Hi Robert and Janice,
You read my mind, Janice. I would have answered exactly the way you did. The opening was an opportunity for networking. Other events will bring donors and potential donors back into the museum. The more exposure to the museum's great programming, the more donors will feel that their support goes to a worthy cause.
I run openings, parties and special receptions. Trust me: restricting food is a good idea. If you have only beverages, that's a different story. The Grey Art Gallery at NYU had a carpet, so we only served clear liquids: no red wine, cranberry juice, etc.
Depending on your building/gallery layout, another option would be to place round tables and staff at the appropriate entrances or exits and make it clear that there are no drinks or food beyond a certain point. Guests then have a chance to put down what they're holding and go visit the gallery where food and drinks aren't allowed. I've been to many events that manage access to galleries that way.
I'm going to take the devil's advocate position. I run a corporate museum and there is no way to limit food and drink in the "galleries" because these are also working rooms and hallways. I have found, by and large, that people are respectful of the museum displays. During receptions attendees both take extra care with themselves and really engage with the objects - that is, the exhibits give them something to talk about! Having done this for years, I do have some suggestions: 1. Post guards or monitors throughout the space so people can be warned (nicely) when they are getting too close, 2. Make sure your display cases are tall - yes, I have seen guests lean on and put their plates down on short cases, 3. Have cocktail tables (high boys) around the space so people know where to actually discard their stuff, 4. Stick with white wine, 5. Think carefully about what is on display: small items that one needs to lean in to see are not ideal for parties. Neither are paintings or anything else that is displayed outside of a case. Basically, some exhibits lend themselves to parties and some do not. I know, this is all blasphemy, but I can't recall a single incident in 17 years that would make me think "never again".
I am so glad that Al Frank brought up the UBIT issue. I happened to be at an event earlier this spring with a group of former IRS officials and they are very serious about this tax. Many museums host weddings and other events to increase revenue, but this should be done with the idea in mind that UBIT must be paid. A wedding or corporate party is not usually part of the mission of most museums. Once the tax, salaries of event planners, cleaning, repair, utilities, etc are taken into consideration, you may find that you are not making as much as you thought hosting private events. The UBIT tax in my state if I combine both federal and state is 34%! There are deductions to be taken that can decrease the hit, but I think that one must talk to their accountant to make sure that things are done properly. I believe this is an area that many are not aware of their tax obligation, I wasn't and I have since decreased significantly the number of non-mission and un-supported by the museum events.
I think this is a question that has plagued many a collections staff and museum policy makers. I don't have an answer for you except to ask you to examine why you thought this group "an exceptionally low risk". Because they were adults? Because they are frequent museum visitors? Because they felt a greater sense of ownership due to monetary contribution or political affiliation? A person who feels like they own or are entitled to a space will treat it very differently than someone who sees themselves as a guest. At one such high end gathering of major donors in a museum I previously worked in, someone used a display as a garbage receptacle for their tissues and chewed gum. And past experience must have led the museum to expect this behavior since almost every single visitor service staff person was scheduled that night to monitor the exhibit space where this event was taking place (so fortunately the gum was found relatively quickly).
I am not trying to say that relaxing of food policy is never called for. Fundraising or celebration almost always means food will be involved. But I would caution against making the decision based on who is "worthy" of having those rules bent. If the goal of a museum (or at least hopefully everyone can agree one of the goals) is for for every visitor to feel some sense of ownership and belonging, shouldn't everyone be offered the same exceptions? In that case I would not look at it though the prism of who but rather what. Assuming everyone will treat (or mistreat) your galleries the same if given the same chance to feel ownership, what is the risk based on all the other factors? How fragile is the display? Are there any parts of it exposed? How much circulating staff can be present to offer gentle reminders about trash and climbing on things? How long is the event? What is the expected number of attendees? How much alcohol is likely to be imbibed (are there drink limits or a bar tender who can refuse to serve someone visibly intoxicated)? What kind of food is being served (is it messy, does it require two hands to eat and if so are there plenty of tables, chairs and trash cans available)? How susceptible is the space to pests (is it near an exterior door that will be opened frequently)?
After assessing these criteria, if you feel your gallery or special exhibit can withstand certain kinds of food exposure, then you could examine whether or not a particular event would fall under the risk level you are prepared to undertake rather than trying to form a judgement about the group attending. If nothing else, it bases your decision on much more easily calculable factors.
Thank you for letting me get a little preachy. I know it is a constant struggle for museums to balance best practices for collections care and best practices for outreach and human interaction with said collection. It's too bad the two things are so often mutually exclusive when the first is basically completely irrelevant without the second (why care for a collection at all if no one will ever interact with it?).
