It’s been six months since the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA announced its New Vision , and then dropped the other shoe, telling the public that the cost of the new vision would be underwritten by selling 40 paintings from its collection. And for more than 182 days, the museum world has been in an uproar. If you played a word association game, and the words were Berkshire Museum, way too many of us would respond with “deaccessioning.”
We wrote about the controversy months ago when it seemed the sale was imminent. Since last summer, deaccessioning’s become a new word, something parsed by journalists and art critics alike who tried to explain that even though the use of proceeds from deaccessioned items is not a law (except for New York State Education Department-chartered museums and historical societies) or even a rule, it’s a professional standard museums are expected to live by and with. And while Nina Simon may be correct, that use of proceeds from deaccessioning is an inflexible and antiquated standard, for those museums that are collecting institutions, it functions like the nuclear deterrent, holding big and small institutions in check, a necessary yet Faustian gamble that collecting institutions buy into. And here’s the logic behind that antiquated standard: Museums are non-profit organizations because they hold property (often collections) in the public trust. If those same collections can be monetized at the drop of a hat, where’s the trust?
As a museum, your non-profit status is, in part, secured by your organization’s willingness to stand behind your mission, and in doing so, make objects, art and the like available to all of us. So like Nina Simon, we believe the Berkshire Museum controversy is not an issue solely about deaccessioning. It’s about leadership. Why? Because the Museum’s deaccessioning is a by-product of a series of decisions made by the board and director. It’s the story of a local, regional and national community who responded negatively, not only to the proposed sale, but also to the move toward a museum far more committed to science and technology than to art and the gentle “Window on the World” concept of its founder.
Granted, we only know what the Berkshire Museum has shared on its website, but when organizations anticipate change they examine the future like master chess players, thinking through as best as they are able, all the consequences of their actions. How did the the Museum’s 21-member board and its director get this so wrong, producing such a firestorm of antipathy?
If you read the Berkshire Museum’s timeline for its Master Planning Process, you discover that together with Hancock Shaker Village, it hired TDC, a Boston-based firm specializing in non-profit management three years ago. It was TDC’s 2015 report that stipulated “significant need for capitalization in order to provide sufficient endowment for the Berkshire Museum to support its operations.” (Side note: Among the eight principals on TDC’s website, not one has an arts background, much less a museum background.) And it was TDC who hired Experience Design out of Providence, RI, “to help identify scenarios for the Museum’s future and produce an interpretive plan for the scenario ultimately selected.” Again, we don’t know the real story, only what the Museum chooses to write, but based on its website, there is an odd distance between the Museum and its community. And neither the New Vision nor the Planning Process Timeline express much joy or love for the elegant Renaissance Revival building or its contents.
So what lessons can we learn from this as yet unfinished drama? Here are five thoughts for board members and directors to consider. We don’t know whether they apply in this situation, but we offer them nonetheless.
Being a board member–and some would argue being a museum director–is about service, collective work to safeguard, interpret, collections, ideas and living things for and with the public. Lesson 1: Know your institution. If the only places you know how to find at your museum are the board room and the restroom, you don’t know enough. Learn the campus. Find the furnace room. See collections storage. Know whether exhibit design is done on site or somewhere else. Know the staff by name. Know the important pieces, places, and their stories.
Remember in serving and protecting the institution, you serve your community which may be local, regional, national or international. Lesson 2: Know your community. If you have questions about who participates at your museum, ask them. Remember, you need to know three things: Who your community is as a whole; who comes to your museum and most importantly who doesn’t. If you are considering a change, will it serve those who love your organization and make those who are indifferent into friends? If not, why not?
Don’t believe that an absence of affirmation means your community doesn’t care. To quote Joni Mitchel sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Lesson 3: Be a good communicator. Individually, but most importantly collectively, boards need to communicate clearly and well. If you’re on the board, and you don’t understand something, how will the public understand? Just because a board operates as a collective body doesn’t mean it can’t (and shouldn’t) engage in vigorous discussion around change.
Trust is something that’s earned. Lesson 4: Trust your community. To trust them, you have to know them. (See Lesson 2). That means if you hire consultants on a planning project, you have to provide them with every bit of knowledge you have, and let the chips fall where they may. It means if your hope to change your institution depends on the sale of much loved pieces, you need to say that.
