Last week the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) blog wrote about the museum workplace. Specifically their Tuesday post takes on the issue of Volunteers and Museum Labor. The piece begins by referencing two earlier posts also about the museum workplace: What Is the Fair Market Value of a Museum Job? and the truly original Museum Sacrifice Measure. As a result, I re-read these two earlier posts.
I almost didn’t respond. We write about the museum workplace a lot here, and more specifically about museum workers, gender, and pay. But I couldn’t stop thinking about these posts, particularly the one titled “What is the Fair Market Value of a Museum Job?” Here is what I struggled with: First, CFM asks “…why some people are happy with the sacrifice they made (lower pay) to work in a museum, while others aren’t, and in a bigger sense, what constitutes a fair wage for museum work?”
My question: How do you know who is happy? If you look at Joyful Museums, you discover that its creator actually tried to figure out whether museum folk are happy or not, and more importantly, why. Joyful Museums 2014 survey reveals that 88-percent of respondents defined work happiness as either engaging with projects and tasks or enjoying working with co-workers. Among the most happy were the Millennials and the Boomers. When respondents were asked how work culture (and remember this is museum work culture) could be improved, the list is long, but the majority believe they are not getting paid what they’re worth.
CFM writes, “I suspect many people in these roles went into museum work with a vision of the job based museum norms that were anointed as “norms” decades ago. Or they believed in a semi-mythical version of museum work that was compelling and attractive but never entirely true.” And yet according to Joyful Museums, it’s the Boomers who are by and large, happy. We suggest that it is the world that’s changed and museum workplaces have failed to keep up. It seems a dated notion on CFM’s part to think of museums solely as stewards of collections where people work and not workplaces where culture is cared for and interpreted.
CFM suggests fair market value is “is the compensation (cash + intangibles) an employer and a job applicant agree on when both parties are knowledgeable, willing and unpressured.” So if you’re job fails to offer either cash or intangibles it lacks fair market value? The museum world isn’t known as a high-paid paradise. A look at AAM’s salary survey confirms that. Does that mean if you’re poorly paid in comparison to the for profit world you make it up in intangibles? And what does that mean? We’re pretty sure it is not paid maternity/paternity leave, excellent health care, or on-site day care. CFM seems to believe that museum workers survive on psychological rewards–creativity, beauty, power, authority. Yet intangibles don’t pay off graduate school loans or write day care checks or car payments so that leaves us with a really dark view of museum workers. Seduced by beauty, history or scientific discovery, they took out loans, received the required degrees, and miracle of miracles found jobs where 88-percent of them say they’re happy. And they’re living off fumes?
Here is what we think is missing with CFM’s argument: Museums are about meaning yet they remain traditional, hierarchical workplaces because we allow them to be that way. That isn’t the fault of the workers who have every right to enter the field with big dreams. But too often the beliefs we espouse in exhibition halls don’t extend to our offices. We collectively wring our hands about the lack of diversity in the field, but fail to examine long-standing hiring practices. Too many museum employees don’t make a living wage. And as the field reaches a tipping point between gender balanced and pink collar, we allow women to make significantly less than men. Our visiting public may dine on intangibles every day as it wanders galleries, zoos, and historic houses, but museum workers need an equitable, living wage coupled with adequate benefits. They’re smart enough to find the intangibles on their own.
Do you agree?
*Organizational DNA is a metaphor for the underlying factors that together define an organization’s“personality” and help explain its performance.
In a few weeks Anne and I fly to St. Louis, MO, for the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting. We arrive early, however, because the day before the meeting we are teaching in AAM’s Getty Leadership and Career Management Program. Anne will speak about career strategies, and I’ll speak about self-awareness. In both cases, we’re talking about museum leaders as individuals, but these ideas also apply to organizations.
