This first part is mainly for women who read this blog. This week I spoke with a colleague who, despite the fact that we work on the same campus, I see infrequently. So when we check in it’s with a degree of seriousness. “How are you?” isn’t just a pleasantry, but a real question. She reported crying in the doctor’s office. I responded I had too, both of us in answer to that simple question, “How are you doing?” Her doctor told her she needed a vacation. She laughed. There are eight more weeks of school so vacation seems as unlikely as being hit by a meteor. Mine asked what I was doing for relaxation. My only answer was joining a wine club which didn’t seem to be what he had in mind.
Let me be clear: We are the lucky ones. We are healthy. No one in our families was stolen by COVID. We are employed. We have colleagues, friends and families. We have partners who love us. But this is still hard, and it’s hard in a particularly gendered way.
I know there have been about 8 million articles, essays, and news pieces on women and COVID, one or two have appeared right here. The illness, the changes in economics and home life, and the spillover at work–for those who are working–has unnecessarily burdened women. And left some of us in tears. Perhaps you’re hoping I’ll offer the one recipe for healing you haven’t heard about yet–two shots of Brené Brown, followed by a morsel of Mary Oliver or Maya Angelou and a brisk walk on a sunny day–but I haven’t found the recipe yet. I do know my colleague and I ended up laughing, a little irrationally, but honestly what else can you do? The universe demands a lot some days, and some times the best response is to laugh with a friend, even if what you’re laughing at is really the pain of the pandemic.
As some of you know, I’ve spent the last 10 months as interim director of a library, archives and special collections. Beyond keeping the ship on course, my primary job was to serve as point person for the search for a permanent director. I’m happy to say, it’s over, and in a few days when the last of the paper work is complete, we will be able to announce our new director. In the meantime, I’ve thought a lot about the search process, so here are some random ideas and considerations.
- Hiring over Zoom is unnatural. Does it privilege the extroverts and actors? Maybe. The things you’ve read about how to dress, how you present, are true. You should look like you’re sitting down for a semi-serious conversation. You don’t need a fancy living room with strategically placed books just over your shoulders, but you do need to appear as though your entrance to the Zoom room is something you actually thought about and consider important. (Hint: Not everyone does.) And while we all have bad IT days, a device that’s steady, and doesn’t make your interviewer feel as though they’re on a tilt-a-whirl is a must.
- Your references matter, and maybe not in the way you thought. Presumably your references believe you’re brilliant or they wouldn’t have agreed to speak for you, but many employers, my own included, don’t want a letter extolling your virtues. They want to talk one-on-one with your references. So it’s important that the people you ask are not only willing to say nice things, but are good talkers–articulate, smart, and generous over telephone or Zoom. Reporting you have soft skills, and then repeating a list of soft skills from Muse.com isn’t helpful. As someone about to hire you, your new organization wants to know you, specifically how your soft skills exemplify themselves in the workplace.
- NBC News reported this morning that there are now more jobs open than before the pandemic began. It attributes the spike not just to a rebounding economy, but to the fact that many job seekers are too fearful, hesitant, and discouraged to go through the process. My advice? Don’t apply if you don’t mean it. Yes, all job searches are an elaborate dance between job seeker and employer, with each one making choices based on what they discover. While the lucky and the talented may find themselves fought over by more than one employer, that’s not what I’m talking about. Don’t start the process without first engaging in the necessary soul searching. It’s been a rough 18 months. Are you ready to move? Is your partner? Your family? You’ve created a pandemic routine that works for you. Are you willing to disrupt it? Not really wanting to move does not make you a bad person, but job searches are costly, not just money wise, but they are time sink holes. It feels wrong to go through three quarters of a complex process to have a job seeker tell you they really can’t imagine moving during a pandemic.
- Be clear in your own head why this job matters to you. New isn’t enough. Neither is admitting you have a crush on the organization since your crush may be based on half-truths and beautiful Internet photos. It helps if you can explain why this job matters to you now, at this very moment, and how it builds on what you’ve done so far, and challenges you in places you need to grow. And for the love of God, a mid-life crisis is not a reason for a new job. (Yes, that really happened.)
- If you’re stepping out of your lane, for example, you have little leadership experience, but you’re applying to lead a team of seven, be clear about what you know, what you done, what your skills are, and why they matter. Think like an interviewer so when they ask you, “And why should we let you run our team of museum educators, when you have next to no leadership experience?” you have an answer that lets them see you actually understand the act of leadership even if you haven’t had the title.
For all of you looking for work, I wish you the best of luck. Yes, the museum world is competitive, but positions are opening up. My last two bromides: Don’t write the script before anything happens. By that I mean don’t create a novel’s worth of reasons why you couldn’t take the position when you haven’t even applied. If you want a job and believe you’re capable, apply. Second, do the work you need to do before applying. What do you want? Of course you want a job, but if you knew you could earn just as much at Amazon, with better benefits, as you can at a given heritage site or regional museum, why there? Why does joining their team make sense for you?
And last, and this is for the folks at AASLH and AAM, recently I heard an NPR journalist speaking about his own field. He was making the point that print journalism has changed profoundly since last March, adding that his field lost 39,000 journalists in less than a year. Does the museum world know who it has lost?
Be well. Stay safe.
First Kudos: To Mike Murawski for his new book, Museums As Agents of Change, released this week and available through Routledge. A co-founder of Museums are not Neutral, Murawski is a change maker himself, which is just one of the reasons this book is important.
Second, a shout out to AAM. In February I wrote a post complaining about how AAM’s newly-released Trendswatch had sidestepped the ways the pandemic harmed working women globally, and specifically women in the museum world. This week while scrolling through an AAM newsletter, I came across a link to Supporting Women in the Workplace During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic. It takes a big-hearted organization to course-correct, so thank you to AAM for providing resources for 50.1-percent of the museum workforce. And if women’s issues within the museum world concern you, join Gender Equity in Museums or GEMM.