And the last lesson? If you’re asked to serve on a board, believe in the institution that’s asking. Anything else is like buying a house you intend to tear down.
Tell us how your board faces the big decisions.
This is a letter to museum folk who are not leaders. It’s a letter to those of you who work on teams, in departments of one or many, who carry out the hopes and dreams of someone else. It’s also a bit of an apology. Many writers, bloggers and TedTalkers describe leading from anywhere. They write (and talk) as if leading from the back of the room were the easiest thing in the world. We’ve even been guilty of saying it a few times here.
While we believe it’s possible to always behave like a leader, we want to acknowledge the difficulty of having responsibility–sometimes huge responsibility–but no authority. And we want to note that in the world of bad museum leadership, a position that is all responsibility and no authority, particularly topped with gender and generational differences, is its own special hell.
What’s the difference between authority and responsibility? A person with authority is someone who has the power, resources or status to get stuff done. An individual with more responsibility than authority is a person who bears the consequences of someone else’s actions. Most leaders wear both hats, and it’s a tricky business. Understanding that leadership is about interdependence not authority is something it takes new museum directors time to figure out. While they learn, their staff sometimes suffers. What should you do to maintain your sanity if you work for someone who believes being a museum director is about making her staff carry out her wishes? Well you could quit, but let’s suppose you don’t want to.
- Don’t get caught in the blame game: It’s easy to lash out when you feel powerless, and to be honest, it sometimes makes you feel better. Save the sassy comments for after work with friends you trust. Instead, figure out whether you can move forward with whatever you’re charged with on your own. Make sure you understand your own behavior: Are you someone who needs the metaphorical gold sticker to know you’re doing a good job? In other words, do you really need the ED or does talking to her just make you feel better?
- Your ED, supervisor, board won’t listen to you: Look around. Who are they listening to? What qualities do the people being heard have? Can you do what they do? Have you been clear about what it is you need, and more importantly, the consequences if you don’t get it?
- You are totally overwhelmed by the 8 million things you’ve been asked to do, none of which were even remotely on your radar in grad school, nor do they even have much to do with American material culture which is why you got a master’s degree in the first place: Break your list into parts. Pick off the low hanging fruit before moving to something more complex. Don’t be the lone ranger. Work with your team or colleagues to conquer what’s more difficult, and then be the person who brings in something delectable to celebrate and say thank you.
- Working with your colleagues has all the appeal of a middle school group project. Once again, you feel like you’re carrying the weakest member of the team. And sometimes you will be, but don’t assume everyone approaches work like you do. Try and figure out your colleague’s work styles and play to their strengths. Whoever coined the phrase “You get more bees with honey than vinegar,” was not kidding.
- If one more person tells you that you’ll understand whatever it is when you’ve got more experience or takes your idea, rephrases it and gets all the credit, you’re going to scream. You know your own work culture best, but if smiling and suffering silently has gotten you no where, you can challenge people. Be polite, but prove you know what you’re talking about. Remember the first step in getting woke is getting woke. And perhaps, most importantly, if you see this happening to another colleague, step in and help her out.
So…we’re not saying it’s easy, and we are here to acknowledge that in the course of every museum career you will encounter weak or authoritarian leadership. But don’t let it stop you. Keep a list of your successes and read it over when you’re having a dark day. Use your words. No ED can intuit what’s going on in your head. Be clear about the challenges and risks you see ahead, and ask for help. When you talk to your ED, make it about work, not about your unhappiness. Don’t wait for permission for every single step. Have a plan for the project ahead, get it approved, and move forward.
Tell us how you deal with the authority/responsibility dilemma.
This blog is starting to sound like a broken record. For more times than we can count, we’ve advocated for museums, heritage organizations, and museum service organizations to be value-driven entities. And what do we mean by that? We mean organizations willing to stand up for their beliefs.
Remember the T-shirt that says “Museums are not neutral”? Maybe you wear it proudly, maybe not. If it’s not a slogan you support, is that because you believe leadership is separate from your own beliefs and practices? How does that even work? Is caring about and for objects, buildings, art or living things a value system? No. Collecting, preserving and interpreting might be what your organization does; it’s not what it believes. So what does your organization stand for?