You’ve all read about or participated in strategic planning, but how about self-awareness? And more particularly, how does self-awareness apply to your organization? Does your organization know who it is? Really? Or does it only know who it isn’t? Are you not the flashier art museum across the park or not the sophisticated science museum down the street? Does knowing you are not an outdoor site really tell you anything? Maybe what you need to know is your organizational DNA? Because just as it helps to understand yourself in the museum workplace, it also helps when an organization knows itself in the museum marketplace.
Last week we saw a job advertisement that made us–as proponents of organizational self-awareness– leap for joy. It was listed on on Idealist.com. It’s for the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization that celebrates those who fought in the Revolutionary War. To join, you must be a male descendent of a commissioned officer of the Continental Army or Navy; however the Society is more than a membership organization. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it also maintains a library and a house museum, both open to the public.
To be honest, based just on its name, the Society of the Cincinnati might not be our choice for the most open, transparent, authentic museum organization, but that is biased thinking, and this is a pretty extraordinary job advertisement. Clearly, this organization is comfortable in its own skin. It knows exactly who it is. And it wants you to know too, and it is respectful enough of you, as a possible applicant, that it doesn’t want you to apply if it isn’t the place for you. Read the announcement. Even if you’re not a Revolutionary War scholar, who wouldn’t want to work for an organization that writes, “We aren’t looking for clerical support or a general office assistant. We aren’t looking for someone who simply likes history or enjoys writing. We aren’t looking for someone who just graduated from college with a history degree and knows a lot about some other historical time and place…….This isn’t an internship. It’s a serious professional opportunity for someone with the right historical knowledge, writing and editing skills, creativity, and problem solving ability.”
Like a self-aware person, the Society of the Cincinnati knows itself. That knowledge allows it to be open and authentic about what it needs. What if more organizations wrote job advertisements like this one? What if, instead of the opening paragraph describing the museum, followed by a paragraph saying they need an individual with a graduate degree, at least five years of experience, who is creative, a team player, and who can walk on water while multi-tasking, and oh, is also a social media whiz, organizations described who they really are and what they really needed?
An authentic ad doesn’t have to be unprofessional or sassy. It just needs to be clear and truthful. And to do that, you need to really know your organization. That doesn’t mean that if you’ve worked there since 1980 you automatically know it. It means you have to pay attention to the way it behaves, the decisions it makes, and the people it hires.
Don’t know your organizational DNA? Here are some things to think about and do:
- Ask questions and listen. We know a new museum leader who’s spent his first hundred days working and learning in every department on his site.
- Read your organizational history. Even if it was written ages ago, look for the organizational truths that remain.
- Talk with your board, especially if you are new. Do they align with what the organization says about itself?
- Try to identify your organization’s intangibles: How do staff behave at work? What is considered the “right” way to behave at work? Does your organization have an ’embrace-all’ attitude for the public, but a staff that is bastioned and siloed?
- Write down the organizational truths you encounter. Discuss them. Test your theories with board members and colleagues.
It may take a while to come to consensus, but once you do, you can put all your organization’s writing to the test, and make sure it really speaks to who you are. Then maybe you can advertise for the individual you really need as opposed to the one-size-fits-all version.
Imagine this: You’re in a planning meeting. The discussion is momentarily rich, the whiteboard populated with words, phrases, and ideas. In the middle of it all, someone says, “But we can’t do that. We’ve always done it this way.” We’ve all heard it. It’s frequently offered, usually without malice, as if a higher being had just parted the clouds and offered your organization a sign that says DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.
We know–even the person who uses the phrase knows–that past successes don’t predict the future especially in a world as lightning fast as ours. Yet museums and heritage organizations persist in trotting out the same programs in the same way, year after year. They resemble a virus. You’ve had it before, you’ve got it again.
Through the magic of Google I learned that Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a pioneer computer scientist with a PhD in math from Yale, was the first person to point out how dangerous that phrase is. In 1976 she wrote, “On the future of data processing, the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.” Hopper was a rear admiral in the Navy so she understood what it means to work in a tradition-bound organization although the clock in her office ran counter-clockwise if that tells you anything. Admittedly, Hopper is a total aside; she’s here to point out that if a woman in a highly-regulated, hierarchical, hide-bound organization can think like that, you can too.
