This is the second in a series of guest posts about the museum job market. Our guest blogger this week is Cassidy Percoco, now a curator/collections manager, who graduated from the Fashion & Textiles History, Theory, and Museum Practice program at the Fashion Institute of Technology (NYC).
If you are interested in guest posting for Leadership Matters, particularly if you are looking for a first job or if your experience finding a museum job was impacted by race or gender, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like many other people in the museum field, I had to spend years in a state of financial uncertainty after graduation. To me, that was all “paying your dues” – I knew that more was required beyond the degree and never expected to get a job right out of graduate school. However, it took me several years of living at home, working part-time in retail and food service, and interning and volunteering at local museums – not to mention writing a book and maintaining a blog on historical fashion – before an application and interview turned into a permanent, full-time job. And it’s a job I love, but for a variety of reasons, now I need to move up the ladder. At first, the second job seemed like it wouldn’t be too hard because it’s common knowledge that the lack of true entry-level jobs is the main barrier to a museum career, right?
Wrong. My current situation is actually not that much different than my post-grad-school one: There are few positions open for someone with my skills and experience, and competition is still extremely fierce. The standard advice of “volunteer as much as you can” is no longer practical, though. As a consequence, I’m not sure what to do next.
And I’m concerned there are a lot of people in the same position who aren’t speaking up or being talked about. Because we have jobs, we tell ourselves we shouldn’t complain, but opportunities for advancement are slim, and many of us have no idea what to do next, particularly since many of us well into a first job find ourselves tied through relationships to a particular region. Do we tread water? Explore ways to leave the field or move sideways into something else?
The entire system has problems, and while tackling degree creep is a good step toward breaking down barriers, the issues resonate through all levels of the museum world. We have an overload of applicants from multiplying graduate programs, while the number of positions in museum collections still has not rebounded from the belt-tightening of the Recession. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer: we need more jobs and better funding. Until we have them, we need to support each other in our choices – both those of us who leave and those of us who stay.
Cassidy Percoco, now a curator/collections manager, graduated from the Fashion & Textiles History, Theory, and Museum Practice program at FIT. She is the author of Regency Women’s Dress: Techniques & Patterns 1800-1830, and her blog and podcast can be found at www.mimicofmodes.com.
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” a commencement speech delivered at Kenyon College, May 2005
Over the past month, we’ve spoken to several people who are more than miserable in their jobs. We’ve also read tales of workplace misery on Facebook where individuals question how they should move forward in the wake of situations that redefine the phrase, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Some of these situations are truly horrific, some frustrating, and some just examples of a museum worker’s really, really bad day. But one thing seems to be universal: Everybody tells the complainer to quit, to leave, to find the nirvana job. These comments come in a chorus. Some are couched in concern for the worker’s mental health as in “this can’t be healthy for you.” Some are little red flags demonstrating the listeners have heard enough as in, “I can give you some phone numbers if you think you’re ready to move on.” And some respond only to the technical details of whatever workplace horror the story outlines.
Maybe there’s another way though. Maybe since most of us aren’t social workers, psychologists, or HR people, maybe, in Post-Weinstein America, we ought to respond a little differently. First, remember you’re the listener or, in the case of Facebook, the reader. That’s your job. Just listen. Next, establish if the person feels safe at work. If they do not, are they experiencing sexual harassment, workplace bullying or simply horrific leadership? If they are not safe, if they are bullied or harassed online or in the workplace, a site like AAUW or the EEOC (and there are many more) can help with filing a harassment claim.
Part of listening–regardless of the nature of the individual narrative–is that leaving one job and getting another isn’t as simple as ordering on Amazon. Leave aside the competitive nature of today’s museum job search, there are also questions of partners, partner’s jobs, real estate, children, extended family, and love of place that tie us all to our positions. While walking out may be a healthy choice, it’s not always possible, and brings with it its own set of stresses, not least of which is no pay. So remember, advocating quitting is not always helpful.
And don’t let the person narrating a workplace complaint believe that because they work for the Who-Knows-Where-Historical-Society that this is business as usual, that non-profits aren’t subject to employment law. They are. Yes, it may require more courage or at least a special brand of courage to take on the big wigs in a small community as opposed to walking into HR at a big museum, but the law still applies.
