Thursday, September 16, 2010

Are you a future freelancer? Thoughts for museum staffers considering consulting

Nora, who turns four on Friday, in front of
the Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Tonight I realized that it has been exactly four years since my last day as a full-time museum staff member. It was a Friday afternoon four years ago when I left my office for the last time, fully intending to return the following Monday morning. After all, my daughter was not due for another month, and I still had plenty of time left before taking permanent maternity leave to finalize details for the installation of a traveling exhibit, tidy up my files, clean off my desk, and launch my consulting gig. All fine plans, except my daughter decided to arrive a month early. September 15th, 2006 turned out to be the unexpected end of my tenure at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and the first step on my new career path.

Before becoming a part-time consultant to museums four years ago, I held staff positions ranging from gallery interpreter to curator, and art educator to director of exhibits, serving in these and other roles at four museums and two professional galleries. I have rarely met a museum colleague who didn't have a colorful story about the long and winding road that led them to their current position, and I know firsthand that many external factors play a huge role in shaping that path. Due to the economic climate in recent years, and the subsequent down-sizing of museum personnel, I have also had many conversations with museum professionals considering a leap into consulting as an alternative to positions on-staff. Here on the anniversary of my break with the regular-paycheck museum job, I thought it might be helpful to share a few things I have learned in my tenure on both sides of the staff room door for anyone considering a move from a staff position into consulting.

  1. Put all of that experience you gained in hours upon hours of strategic planning at your museum to work for you. Take a rainy weekend and walk yourself through the process using your career as the organization in need of a new plan. What is your mission? What are your goals? Where do you see yourself in five years, and how will you get there? Do a little SWOT analysis before taking a leap into an uncharted consulting venture. Develop a business plan and get an expert's opinion, before putting it into practice.
  2. You probably already know that paychecks can be somewhat less than regular as a consultant, often coming in cycles of feast and famine. However, if you apply the understanding you have of the ebb and flow of museum initiatives, exhibits, budgets, and visitors throughout the year, you may be able to better predict when you there is a good chance of winning a project and when you will need to make your paychecks stretch.
  3. Finding consulting work is much easier when you have an established network of museum colleagues around you. If you have recently moved across the country, or even across the state, you may find it harder to keep in touch with your professional network for job leads and more costly to travel to initial meetings where potential projects are being discussed. Haven't moved yet, but you are planning to do so? Ask current colleagues if they have contacts in your new city, and if they would be willing to introduce you.
  4. Everything seems to cost more when it comes out of your own paycheck. From parking and client lunches, to conference registration and professional membership fees, the out-of-pocket expenses can really add up and hurt your bottom-line. Although at first it may seem savvy to take colleagues out to lunch to announce your new venture and begin dialogue about potential partnerships, picking up the tab will quickly put a strain on your bank account. One solution? Meet for coffee instead. A couple of venti caramel macchiatos and lemon squares at Starbucks won't be cheap, but they will run you a lot less than lunch at a white-tablecloth bistro downtown.
  5. Finally, please invest in a decent business card. Do not assume that in this world of social media saturation and environmentally-friendly e-communication, you can do without a traditional business card. You cannot. Hire someone to design a nice logo for you, and have them lay out both a business card and letterhead, then get them printed on nice paper stock. Ask for image copies in digital format to attach to emails. If you are not sure how long your experiment in consulting will last, only print a small quantity at first, but be certain that if you don't take your business seriously enough to print cards, others will not take it seriously either.
There are many pros and cons in choosing to work for yourself and consulting in the profession you enjoy. Every individual's situation is unique. If you experienced a layoff, have been unsuccessful finding a full-time position, and are seeking another option, putting your experience to work as a consultant may be a viable alternative for you. As a result of these tough economic times, many museums have had to cut staff to the bare-bones, losing valuable intellectual capital in the process. There may be museums who need you and your experience, but can't afford 2000 hours per year plus benefits. On the other hand, if you currently hold an over-worked-under-paid position in a museum and are longing for the freedom you think consulting may offer, carefully consider your business plan and personal economics before handing in your resignation and hanging out your shingle.


1 comment:

  1. Very interesting indeed! I recently relaunched my fundraising consulting business and am grateful that I have a nice list of contacts from working over the years. Although I had a full-time job, I was blessed with the opportunity to do work on the side. As the mother of two young boys, I couldn't imagine living any other way. In my humble opinion, a life that is balanced is the only life worth living...


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