But what if–even if you don’t like the scheduled program or event–it’s a crowd pleaser? Should you change something that’s a cash cow just for the sake of change? The New York City Ballet doesn’t say “Let’s skip the Nutcracker this year. It will be more fun to do something modern during the holidays.” And you shouldn’t skip your metaphorical Nutcracker either. But you can change the process and the way you plan. Just doing that is a big step towards changing your organizational culture. And as a leader, remember, resistance to change isn’t irrational. Often these events come at the busiest time of year when staff is already stressed, and may (rightly) feel if it “ain’t” broke why fix it?
So here are some thoughts, (in no particular order), about breaking out of the we’ve-always-done-it-that-way loop.
- Don’t let discussion end when the WADITW phrase is uttered. Ask the person to explain how and why the old way is still better. Keep talking.
- If you want to depersonalize discussion, ask a staff member to play the devil’s advocate at the start of the meeting, arguing the counter-intuitive position for the group.
- Ask everyone to finish the phrase, “But what if we….” in relation to the project, program or event.
- Build a post-mortem into all your events, programs and projects. Allow staff to evaluate while it’s fresh in their minds, and lay out possible changes for the coming year—or scrap the whole thing.
- Don’t let this become a Millennial versus Boomer problem. Younger staff don’t advocate change because they’re young. They advocate change because they look at problems differently. That’s what Boomers did in the ’70’s. Now it’s someone else’s turn.
- Listen. Really, really listen especially to the folks who are on the front lines of whatever event you’re evaluating.
Strong organizations grow. They grow by adapting, and adaptation happens intentionally. Repetitive behavior stunts growth. That’s not what your organization needs. Be the mold-breaker. Channel your inner Grace Murray Hopper and set the clock going the other way.
This past week marked Equal Pay Day (April 4) when museum women, along with working women across the United States, finally made as much as their male colleagues did in 2016. Yes, you read that right: It takes an additional four months and three days for women to make as much money as men do in a year.
But it’s actually worse than that.
According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), April 4 is when white women who are not actively parenting catch up. It is another seven weeks for working mothers. The dates for Black women, Native American women, and Latina women are July 31, September 25, and November 2 respectively.
Women make up half the national workforce. In museums, art galleries and historical sites, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting (2016), 41-percent of museum employees are women. Nationally, full-time female workers make 80 cents for every dollar earned by men. If you possess a newly-minted masters degree in museum studies, that fateful 20-percent difference may not seem like much when weighed against a first job offer, the chance to work in a field you love, not to mention the opportunity to grapple with your student debt. But it’s a big deal. According to the National Women’s Law Center, based on today’s figures, over the course of a woman’s career, she will lose approximately $418,000 in wages significantly affecting her retirement, and her Social Security will be almost $4,000 less annually than a man of the same age.
Across the board—including museums, heritage organizations, zoos and botanical gardens—women are paid less. Whether your organization has a transparent salary scale or not–and few non-governmental museums do–this isn’t a myth. A quick glance at Association of Art Museum Directors’ salary information for 2015-2017 or AAM’s salary survey will provide the information you need. And by women we don’t mean only white women receiving 20-percent less than their white male colleagues. Black women’s median earnings are 63.3 cents of white men’s, while Hispanic women earn 54.4 percent. Transgender women–if they are hired at all–are at the bottom of the pay-day food chain.
These problems are compounded in the museum world because salaries are traditionally low, and expectations are high. You are expected to hold a master’s degree; you are expected to have had some experience, and museums and heritage organizations are frequently located in the high-rent district, meaning if you want to live close to work, your living expenses may be higher than normal. Last, and by no means least, the museum world has been rife with complaints (and rightfully so) over the last five years about how white its workforce is. But rarely, if ever, is the field’s lack of diversity attributed to its poor salaries. With a wealth of career choices, why should college-educated woman of color join the museum field only to make less than their white female colleagues who are already making less than men?
