Museum Boards: The Leadership Matters Wish List

blue sky board

In the wake of the ongoing dismay surrounding the Berkshire Museum’s decision to renovate its building, change its focus, and shore up a plundered endowment, and Lee Rosenbaum’s cautionary post about the National Academy of Design — another organization that hoped to cure its ills with cash — we’ve been thinking a lot about boards, board culture, board building, and board behavior.

We’ve written about museum leadership since 2013. Our focus has been the women and men leading museums and heritage organizations. Any of you who’ve read our posts know we believe passionately that the museum field needs to invest more in its leaders and staff than its infrastructure.

Lately museums have made news for a host of reasons including poor decision making and inattention. Each incident sends the press scurrying to find similar situations so the public is reminded of the field’s misdeeds. The field needs to make our job sector a place with better salaries, better benefits, HR offices, personnel policies, and gender equity training. That’s a cultural shift that isn’t going to happen overnight, and a lot of the heavy lifting needs to be done by museum boards. We don’t have a magic wand, but if we did, here are our five wishes for board behavior:

  1. Boards who understand why they’ve chosen to serve, who know that service is about the institution, whether it is tiny and all-volunteer or a community’s anchor store.
  2. Boards who believe in the museum field, who understand it’s a place with its own culture, rules, and most importantly, ethics and standards. Those standards weren’t invented a century ago because the folks at the newly-formed American Association of Museums (now American Alliance of Museums) had nothing else to do. On good days these ethics and standards actually inform what the field does.
  3. Boards who invest in museum leadership within their own ranks as well as staff ranks find that it can be a key to making change, not just an opportunity to shift the responsibility of leadership off their own backs.
  4. Boards who have a deep understanding of why their organizations matter know it is an understanding that informs and eases the ongoing task of raising money.
  5. Boards who know that museums hold the public trust, and realize that being a non-profit isn’t a ticket to practices and behaviors they wouldn’t sanction in their own businesses.

This sounds like we think all boards are badly behaved, and we don’t. Many, many are exemplary. But for the sake of collections, communities, and museum staffs, we’d like to see boards move the needle away from downright poor decision making and mediocrity. And the sooner the better.

Joan Baldwin

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One Comment on “Museum Boards: The Leadership Matters Wish List”

  1. All your wishes are necessary characteristics of museum Boards. However, beyond understanding, believing, investing, & knowing, the first & foremost wish on my own list of characteristics is personal passion for implementing the institutional purpose(s) in the best affordable professional manner possible. The second is practicality. This means a willingness to pay close attention to professional staff recommendations on ALL decisions. After all, we are the ones getting the BIG bucks because of our knowledge, experience, & own passion for the enterprise! Board members: don’t waste the money that you pay professional museum practitioners. Certainly, the way it works is: staff propose & boards dispose. But, do your staff the courtesy of carefully listening to & seriously considering their recommendations before making decisions. Please.


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