Last, remember that sometimes humans just need to be heard. They need to know they’re valued. Channel your inner grandma: Smile and look people in the eye. If you can’t say anything nice, be quiet. Be kind. Be respectful. Say thank you. Model the place you want to work in, and build a better museum work culture.
Above: Old Salem President Frank Vagnone doing his own bit of hands-on learning
at the museum.
While my position is “Curator,” it’s for a school not a museum so a lot of daily museum life passes me by. Recently, though, I visited Franklin Vagnone, in Winston Salem, NC. Frank is one of my heroes, a museum thought leader who is generous, truthful, and authentic. For those of you who don’t know, Frank is President of Old Salem Museum & Gardens, a position he’s held for just about a year. Frank also runs Twisted Preservation his cultural consulting firm, work that takes him around the world, thinking, talking, and quite literally shaking up traditional stand-behind-the-rope sorts of historic house interpretation. (And if you are a historic site person, and haven’t read his book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums you should probably order it. Today.)
Anyway, part of the fun of visiting museum colleagues on their home turf is you get to be a tourist with the best of all possible guides: the museum leader. The weather was beautiful, and Old Salem is ridiculously picturesque, but better than all of that there were close to 1,000 school children on site, accompanied by parents, teachers and younger siblings. It was awesome. Surrounded by shouts of “It smells good in here!” and “Look at this!,” it reminded me why I got into this business in the beginning. And looking back on being engulfed in nine year olds busy folding laundry and trying to make a rope bed—the barriers in the Old Salem Brother’s House are gone—it made me grateful to be a museum person or at least part of the wider museum community.
We’ve talked about some dark stuff on these pages: sexual harassment; workplace bullying; bad boards; and most recently, the trials of searching for a job in a way too crowded field. But at heart, and I can’t speak for all of you, it’s a field we love. And part of why we love it is that sharing is fun, whether it’s sharing knowledge–how did people without electricity read in bed?–or sharing experience–folding a large linen shirt isn’t as easy as it looks—or sharing an explanation–like why static electricity makes your hair stand up–or looking for answers: Why do an artist’s brush strokes move in one direction and not the other? That joint search for answers, whether it’s with excited elementary students or committed and curious adults, is a journey worth taking. So here are my top five reasons to be grateful for being in this field:
- I get to work, meet, and speak with some truly fabulous humans, who challenge and change the museum world.
- Being in a museum, as opposed to being on the Internet, means being in the presence of something real. That brings its own awesomeness.
- Being in the museum world means we’re often in the presence of beauty, and it’s ours to care for as best we can.
- The objects, art, scientific discoveries, even the plants and animals we care for, all have stories, and it’s an honor to share stories with the public.
- Museums are metaphors for so much else. Each well-worn spinning wheel, each deKooning sketch, each set of medical instruments is a window into another place and moment. We’re the bridge, and that’s a great place to be.
Does this field make you grateful? Why?
This is the first of several posts on the museum job hunt. Our guest blogger this week is Allison Clark (and, no, that’s not Allison in the photo).
When I first entered the museum field, I was a bright-eyed undergraduate whose opportunities seemed limited only by time. My college campus was nestled next to Houston’s Museum District, enabling me to bounce from institution to institution, department to department, trying my hands at everything from curation to collections management to interpretation. Through both paid and unpaid internships, I caught the museum bug: I wanted to share my enthusiasm for visual art with anyone and everyone. My supervisors became my cheerleaders, and with their encouragement, I earned my graduate degree in art education. As I was frequently reminded, this expensive piece of paper would add a coveted edge to my career. And, for a while, it did. I racked up fellowships and scholarships in graduate school, teaching visitors of all ages and presenting at conferences during the few moments when I wasn’t trying to make ends meet financially.
As graduation neared, I began haphazardly applying to entry-level positions across the United States. By some miracle, I interviewed for thirty minutes with a big-name museum in Los Angeles for one of their graduate internships. A few weeks later, I received the phone call I had dreamt about: I was invited to join their team, albeit without benefits and less-than motivating pay. Yet, all I could think was, “THIS IS IT – I MADE IT!!!”