So, what are you, as a museum leader supposed to do about what is clearly a nation-wide problem? Here are some suggestions:
- Even if you didn’t do the hiring, know what your staff makes.
- Graph your salaries by gender and race. Discuss the results with your HR director and the personnel committee of your board. If need be, see if you can get a commitment to level the playing field.
- Depending on the size of your organization, consider being more transparent about wages. If your board’s personnel committee and HR can’t stomach an open salary scale, how about salary bands?
- Post wages, or at a minimum, a salary band when jobs open.
- Work to eliminate bias from the hiring process. That includes not only assumptions about race and gender, but also the big elephant in every interview that a woman of child-bearing age will not be as productive as a man of the same age.
- Work to provide paid family leave.
- If you are able to make and live by some of the changes above, be open about it. Let the world know. Most women know they make less than men. Working for an organization that acknowledges that fact and is making change is a good thing.
Great museums, regardless of size or budget, are staffed by smart, imaginative folks who make smart, imaginative decisions not just for the public but for their staffs. Those are the folks you want working for you. Be a leader in pay equity. Be the place they want to work.
A colleague of mine is not happy. Her distress has nothing to do with her home life except perhaps that a dismal work situation affects life at home. Were she asked, she would describe work as a place absent respect, transparency, challenge, and perhaps honesty. But she isn’t asked. It’s no wonder she isn’t happy. Sadly, she’s not alone.
Recently Gallup released its State of the American Workplace Survey. Gallup looked at four levels of employee needs: basic needs, individual needs, teamwork and personal growth needs. Basic needs provide the training and context to allow employees to perform their best. This creates trust which in turn spurs teamwork, resulting in personal growth. Gallup posits that knowing what you’re supposed to do is a basic workplace need. That seems like a no-brainer, but in small museums or heritage organizations, particularly when millennials replace longtime employees, there is an assumption that the new hire will do whatever the old hire did. The elephant in the room is that sometimes no one really understands what the outgoing employee did, everyone just knows it got done. My colleague has never seen her job description. Left to figure out things on her own, she’s found herself frequently in possession of half the information making her work very frustrating.
You would think that if American workers were angry or dissatisfied, bored or disengaged, it might be because we work too hard. Or because we don’t make enough money. You’d be wrong on both counts. According to Gallup, if you’re among the 51-percent of disengaged American workers, it’s likely because you have a bad boss. Is it really possible that just over half of the country’s employees works for a less than able leader? Apparently. And guess what else bad bosses do? They create unhappy employees. How does this happen? Gallup reports that too often companies promote based on tenure–meaning you’ve been around a long time (Do I hear Millennials sighing out there?) or were successful in previous jobs. Neither of those things mean you were (ever) a good leader.
What does any of this have to do with museums? A lot. Our world is not so sacrosanct that we don’t have a few bad bosses of our own. Museums also sometimes promote based on accomplishments rather than demonstrated leadership skills; the Metropolitan Museum may be the most notable current example, but there are certainly others. Fortunately, the museum world has Joyful Museums. It’s the brainchild of Marieke Van Damme. She’s a museum leader by day, but she’s worked on Joyful Museums since 2013. And every year Joyful Museums takes the field’s temperature in the form of a workplace happiness survey. The 2017 survey is open now. If you haven’t already, please participate. The premise of Joyful Museums is positive, i.e. that identifying the museum field’s problems is the first step in creating better workplaces. Van Damme suggests that intense job competition, low wages, a do-more- with-less attitude, poor support for professional development coupled with a lack of understanding of HR issues leaves many employees in Gallop’s 51-percent of disgruntled disengaged workers.
