Fixing the Board: A Letter to John and LauraPosted: March 15, 2021
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.