Our beliefs follow us to work. They influence hiring, board and volunteer selection. They weave their way into job descriptions. They affect curatorial decisions, programming and communications. Beliefs can keep staff inured in their own privilege, preventing them from walking in another’s shoes. And when we allow personal beliefs to influence organizational culture negatively, it’s called bias. Like, when a museum hires a diverse team, and then expresses consternation when its ideas land outside the traditional, patriarchal, often white organizational bubble. This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, you don’t hire a diverse staff just for the photo ops do you? Remember, unchecked bias and absent values can cripple museums and heritage organizations, not to mention the staff they harm.
Once again we’d like to suggest that as leaders, your self-awareness affects not only your ability to understand others, but through you, your museum’s ability to adapt and change. You begin by knowing yourself, and knowing what you believe in. If you are an open, warm, empathetic person, who leads with her staff rather than in front of it, you model core values. Whether you acknowledge it or not, those values influence your museum’s decision making.
Suppose you have a department chair who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The good news is her staff constantly pushes itself to meet her expectations. The bad news is she’s demeaning and disrespectful when things don’t go her way. You find her staff pacing far from their offices, trying to shake off the latest slights. Her department is famous for resignations that cost your museum money and reputation. Worse, because she doesn’t lead with, she’s alienated the very people who might advise her to behave differently. Clearly if you’re the ED, it’s time for a conversation. How could a museum values statement underpin this conversation? Would it be easier to ask for change based on a shared set of values that include equity, empathy and understanding?
Perhaps a values discussion and the creation of an organizational values statement is on your 2018 to-do list. Don’t put it off. Sit down with your staff and board, and talk about what matters. Do environmental issues top the list? Then how do your museum’s policies and practices reflect environmental preservation? How about gender equity? Is that something you, your staff and board believe in? What changes can you make in governance, HR, exhibitions and programming that reflect an equitable workplace? Does your board and staff believe history has a role in changing communities? How should that resonate in your workplace? Say what you mean. Write it down. Then stand behind it.
An organizational values statement may seem like just one more piece of woo-woo fluff that bloggers and self-help books throw at you in the midst of real life riddled with budget shortfalls, rising health insurance, deaccession proposals, and staff turnover. Maybe. But we suggest that in times of crisis, it’s values that hold organizations together.
It is a new year. Many of us made lists last week, recommitting ourselves to the “new year, new you” maxim, foregoing some things, while trying to develop healthier habits. If you’re in this mode, think about self-awareness, not just for you, but for your organization.
We’ve written a lot about self-awareness here as a grounding principle for good leadership. Being a self-aware leader means knowing yourself. That doesn’t mean knowing whether you prefer mint chocolate chip to strawberry. It’s more about knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Personality tests can help. If that idea makes your skin crawl, think of it as a way to understand your behavior rather than as a definitive description of who you are. One I’ve recently discovered is the Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck test. It’s built for business leaders so some of the questions don’t apply to museum folk, and participating means you need to supply some personal information so if that’s not for you, there are other tests like Meyers Briggs or Predictive Index.
Self-aware leaders also check-in regularly with themselves and others. Some review the day’s activities every evening, analyzing what happened and what they might have done differently. Others review monthly. The idea is to learn–over time–how and why you make decisions. The third in this trinity is being aware of others. Whether it is your team, your department, your entire staff, as a leader, you want to build a team that’s diverse yet complementary. You can’t do that without understanding staff strengths and weaknesses. So…in a nutshell it’s about knowing yourself, improving yourself, and complementing yourself.
But…if you really want to make a difference in 2018, take that mantra and apply it to your organization. Does your museum or heritage organization know itself? Do you and the Board really understand your organization’s DNA? Do you check in regularly and review how and why major decisions are made? When the Board makes a major decision, does anyone record the reasons why? Does your organization discuss past decisions looking for similarities before finalizing new ones? Or do a few individuals decide while others look up from their cell phones and nod? And does your museum know who it is in your town, city and region?