Is there hope for change and happier staffs? Yes, and if you’re a museum leader or board member, there is still work to do. Remember, you’re not a social worker. Your job isn’t to fix staff members’ life issues. Your job is to provide a safe, equitable workplace that challenges its employees, encourages deep thought and imagination, while moving the organization forward. With that in mind, here are five things to do before summer.
- Find your institution’s HR policy. If it doesn’t exist, gather staff and trustees together and make one. If it does exist, does it need revision? Does everyone have access to it?
- Make sure all your employees have current job descriptions and receive annual employment reviews. Support their professional goals.
- Make sure all your employees know what is expected of them and can meet the goals you set together.
- Be a fierce advocate for benefits: paid time off; health insurance; family leave; maternity/paternity leave. If the day-to-day in your staff’s lives is taken care of, there will be far less stress at work.
- Don’t fall into the trap of we’re a non-profit so it’s okay if our hourly wage is less than a big box store. It’s not okay. The big box store doesn’t require a master’s degree. Make staff salaries a priority. People, not buildings, make change.
And tell us if your staff is happy.
This seems to be the season for strategic planning. Everyone wants a strategic plan. Or they want to revise the one they’ve already got. Maybe it’s because I live in Connecticut, which, if the legislature has its way, may soon be the only left-leaning state with no support for the arts and humanities. As a result, Connecticut arts and heritage organizations are scrambling to utilize dollars on the table, and many are turning to strategic planning. And that’s not a bad thing. Anything to keep the wolf from the door.
All organizations should plan, and more importantly, they should be comfortable with the planning process. Planning should be one of those things that just happens like bill paying, snow removal, or checking the temperature in collections storage. You just do it. Here’s what’s worrisome though. So much of strategic planning starts with the big-picture questions–the organizational equivalent of where do you see yourself in five years? And frequently those questions devolve into discussions about what an organization does or could do. In the end, that results in actions defining character and even mission, not the other way around.
What if museum leaders, and the legions of consultants who assist with the strategic planning process, asked why first? Why do we do what we do? And, perhaps more importantly, what does your organization stand for? Imagine you’re waiting outside your state senator’s office. His aide tells you his appointment with the local food bank is running over. Can you wait? Of course you can, but what are you going to say about work in a heritage or arts organization that matters as much as feeding the poor? Few of us would choose knowing why our communities are the way they are over three square meals a day. Yet understanding how our communities develop informs every decision we make today. A broad and nuanced view makes us better citizens. Isn’t that important?
If you’re asked who would miss your organization if it closed its doors 60 days from now, what would your answer be? Would it be families who come to the children’s after-school program your art museum runs, or residents who access the oral history project led by your historical society or would your answer be WHY you do those things? You run the after-school program because you believe all children need to see and make art. You run the oral history program because new residents, and those who’ve been in a community for decades, need to share and understand the choice they made in moving to your city or neighborhood. Asking the why question helps align beliefs.
So here is a short list of things to keep in mind if your spring to-do list includes the proverbial strategic plan:
- Does your organization have a shared values statement? If not, make one. A values statement is a governor on organizational action in the same way a collections policy limits what you collect.
- If you are a board member, ask yourself if you’re still passionate about the heritage or arts organization you serve. Are you a board member out of duty, habit or love?
- If you are a staff person, do you understand and believe in your organization’s values? Can you articulate how your program or department upholds those values?
- Many of us enter the museum world because things intrigue us— photographs or film, textiles or 18th-century high chests, landscape design or stained glass. As our careers move forward we find ourselves distanced from things, managing people and programs instead. Ask yourself why the museum field matters to you now. Why should it matter to your state legislator?
- Last, find the why in your work. Join your colleagues in making it matter. Life will be better and your planning process will go smoothly.
Tell us how you differentiate the how from the why at your museum or heritage organization.
This week a colleague posted the following on social media: “Five words to use when describing what others would call a bitch: Formidable, assertive, dominant, powerful, decisive. I proudly claim all of those attributes. Screw the bitch one.” Since it’s Women’s History Month and also the time of year when many of you will either be doing performance reviews or participating in them, we thought we should focus on language, gender, and performance.