A year later with the graduate internship under my belt, I was far less convinced. What no one explicitly told me as I worked my way up the museum education ladder was that full-time gigs were few and far between. Even in Los Angeles. Even for people with the experience and education to back it up. I applied to over 50 full-time museum education jobs across the country in the span of five months, and I was called back for four. And those initial call backs? They led to multiple rounds of interviews, teaching samples, and strategic planning presentations. At the end, only one job offer provided a living full-time wage with benefits – two things most people need to live on their own.
Now, I am aware that I am one of the lucky ones. I can go to urgent care without panicking about how I will be able to pay, and most days I get to do what I love. Unfortunately, this simply is not the case for many museum educators, who are all too often undervalued and still searching for their “break” into full-time employment with opportunities for career advancement.
So, let me provide the advice I wish I could have told myself ten years ago:
- Gain skills outside of your intended field.
Learn how to budget. Like, really budget. What would you do with $2,000? How about $250,000? Know the numbers, and know how to speak business. If this isn’t your comfort zone, join the club. Take free online courses (edX is my go-to), and expand your skillset to include some productive surprises.
2. Work hard, be nice.
One of the best things to do when you’re starting out (or moving up) is to do excellent work and share it with your peers, supervisors, friends, and anyone who can provide constructive feedback. The museum world is a teeny-tiny place, so be nice to everyone you meet.
3. Be prepared to struggle.
The museum education field is not for the faint of heart, or people who want a 9-5 job. One of my mentors advised me that the days are long, but the years are short. The hours will hurt, you will get tired of the near-constant balancing act, and you might even question if you’re making an impact. Hang in there. Find your network (local, regional, or national). Share your vulnerabilities with people you trust. Delegate if you can. Most of all, document your successes and create a portfolio that illustrates why your efforts matter.
Since joining the Bruin family in May 2017 as the Education Manager at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, Allison Clark has welcomed hundreds of students to the Fowler, produced a three-day Teacher Institute for K-12 educators, and designed over 20 family programs for both kids and kids-at-heart. Currently, her work highlights the intersections of visitor-driven interpretation, inclusive storytelling, and professional development for the K-12 community and intergenerational audiences. Allison also serves on the Board of Directors for the Museum Educators of Southern California (MESC) in addition to committee appointments with the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the National Art Education Association (NAEA). Allison received her M.A in Art Education from the University of Texas at Austin and her B.A. in Art History and Anthropology from Rice University.
Thursday I spent the day at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Although I wore my “Museums are not neutral” T-shirt, I’m not sure anyone noticed. The topic of museum neutrality, however, is one that interests us here at Leadership Matters because it intersects directly with how museum directors lead, and the role museums and history organizations play in their communities.
Museum neutrality has been in the wind for a while now. For some it means, museums should openly take a stand on issues of community or national interest. For others, it means museums should use their scholarship to refute false narratives in an age of post-truthiness.
A notable example of a museum taking a stand took place last winter when the Trump administration banned travel and rescinded visas from seven majority-Muslim nations. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), usually a-political, responded by removing work by Picasso and Matisse and hanging paintings by living artists from the banned countries. And just in case MoMA’s selfie-taking audience missed what was going on, it labeled each newly-displayed painting with the following lines, making it crystal clear where it stood on the travel/immigration debate.
“This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.”
Given MoMA’s size, wealth, and presence in the art world, it’s likely that Glenn Lowry and his senior staff took more than a few minutes to decide how to respond to the travel ban. And given what we heard from Shankar Vedantam, National Public Radio’s Social Science correspondent this week, that’s a good idea. Vedantam reported on the risks CEO’s take when they invest in social responsibility. And based on the researchers he interviewed, doing good with corporate profits can be bad. Here’s why: In the corporate world everything points towards making money. No surprise there. And community aid, activism, diversity initiatives, and support for education don’t get the product out the door. Nonetheless, they do generate a lot of good will, and that should be good for the corporation, yes? Not necessarily.
Vedantam interviewed Timothy Hubbard who teaches at Notre Dame University. He and two colleagues studied what these types of community investments mean for CEOs’ careers. In a nutshell, here’s what Hubbard said, “We see this double-edged sword where if the firm is doing well, investments in corporate social responsibility can buffer a CEO from dismissal. But on the other hand, if there’s negative financial performance, it can really set the CEO up for a situation where they could likely be terminated.”