Third, a bravo to my friend Frank Vagnone: If museum directors had fans like boy bands, I would be lined up post-concert to see Frank, president and CEO of Old Salem, Inc. Thoughtful, smart, and someone known to push the envelope on occasion, Vagnone writes the blog Twisted Preservation. This week he posted about the need to see COVID for what it is–not an 18-month stop between normal and new normal–but an inflection point that will leave many organizations devastated and fundamentally changed. If you’re a museum or heritage organization leader, you should read his post, and maybe use it as a point of discussion with your board.
And the deaccessioning debate continues: I am struck by the way this debate has become a binary choice. You’re either for it–a progressive–or against it or at least cautious about it–a traditionalist. And like all things in 2021, deacessioning is personalized, becoming a lens with a bifurcated view of the art museum world because, let’s face it, history and science museums aren’t making millions deaccessioning.
Lee Rosenbaum went so far as to metaphorically pit Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, opposite Phillipe de Montebello, former director of the Met, writing that Bedford is among “the new crop of museum directors and curators [who] have embraced social and political progressiveness as a primary part of their mission.” Rosenbaum suggests that “inclusivity and social relevance are laudable” but cautions “patience so museums don’t trash the time-honored achievements of past professionals.”
Where to start? Maybe with the idea that as I said a few weeks ago, deaccessioning is a tool in a tool box, a necessary one, but one that in order to wield successfully, needs a deep collection, a degree of wisdom and sophistication on the part of curators and museum leadership, and a strong community understanding. Second, that it’s possible for smart, thoughtful, forward-thinking organizations to hold two (or more) ideas in their heads at the same time–pruning and shaping the collection to help it better speak to the wider community–while also trying to create an equitable workspace that honors the values museums profess to support. Perhaps communities of color and museum staff are tired of waiting for museums who are afraid of trashing the time-honored path representing the way we’ve always done it?
When did putting community–whether that is your security guard’s hourly pay or your local community’s access to your collection– become a bad thing? Is it okay as long as it doesn’t privilege BIPOC artists over established white, male artists? Shouldn’t we all be modeling ofbyforall.org’s five steps for change? And how will change happen if our first act is to rush to the barricades defending what cannot change?
AAMD is like an exclusive gentleman’s club from the 1950’s. It costs money to belong, when you’re inside it seems powerful, but in reality its enforcement powers are limited. According to The New York Times, a recent vote on whether to codify the relaxed deaccessioning rules of COVID lost 91-88 with 48 members abstaining. Perhaps the 48 abstainers sided with MoMA’s Glenn Lowery who suggests this type of decision making shouldn’t happen in the middle of a crisis. And despite vaccines, and the falling number of COVID cases, we are still in a crisis.
And a lesson in humility: One of the lessons of leadership is that we continue learning. Always. Every day. And the day you stop, you should pack it in, and head for your rocking chair and your memories.
I manage a small collection inside a small, intentional community or a boarding school. Like any lone ranger, I wear the title “curator,” but many other hats –educator, registrar, packer, exhibit designer–as well. Our campus is still officially closed, but last week we hung an exhibit of 22 portraits, part of a project for our 9th and 10th-grade studio art students. Each student will select a portrait, reckon with it, react to it, and create a new work in response. When complete, the student work, curated and selected by their classmates, will hang in dialog next to the collection work. So far so good.
I finished the week with the show hung, but not the labels. I was tired, a lame excuse in retrospect, but nonetheless true, so I reasoned the labels could wait until Monday. Here is one of the portraits, a dual image of Mary Birch Coffing of Salisbury, Connecticut with Jane Winslow also of Salisbury.
In leaving the labels for another day, I forgot about my audience. I forgot they needed context, and most of all, in believing they could wait, I disrespected them. So when they reacted Friday evening about the portrait above via email and social media, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. They were concerned. They wanted information. By Saturday morning I’d reckoned with my own blindness and all the labels were up. Further, we’d reached out to students and offered to talk about the show as a whole, and the Coffing/Winslow portrait in particular.
The lesson for me was not just how a lone ranger needs to push through and finish what was started. It was about the obligation to empathize, to put oneself in the position of one’s audience, and try to imagine what tools are necessary to make their own judgements, to have their own dialog, their own reckoning. That’s all art asks of us: to be there; to be fully present for more than the 20-seconds most of us devote to standing in front of a painting. If that’s what we want from our viewers, then we have to give them a place to start that’s truthful but not opinionated, that leads to dialog not misunderstanding, and most of all that is respectful.
The good news is I know I’m still learning. I hope you are too.
This week I learned someone I’ve known for decades will be leaving their position. Amidst platitudes about going in a new direction and spending time with family there is the scent of a leave-taking that’s less than mutually acceptable. How is it that some museum and heritage organization leaders can believe life is good, and all is well, when their boards feel so differently? How do leaders lose touch with their organizational DNA enough to let things slip out of their hands? And isn’t there enough to worry about for leaders in age of COVID without constantly considering whether you’ve overstayed your welcome?
When you consider the careers of longterm leaders, there are some common characteristics. They are self-aware. I know, duh? But they really are. They review their days, their weeks, learning from what went well, while tweaking and changing what didn’t. And they definitely aren’t bored. In other words, five years, 10 years in, they are still creative, coming to work ready to collaborate for meaningful change, and constantly ready to think creatively about their organizations. And they have healthy, respectful, and productive relationships with their boards. This last one is perhaps the most challenging since it’s one person–you, the president, CEO, or director–and a group of people who, in theory, work collectively rather than individually. The board hired you, and frankly, good, bad or indifferent, they have all the cookies.
So how do you know when it’s time to go? Here are some things to consider:
- I know it’s COVID, and just walking into your office sometimes feels like a challenge, but does your leadership position feed your soul? Challenge and change keep us agile and resilient. A job with the comfort of a perfectly broken-in pair of shoes doesn’t always demand your creative side. Instead, it makes you complacent. Are you ready for a change?
