Museums and the Balance of Power: Some Things to Think About

balance-of-power

This week many museum directors were in Washington, D.C., taking part in Museum Advocacy Day. They walked the Capitol’s corridors seeking support for museums, botanical gardens, zoos and heritage organizations. They were there to be persuasive. For many, it can’t have been an easy sell.  With the NEH and NEA in the Republican party’s crosshairs, it’s a challenging political climate to say the least.

But in the midst of all the hand shakes, story telling, and persuasive chatter, 204 miles to the north, the Metropolitan Museum released a statement announcing Thomas Campbell’s resignation effective June 30. The former tapestry curator who won the directorship in 2009 is leaving. It seemed abrupt. It also seemed as though it were all about Mr. Campbell. Counterintuitively, his resignation arrived in a year when the museum saw record visitation, and huge praise for digitizing 400,000 images and making them available to the public. In his statement, Campbell wrote, “I am especially proud that our visitor base is the largest and most diverse in the Museum’s history. At the same time, we are on track to be financially stable and have a solid strategic path forward.” A paragraph from the Met’s Board Chair, Daniel Brodsky, followed, praising the museum’s record visitation, its robust exhibitions, and its expansion with the Met Breuer.

Reading Campbell’s words and those of Mr. Brodsky, you would hardly know there had been what amounts to a palace coup.But for anyone looking between the lines it’s clear that Tom Campbell’s exit was choreographed down to the last step. From the outside, we can’t know what went wrong. Governing an organization that is bigger than many small towns can’t be easy though. While his successes are clear up to and including a lovely, tightly written plea on the power of the NEA published in The Times,  as the week dragged on his colleagues and the press dissected his failings as well.

But the point of this post isn’t to judge Tom Campbell at all. The point is that for the foreseeable future he will be the director who resigned from the Met, and the trustees? Well, they will still be trustees. And that, for all you directors out there should be a warning as big as “Surrender, Dorothy” in the Wizard of Oz. You can be friendly with trustees, but except in rare cases, you are not their friend. You can always be cast as the lightning rod. If you think for a minute that Tom Campbell ramped up the Met’s digitization program, took over Met Breuer, and lured Sheena Wagstaff away from the Tate to Met Breuer,  on his own without the board’s oversight, you are living on another planet. George Goldner who led the Met’s prints and drawings department for 21 years was blunt in his assessment of the trustees role. “It is unconscionable that the pension of a person making $60,000 a year is cut through no fault of his or her own, whereas senior board members, who must in part take responsibility, have borne no part of the blame or burden.” (And for all of you out there who look to the Met as the Harvard of museums, note the $60,000 a year reference.)

So here are five take aways if you’re a director or a board member:

  • Don’t say this is a big museum problem, and it can’t happen to me. This is a lesson in director/trustee relationships writ large.
  • If you are a board member, this is a gentle reminder that while you are not compensated for your work, it is work, and deserves your undivided attention. Remember, your failure to act, to speak up, or to govern results in actions that may adversely affect both the organization and its staff.
  • Both directors and board members need to listen to each other. Really listen. If you’re an executive director and you receive mixed or vague messages, meet with your executive committee. Ask for a clarifying conversation. Iron out the problems before they metastasize.
  • If you are frequently confounded and confused by your board, perhaps the conversation should begin by clarifying roles and responsibilities.
  • As a board member, make sure your board has a defined process for evaluating your director’s job performance. Take it seriously. It’s not a judgement of the director so much as it is an acknowledgement of how director and organization mesh. You can’t participate, if you don’t understand your organization.

Navigating rough water is easier when boards and directors work together. Tell us how your organization’s board and staff meet challenges.

Joan Baldwin

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