Best of luck and I hope you get lots of attendance for your William Eggleston exhibit!
You might consider having a "highlight" talk during the event, maybe 10 minutes, somewhere in the middle. Basically A shorter version of a guided tour to introduce the exhibit and invite people in the space without their refreshments. That way you can expose them to the great show but also allow for continued networking for those who prefer. Most likely you will have folks that linger or their interest piqued to return another day.
Hi Rob - nice to hear from an MLI colleague with a Forum issue to discuss!
After reviewing the thread here, I think you have plenty of food for thought. I agree that restricting attendees to only one main area is potentially a lost opportunity, and possibly also one that can't easily be pushed to some other time for these folks. Unfortunately, it's often difficult if not impossible to get certain audiences to ever return within a reasonable timeframe, thus finding a way to engage them while they are on-site for a reception is often very wise. While certainly policies are usually in place for a reason, this is an area where I've found you can almost develop a checklist to determine when, why, and how much of an exception to make if you believe there are valid and overriding reasons.
Best wishes in working through this issue. I'm using things like this as opportunities for our staff to examine each others' perspectives - which is almost always a valuable exercise in an industry where we can too easily get caught up into silos. Happy team building!
Interesting topic and one that everyone wrestles with from time to time. A decent compromise between accessibility and disaster may be in combining thoughtful food choices (no red wine or sauces of any kind as mentioned above), audience considerations ("just say no" to 10 year olds with juice boxes), staff on hand, and good old fashioned stanchions. Give your guests the opportunity to view the exhibits (though not necessarily read any labeling) while at the same time giving your exhibits an extra foot or two of safe space. Extra staff can help interpret as well as defend low cases from becoming coasters.
I understand this is people, space, and stanchion dependent, but in a limited area for a special purpose (such as the temporary gallery + event as mentioned in the OP) it might do the trick. Show off those exhibits!
At the Aerospace Museum of California our general policy is no food in the Exhibition Hall and Air Park. Only fluid allowed is water. We have two major fund raising events each year. A Bar-B-Que on the ramp with fireworks and a Crab Feed. Soda, Beer, Wine and water are available. We also rent to weddings – receptions and ceremonies, birthday parties, other types of receptions and dinners, military events - receptions, dinners, and change of commands, etc.
Rental events are allowed food and drink. But they have to clean up. We provide trash cans, etc for use during the event and insure that stanchions are
In place. We will also have Museum volunteers overseeing. If an exhibit or aircraft is open, we place tables at the entrance with signs to leave food and drink on the table before entering. We have a 100 person theater/meeting room and a 40 person meeting room separate from the Exhibition Hall. Renters can have food and drink in these room, but the agreement states food and drink do no come into the Exhibition Hall, unless it's just water.
All rentals include a cleaning fee with the standard language. The rental agreement also includes a section about damage to exhibits.
Archives & Artifacts
Aerospace Musuem of California
Your inquiry has certainly prompted an interesting discussion Robert. Thank you. I espeically like the commentary questioning what sort of people are more prone to spill wine in a museum gallery - high end or low end types. Regardless, mainstream museum practice is to avoid food and drink in exhibitions. There are valid reasons for this and I can cite examples of unfortunate results when the practice was ignored. Two points that might be relevant: I think we in the museum field worry too much about "lost opportunities" rather than creating oppotunities. I doubt the people who were there for the reception would have had the time (one hour goes real fast when eating, drinking, socializing, seeing and being seen, using the rest rooms, etc.) to really appreciate the exhibit. I doubt most were there the whole hour anyway, though students in particular will always take advantage of free food and drink for as long as they can. This is not to say the museum and the exhibit should not be promoted. On the contrary, glad-handing and proselytizing ib behalf of the museum is to be encouraged. One excellent comment suggested having a few minutes of public welcome and introduction from a museum staff person. I have sometimes made this a requirement for space use in museums where I have worked. My second point relates to the fact that you are a museum within a university. No one outside your operation knows how museums function. Your adherance to strict policies regarding food and drink are admirable. You are educating those who are not in the know. I suspect the science departments would hardly permit a reception with food and drink in labs where research and experiments are underway. Of course, I suspect that if, on this one occasion, you relaxed the rules about sipping and chewing in the gallery, nothing bad would happen but I can guarantee that one exception will set you up for repeated requests later.
I think one more consideration might be loans. If a gallery contains only your institution's own works, then you also have only your own collection management policies to consider. However, if you were to have loaned works in the galleries, then there would likely be other considerations. Many institutions would deny loan requests if there were to be food and beverages present in the galleries where their works were to be displayed.
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