- Conversely, are you stressed beyond measure? Do you long, not just for time off, but time away? Are you out of ideas, and it’s affecting your health, making you impatient and cranky at the very moment when your organization needs patience and empathy?
- Does it feel like there’s a shadow museum happening without you? Do conversations end when you walk into a room? Are decisions you once would have been integral to now made without your input? Is your relationship with your board, once friendly and collaborative, now a long slog over egg shells?
- When was the last time your board completed performance review for you? Indifference is sometimes worse than dislike. If your board won’t put the energy into its relationship with you, what does that tell you?
- While this is mostly about you, consider how your unhappiness affects your team. Staff who work for an engaged–and presumably happy–leader are 59-percent more likely to be engaged themselves.
There is an old adage that it’s easier to get a new job when you’re already employed than when you’re not. That might mean resigning a leadership position at your peak or soon after rather resting on your laurels. This is a moment when, unlike so much in leadership, it IS truly about you, and your ability to move elsewhere depends on your self-awareness and your humility, as well as your ability to recognize that you’ve done as much as you can do.
Museum leadership isn’t a lifetime appointment. You challenge and change an organization and you move on. You know deep down if your job as museum director is no longer fulfilling, and you may suspect that there is someone–maybe even someone on your own staff–who might make a better leader than you are now as opposed to the person you were when you arrived. Some leaders look several times a year–not formally–but they do put the periscope up and look around. For some, that may be too disruptive, but it exercises a set of muscles that otherwise lie fallow.
In Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord Anne Ackerson and I talk about leadership as a journey rather than an end game. Remember Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and how he stresses “Organizations learn only through individuals who learn?” Leadership is learning. If you’re not learning or someone is hell bent on preventing your learning, it’s probably time to exit gracefully.
Throughout the pandemic the world has been awash in online events, and that’s a good thing. You can travel to annual meetings, have cocktails with friends, take art or yoga, or learn a new workplace skill, all without leaving home. To date, I haven’t participated, but in January I saw an announcement for Syracuse University’s symposium on deaccessioning. March seemed like forever in the future, and I decided to take the plunge. Last week, I plugged in and listened, and I’m glad I did.
First, congratulations to Andrew Saluti, Program Coordinator for Syracuse’s Graduate Program in Museum Studies, and his colleagues across the University for shaping an incredibly timely, thoughtful and dynamic two days. How often do you get to sit at your kitchen table and hear Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham, Co-Founder of Museum Hue, Kaywin Feldman, Director of the National Gallery of Art or Anna Pasternak, Director of the Brooklyn Museum, and many more? It was amazing and overwhelming, but also deeply compelling. Some decade in the future when a graduate student listens to the recordings, I hope they parse what wasn’t said in addition to what was.
There were 10 sessions interspersed with keynotes from Johnson-Cunningham, Feldman, and Christopher Bedford, Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Some overlapped so it was impossible to hear everything, meaning I missed the inimitable Christy Coleman, and my colleagues Scott Wands and Larry Yerdon talking about historic sites and deaccessioning, committing myself to “Museums with Parent Organizations” since that speaks more to my life at the moment, but here are some random thoughts on deaccessioning and the two-day conversation.
**Many speakers remarked that deaccessioning happens all the time. I’m not sure that’s true. With smaller collections, it’s always a possibility, but a muscle rarely used. In order to consider deaccessioning, a museum needs a collection deep enough to be pruned, and curators, leadership and a board skilled enough to go through a process that requires demanding research, strong internal policies, and leadership who understands its role. A small heritage organization with 12 walking wheels, a half dozen broken stoves, and a collection of stuffed birds and eggs it no longer wants, is in a very different position than a regional art museum with two Bierstadts, seven Coles, and a dozen deKooning drawings. The heritage organization may go through all the same steps to empty their storage areas, but the rewards are more about space gained than the lure of millions of dollars. Yet there are medium-sized to small organizations who own highly-marketable pieces, and throughout the two days it seemed as though no one wanted to say here’s what you shouldn’t do. There was a fair amount of prevaricating, of I-don’t-want-to-speak-for another-organization, and yet if you look back over the last 20 years, the stories we remember are the ones where things went south fast. Why? Because this is a system whose guardrails resemble an honor code. Staying inside the lines requires a level of sophistication and understanding that not every board or museum leader brings to the table.
**One of the things that came up early in the Symposium, but deserves examination is the cost of collecting. You might say, but it’s what we do. We’re museums after all. True, but not all museums are collecting institutions. Some, like MASS MoCA, don’t collect. They work as platforms for a changing group of artists and their work. But for museums and heritage organizations that have always collected, there is a human cost behind every acquisition, from shippers, registrars, and curators, to guards, educators and advancement people. In speaking about the Baltimore Art Museum’s decision to deaccession, Christopher Bedford remarked that if you have a gazillion dollar painting about social justice, and you pay the Black guard to protect it $12.50 an hour that is more than ironic, it’s unethical.
**Overall, this was a decorous event. There were clearly people who disagreed with one another, but there was no rancor and no emotion except passion for museums. The Berkshire Museum, perhaps the poster child for bad choices when it comes to deaccessioning, managed to secure its own session shared with staff from the Everson Museum, who this fall deaccessioned a Jackson Pollock. The session was moderated by consultant Laura Roberts. Speaking for the museum was its former director, Van Shields, and former board chair Elizabeth McGraw. Unlike a later session where moderator Kristina Durocher grilled former Randolph College trustee Peter Dean about the college’s sale of its paintings, Shields and McGraw faced no hard-ball questions. Their self-reported narrative is one of choosing to make hard choices, and having the community pillory them for it. Their stories stood in sharp contrast to Tracy Riese, a trustee for the Brooklyn Museum, who in the final session remarked, “Nobody in their right mind will reduce a collection so it’s not worth visiting….You aren’t looking to burn the furniture to feed the fireplace. That is extremely irresponsible.”
