Brookings Paper: The Chattanooga Museums Collaboration

  • A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: Collaboration Among Museums in Chattanooga

No doubt you’ve heard a lot about “collaboration” among nonprofits over the last few years. Some funders say we’re not doing enough of it, some nonprofits say they’re being asked to do too much of it, others just wonder what it really is. Few nonprofits truly excel at forming efficient, well-maintained, long-term partnerships. A strategic partnership among museums in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is moving the non-profit community from staunch independence to long-term partnership with extremely positive results.

Once a major industrial center, downtown Chattanooga had fallen on hard times by the 1960s. In 1969, the Environmental Protection Agency deemed Chattanooga the “dirtiest city in America.” By the late 1980s, innovative community members suggested building an aquarium on the Tennessee River to help revitalize the city, bring visitors back and make Chattanooga a great place to live again.

The Tennessee Aquarium opened its doors in 1992, and since then the metamorphosis of downtown has been nationally recognized and used as an example of highly successful urban renewal. Not only has the aquarium revitalized the downtown area and made Chattanooga a better place to live, but it also has formed partnerships with other nonprofits that continue to strengthen our city. One major focus of the aquarium’s mission is to provide “leadership and partnerships that enhance the Chattanooga experience.” Beginning in the mid-1990s, the aquarium began to partner with the Creative Discovery Museum, a children’s museum located nearby that opened in 1995. Later, the aquarium began a similar partnership with the Hunter Museum of American Art.

  • Partnership with the Creative Discovery Museum

From 1992 forward, the aquarium has been a driving force behind the renaissance of the downtown area and, really, the community as a whole. In 1995, the Creative Discovery Museum (CDM) opened its doors and set unrealistic attendance targets. As a result, when the year closed, CDM was facing a mounting deficit and needed to get back in the black. It hired an interim director who made significant changes and brought the aquarium and CDM together to discuss partnering for the long term. CDM then hired a new director who became instrumental in solidifying the aquarium partnership.

In the resulting partnership, the aquarium provided finances, human resources, information technology, marketing, advertising and public relations support to CDM on an annual basis. As a mid-sized institution, CDM was not able to support its large staff. The aquarium, however, was a much larger organization with a business operations infrastructure that could support expertise and depth at all staff levels. These resources were tapped to serve CDM as well. Henry Schulson, executive director of CDM, notes that his organization “gets twice the expertise at a small fraction of the cost” by partnering with the aquarium.

  • Partnership with the Hunter Museum

The Hunter Museum of American Art is one of the longest-lived, most-loved institutions in Chattanooga. Having opened its doors in 1952, it has become a staple of the city’s culture. By 2000, the Hunter was in need of support on the business side. One of its board members, who happened to be on the aquarium’s board as well, began searching for options on how to make the Hunter a stronger institution. Part of that process involved hiring a new director who was enthusiastic about the inherent potential in the museum, its staff and its collection.

The board member, along with the astute new director, was the driving force behind the partnership between the two agencies. The president of Hunter’s board came to the aquarium’s CEO, Charles Arant, to discuss what kind of partnership would work best. Arant then met with senior staff and management. The aquarium’s staff were amenable to finding ways to partner with Hunter, and discussions between the two institutions began. A second mutually beneficial partnership was born. Rob Kret, former Director of the Hunter Museum, points out that his institution “tripled services for less than half the cost” by forming this partnership.

  • The Chattanooga Museum Collaborative

Developing these partnerships was a gradual process. Community organizations in Chattanooga considered how decisions they made individually would affect others, and they continue to do so now. The proximity of the institutions made the idea of partnership even more obvious: CDM, the Hunter Museum and the Tennessee Aquarium are all within a short walking distance of each other. Because of this proximity and the inclusive mindset of the sister institutions, the idea of partnering more formally was well received.