Part of answering all those questions lies in data. If you’re not already a fan of Colleen Dilenschneider and her blog “Know Your Own Bone,” you should be. She is masterful about the how and why of data for cultural organizations. Susie Wilkening continues to conduct deep research about museum visitors and their motivations for engagement. They will teach you that data is just numbers if you don’t ask questions. And you need to ask the right questions. Too many organizations are the equivalent of data hoarders. They have numbers for everything, but can’t make meaning out of any of it.
It’s still early in what promises to be a challenging year for museums. Take the time to make change. Commit yourself to understanding your leadership DNA, as well as that of your organization, commit yourself to questioning your organizational decision-making process, and commit yourself to using data in a meaningful way. Don’t let your organization be guided by anecdote and opinion. Be a self-aware organization and know what you know.
Happy New Year to everyone. We’d like to begin by thanking all of you, longtime readers and those who’ve just discovered us for your support, passion, and encouragement. Know you’re in good company. Leadership Matters had nearly 50,000 views in 2017–not our best year, that was 2016–but we’ll take it. While most of our readers come from the United States, people from 124 countries read this blog which tells us that questions and issues regarding museum leadership are universal. Our regular readers, garnered from WordPress, Instagram, and Facebook number 1,200. Building on 2016’s unbelievably popular post, Museums and the Salary Conundrum, 2017’s most read post was Are Low Museum Salaries Just a Money Problem? It seems there’s a theme here.
So now, suddenly, it’s a new year, and in a spirit of hope, here are our wishes–a baker’s dozen–for 2018.
- Museums develop and use equity and diversity policies to guide recruitment and conduct. AAM requires equity and diversity policies for all Accredited museums. AASLH requires equity and diversity policies as a StEPs standard. Need some help to jumpstart policy development? The Association of Science and Technology Centers’ Diversity Toolkit can be the place to start.
- That museums stop kicking the can down the road and address the wage gap now. You’ll find good information at the Gender Equity in Museums Movement (GEMM) website.
- More resource pooling or institutional merging among museums across discipline and geographic boundaries to increase impact and strengthen sustainability. Here’s a good starting resource from AAM.
- That museums remember that empathy isn’t just for the visiting public; it belongs in the workplace and boardroom too. The Empathetic Museum’s Maturity Model is a self-assessment that can help your institution better reflect and represent the values of their communities.
- Museums become recognized leaders in workplace reform, emphasizing workers and volunteers as valuable and valued human assets. Looking for ways to begin difficult conversations at work around equity, diversity, inclusivity? This article may help.
- That museums remember that no matter how carefully they construct their public face, boards, staff, and volunteers need to check bias at the door, and work to create open, authentic environments. Here’s a playlist of TED talks to share at work.
- Museums lead the way for nonprofits by becoming places where women DON’T experience sexual harassment. That means supporting women not just punishing men. Need some support? This one-pager from 9-5 might help.
- Museums lead the nonprofit world in board education and development.
- All museums articulate their organizational values and figure out tangible ways to live by them….every day. Doing so will keep them agile and responsive. The resources here and here will get you thinking about organizational culture and values.
- Museum boards commit to sharpening their governance knowledge; museum staff commit to sharpening their creative edge. Together, boards and staff commit their museums to becoming active and transparent learning organizations. What will you do to create the change that will make 2018 better?
- Museums emphasize building endowment as a key strategy leading to long-term financial stability. Coupled with community building grounded in a dynamic and relevant mission, the result is a museum at its most resilient in the face of economic and social change. This article from the Nonprofit Quarterly offers an excellent overview about what an endowment is and underscores the importance of organizational commitment to building and maintaining one.
- Museums make time to hit pause, to plan, to think big, fight mediocrity and encourage community engagement. Consider how you will nourish creativity among your staff.
- Museums commit to an open, fair, equitable hiring process; that they cease posting jobs without posting salaries, and that they stop insisting on a graduate degree for every position. Nicole Ivy’s article starts the conversation.
And don’t let the wishes end here. Let us know what you care about and what you wish for in 2018, and if you’d like to write a guest post, send us a writing sample, and a possible topic.
Anne Ackerson & Joan Baldwin