**In retrospect, one of the things that strikes me is how complex and multi-faceted deaccessioning is. Glenn Lowry, MOMA’s president, remarked that deaccessioning is a single tool in the museum leadership toolbox, adding that you use it when “you muster all the assets and put them in play for value in your community in a deep and everlasting way.” If you look back on the more contentious sales of the last quarter century many share a massive lack of transparency. Transparency doesn’t just mean reporting that certain objects are leaving the collection. Transparency means openness about mission, about why a particular piece no longer fits. Those conversations must happen internally before they happen externally, as the director, curators and board work to understand a painting’s meaning. Where does it fit in the collection? Is it an only child or does it have siblings either by the same artist or in the same period? What artists are missing from the collection? If a painting is sold, what would the museum add, and why? And on and on. Too often, it seems, smaller organizations look first at auction estimates, and the lure of the pot of gold means discussions–if indeed they take place– are laden with confirmation bias, and context becomes impossible. As Tracy Riese said, “Deaccessioning is one tool. You still need fund raising and earned income. I haven’t experienced my board refusing to raise money.”
**I came of age in a museum world bathed in the collect, preserve, and interpret philosophy. It was a world where the collection is all. Thankfully, things are changing. As Glenn Lowry put it, there has been a shift “Away from the sanctity of the object,” adding that [We are moving] to a new place, so our thinking about our assets has to change.” And mission, added Riese, is larger than all the objects. It’s a theme Johnson-Cunningham raised in the opening keynote: That a community-centered museum makes people its focus, and that is completely different from the encyclopedic, colonialistic premise of many museums of the early 20th-century.
**Last, DEI played an important role in many of the sessions. DEI at its best is participatory, nuanced, engaged and community driven. It is not, as Johnson-Cunningham said, “Black bodies (or black art work) in white spaces.” Linda Harrison, director and CEO of the Newark Museum, said her museum doesn’t separate DEI from racial, gender and pay equity. She suggested it’s easier to present DEI through collections, but added that does not represent change when behind the curtain “we are woefully 1972.” The Newark Museum has pledged itself to be “Of the community” as opposed to “For the Community.” That mindset contrasts starkly with the Berkshire Museum’s McGraw who remarked that “by bringing culture to everyone, they will have a greater appreciation,”a mindset that suggests the museum, as opposed to the community, knows all.
Not every university or museum graduate program has the wherewithal and resources to put together a program like Syracuse, but it sets an important and interesting precedent. Yes, a lot of interesting conversations happen at annual and regional meetings, but a 30-minute conversation about deaccessioning doesn’t hold a candle to this two-day event. Nor should it. Annual meetings are egalitarian by nature. They provide opportunities for both young and experienced leaders to speak about their work. That is very different from a curated and iterative conversation with some of the sharpest minds in the field. And the beauty of deaccessioning is that it’s a lens that looks at leadership, policies, pay equity, collections, research, and more. Whether you participated in the Symposium or not, maybe this is the moment to re-read your collection policy, and to make sure you understand your state rules and regulations regarding deaccessioning. You can follow with AAM’s Direct Care of Collections and Glenn Adamson’s In Defense of Progressive Deaccessioning.
Stay safe, stay well, stay masked. Spring is coming and so are vaccinations.
Dear Laura Lott and John Dichtl:
I’m using this week’s post to address both of you. In your capacities as presidents of the two largest museum service organizations in the United States, you support, watch over, and guide the museum field. I’ve been writing this blog since 2012, and, if you read it, I’m sure there are weeks you wish I’d put away my laptop and call it a day. I don’t run a museum. I teach and write about museum leadership, and curate a small collection in an academic setting so my status is definitely more commentator than everyday participant. That said, I think we can all agree COVID has unleashed a Pandora’s box of problems in the museum workplace. As a result there is a ton of work to do around workplace relationships, at the very moment when there is a ton of work to do that is dependent on workplace relationships.
Where am I going with this? Weekly, I read @changetheboard, @changethemuseum, and more recently @changeberkshireculture. I am aware that happy people don’t post on these three sites, but even if we arbitrarily dismissed 50-percent of what’s written, what is left is shocking enough, and so much circles back to boards of trustees. They are the free-agents of the museum world, beholden to one “team” only until it no longer suits. Many have great wealth and great power. Many are smart, creative, and passionate about the museums and heritage organizations they serve. And many–seemingly–haven’t got a clue.
I am aware of AAM’s Trustee Resource Center and AASLH’s StEPs Program and technical leaflets, having used or participated in both. I also understand there’s great truth to the old adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” That said, haven’t we reached a moment where trustee education should be paramount? Writing in Leadership Matters, my colleague Anne Ackerson said, “Like staff leadership, board leadership is the all-important combination of knowing and doing. Before assuming governing roles, the overwhelming majority of board members receive nothing like the leadership training available to staff.” Yet they are the individuals charged with sustaining a museum’s DNA. As Anne sums up, “Every board needs to pick up the mantle of leadership and say ideas start here, resources start here, and courage starts here,” yet the pain evidenced in a year’s worth of Instagram posts makes it clear, that whether their intentions are benign or not, too many board members seem to have little understanding about their roles.
I understand you’ve already done a lot, and that the financial and workplace issues facing the field are huge and growing, but so much starts with the board. They have, to put it bluntly, all the cookies, and yet they often fail to use their power for good. They misunderstand the collective nature of their work while frequently failing to recognize their own implicit biases and racist behaviors. Too often they look at museum workers as people who couldn’t make it in law or business and therefore are somehow less-than. Some use their power to act as sexual predators; some align themselves publicly with unsavory individuals; many show little concern for staff beyond the director. Some misuse deaccessioning guidelines in order to relieve themselves of their fiduciary responsibility, and many use their power to privilege themselves over others. Perhaps board members aren’t your core audience. Yet their behavior is the proverbial pebble in a pond, affecting the entire museum workplace.
So is it time for AASLH and AAM to align, to join forces with people like Darren Walker, and organizations like NPQ and Of/By/For All for a board summit, a board boot camp, a board 2.0? I’m not totally naive, and I realize the people who might participate are the choir, the folks least in need of change, but imagine what that conversation would say to the field. At the most fundamental level, it would tell museum workers everywhere that AAM and AASLH recognize museum workplaces are in turmoil. It would acknowledge that change is necessary now, and bring together a group of talented people along with a group of trustees from the small and underfunded, to the huge and wealthy, to begin talking about museums as employers, and why staff matter.
I know there are voices clamoring for an end to boards altogether. And that may come. I don’t have an opinion because I haven’t heard a viable alternative except some nirvana where endowments magically grow without supervision. So because of the current–probably outdated–model, we have a bit of a crisis. We have groups of people charged with leadership and governance who don’t recognize (or don’t care) what the system looks like when it works well. And we have a lot of anger, and a lot of mistrust. This week I plan to attend Syracuse University’s “Deaccessioning After 2020.” This promises to be a rich and meaningful conversation. Surely there are lawyers, board members, museum leaders, and non-profit pundits who could tackle the question of boards of trustees in a similar manner? Boards are often reluctant to speak, as if everything they do has a security clearance so high mere mortals couldn’t possibly understand. Yet isn’t it time boards admitted they are human too, and shared their common narratives? Isn’t one of COVID’s lessons about honesty and transparency?
Anyway, just a thought, albeit one that took six paragraphs. Best wishes to both of you for the coming year. I am sure it will be equally challenging, but for different reasons.
Last week I spoke with a young woman. She contacted me because she was dealing with a situation of sexual harassment at work, and she didn’t know what to do. What she recounted was an all-too familiar scenario of a female museum employee being harassed by an older, wealthy, white man. This man does not work for her museum, but his wealth makes him important. He has donated before, and her museum anticipates he may again, so her organization wants him treated with kid gloves. Her team leaders, her director, and even HR, asked her to look the other way, to essentially take one for the team. In the meantime, she is supposed to come to work, do her job, do it well, all while waiting for this individual to appear on Zoom as part of a public program, to send her notes at work, and otherwise insert himself in her life in a predatory, sleazy and unwelcome way.
I have no doubt that at some point this young woman will leave her job because her museum has made it clear this individual’s money and his giving potential are worth more than her well being. I hope she doesn’t leave the field, but I wouldn’t blame her if she did. Would you stay if your museum tacitly asked you to prostitute yourself in exchange for a gift? And not even an actual gift, for the potential of a gift. And most damning of all? The director of her museum, and her direct reports are women. There is a sense that the power of the sisterhood should prevail, but perhaps access to money and power trumps empathy and understanding. And please don’t say it’s not like that. It IS like that, and most importantly, that’s what it feels like to be her right now, and no employee in a museum or anywhere else should feel they need to compromise their values and their selfhood to do their job.
I wish this were the first time I had heard this story, but it’s not. When Anne Ackerson and I completed the manuscript for Women in the Museum, we began speaking about women’s issues in the museum workplace at national and regional meetings. In fairness, #MeToo and Ronan Farrow were still a year away. At the time, though, we heard stories of the proverbial board member who sat next to the young, female director at meetings so he could touch her, and none of his fellow board members interfered. We heard about a wealthy male donor who coupled his predatory attitude with racist remarks to a young BIPOC employee. When she looked to her direct reports for support, it was the same story. He was too important to chastise. And we heard about a young woman working in advancement who was told explicitly by her bosses to dress a certain way when she visited older, male donors. We heard about BIPOC staff asked to trade sex for a better position, and about a newly-professional employee cyber-stalked by trustees.
Many of you reading this are horrified, and rightly so. Some of you may say, well, that’s not my institution. Maybe, but do your employees know where to go and how to navigate claims of sexual harassment? Some of you may feel we’re past all that, suggesting the issues we are dealing with today are issues of systemic racism. True, but it’s systemic racism mixed with power and hierarchy, and the thing about many of these incidents is they aren’t about attraction between equals. They depend on one party using power and fear to coerce and intimidate the other. Two things to remember: gender harassment isn’t like a childhood disease society had once and got over. It’s always there. And second, for women of color, it’s another layer of insult. So where are you in all of this? What would you do if your museum had to decline a substantial gift because accepting it meant putting staff at risk?
Many of the museums that end up in the news because of racist or sexist behavior get there because at the center, at their very core, there’s no sense of what they believe in. I’m not talking about mission. If you’re going to ask for money, either public or private, you better be able to express what it is you do for the public and why, but funders don’t ask about organizational values. They don’t ask what happens if a young BIPOC staff on the front lines of a heritage organization is berated by a visitor. They don’t ask what happens if a young shop assistant is on the receiving end of inappropriate comments or if a curator is asked about her social life by a much older donor. They don’t ask about the behavior your museum won’t tolerate on its campus, and how you handle visitor, donor or staff behavior that collides with your organizational conscience. In short, they don’t ask about the way your museum moves in the world. Because twinned with your core mission is a sense of values–for some museums it’s written, for a few it’s made public–that makes it clear that on your site, within your buildings, your staff is safe, seen, and supported.
If you Google “museum values statement” mostly what you get is a few blogs–not this one, although I’ve written about this before–and examples of how museums are valuable to their communities. That’s fine, but museums and heritage organizations are communities of people working for the same goals. Shouldn’t they stand behind the same core of beliefs for 40+ hours a week? Will that stop a 60-something man who feels it’s his prerogative to sexually harass young staff members? No,but organizationally, will it give you something to stand behind when you tell them to stop.