You may believe you’ve got this particular issue covered. You wore red on International Women’s day; your museum is all over Women’s History Month; you’ve gotten approval from your board to revise your organization’s personnel policies with an eye toward mitigating gender bias. And the vast majority of your staff–particularly in education and collections– is women. What more can you do?
The answer is plenty. While the list above is laudable, a lot of gender bias happens unconsciously which is why it deserves more work, particularly when it comes to language. Are you aware, for example, that in a 2014 study of tech industry performance reviews women were far more likely to receive critical feedback then men–71-percent vs. 2-percent? Worse, the criticism was associated with perceived personality traits. In other words, even when men and women both received suggestions for improvement, and, after all, that’s in part what performance reviews are about, those for women were tied to perceived behavior. They included words like bitchy, bossy, brash, abrasive and aggressive. To the woman on the receiving end that translates to “improve your staff presentations and, by the way, stop being so (insert-your-adjective-here.)”
And let’s be clear: Women are not immune to unconscious bias so this isn’t a male leadership versus a female leadership thing. Women also tend to evaluate men on their potential rather than behavior, offering constructive criticism, while being supportive. Women’s evaluations, whether done by men or women, tend to be more focused on behavior causing the women being evaluated to prove themselves again and again. What this means is women are evaluated by the way they have done something while men are evaluated by their capacity to improve.
And bias isn’t something that only rears its head in relation to others. When I asked permission to use the opening quote, I discovered that its author, Ilene Frank, Chief Curator at the CT Historical Society, had actually used the word bitch about herself. She explained it this way: “I had a moment the other day where, after making a comment that needed to be made, I felt bad about the tone I used and the force with which the statement came out. No one criticized me for it, but I felt bad. I texted my girlfriend and wrote ‘I think I was just a bitch.” To which she, in her wisdom, responded, “How about assertive?'”
Here are some suggestions for combatting workplace bias throughout the performance review season:
If you’re a leader:
- Review your staff assessments for the last several years. Make a list of the adjectives you use for men, versus women. Is there are difference?
- If your staff is large, you may want to repeat the exercise breaking down assessments by age, race and LGBTQ. Remember, you’re not looking for Title IX violations; you need to identify your own way of “seeing.” Who is your tone gentler with? Who is it easier to be direct with? Why?
- We’re going to assume all your employees receive annual performance reviews, and have access to them. If not, think about fixing that.
- At the end of the day or the week, as you reflect, refine, and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about yourself. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.
If you are a staff member:
- Review your own assessments. Look for the places where you feel you were judged on personality, gender, race or age, rather than performance.
- If there are adjectives that bothered you in a previous review, and still bother you, write them down. If those words are used again, feel free to smile sweetly and ask your director if she would like to choose another word or whether that is a word she would apply to–for example–an older, straight man?
- If you report to more than one individual, you may want to ask about the possibility of a 360 review from your multiple direct reports. Studies show that more and varied feedback helps level the playing field.
- At the end of the day or the week, as you reflect, refine and prepare to try again, think about the language you use about your self. There is a reason it’s called unconscious bias.
Tell us about bias at your museum, unconscious or not.
There are people thinking deep thoughts in almost every field around the globe. Some share with their colleagues. Others write books, give TED Talks or get interviewed by National Public Radio. The museum field is lucky to have its own thought leaders. Perhaps you read or follow Nina Simon, Frank Vagnone, the Incluseum or Maria Viachou. Principle among the museum field’s thought leaders is Elaine Heumann Gurian. If you don’t know Elaine, you have some reading ahead of you, but don’t worry. It’s good stuff.
Heumann Gurian is now retired. That just means she’s not collecting a regular pay check any more. She was, in fact, a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Museums at the Smithsonian, Deputy Director for Public Program Planning at the National Museum of the American Indian, and Deputy Director at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Now she thinks for a living. If her recent talk “The Importance of And,” delivered at MuseumNext’s conference in Australia is any indication, she remains committed to change. And so should you.
