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HELP Advance: Supporting the Small Museum

April 23, 2013

By Abby Dean
Program Communications Manager, Mid-America Arts Alliance

Based in the country’s heartland, our organization, Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA), serves a six-state region that’s rich with small, eclectic museums, all of which play a vital role in providing educational experiences and preserving local history. Small and rural museums are not just the largest museum sector, they are critical to the cultural fabric of our nation. Through our work with these museums, we have found that staff and volunteers often cannot afford the time or money to take a break from their local service in order to participate in capacity building or professional development activities. That’s why M-AAA’s Hands-on Experiential Learning Project (HELP) was developed. HELP augments an organization’s local work with onsite assistance and peer networks of encouragement.

In September 2010, we were fortunate to receive a 21st Century Museum Professionals Grant from IMLS to fund HELP: Advancing 21st Century Skills (HELP Advance), an exciting training program that would span three years and center on strategic planning, resource management, and community engagement, culminating with a capstone project in each participating organization’s community. We worked with 43 small and midsize cultural institutions across our six states: Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. With the belief that “learning by doing” is the best method to retain information and create new organizational habits, participants took part in statewide workshops, onsite consultations with HELP field experts, meetings with peers, and interactive online learning.

HELP Advance Workshop in Kansas City, 2011.

As HELP Advance comes to a close later this spring, we can reflect on what the organizations have learned and realize the impact this hands-on project has achieved. One of the most important takeaways for us is how beneficial in-person support is for museums. Field Director Carla Patterson worked onsite with HELP Advance museums in Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, while Field Director Brian Crockett mentored museums in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Along with ongoing LISTSERV communications, the onsite visits were instrumental in providing the one-on-one guidance needed to help ensure progress toward individualized program goals.

Prioritizing topics at a HELP Advance Workshop in Kearney, NE, March 2012.

The visits also provided opportunities for the field directors to assess current, sometimes critical issues experienced by the museums, such as loss of a building, a windfall major gift, or change in leadership. An excellent example of this impact can be seen at No Man’s Land Museum in Goodwell, Oklahoma. Says Crockett:

“Perhaps HELP’s greatest virtue is the steady promise to visit the staff, volunteers, and board members of museums that are well outside the geographical and economic circles of urban/suburban museum professional development. At No Man's Land Museum, in the far-off Panhandle of Oklahoma, two thirds of their board members must travel more than 70 miles of dusty, two-lane highways just to attend a meeting. At the project’s outset, the museum had been experiencing a period of some dormancy, with a faltering capital campaign and changes among key staff.

“While working on improving planning, governance, resource management, and community engagement, the HELP Advance team provided a constant dose of nonprofit expertise and onsite encouragement. Meanwhile the museum’s staff and board brought renewed energy and a growing appetite for excellence. As a result, No Man’s Land is making specific plans again with a keener eye towards service; the museum is now better able to meet their public obligations while celebrating the importance and richness of their locale. Indeed, No Man’s Land is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, with fresh exhibitions, public programs, facility improvements, and plans for ambitious offsite history projects. Over the term of HELP, it’s easy to see local pride improved. They know how distinctive their museum is and how important it can be to future community life.”

Throughout the next few months, each organization will present its capstone project in front of a group of peers and key community stakeholders. These projects vary based on each individual organization’s unique goals, ranging from strategic planning and governance to fundraising strategies and community engagement. We’re also looking forward to group sharing time where we will discuss how each organization has evolved from the beginning of HELP Advance to today.