There were several goals in developing these partnerships. First, both CDM and the Hunter needed help on the business side, and the aquarium could offer it. Second, the aquarium had expertise, depth and some extra resources that could be used productively to help sister institutions. But most importantly, everyone involved believed that these partnerships could improve the visitor’s experience across the city, which would also improve the quality of life in the city. Initially, the aquarium offered services to its sister institutions in four main areas of museum operations: human resources, finance and accounting, information technology and marketing.

  • Human Resources

In creating this partnership, aquarium human resources staff had one of the most difficult tasks. Not only were they providing subject-matter expertise, but they had to sell the changes to staff at all three institutions. “Change makes everyone a little nervous . . . that’s just human nature,” recalls Byron Mulligan, former human resources director at the aquarium. “My staff worked tirelessly to augment the atmosphere of trust and partnership among these institutions.” From staff socials to joint training sessions, Mulligan’s staff managed not only to fuse three separate staffs into his Human Resources Department, but to build excitement about the future and the benefits of the partnership. “The institutions now speak with one voice in human resources matters, and in many other areas,” continues Mulligan. “Human resources issues are generally the same across the board. Why pay two or three HR staffs to do the same work a few blocks apart?”

Another example is that each institution is able to offer better employee benefits such as disability insurance and retirement savings plans because of the larger pool of people using the benefits. Cost and time savings are considerable, and those savings return to the individual missions of each institution.

  • Finance and Accounting

From annual budgets to briefing members of the board of directors to payroll and accounts receivable, finance is a daunting task to many smaller nonprofits. The key to success in this area was to put in place the same controls, structures and processes at all three institutions. Once this was accomplished, taking care of finance issues became routine. “By putting all three organizations on the same systems, we can do so much more together than we could without having that infrastructure in place. A perfect example is joint fundraising, like the 21st Century Capital Campaign that our three organizations just completed,” notes Gordon Stalans, director of finance at the aquarium. “Another great benefit of this partnership is that the aquarium has turned some back-office functions into revenue producers, whereas these areas normally fall on the expense side.”

With all of the same controls in place, annual audits become easier, and financial systems are much more reliable and stable. “I no longer lose sleep over the accuracy and completeness of our financials. With the financial and accounting expertise the aquarium brings to the table, I can focus on my own area of expertise,” said Rob Kret, former director of the Hunter. Stalans, a CPA with 25 years experience, functions as CFO for all three organizations, which further streamlines operations.

  • Information Technology

“Technology has really changed the way we do things,” said Peter Burman, media and information services (MIS) manager at the aquarium. “It no longer matters that CDM is a block down the street, or the Hunter is a 10-minute walk away. You just have three icons on your desktop, and you can switch gears from the aquarium to the Hunter or CDM seamlessly.” Gone are the days of paper ledgers and hand-written receipts, thanks to the MIS staff at the aquarium. “Before this partnership happened, the Hunter had a single e-mail account that was shared among staff members,” recalls the Hunter’s Kret. “Only one person could use the account at a time, and it relied on dial-up service. Our work has become so much more efficient that we have added time and energy to give to our mission of educating the public.” Shared technology allows for simplified communication on joint projects such as the local museum magnet-school partnership.

  • Marketing

“Combining forces made good sense for our marketing department,” recalls Cindy Todd, director of marketing at the aquarium. “There are so many ways to get your message out: websites, media placement, T.V. and radio production, printed materials. . . . It takes a lot of expertise in these areas to make the message come together.”

But change is never easy. One of the few bumps in the road of this partnership was in the marketing arena. Initially, the aquarium took on marketing for CDM, which included advertising, public relations and, later, webmaster services. It seemed to be a perfect fit: the aquarium’s marketing department could function as an in-house agency for CDM. Along the way, however, it became apparent that each museum had its own identity and wanted to keep its public persona separate. After a short time, CDM reverted to maintaining its own public relations. In retrospect, public relations is so closely tied to institutional identity that it only made sense for each institution to create separate relationships with the press and marketing campaigns. Many other aspects of marketing at CDM remain in partnership with the aquarium, however, and continue to do very well and save dollars: advertising buys, T.V. and radio production, printed media, marketing research, website management and joint ticketing endeavors such as the “triple value ticket” allowing discounted entrance to all three museums.