We aren’t aware of any work on whether acts of social responsibility by museum leadership shortens an executive director’s tenure, but since many museum board members come from the corporate world, it’s worth bearing in mind. Nonetheless, there is a difference between taking a stand, and taking a stand relating to facts, collections and the truth. Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellman, a CEO of the Gates Foundation, was also interviewed on NPR this week. Desmond-Hellman makes the point that,”Scientists can’t be ivory tower,” adding that “What we’re really hearing from people is I no longer trust authority.”
She suggests that scientists (and we would argue curators, conservators, museum educators, and directors) need to be part of the public dialog. She asks her fellow researchers when was the last time they attended a PTA meeting, Cub Scouts, your church, synagogue or mosque, adding “If we’re not part of that dialog, soon science won’t matter.” (And maybe history or culture?) She points out that in an age when the public relies more on emotion and personal belief than scientific evidence, then there’s a problem.
We believe first and foremost that museums have to understand their communities, and their entire community, not just the largely white, heterosexual, wealthy community who wanders their galleries and attends openings. But how do museums decide when and how to take a stand? Is what’s relevant to the director important to the community? And how about the board? As a director, if you take a stand will it matter to the people you’re trying to support? Does not being neutral mean being a good citizen, and how should an organization be a good citizen? How do museums engage their communities while being transparent?
Tell us what you think.
As the Berkshire Museum‘s (Pittsfield, MA) drama roils on, the museum world is thinking a lot about deaccessioning. And it should. The New England Museum Association even added a last-minute session to its annual meeting roster to talk about it. But here at Leadership Matters, the Berkshire Museum’s problems have made us think a lot about boards, board behavior, and organizational culture.
Remember Bill Clinton’s famous tag line, “It’s the economy, stupid”? How about a variation on that for the museum world: “It’s the board, stupid.”? How many of a museum or heritage organization’s problems, both financial and cultural, trace back to the board? Yes, yes, mission and vision are really important, but assuming they’re beautifully crafted in the beginning, they don’t have power on their own. They’re just words. The folks empowered to carry them forward into the world, to interpret them, to make the magic happen, are first and foremost, board members, and in a recent Stanford survey of non-profit boards 27-percent of board members lack a the depth of knowledge, and the engagement required to help their organizations succeed. Pretty shocking.
At larger museums, boards are often referred to with the pronoun “they,” as in “I wonder if they will give us a raise this year?” They are rarely seen except when they meet on site several times a year. Then, the most jaded staff make jokes about which board members will be able to find the meeting room. They have all the cookies, and yet it’s so easy for them to lose their way, literally and figuratively.
And who can tell them anything? They are the board. They hire the museum leadership that we write about each week on these very pages. This is not to say all museum and heritage organization board members are jerks. They are not. Many are exemplary human beings, but just as being promoted from assistant director to director doesn’t make you any smarter, neither does board membership. And yet so much depends on board members’ good work. So if you’re a board member, if you work with museum boards or if you’re a museum director who wields some influence, here are some things we hope you’ve tackled:
- Does your board understand its legal responsibilities? Is that information available in their board handbook? Does your organization have regular check-ins about those responsibilities vis a vis the organization?
- What kind of orientation does your board offer new members? If information is passed orally from member to member, you may want to re-think that. There is plenty of support for how to design a board orientation plan. We are particular fans of Joan Garry because of her clear, simple approach. You could do way worse than to take her advice.
- Does your board have a strong nominating or governance committee? Do they understand your organization deeply and completely enough to know that being wealthy and well-connected might not be all your organization needs?
- Is your board among the 52–percent of non-profit boards nationally whose work is done by a board within a board? If the answer is yes, do you understand when and how that happened, and whether it is still working?
- Does your board have a respectful, collegial relationship with your executive director? Does it have succession plans for board and staff leadership?
- Does your board understand that its primary responsibility is fiduciary? According to the Stanford survey only 42-percent of all non-profits have a “give or get” policy where members are required to donate or raise a particular amount each year. That might not work for your board, but even a modest required donation levels the playing field, and reminds all board members why they are there.
There is no nirvana of boards where everyone internalizes the museum’s mission, gets along with the executive director, contributes time and money and gets others to do the same, but if board members universally understood their trusteeship as work, based in a museum’s mission, perhaps there would be less disruption, less mediocrity, and more organizational success, and raising operations endowments by selling the collection would never ever be considered.