For all museum employees who suffer because coming to work places you in the harassment crosshairs, take care of yourself first. Make sure you have support, from family, friends and a counselor to unpack what’s happening. Once again, if you are the victim of workplace sexual harassment, know the law:
- Federal law covers workplaces with more than 15 employees. For workplaces with fewer than 15 employees, state law applies.
If sexual harassment is an ongoing problem at your museum or heritage organization, join Gender Equity in Museums Movement and the 620 folks who’ve signed the pledge. Think how differently the story that begins this post might be if the young woman’s colleagues had signed the pledge. Sexual harassment is intersectional. Working to eliminate it from your museum or heritage organization stops power from being used as a weapon or to quote LaTanya Autry “Normal is broken; normal is oppressive; normal hurts.”
Stay well and stay safe,
For those of us who live near Western Massachusetts, the Berkshires loom large. Long a cultural phenomenon, it’s an area beloved for its good food, good coffee, great music, theatre, and, of course, museums. This February, however, a new voice from the 413 area code appeared on Instagram. A cousin of @changethemuseum, @ChangeBerkshireCulture debuted on Valentine’s Day. Posting pastel hearts with messages like “I love you as much as museums love empty promises about prioritizing diversity,” it was clear from the get-go the writers were angry. There is now a collection of almost two dozen. Many posts are disturbing. Some name names–not people, but institutions–so it would be impossible for Berkshire museum leaders not to wince, but at a meta level, what’s most upsetting is these posts indicate a disregard for staff, and a deep vein of workplace discontent. But wait, you say, I don’t work in the Berkshires, and besides my staff isn’t like that. Are you sure? Do you check in regularly? And when you do, if you ask the questions, do you want to hear the answers?
Two things to think about, both for yourself and your team: The idea that there is work and there is everything else in your life, and the two are separate, is nonsense. It’s all your life, and some days are more messy and more complicated than others, but the notion that when you’ve reached some pinnacle of success you’ll have time for yourself–to swim, to walk, to meditate, to read–and until then you suffer, is also nonsense. The second thing to consider is that it’s not your job to make your staff or team members happy. You can’t. That’s their job.
So what’s the answer? Clearly, a half hour up the road from me is a group of distressed, angry current and former museum workers. Here are some things to think about. If you’re a longtime reader, you’ve likely heard some of them before, but here goes:
- Not surprisingly, a number of the @changeberkshireculture posts are COVID related, questioning how the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ rules have or have not been applied. As we’ve said a million times here, COVID exacerbates just about everything, so acknowledge it. Ignoring it, increases staff stress. For front-facing employees, it’s hard to be upbeat when you’re worried whether the group you are greeting is playing by the rules. For staff working at home and on site, work may feel as though it never ends and the stress build-up is very real. Does your organization have a COVID task force? Does it include staff from all levels? Do they update staff (and you) regularly? A staff who understands why a museum is doing what it’s doing may be less anxious, and less frightened of job loss if the museum is transparent from the beginning.
- Update your job descriptions. With COVID layoffs many staff took on additional jobs. Acknowledging the extra work is a much-needed measure of transparency. No, it doesn’t put food on the table, but coupled with a genuine thank you, it’s kind, and that’s something we can all use. Further, it confirms extra work took place, which could convert to a raise when things right themselves,.
- Update your disaster plan. Many of us have taken our organizations through fire and flood, but if COVID taught us anything, it taught us that disaster comes in unexpected forms. Does your disaster plan include a pandemic? Do those plans include how-to’s, not just for leaving collections untended, but for how staff will be down-sized if that’s necessary? The perception from some of the posts in @changeberskhireculture is that plans were entirely quixotic, reactive, and rarely equitable.
- And speaking of equitable, what about your workplace? You can’t make your staff happy, that’s their job, but you can create an equitable workplace from the top down. When employees perceive that others are privileged in ways they are not, it leads to anger and dissatisfaction. Conduct a workplace equity audit. Doing so will help your museum or heritage organization think about how you hire, how you mentor and promote, whether your current HR policies invite implicit bias, and how your museum is governed, and the culture it creates.
- Stop worrying about happiness. Maybe whether we’re happy at work isn’t the question. Happiness, after all, isn’t a virtue, and yet we treat it as such. How often has someone stopped and told you to smile as if that would fix everything? Perhaps what we should strive for is a staff who is content because content staff think deeply about their work, approach it with enthusiasm, and look for creative answers to questions.
- Last, remember Nina Simon’s words from last week that prioritizing the safety and welcome of people with less access to power, means you are working for equity and inclusion.
There is something shaming and hugely wrong in asking staff, many of whom need to be intensely positive for visitors, not to be negative or complain, when so much about their workplaces is murky, inauthentic, and inequitable. That’s what comes through in @changeberkshireculture. And that’s what needs fixing. @changethemuseum and @changeberkshireculture are enough to scare anyone away from the field. We’re in a challenging time, and because of these challenges, we need to be mindful about those who work for and with us, and to constantly ask who we are empowering and why.
Try making one decision for equity and kindness this week and see what happens.
Two news threads sparked the museum world’s collective consciousness last week: One, Charles Venable’s resignation from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the second, the Metropolitan Museum’s announcement that it will take AAMD up on its COVID loophole, allowing art museums to put deaccession funds towards collections care as opposed to acquisitions. Both represent a tangle of hubris, classism, and self-importance that are sadly emblematic of the museum world in 2021.