The aquarium’s marketing relationship with the Hunter is really more of a consulting role. Leadership at both the aquarium and the Hunter decided that because of the vastly different educational missions, separate marketing departments were the best format. Functioning as cooperative advertising partners, the Hunter has a separate marketing staff, but the aquarium provides opportunities for flyers, brochures, research, billboards and ticketing. Cooperative marketing certainly brings more visitors to downtown, which helps each institution and the city as a whole.

  • Retail Buying

In 2004, the aquarium began purchasing for the store at CDM. The Hunter’s store was added the following year, after they opened their new wing. “Having one buying office is really a win-win situation for all three museums,” said Judy Powell, director of retail for the aquarium. “The savings from our joint purchasing goes straight to each store’s bottom line.” For example, since store managers at CDM and the Hunter are no longer required to do the purchasing, the museums don’t have to hire managers with that expertise, which costs more. The Hunter and CDM stores now have a much broader pool of product resources available to them through the buying power and travel budget of the aquarium. Vendors, who would normally not call on the Hunter or CDM but who would call on the aquarium’s buying office, gain access to three potential customers with one visit. Store managers can focus solely on customer service and operational issues, which means the overall customer experience is improved. All of this is possible through technology: each museum uses the same retail software, and buyers are able to access each museum store’s independent inventory and sales reports with the click of an icon on their computer screens.

  • Working Together Works

“The best thing about this partnership is that each of the involved institutions gets more time and money to spend on their mission,” notes Charlie Arant, CEO of the aquarium. “I believe that many institutions could benefit from this type of partnership. It really is true that a rising tide lifts all boats.” In 2002, CDM, Hunter, the aquarium and the City of Chattanooga began the 21st Century Waterfront Trust capital campaign to raise funds to improve and enhance the institutions and city-owned areas that front the Tennessee River. Most fundraisers would probably tell you that a joint fundraising campaign is just not feasible among most non-profit organizations: they don’t want to share donor financial information, they see others as competition and they want only their unique message in front of the donating public.

This was not the case when the idea came up in Chattanooga. Already partnering in many ways, CDM, the Hunter and the aquarium, with leadership from the city’s mayor, raised more than $120 million. The funds raised were used to construct a new building at the Hunter, to create a new saltwater building at the aquarium and to add a new rooftop exhibit and renovate six others at CDM. Combined with several other endeavors such as new public parks, infrastructure improvements and outdoor art exhibits, the waterfront campaign highlights the city’s spirit in using all resources to improve visitor experience and quality of life.

Several themes emerge as pivotal to the success of this collaboration. First, key community leaders showed the initiative and forethought to ask their museums to work together. Even after many years of collaboration, those who govern the institutions are continually looking for opportunities to collaborate and succeed, not only for the health of the institutions but for the overall good of the community in which they live. Note that the impetus behind each of the initial collaborations came from community leaders who were acting as volunteers.

Additionally, paying continual attention not only to visitors to the community but also to the health and improvement of the Chattanooga area as a whole has created a sense of ownership and enduring support of our three institutions. If we focused solely on our own visitor experiences, community support might wane as time passed. The missions of each institution includes contributing to the “Chattanooga Experience,” which deepens connections to the community we serve. Providing educational support for our public schools and social service agencies is a large part of what we do. We help with fundraisers, provide spaces for special events, offer employee expertise to committees and task forces. Connecting to the community in the most productive and efficient ways possible makes Chattanooga a better place to live.

The Hunter, CDM and the aquarium continue to look for new ways to work together in the future. “The synergies involved in this partnership are just astounding,” notes former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker. “These institutions see cost savings, gain expertise and increase their credibility in the community and among visitors. . . . I could go on and on. In a time when we know the benefits of collaboration, Chattanooga’s cultural institutions are blazing a trail for others to follow. Any city can do what Chattanooga is doing; [organizations] just have to be willing to work together.”

By Heather DeGaetano, Development Director at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga