Key Takeaways from Our Conversation with the Barnes Foundation’s COO WIll Cary on Increasing Revenue and Access with Online Adult Education

We covered a lot of ground in Gather’s recent virtual convening with Barnes Foundation Chief Operating Officer Will Cary.

Key Takeaways from Our Conversation with the Barnes Foundation’s COO WIll Cary on Increasing Revenue and Access with Online Adult Education

As Will explained at the start of the conversation, “I just had the team pull together the most up to date stats from April, 2020 through July, 2023. We've had 224 classes. 181 of them have been online [81%]. We've enrolled nearly 10,000 students. Pre pandemic, we'd see closer to 1,000 students per year. We've enrolled students from 44 states and 10 countries, and we brought in more than $1.5 million dollars of new earned revenue to the institution.”

In addition to reviewing the Barnes’ extraordinary success in building and growing its online adult art education program, we discussed  the relationship between increased revenue and increased access; the importance of internal alignment on the leadership team; and the unique value museums have to deliver meaningful learning experiences, Will discussed the Visual Experience Platform (VXP) that the Barnes team  built specifically to deliver immersive and engaging learning, as well as what it takes from an institutional perspective to harness these kinds of opportunities.

The complete recording is available now on Gather’s community site.

Five key highlights:

On the relationship between revenue and access, and how increasing revenue has enabled increased access:

“From the beginning, we knew that doing these [courses] online meant that the cost of a digital seat wasn't very much at all. So our scholarship program–which was pretty limited based on the size of our galleries when we only taught in the galleries–we decided to greatly expand. We’ve offered nearly 1,100 scholarships in the past three years. Pre-pandemic, it was closer to 100 or 150 per year. So while we've increased revenue substantially, we've increased access even more…..I'll just share that I don't think we've ever turned down someone who has asked for a scholarship to one of our online classes. We grant every one of them. So it's a pretty easy decision for us and a nice way to make it clear that we are trying to scale both access and revenue at the same time and sort of link those two things together.”

On the importance of collaboration and  institutional leadership alignment:

“I think our field, the museum field, unfortunately or unfortunately… tends to be siloed, whether in big or small [museums]. It’s hard to find alignment of resources across departments where you can really orient the entire institution toward one effort. In our case, online education sort of hits the sweet spot of something that is squarely within our mission….With the [senior leadership] team aligned around this singular initiative it makes it easy to bring assets and resources to bear in a way that's really efficient and creates a lot of synergies across departments. So we aren't fighting with each other. We're all trying to row in the same direction.”

On Audiences, Members, and Scaling:

“Our audiences are still, in some cases for some classes, a majority member audience. Our members, many of them, hundreds of them, are sort of serial class takers. They will take two classes at once. They'll take a new class every month. That's their relationship with the Barnes. The scholarship students, as you can imagine, have been more diverse demographically than our student population. And it goes directly to the question of how we scale this up. We need an audience that is willing to pay on one side in order to reinvest and increase the amount of content we're offering and the amount of support we're able to provide and the number of scholarships we can offer.”

“At the same time, if we're really going to build new audiences for the institution, people who may not know the Barnes or have come to the barns otherwise, then what we need to do is think about reaching new audiences for these offerings. How we tie that to membership is, I think, a really interesting question. What content we give to members for free, how we can create online content that's a pipeline for membership, acquisition and retention, while at the same time not making it sort of the primary thing that we push people towards. For someone who doesn't know the Barnes and might just be dipping their toes into this, or a student or an older adult or someone who doesn't consider themselves a museum goer who arrives at this from another channel, we don't want to push them into membership. We want it to just be an experience. So the balance for that is something we continue to think about and work through.”

On the unique value proposition of Museums:

“I’d say that museums are not only qualified, but uniquely qualified to do education well online. We have assets at our disposal, the objects themselves in our collections, and the expertise on staff to talk about and teach those assets, whether on a curatorial team or an education team. Or maybe your institution is so small that that's really just one or two people who do all of it. …We can do all that without deemphasizing or deprioritizing a visit to an actual museum. So we can continue to sort of say that the onsite experience is critical, but there are things we can do online, like looking closely, that you cannot do as well….Museums have a high level of credibility and trust in the public as nonprofit mission-oriented institutions. And so, again, I'm not saying that it's like no one else can do this well, but I think museums are uniquely qualified to do it well.”

On balancing paid programs and revenue-generating programs:

“I’d argue that museums vastly undervalue the content that they have, and that they should think about the best way to balance what they give away and what they charge for. These things are not mutually exclusive. We think the reason we charge for classes is so that we can build more classes and offer more scholarships. Having a diverse portfolio of offerings, some of which you pay for, some of which are maybe just for members so they're sort of paid for in another way, and some of which are free is the right approach. Each institution has to figure out what they can do. But we think about growth and scale not only for ourselves but for the field.”

“In order for it to be sustainable, I feel strongly that there needs to be at least somewhat of an earned revenue component, and that relying just on contributed revenue or giving away everything for free is not sustainable. I often worry about the field as a whole in terms of its financial sustainability, given the funding priorities of large foundations, corporations, demographic change among wealthy individuals and families. We need to figure out ways to make ourselves financially sustainable and to control our own destiny. I think the best way to do that is sort of through steady incremental growth, through a combination of earned revenue and contributed, and then using those two things to fund greater access for broader and more diverse audiences.”

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