like the difference between putting your savings under a mattress and putting it in a high-yield bank account—the creative projects accrue interest. Small museums need this interest just as much, if not more than, the big ones. We worry that there are a lot of small institutions that might be spending their limited resources putting stuff under the mattress—acquiring a larger collection when they haven’t yet figured out how to use the artifacts they already have in a compelling way, or spending a lot of effort keeping the doors open 40 hours a week to serve a handful of daily visitors even if it prevents the staff from getting out to be present and involved in the community.

But we want to hear from you. Tell us about some creative ideas you’ve implemented on the cheap. Or suggest a creative small museum we should study for this project. How have you overcome the lack-of-resources barrier? What would you say to your colleagues who are worried they can’t do this without more staff and funding?


8 thoughts on “Creativity on a Shoestring?

  1. I do believe that money is always an issue. All of us working in small institutions stretch our funding as far as it will go and then a little more but I can not by new exhibit furniture or expand the staff if I do not have the money. So our goals may be inhibited by our resources.
    This does point to the need for better fundraising but that, i suspect, is another chapter in the book.

    • Thanks for your comment, Bruce. Do you think it’s just an issue of scale? i.e. small museums are creative in small ways on small budgets and big museums are creative in big ways on big budgets, and everyone, regardless of what scale they operate at, wants more money?

      • Rainey, It may in fact be a matter of scale which I had not really considered. We have done some interesting things with our exhibits and programming that if we had a larger budget we would have accomplished in a different way. I do believe that if I could magically double every museum’s budget we could all find mission related work to spend the new money.

      • That sure is the thing we all dream about at night–the windfall–isn’t it, Bruce? And it certainly is a fun lunch table conversation to have with one’s colleagues: what would we do if our museum won the lottery? Ultimately I think Linda and I need to find a way to help all of you work better no matter what budget you’re dealing with. Here’s hoping we can deliver!

  2. I’d like to suggest that creativity is fueled by constraints. In my own work (which is primarily exhibit planning and development) my partners and I are most creative when we have a problem to solve: Like when the client says “Love your concept, but can it be built for 40 per cent less? Or when the client needs a permanent exhibit, but only has 200 square feet, or when an architect designs a spiral shaped exhibit hall only 3 feet wide (all real-life examples).

    Creativity occurs when a series of “ingredients” come together Including inspiration, a supportive environment and a constraint of some kind. Budget, or lack of, is just a constraint.

    • This is a really good point, Jane, one that I am also seeing in some of the creativity literature: you need to have a clear structure–some constraints–in order to innovate effectively. Right now I’m reading Tim Brown’s Change by Design, and he’s talking about the brief, which lays out the creative charge: “Almost like a scientific hypothesis, the brief is a set of mental constraints that gives the project team a framework from which to begin, benchmarks by which they can measure progress, and a set of objectives to be realized.” (p. 22) I’m wondering if the relative fuzziness of the constraints is one reason creativity feels natural in exhibition development but not so natural in a lot of other museum departments. When you’re dealing with a concrete project with rules like “it needs to fit in this gallery and cost this much,” you have a clear brief. But in my experience the constraints can often be a lot less concrete (provide public value), or overwhelming (no light, no heat, no humidity, no touching, no after hours, no making noise, no change), or too big (fix the museum). Anyone have thoughts on that?

  3. The small museum that I work for was able to develop an expensive project that a new business will use for marketing purposes. This kind of partnership can be risky and requires patience but it also offers new opportunities. Here is our project: The project itself was a creative way to address the fact that over 20 buildings are missing from our historic landscape. We still have a long way to go to resolve other interpretation and exhibition problems and need more resources but this prototype should help us start moving in the right direction. Hancock Shaker Village used a similar approach to their energy needs. They allowed a solar energy company to install solar panels to provide electricity for their visitor center. Energy costs were greatly reduced and the solar company benefits from a substantial marketing opportunity. I think we should be careful about the way we engage in corporate partnerships but there are many potential benefits.

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