Seattle Art Museum

Charting a sustainable path


The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) had just experienced a decade of remarkable growth when the worldwide recession struck in late 2008. SAM had more than doubled the size of its downtown museum, created the widely acclaimed Olympic Sculpture Park, reached out to new and more diverse audiences, added significant value and depth to its permanent collections, and increased programming for visitors of all ages. Just as these new venues were opening and new programs were launched, SAM found itself grappling with severe financial challenges from all directions.

In response, SAM’s leadership cut the budget, reduced staffing, and conducted urgent fundraising. The Board charged a Strategic Planning Committee of Board members and staff leaders with creating a “sustainability plan.” The plan was to guide the organization over the next two years as it worked to regain financial stability and emerge from the recession prepared to move ahead. Cedar River Group was hired in 2010 to staff the Strategic Planning Committee and assist in developing the plan.


The Cedar River Group team guided the Strategic Planning Committee in developing a set of guiding principles and identifying key performance measures. The committee focused on the metrics that chart the performance of SAM’s major revenue sources for its operating budget. Our team researched similar data for other museums throughout the United States and led the committee in comparing SAM’s performance data. This research made clear that SAM’s strength lay in the breadth of public participation (membership, admissions, store sales, individual and corporate contributions) and that its challenges were in its relatively modest endowment, limited public funding (as compared to other museums nationally), combined with the recession’s “softening” of contributed income.

Cedar River Group helped the committee develop a six-point action plan. This plan aimed to: make the most of the museum’s assets; boost attendance, memberships and contributions in the near term; and work with other arts organizations to secure a long-term public funding mechanism. Our team also prepared the committee’s final report and action plan.


The museum’s Board unanimously approved the Sustainability Plan. SAM implemented the plan in conjunction with the highly successful Picasso exhibit, and exceeded its revenue goals in 2011.

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