For those who missed the Indianapolis debacle, it took place on the 100-plus acre museum campus known as Newfields. A year ago the Museum posted a position with the Oppenheim search firm, which included the line that the museum sought a director who would “maintain its core white audience.” The job announcement has been public for 10 months, but somehow only surfaced last week. That five word phrase may be the tip of an iceberg though. In July 2020, Keli Morgan, an associate curator who is Black, resigned barely two years into her tenure, citing the Museum’s toxic and discriminatory culture. Morgan’a resignation coupled with the horrendous job announcement makes you wonder. Couple that with Venable’s own strangely-worded response in an interview in The New York Times where he stops short of an apology, pointing to the use of “core white audience,” as intentional, meaning he wanted the white art museum audience to know the Museum wouldn’t abandon them. How do we unpack a situation where a 21st-century museum director felt the need to reassure its wealthy, privileged white audience? And in a job announcement whose primary audience isn’t the local community, donors or longtime audience, but presumably museum professionals most of whom are alert to the huge sea-change taking place in the field. The only good news was the Museum Board’s letter. In contrast to Venable’s waffling, the Board was contrite and direct, spelling out the changes it will take going forward. So what are the “tells” and take-aways in yet another blunder in pandemic museum leadership?
- While anecdotally at least more and more BIPOC staff are being hired for directorships and senior leadership, stories like this one demonstrate how deeply ingrained the culture of racism, hierarchy and patriarchy is in museum culture, particularly art museum culture.
- Clearly the Board knew where to turn to craft a statement that was authentic and apologetic, but where were they as their museum culture devolved? How many boards really understand their roles, not only the Byzantine non-profit rule variations from state to state, but what governance actually looks like? How many actually read AAM’s Core Documents?
- To quote President Truman, as a leader the buck stops with you. That said, you aren’t alone. The more eyes on decision making the better, including search firms you hire to speak for your museum. They represent your organization in the world so they must know you well, starting with your organizational values.
- The Internet is like a nuclear wasteland. Information may move around, but it never dies, and pretty much everything you’ve ever made public is available. Think about it.
- DEI isn’t only about hiring Black or Brown employees. It’s actually about white folks, seeped in privilege, doing the work, and that work is ongoing, not something you learn in a weekend workshop or by leaving White Fragility on your desk.
- Maybe this calls for a bold statement? Maybe the Indianapolis Museum of Art should take a page from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland and hire LaTanya Autry to help them re-center, bridge build, and create a new face for the museum? Now is the time for Indianapolis to prove it isn’t neutral.
The Metropolitan Museum made the news when it announced its $150 million deficit stemming from the pandemic. Many museums closed all or part of the last 12 months are in the red, but everything about the Met is huge and so is its debt. What was different about its announcement was the indication that it is in conversations with auction houses, and considering using the AAMD’s COVID window to utilize deaccessioning profits for direct care of collections. The announcement set social media tongues wagging. Why? Are people really worried the Met will deaccession something famous, well-known and much loved? Or is it because museums with gigantic endowments aren’t supposed to run a deficit? To quote Erin Richardson of Frank & Glory: “We can’t treat museums like we do Americans seeking public assistance – in that they must have liquidated all assets before receiving SNAP or welfare. Boards are fiduciaries not banks. Their role is to govern the organization on behalf of the public trust. Sometimes the trust beneficiaries (us) don’t like the trustees decisions.”
Deaccessioning is largely an art museum problem, meaning the majority of US museums, even if they felt it was a way to raise money, don’t have collections that would net enough on the auction block, nor do many have collections with the depth, that were they to weed, would allow them to raise significant money. But for some reason the Met’s announcement pulled the recently-healed scab off the deaccessioning discussion once again. So what are the “tells” and takeaways here?
- Deaccessioning is a tool many museums use, but disastrous scenarios like the Berkshire Museum’s $53.5 deaccessioning in 2018 left everyone with PTSD. Not all deaccessioning is alike or to put it another way, every deaccessioning decision is different.
- There is a theory that as the Met goes so goes the field. The Met is the largest American art museum, but art museums represent only 4.5-percent of all museums. Is the Met an influencer? Maybe, but perhaps not here. Somehow the Brooklyn deaccessioned $31 million worth of art last fall without causing a ripple.
- Deaccessioning is complex, but if you’re involved in museums, it’s worth understanding. Once again, AAM delivers with its Direct Care of Collections pdf.
The Take Aways
- Make sure your policies and guidelines are up to date. Know what they say. If you haven’t read them in a while, it might be good to take a look, just in case someone thinks the way to financial salvation is monetizing the collection.
- Knowledge is power. Read Steven Miller’s book Deaccessioning Today or find his guest blog post here, and share with your board.
- Collecting is a process, an expensive one. Every single piece or living thing in your collection represents a percentage of the care and attention of one or more people, not to mention the people who publicize and raise money for it. Collections aren’t just things. They represent people too. Think about it.
Museums have a world of problems these days. Many haven’t seen their audience except through Zoom in almost a year. Many face huge deficits. Underlying it all, social media beckons, inviting us all to rant, pontificate, and rave. Museum staff–those who are employed–work hard, often for inequitable salaries. Sometimes they are overworked, bullied and harassed, and find themselves in situations where they have no recourse, and yet they are the folks who help make the thousands of objects, paintings, and living things speak. Without them, museums are big warehouses with expensive climate control. I’ll close with a quote from the inimitable Nina Simon, which, as far as I’m concerned says it all: “When you prioritize the safety and welcome of people, who have lower access to power, you are working for equity and inclusion. When you prioritize the comfort and preferences of people with higher access to power, you are working against it.” Hold that thought when you make leadership decisions, when you write on social media, and when you place objects before people.
A year ago when there was no pandemic, women made up 50.1 percent of the museum workforce. They were registrars, educators, part-time interpreters, security guards, conservators, curators and directors. They went to work. They cared for children, partners, and elderly parents. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, White women made 78.4 cents for every dollar a white man makes. For women of color, particularly those with hourly or part-time positions, the picture is bleaker. If they are Black, they make 61.4 cents for every dollar made by white men, and if they are Latinx, the ratio is worse: They make 56 cents on the white man’s dollar. Those discrepancies also exist in the museum world, but for many it was work in a field they had worked hard to enter. And a year ago, although the museum world didn’t close its gender pay gap–in fact, it didn’t even talk about it–it felt as though the field might be undergoing a sea change. Among the announcements of new hires, more and more faces were women of color. But then in March 2020, COVID arrived, and the world started closing down.
