Museum Boards: Money, Values & SolutionsPosted: September 23, 2019
Decolonizing is the word of the moment. Symbolizing action, the old ways swept aside, as everyone left outside the museum narrative steps forward; it’s a powerful verb. For more than a year, we’ve witnessed decolonization at a multitude of levels from venerable European museums beginning the process of returning antiquities to countries once deemed too ‘backward’ to care for anything, much less their own patrimony, to American art museums mining collections for work by women and people of color long banished to storage or never purchased in the first place, and historic sites grappling–often for the first time–with the through-line of slavery. With that as back drop, it’s no surprise that the decolonization discussion finally turned toward money. Specifically, an argument’s been made that how money’s made, and where it comes from, impacts gifts to the museum, which impact the organization itself. And not in a good way.
The best-known example of this is Warren Kanders’ resignation from the Whitney’s board in July 2019. Kanders, who served as the Whitney’s board co-chair, joined the board in 2006, donating more than $10 million in his 13-year tenure. But Kanders is not alone. The Sackler family of Purdue Pharma is also persona non grata. Although their name is tied to spaces at the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan, Harvard’s Sackler Museum, and the Guggenheim’s Education Wing, museums–including the Tate, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan and the Museum of Natural History have all decided they will no longer accept gifts from the Sacklers.
With all of this as background, in its summer issue of Museum Magazine, AAM published an article titled “Decolonizing Development,” by Chong-Anna Confora. In it Confora writes, “Decolonization is social justice, anti-racist work. In order to decolonize fund development, we must ask ourselves: What organizational practices can we dismantle that center whiteness and reinforce white supremacy through fund development?”
There is a lot here to grapple with. On the one hand a part of you–maybe not your noblest part–wishes you had an endowment big enough to turn down a gift like the ones the Kanders and Sacklers gave. On the other hand, taking money made by companies whose values you abhor may make you cringe. What should you do? Are there board members in your own organization who are consistently generous, but whose money comes from unsavory or conflict-ridden endeavors? And since we’ve opened that door, where is your organization’s endowment invested? Are those investments conflict-ridden as well?
If you are like many museum leaders, you may serve an organization built on the generosity of people whose values and opinions might distress you were you to meet them today. And yet there you are, darkening the same door that symbolizes white supremacy as Confora calls it. You may literally owe your livelihood to a group of white men’s careful investing. Your organization may have been the beneficiary of charity, which Confora underscores as different from justice. Charity, she says, quoting the Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Hayes, is often hierarchical, where the giver has all the power and the receiver very little. Justice, she writes, “is an ongoing process of rebalance, of achieving the equality that everyone is entitled to.”
Are you confused yet? Flailing between what feels like moral bankruptcy and the fear of plain old garden variety bankruptcy? Well you should be. And I don’t have any answers, only some thoughts. Here they are:
- First, if you haven’t read the inimitable Darren Walker on the politics of donors and museums, do so.
- Next, as we’ve said so often here, remember we’re all human, and change is difficult. Simply decreeing that something ought to be, won’t make it happen, even in the face of a pyrrhic victory like seeing Kanders resign. (Under other circumstances, the Whitney’s board would hardly be the poster child for narrow-minded, white, Waspy privilege.)
- Grapple with the fact that your values and belief systems may not be your board’s. Does that make any of you bad people? Is it your job as a museum leader to bring the board ’round to your point of view? Or is your job to serve your organization? If the latter, in slowly re-centering your organization, might its values change? Understand then, there is a difference between individual values and collective ones. As Darren Walker writes, “It’s relatively easy to talk about destroying a system. It’s harder to build and sustain one. While I appreciate protests, those of us who are focused on solutions can’t be distracted by extreme perspectives.”
- If you are going to set your flag on the moral high ground with big money as the enemy, make sure you know what you don’t know. Shaming one board member as a climate change villain while running a less than green museum campus might be a bridge too far. Not to mention that without major gifts you will need five times as many small ones, and will you investigate their sources as well?
Despite the fact that people like me blather weekly about museum leadership, museums and heritage sites are run by boards, who raise new money, supervise the investment of old money, and set the organizational tone and culture. If you want to make change, make friends and allies on your board. Board Source’s latest report reveals that in 2016 84-percent of boards were white and yet only 24-percent said that demographics is important in recruitment despite the fact that 79-percent of executive directors said that a diverse board advances mission.
So….in a nutshell:
- Help your board to change. Help them understand the need for diversity, and the role implicit bias plays in the non-profit workplace, including the board.
- Make sure your board understands the racial wealth gap and the gender pay gap, and that they understand that money is not the only way board members build organizations.
- Work on patience. Real change develops from human-to-human interaction in service of a common goal–your museum.