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Beth Larson

Clowns Need Consultants, Too!

by Beth Larson Monday, November 19, 2018

Historically, second year students in the Bolz Center for Arts Administration undertake a consulting project as part of a year-long course. This project is designed to provide an overview of the world of consulting and put theory into practice by engaging nonprofit and government-based arts organizations in strategic projects. In recent years, projects have featured partnerships with the Village of Waunakee, the City of Kenosha, and the Chazen Museum of Art. I have been looking forward to this project since my initial interview for the Bolz Center back in December 2016. As a hands-on learner, this practical experience working with a client and my colleagues in the Bolz Center to build a strategic plan for improving an arts organization is right up my alley. However, I never guessed that this consulting project would include spending time with clowns, learning about elephants, or examining circus wagons.

The Circus World Museum has undergone many changes over recent years, from ending their infamous Great Circus Parade in 2009 to terminating their traveling circus in May 2017. Most recently, Circus World Museum underwent a huge shift as the organization was absorbed by the Wisconsin State Historical Society. Now part of a state entity, Circus World Museum board members and employees have to examine how to move forward with this complete restructuring. The Bolz Center team is working with representatives and key stakeholders from Circus World Museum, Circus World Museum Foundation, and the Wisconsin Historical Society to assist the organizations with long term planning, relationship building, and the development of a shared vision for the future.

I remember going to Circus World Museum as a young child. My grandparents drove my sister and me up to Baraboo and we walked around the grounds, looking at the circus wagons and admiring the historic buildings and artifacts. It was a magical experience and I remember being in awe of the unfamiliar world of circus. Now, 20 years later, it seems like a whole different world being back at the museum as an adult and a consultant. This history of circuses seems unending and there are countless people who are connected to the history of circus that extends back hundreds of years. Finding a way to work towards the future while acknowledging and valuing the vast past of circus is a challenge for us as students, consultants, and arts administrators.

It seems that we are just dipping our toes into the waters of this project. Helping facilitate the merger of Circus World Museum into the Wisconsin Historical Society means considering leadership roles, relationships, funding structures, employees, and countless other facets of each of the organizations. As we begin interviewing key stakeholders in these organizations and the communities in which they reside, it is clear that the passion and dedication of the employees, board members, city officials, and world-wide fans will ensure that this process ends in success. It is already a privilege being a small part of this piece of Wisconsin history.