You’ve probably read all this before, and truthfully, while the museum world’s gender pay gap is an ongoing problem, this post isn’t about the pay gap. It’s actually about AAM’s newly-released TrendsWatch, Navigating an Uncertain Future. As a founding member of Gender Equity in Museums, I frequently look at TrendsWatch, hoping for an acknowledgement, a nod, a tip of the hat, to women’s roles in museums present and future. This year, I hoped TrendsWatch would acknowledge the very particular way museum women have been harmed by COVID, and what that might mean as we look ahead. Women, work and COVID has, in fact, been the subject of reports by the Center for American Progress, the Brookings Institution and McKinsey so it wasn’t a stretch to think Elizabeth Merritt, the report’s author, might focus on women, particularly since 2020 marked the centenary of women’s suffrage.
The report’s opening section, titled “Closing the Gap,” seemed the place women’s issues over the last 12 months might come to the fore. But they aren’t there. This is not to say that issues of wealth inequality– “Closing the Gap’s” focus– aren’t important. They are, but it’s odd women as a group aren’t mentioned. If we believe the folks at McKinsey, women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable than men’s jobs in this crisis. In fact, women make up 39-percent of global employment but account for 54-percent of overall job losses. And if we listen to the Brookings Institution, it tells us “that 46-percent of working women worked in jobs paying low wages, with median earnings of only $10.93 per hour. The share of workers earning low wages is higher among Black women (54%) and Hispanic or Latina women (64%) then among white women (40%), reflecting the structural racism that has limited options in education, housing, and employment for people of color.”
A quick look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reveals that the median hourly pay for museum workers nationwide is $23.97, meaning that half the field’s workers earn less than that amount. And we already know that systemic racism coupled with classism and pigmentocracy, undergirds our pay structure. Poor pay, no benefits, and no childcare result in women staying home. Who else is going to be the primary caregiver? According to the Center for American Progress not only did many women lose their jobs during this crisis, many stopped working because schools and day cares closed. Its report quotes a Washington Post article that one in four women lost jobs because of a lack of childcare, twice the rate among men. And the news keeps coming. This morning, for example, NBC News reports that 275,000 women left the workforce in January alone, continuing a trend that began last February. Surely the museum world has also been affected by this exodus that economists term a critical pandemic trend.
If you look at the BLS figures from 2018, White women were 82.4-percent of the museum workforce, Black women, 10.3-percent, Asian 3.6, and Latinx 9.6. The change is subtle, but it’s there. BLS reports that in 2020 the museum world is now 82.2-percent White, but 7.5-percent Black, 9.3-percent Latinx, while the Asian number remains unchanged. It will probably be several years before the full extent of this crisis is evident, but clearly the hope that the field is becoming more diverse isn’t reflected in BLS’s figures yet.
Then there is the part that doesn’t necessarily show up in the data: the workload has grown for working parents, but particularly working mothers. One report by the Boston Consulting Group found that parents spent 27 additional hours each week on household tasks, childcare, and homeschooling, and half of them felt their work performance decreased as a result. In 1972, a group of white museum women formed something called the Women’s Caucus. They appeared at AAM’s annual meetings in 1972. In 1973, they presented a platform, asking for equitable wages, a chance at leadership, paid family leave and childcare. In the intervening 40 years, museum women have changed. We are more diverse–not diverse enough by a long shot– but more diverse. And many women now hold leadership positions. Yet in a Ground Hog Day loop, much of what that original caucus wanted and needed remains unaddressed. That’s where Gender Equity in Museums (GEMM) comes in. GEMM is a coalition of individuals and organizations committed to raising awareness, affecting change, and championing transparency about intersectional gender equity in the museum workplace.
One of the important characteristics of Merritt’s report is that for each problem, she describes the challenges, summarizes museum responses, and presents a framework for action. I want to underscore again, that there is a great deal of thoughtful advice, important examples, and additional resources in TrendsWatch, but speaking for GEMM’s 1,500 Facebook friends, there is a missing framework: Women. All women. So here are some possible questions.
Critical Questions for Museums:
- Have you created an organizational culture acknowledging the ways gender and race are inextricably intwined?
- Does your museum have–as McKinsey terms it–“a bias for action?”
- Have your discussions around DEI solidified a commitment to equity on all fronts, including gender?
- Have you completed an equity audit of your institutional salaries?
- Have you reviewed your human resource policies and procedures to reveal and address discriminating behavior?
- Are you confident, that an employee with a problem or a grievance can navigate your organization, and be treated equitably and fairly?
- Do you offer sexual harassment training along with DEI training in your workplace? And is your organization clear on its definition of sexual harassment, and how such cases are handled?
- Does your organization post its values statement so visitors, donors, tradespeople, trustees and staff know where it stands on issues of DEI and specifically gender equity?
- Does your organization list salaries when posting positions? Within the institution, are your salary levels transparent?
- Does your museum offer equitable professional opportunities and mentoring?
- Does your museum have a policy on employee participation in public protest for gender equity and other forms of social justice?
The museum field has a lot of work ahead of it, shedding a patriarchal, hierarchical past, becoming more diverse in ways that are systemic and not tokenism, and frankly, in becoming kinder institutions, committed to staff well-being and development. In the past year we’ve watched as notable museums were revealed as horrific towards women. The field is committed to diversity. Yet why should women of color join a field where the gender pay gap is the unacknowledged elephant in the room? And what happens when they find themselves employed by institutions where sexual harassment and workplace bullying are the norm? And how are all women balancing the increased tasks at home from COVID versus their commitments at work? How is this narrative and the voices of some 20,000-plus women not a trend to watch, and more importantly, a wrong to right?
If you are committed to intersectional gender equity in the museum workplace, join GEMM. Let’s make GEMM a trend to watch.