Superman vs. The Sheriff: Lessons for museums from the Super Bowl

Superman (Cam Newton) brings excitement, talent, exhuberance and is seemingly can overcome any opponent. The Sheriff  (Payton Manning) no longer performs heroics, has only a portion of his former enormous talent and engenders sympathy for what he was previously and is respected for his age and knowledge. 

There was practically unanimity that this year’s Super Bowl would be won by Superman because The Sheriff simply didn’t have what was required to compete with the talent and strength of Superman. 

The experts were wrong, The Sheriff had what was required, he knew he was part of a team, that he had a role to play and came with a thoughtful plan to finish the game as the victor over Superman. Superman came with flamboyance, energy and charisma mesmerizing the spectators before the game. In the game Superman delivered heroic moments which were exciting to everyone. 

However, Superman was confronted by a team which limited his heroics to intermitant moments and sustained drives. He relied upon supernatural feats rather than plan where he was part of the team. 

The Sheriff arrived with a plan, knew he not the superstar but was to methodically carry out the plan, not be flamboyant. 

Communities and museums boards are often drawn to Superman or Superwoman to lead an organization or to be the design architect of new buildings. Communities and boards don’t value that The Sheriff is the winning leader who develops a plan based upon knowledge and experience and realizes that success will come to the team where The Sheriff plays a part of the team, not as the hero. 

In 1999, when I arrived in Cincinnati one of Cincinnnati Museum Center’s board members brought me an article about the newly opened Union Station in Kansas City. The newly restored Union Station and new Science City were receiving international attention. The leaders were featured in publications and were presenters at professional conferences.  New York Times abt Union Station

The board member proposed that we go to Kansas City and study what led to this success. I replied that we should wait five years when we would know the result of the Superman plan. Kansas City Union Station reopened in 1999 after a $263 million restoration that included building Science City. But disappointment quickly set in. The station ended year after year in the red and devoured a $40 million endowment. Kansas City Union Station was led by very smart and well intentioned leaders. It’s board was filled with the highest level of business, foundation and elected leaders. Yet, following the grand opening and international aclaim, the project was found to unsustainable, revenues projections were erroneous and local foundations were required to make very large annual operating gifts to prevent insolvency. Science City which was to be a new cutting edge method of museum teaching of science and history was expensive to present and not embraced by the public. Within five years, everything was at risk and Union Station was calling Cincinnati Museum Center to learn of our strategies to turn around a very similar situation in Cincinnati. 

Ten years after opening the station’s balance sheet showed that fiscal failure was around the corner. The building was empty far too much of the time. Key civic leaders eventually mobilized to reverse that situation with a formula of attracting more tenants and stronger exhibits while also improving Science City. As recently as 2009, there was talk of boarding up the station and admitting defeat. Union Station board Chairman Bob Regnier told the Kansas City Star, “I can remember when we said we’ll never survive without some sort of public subsidy, I’d love to tell you we sat down for two days and came out with a great plan. We all just knew we had to improve all the individual elements.

Kansas City Union Station and Science City were Superman ideas advanced by Superman leaders. However, it was the current management team and board that brought in The Sheriff to advance a strategy of minimizing costs (layoffs, outsourcing, etc.), maximizing lease opportunities within Union Station (the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas City Area Development Council, etc.) and a string of blockbuster exhibitions (Dead Sea Scrolls, Princess Diana, King Tut, etc.) to stabilize the station’s financial situation. There is no longer talk about seeking taxpayer support to keep the doors open.

Kansas City Star Article

The Kansas City Union Station story is very similar to Cincinnati Museum Center, both institutions were born of Superman ideas and highly regarded leaders. In 1999, Cincinnati Museum Center experienced a $2.3 million deficit which consumed 26% of its endowment. Bringing success in Cincinnati was the result of cutting expenses, laying off staff, refocusing programs and blockbuster exhibits. Kansas City took longer to resolve the issues and in large part learned from the success of Cincinnnati while adding their own very creative ideas.

Superman projects can also be found in Milwaukee (Art Museum), Columbus (COSI), Cincinnati (National Underground Freedom Center) and many other cities. As major museum projects open in Los Angeles, New York and Miami it will be interesting to watch these Superman projects and their leaders and to note how many will go through the same turmoil and will require The Sheriff to save them from the “insolvency villain.” 

Museum boards need to value proven executive leaders and challenge Superman ideas and building designs. Boards should  demand robust vetted business and operating plans for any new project. Additionally boards should hire independant consultants who are experienced museum executives to critically review and challenge all the assumptions of any major museum project. 

Superman will win a Super Bowl but it will be when he acquires the knowledge and experience of The Sheriff. This Super Bowl has lessons for museums, NGOgro hopes museums will learn them. 

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Doug McDonald