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At the Table and Off the Menu: The Role for Museums in Public Policy

May 24, 2018 1:32 PM | Conner Wolfe

            The nonprofit museums of New York State are essential promoters of the arts and culture, education, and economic development in the diverse communities we serve; however, threats to the place of our museums as bastions of learning, creativity, and nonpartisan constructive conversation are stronger than ever.

            There’s an old saying in Washington, says Ben Kershaw of Independent Sector (although you might remember him from the AAM): “You’re either at the table, or on the menu.” As museum professionals, it is critical we be at the table and assume our responsibilities as advocates for our institutions, our missions, and the people we serve by taking on a deliberate and active role in influencing public policy.

            Despite potential misconceptions to the contrary, there are many ways for museums as charitable nonprofits to shape public policy without endangerment of our tax-exempt status. Two essential rules apply to charitable museums when engaging with public policy:

  1. always remain nonpartisan
  2. do not lobby “excessively”

            The Johnson Amendment of Section 501(c)(3) of Internal Revenue Code establishes a requirement that tax-exempt organizations classified under Section 501(c)(3) "not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.” With this in place, 501(c)(3) organizations including many of our museums are welcome to influence public policy provided they remain nonpartisan in doing so.

            In his address to the National Prayer Breakfast in February 2017, President Donald Trump vowed to "get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.” For more than 60 years, this important provision has required the nonpartisanship of and protected the trust vested in charitable organizations, including museums, to advance the collective public good. Should the Johnson Amendment be repealed, our charitable museums would be free to endorse and support or oppose candidates for office and to utilize collected tax-deductible funds in doing so.

            Organizations classified under Section 501(c)(3) may be disqualified from tax-exempt status “if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying).”

            The Internal Revenue Service has two means by which it may evaluate if lobbying is a “substantial part” of the activities of a museum or other charity: the “Substantial Part Test” considers a “variety of [unspecified] factors” and the “Expenditure Test” which provides clear definitions of lobbying activities and brackets of allowable lobbying expenses based on organizational tax-deductible annual revenue.

            Should your museum choose to accept its role as an advocate and a lobbyist, I would strongly suggest you consider electing assessment under the Expenditure Test as it provides clear limitations on what is and is not considered “substantial”.

            When we do engage in advocacy and lobbying, the museum field can be tremendously impactful. A recent study conducted by Oxford Economics for the American Alliance of Museums and with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation reported the tremendous economic impact of museums. United States museums:

  • ·         Directly support 372,100 jobs
  • ·         Indirectly support 354,100 jobs
  • ·         Generate a collective annual income of $15.9 billion
  • ·         Contribute $50 billion to the gross domestic product
  • ·         And contribute $12 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue.

The 1,700 museums of New York State (more museums than any other state in the nation) employ 33,000 people and have an economic impact comparable to the politically influential agricultural sector.

            Armed with this data, at the 10th annual Museums Advocacy Day in 2018 organized by the American Alliance of Museums, 335 museum advocates representing museums of all types and made visits to 395 congressional offices to lobby for the restoration of and an increase in funding to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

            In February of that year, (as many of us no doubt remember,) President Trump proposed an executive budget that was truly appalling for our field. For the first time in the agency’s history, the IMLS was proposed for complete elimination with the justification that “it is unlikely the elimination of IMLS would result in the closure of a significant number of libraries and museums.”

            On March 23, 2018, about one month after Museums Advocacy Day, President Trump signed into law a temporary spending bill which included an additional $9,000,000 allocation for the IMLS above FY 2017 enacted spending. This ten percent funding increase to the IMLS after the dedicated actions of the museum field demonstrates that when we take on a deliberate and active role in public policy, museum advocates can and do make an impact.

            Former Speaker of the United State House of Representatives Tip O’Neill is credited with having said the phrase, “All politics is local.” While this statement is grammatically incorrect, the sentiment is accurate.

            Politicians always have the gaining and retaining of power as a major goal. Voters care about local issues and elected officials care about winning the loyalty of local voters. It is fundamentally the responsibility of a public policy-influencing museum advocate to tell elected officials that one of the issues constituents care about is the success of and government support for museums.

            While there are numerous actions museums can take to influence public policy, none is perhaps more effective than an in-person meeting with an elected official. A meeting at a museum within a policy maker’s district is an advantageous opportunity for the elected official to demonstrate their support for the community they serve. AAM has a handy guide on how to “Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum.”

            Should our museums choose to take on this responsibility as advocate and lobbyist, I beleive the conversation of how to do so should begin in the boardroom. Museums should engage in advocacy within the confines of a board-approved advocacy policy (as recommended by The Standards for Excellence Institute.) Such a policy should outline the process for making decisions relating to public policy and advocacy should define clear responsibilities of staff and board.

            While many of our museums think of advocacy as not within our purview, a growing number of museums are accepting our collective responsibility as public policy advocates.

            President Trump’s 2018 proposals endangered the status of museums in their communities and the defeat of his proposals demonstrates the collective power of the museum field in the realm of public policy. As museum advocates we MUST remind our elected officials why our institutions are essential in sustaining the public trust and fulfilling a common mission of service to our diverse communities. We have a responsibility to be advocates in the realm of public policy. Our missions demand it and the common good depends on it.

Submitted by Conner A. Wolfe, Principal, Conner Wolfe Consulting

Conner Wolfe Consulting is a sole proprietorship of Conner A. Wolfe dedicated to empowering the nonprofit sector, arts and culture, and students in higher education through capacity building services.


The Museum Association of New York strengthens the capacity of New York State’s cultural community by supporting professional standards and organizational development. We provide advocacy, training, and networking opportunities so that museums and museum professionals may better serve their missions and communities.

Museum Association of New York is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization. 

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