Following its 2018 approval of $970,000 in grants to eight different museums in its network, the Knight Foundation, an American non-profit organization that provides funds to institutions in the arts and journalism sectors, recently released an overview of its grantees’ overall growth in the digital arena. Grantees included the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture, The Lowe Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the San Jose Museum of Art, and the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach. 

The Foundation’s mission centers innovation and “First Amendment rights in the digital age,” supporting projects that expand museums’ hiring practices in furtherance of online content creation. In the wake of COVID’s onset and the racial justice reckoning of summer 2020, the Knight Foundation’s Digital Transformation assessment feels particularly urgent, as institutions and audiences alike reconsider the role of digital outreach in this new era of engagement. 

Over 2020’s lockdowns, museums worldwide have drastically stepped up their digital activities from social media engagement to bringing their collections online. Image: Statistica 2021

Back in 2017, the Knight Foundation realized that digital capability in museum spaces was not only a boon, but a necessity — one with the potential to increase the relevance of art to a broad range of visitors. Each of the eight museums on its grant schedule was tasked with the creation of new digital hires, amounting to a total of seven digital-specific positions, four of which have been retained over the course of COVID. Knight commissioned Digital Transformation: An Assessment of Grants Supporting Digital Staff In Museums as a mid-stream means of appraising the way these positions impacted the museums’ digital strategy at large, and the findings provide key insights to the future of institutional tech. 

Here’s a breakdown. 

“Technical debt” in museums is a pressing issue for digital innovation

While six of the seven museums developed or expanded partnerships with outside entities in order to execute their projects, the issue of “technical debt” — the result of years of delayed decisions to update or implement critical software, hardware, and training — often had to be addressed prior to adopting larger digital initiatives. Staff digital illiteracy, insufficient equipment, and infrastructure deficits were all reported as obstacles for the new digital hires. 

Recommendation: Museums that made the most significant improvements were those that addressed their technical debt; the Knight Foundation suggests an outside independent assessment of a museum’s technical capacity prior to its expansion. 

Delaying technological implementations and improvements — or accruing technical debt — will cost organizations as they move ahead with the development of larger digital initiatives. Image: Luxus

Museums had difficulty paying market-rate salaries for tech positions 

While all the grantee museums reported an ability to attract dynamic talent, they also shared that they had difficulty recruiting for Knight-funded roles given the available salaries. For reference, grant funds were structured so that the grantee organizations were responsible for an increasing portion of the position’s salary in each of its three years; Knight provided approximately half of the amount of wages and benefits over the duration. The grant amounts differed across museums and ranged from $71,482 to $179,401. This challenge disproportionately affected the university-affiliated institutions. 

Recommendation: The Knight Foundation suggests that museums have strategies in place for addressing salary complications for first-choice candidates or provide training for candidates with less experience. 

Cross-departmental integration improved

All seven institutions made strides towards involving multiple departments in executing their digital projects, which in turn enabled faster, more facile pivots in response to the pandemic. This collaborative spirit was also made manifest in the diversity of the digital roles created, each of which reported working outside the stated parameters of the position. 

Recommendation: The Knight Foundation recommends providing professional development for new hires, especially when siloed as single-person departments. 

Audience research remains a growth spot for most museums

Outcome tracking remains a place for improvement for Knight’s grantee museums, which reflects a trend in the wider field; only 16% of the institutions in Knight’s nation-wide Digital Readiness survey from October 2020 took a “proactive” approach to data collection, and over 60% of museums gathered only anecdotal audience feedback. This assessment displayed similar patterns, which impeded objective evaluation of individual initiative success. 

Recommendation: Knight found that audience-facing digital initiatives had the greatest opportunity for success across the board, creating ample space for data accumulation and tracking. 


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