5 Ways to Prepare for Museum Leadership Change and Transition

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Last week a number of thought leaders–Margaret Middleton, Nina Simon, and Seema Rao–commented on an extraordinary piece that appeared in The Phoenix New Times. Titled “Nightmare at the Phoenix Art Museum: Docents are Fleeing, Donors Drying Up,” it details a confrontation between longtime docents and a museum director. Leaving aside the article’s gossipy style, it lays bare a whole host of issues about the 21st-century museum without really meaning to.

It’s a long article which you can find by clicking on The Phoenix New Times above. And just so you know, like many counterculture newspapers, the New Times began on a college campus in the wake of the Kent State tragedy. More recently it’s had notable and ongoing issues–including the arrest of its editors–resulting from its coverage of Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff recently pardoned by President Trump. But back to the Phoenix Art Museum. In case you don’t have the patience to read a multi-page article about another museum’s woes, here are the highlights: Amada Cruz became director of the Phoenix Art Museum in 2014, replacing a longtime male director; the article also alleges that more than 100 of the docent staff have been fired or left, angered by the museum’s change in direction. The article suggests more than a dozen employees resigned as well as a result of Cruz’s leadership.

And before we go any further–some disclaimers. This is one article. We have no inside knowledge, nor do we pretend to, nor, might we add, are there multiple articles on this story. That said, if we get out of the weeds of she said, she said, what can we learn? First, Phoenix Art Museum is a perfect example of an organization hit hard by the 2008 recession that offered its directorship to a woman. This is not a bad thing. Women directors are scarce in the rarified air of budgets over $10 million. However, studies show that across the for-profit and the non-profit world, women are more likely to lead in times of crisis. Why? Is that the moment when boards of trustees believe a woman’s combination of soft skills and collaboration may actually be useful? Perhaps.

And don’t doubt for a moment that leadership and gender aren’t inextricably intwined. Boards come to the table just like the rest of us bringing the baggage of a lifetime–slights, jealousies, likes, dislikes–and, whether articulated or not, all of that comes to bear on their decision making. For more about the complexities of this issue, read Harvard Business Review’s “Why Are Women Discriminated Against in Hiring Decisions?”

Second, change is hard, and succeeding a longtime executive director is harder. (Phoenix Art Museum’s former director held the position for 32 years.) Unlike schools, some colleges, and many churches, few museums appoint interim directors to serve while the board, staff and volunteers grieve and get over the outgoing leader. And yet, boards and senior staff often forget how much change affects all staff, even volunteers.

Third, change at the top often brings staff turnover throughout an institution. Any time an executive director leaves, there’s reshuffling. Sometimes staff leaves with the outgoing director. Sometimes senior staff stay because of the director, but ultimately find her impending absence a motivator to find new positions, too. And sometimes the chemistry with the new director just isn’t there, and staff, especially senior staff who have a lot of contact with the ED, jump ship.

Last, volunteers are people. They may be treated like wallpaper in a large organization, but a highly-trained, well-organized volunteer corps is staff. They represent the organization on a day-to-day basis in front of the public. Whether it’s true or not, one of the things that comes across in the Phoenix Art Museum story is how ambushed the volunteers felt. Is it possible that a lack of transparency and poor or absent communication left them feeling as though their years of training and knowledge wasn’t applicable any more? If there was going to be a shift in emphasis from say the sage-on-the-stage approach to a more Museum-Hack-collaborative-method of gallery interpretation shouldn’t the volunteers have participated in the change? They are, after all, members not only of the workforce, but donors of time, and in many cases money, and a voice to be reckoned with. That doesn’t mean they call the shots, but inclusion means inclusion.

Lessons Learned

If your organization is going through a transition, think about:

  • Communication. Communication. Communication. And remember, communication also includes listening. A lot of listening. And that may mean listening to people who are hugely upset and distressed.
  • Channel your inner Heath Brother and “paint the destination postcard,” because change is easier when you know where you’re going.
  • Prepare for change. Work with your staff to understand bias and how it intertwines and impacts change and leadership.
  • Prepare a succession plan. According to AAM only 14-percent of AAM-accredited museums and 8-percent of non-AAM accredited museums have one. If you plan for natural disasters, you ought to plan for leadership transition.
  • If you are a woman leader you probably already know you will be judged differently in your practice of leadership than a man. Know how that practice plays out. 

Yours for healthy change and succession,

Joan Baldwin

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2 Comments on “5 Ways to Prepare for Museum Leadership Change and Transition”

  1. Kelsey says:

    Thanks for the thoughts on the Phoenix Times article. I’d also love to read Nina Simon, Seem Rao, and Margaret Middleton’s responses as well. Were these posted online? If so, could you include a link?


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