Two Leaders? No Leaders? Where’s the New Paradigm?

We don’t need leaders, we need just need a load of people working together to make sure everyone else is alright. Jayde Adams in Serious Black Jumper

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

There is little doubt Covid lifted the rock off a host of museum leadership issues. In the hierarchy of museum problems, some point to our class-driven, patriarchal, colonial, racist organizational culture. Others feel the first priority on the road to organizational health might be to eliminate the person in the top spot. While I understand the cries of “Do away with museum leadership,” (I mean look at the tangled mess at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), to date, no one seems to have suggested a workable alternative more detailed than “We don’t need the leaders we’ve got.”

Many of us know or have worked for a bad leader. My optimistic self would like to think that while not perfect, today’s museum leadership is an improved version of the leadership I encountered when I began my museum journey decades ago. At least I would like to think it is. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics lets us know who’s working in museums, it’s sometimes difficult to parse exactly who occupies the top spot. Nevertheless, groups like Museum Hue and GEMM act as a kind of collective consciousness for us simply by taking note of leadership change as it happens.

That is not to say bad leadership’s been banished. Recently I reached out to a younger colleague to ask if they would be interested in a newly-opened leadership position. It’s not a small job, but the outgoing leader has done little more than use the museum and its contents as wallpaper for a personal agenda. While they were honored I thought of them, they said no immediately because a) They’re still recovering from being beaten up in their last leadership position, and b) They feel organizations who hire bad directors, and then publicly praise them, likely have no idea what good leadership is. Probably true. Boards perpetuate their own bad culture by repeatedly hiring versions of the same leader , and then scratching their heads when the scenario repeats itself for the umpteenth time.

So what would museum leadership look like minus the trope of the highly-paid soul in the biggest office with the most perks? One model might be the idea of co-CEO’s. The most obvious version of that is, of course, the Metropolitan Museum, which until recently had both Daniel Weiss, serving as business and administrative leader, and Max Hollein, looking after programming and curatorial issues. Dual leadership, where one leader’s responsibilities sometimes point inward while the other looks outward, has been used successfully in educational settings, but the Met’s choice was unusual in the museum world. It’s also one more easily accommodated at an organization like the Met with an endowment bigger than a tiny country’s GDP. After all, how many boards, who regularly grumble about salaries, would agree to the equivalent of two top positions? And yet, it’s a model that, while unspoken, exists at some government museums, where the top position is appointed, while the deputy director runs day-to-day operations. In the past, this model was often gendered, with the top post going to a man, while the worker-bee position was filled by a woman.

Maybe you read Niloufar Kinsari’s article in the June NPQ? There Kinsari describes moving her organization, away from top-down leadership. One thing I found compelling was her transparency about both the process and her own feelings. She recalls the factory collectives she visited in Argentina, describing them as places where “self-management, mutuality, respect, and dignity were the norm.” What’s not to like, right? So, after discussion and a vote by her staff, she proposed to her board that she lose her ED title. And the board’s response? Initially, it said no. The title stayed, but the organization continued to change, creating a dual-headed leadership structure not unlike the Met’s. This allowed Kinsari time to wrestled with her own demons about self-worth and hierarchical conditioning. As a woman of color, Kinsari writes, “I had been conditioned all my life to chase the positive feedback loop of visibility and status. Attaching some of my professional self-worth to my title was second nature.”

Kinsari and Pangea Legal Services have continued to flatten their hierarchy, and although she doesn’t explain it, her article concludes by saying the organization now uses a “hub” model where “staff self-organized to co-lead internal administration and development committees, including finances, communications, human resources, governance, and operations hubs.” Are museums doing this? If yes, how did their boards react? And is this kind of change easier to effect in a lean organization like Kinsari’s, where the biggest investment is the staff, as opposed to many museums with challenging collections to contend with, not to mention complex campuses populated with aging infrastructure?

It seems as though museum leaders behave badly daily. Not all of them certainly, but enough so there is a steady drain of emerging and mid-career folk who’ve simply had enough, and they’re leaving. Soon. Or they’ve already left. They’re filled with regret, but they’ve had enough. Would a different leadership model change things? Maybe. Sadly, though, organizations most likely to experiment with new leadership models probably already have a healthy culture of collaboration, mutual support and empathy. Change for them is natural whereas organizations prompting people to leave the field are stagnant, rigid, patriarchal, and far from empathetic. Not to mention that too often their pay stinks especially when compared with non-museum employment.

This sounds dark, but some days it feels like evening with the orchestra playing, and if we look, we’d see the iceberg coming towards us. We’ve talked ad nauseam about leaders’ individual behavior, but how should the architecture of museum leadership change to prevent the ongoing brain drain? I’d love to hear some thoughts.

In the meantime, be well, be kind, and make change where you can.

See you in August,

Joan Baldwin


One Comment on “Two Leaders? No Leaders? Where’s the New Paradigm?”

  1. Anne Ackerson says:

    Thanks for this question, Joan. This is a topic that needs much more attention in the museum field. It’s one thing to say the old model isn’t working, another to envision the alternatives. There are alternatives out there, we need to hear more about them!

    With regard to co-directors and even co-board presidents, I’ve seen it in small history museums, but I have to say that I haven’t known many to work well — at least, not for any length of time. I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that co-anything rests on the strength of the personalities involved. When one or both change, it’s a whole new ballgame.


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