From Idea to Cereal Puffer to Real-Life Installations, Here’s How to Build a New Museum

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This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Some pretty oddball circumstances led to the opening last month of the fantastical, Wonka-esque Museum of Food and Drink in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was a path filled with a few lucky encounters, a lot of risk, a lot of puffed cereal, and many years where not a whole lot happened — or at least it seemed that way. From 2004, when the idea for a museum of food and drink first popped into Dave Arnold's mind, it took nine years for the first exhibit — a mobile cereal-puffing gun — to materialize, along with a crack team of devoted (sometimes unpaid) staff. But once everything was in place, Arnold and his team have been building the museum at a run.

By July of this year, just two years after the puffing gun made its debut, MOFAD had landed a space to live in for the next five years. Three months later, that space, and MOFAD's first full exhibition, was ready to open to the public. This is an unheard of timeline for developing museum. "Just building and designing an exhibition for an existing museum typically takes one to two years," says Peter Kim, MOFAD's executive director.

So how did it all happen? And how, for that matter, does anyone even start a project so enormous as founding a museum? Things got busy in 2013, Kim recalls. "We had no community or anything," he says. "We were only able to rent a 150-square-foot office in the East Village with internet and a phone line. No one was paid, and we were on a shoestring for a year, just based off of the donations of a handful of people."

Needing a push forward, Kim, Arnold, and program director Emma Boast did what any ambitious organizer in the 21st century does: They launched a Kickstarter campaign. Meant to raise $80,000, the campaign included footage of Puffy, their 3,200-pound cereal-puffing gun, in action, and endorsements from some culinary world superstars, like David Chang, Wylie Dusfresne, Anita Lo, and Mario Batali. "We had a really compelling starting point with the puffing gun," Kim says, and the campaign raised well over its goal. "$106,320 was the official figure, but we raised more like $136,000," including those who wanted to donate privately. Crucially, too, the campaign identified MOFAD's community: 838 individuals backed the project, instantly creating a grassroots support network.

From there, things began to happen more organically, though not much more easily. While Kim was taking several meetings daily, fundraising and trying to find people for the board who could donate money and find more money, "my clothes were starting to disintegrate." Having quit his legal career, he was "re-soling my shoes, over and over." This didn't make it easier to ask for money. "I can't go into a meeting wearing rags" to solicit a donor, Kim knew. "You have to convey the necessity of funding, but it's a little bit of a fine line; you also want to make people feel like they're with somebody who understands them, and their world." Potential donors would ask if he'd gone to "some new fancy restaurant, and I'd say, ‘Oh, I haven't made it there yet,'" Kim says. "In my mind I'm like, ‘There's no way I can afford that.'"

Now, having impressed the donors and charmed the public, but still with a long way to go, Kim — no longer in rags — has a few tips for anyone embarking upon a grand project like this one.

Build your community.

"You can’t do it alone, so you need a community, and a team," says Kim. He points out that although he, Arnold, and Boast are "the faces" of the museum, "the truth is, it’s a project supported by countless people, people who help in any way they can. It’s something we realized a little ways into the project: Reach out to people and find people to help. Think about the community you can build around your mission." The Kickstarter was key to cementing this for MOFAD.

Do your paperwork, and get legal counsel if you can.

"501(c)3 status is absolutely critical," says Kim of being an IRS-recognized nonprofit. And although you can launch a nonprofit without legal advice, Kim wouldn’t recommend it. When Arnold — a "really, really smart guy" approached Kim about starting the museum, "he had inadvertently let MOFAD’s charter expire," recalls Kim. "It didn’t exist as a legal entity when people came to that first fundraiser." Law firms are "really generous with their hours" when it comes to nonprofits, says Kim, and "you typically can find pro bono help." He started out as MOFAD’s pro bono lawyer.

Pick the right board.

A board is more than just a list of important names to put on your website. The MOFAD board "has a really robust fundraising requirement of each board member," says Kim, with a required contribution and "a real expectation of participation." Kim has witnessed failures at other nonprofits where boards members are totally uninvolved, and warns that "it’s really hard to swap that up" once those members are established.

Be willing to shoot from the hip.

That might entail letting Harold McGee stay at your apartment, and going to the grocery store with him until you figure out what sort of tablet, ball, or candy shape should be the one people eat at your museum. It might require assembling your own smell synthesizer, then teaching yourself computer programming so you can make it work. If you have to hustle, be ready to be flexible.

Don’t Expect to Do It All at Once.

"I can’t say our path is the right path," Kim says, but he thinks it’s significant that "we started with something small, then got a little bigger, then will get a little bigger." MOFAD doesn’t have the advantage of a single, founding donor. "Some museums will start with a giant donation from a collection — poof, there’s a museum there," he says. "In our case, we started with something that we probably could tackle with the resources that we had."

Also, "think about what you can do and do it extremely well. We had the ability to do the puffing gun, and we made it extraordinary. It was exceptional, and like nothing else anybody had seen." Think quality, not quantity, and don’t be afraid to study similar ventures. Kim, Arnold, and Boast looked at the Museum of Mathematics, among other models: "That was an interesting example for us," he says, because the founder created a traveling exhibition and raised money that way. "There are museums that have just tanked, and it’s because they just dropped in like a spaceship, like, kaboom! They hadn’t built up a community, and they hadn’t refined their approach."

So, even though MOFAD Lab came together in what seems like no time at all, it’s only the next small step. It will have it’s home in Williamsburg for five years, and even the minds behind MOFAD don’t know all the topics it will cover, or strange machines it will house, or stumbles they’ll make. In the scheme of things, they’re only just starting to build a museum.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and Infiniti. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.


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