And don’t say I don’t read stuff like that. It’s like food you think you don’t like. Try it. And here’s why: Heumann Gurian asks us to think not so much about what we do, but why and how. She doesn’t care whether your visitors get tickets, stickers or buttons. She’s not necessarily interested in your board development policies, your admission pricing structure, your digitization program or your collections management software. In “The Importance of And,” she talks about applying complexity theory to museums to break the cycle of one object/one label/one point of view that dominates so many museum exhibits, leaving vast swaths of the public underwhelmed, bored or sometimes angry by narratives that are relentlessly mediocre and opaque. She wants exhibit narratives that leave visitors arguing, questioning, writing their own questions on sticky notes. She wants visitors to find the universal stories and add their own. She wants museums to be places where people understand that every story has multiple points of view: the artist, the creator/maker, the curator, the object’s cultural context, the viewer and his or her cultural context. She wants us to internalize that wherever we stand, our view is different.
And Leadership Matters would like you to try one more thing: After reading “The Importance of And,” think about applying complexity theory not just to exhibit and program development, but to what happens in the offices at your museum as well. The world we live in is endlessly complex. So is 21st-century leadership. Complexity theory as applied to leadership asks us to think about leadership as leadership of the many by the many, rather than of the many by the few. And by few, we mean you. Being the sage on the stage 24/7 is wearying. But what if you think of leadership as a team or an orchestra, where you are the quarterback, the conductor or maybe the first violin, whatever metaphor works for you? The point is if you can accept complexity, you widen your leadership circle, more voices are heard, and the result is a more nuanced response to just about everything.
Confused? Think of it this way: Say your institution is faced with a big question–to build, to renovate or leave your building as is. Traditional leadership would say that you, the director, possibly with your assistant directors, gather and hash out responses to each possibility. You take them to the board. It hashes them out and decides which way to go. Leadership that’s more complex might put together focus groups that involve everyone from your institution’s guards and grounds folks to its shop assistants, volunteers, education staff and community, mixing the groups so museum leadership and trustees hear from a variety of voices and experiences. Yes, both paths may lead to the same conclusion, but the information gathered, and the trust and buy-in generated in the complexity approach yields its own rewards: a staff who knows it’s respected; new ideas from individuals who museum leadership might never come in contact with; new pathways of communication that lead to change.
And change is what you’re after. Who wants an organization that stays the same year after year, decade after decade? Tell us how you tackle big decisions and whether your process is messy and iterative or hierarchical and direct. And tell us why.
It’s March, 52 days into the new administration: Lead well. It matters.
This week many museum directors were in Washington, D.C., taking part in Museum Advocacy Day. They walked the Capitol’s corridors seeking support for museums, botanical gardens, zoos and heritage organizations. They were there to be persuasive. For many, it can’t have been an easy sell. With the NEH and NEA in the Republican party’s crosshairs, it’s a challenging political climate to say the least.
But in the midst of all the hand shakes, story telling, and persuasive chatter, 204 miles to the north, the Metropolitan Museum released a statement announcing Thomas Campbell’s resignation effective June 30. The former tapestry curator who won the directorship in 2009 is leaving. It seemed abrupt. It also seemed as though it were all about Mr. Campbell. Counterintuitively, his resignation arrived in a year when the museum saw record visitation, and huge praise for digitizing 400,000 images and making them available to the public. In his statement, Campbell wrote, “I am especially proud that our visitor base is the largest and most diverse in the Museum’s history. At the same time, we are on track to be financially stable and have a solid strategic path forward.” A paragraph from the Met’s Board Chair, Daniel Brodsky, followed, praising the museum’s record visitation, its robust exhibitions, and its expansion with the Met Breuer.
Reading Campbell’s words and those of Mr. Brodsky, you would hardly know there had been what amounts to a palace coup.But for anyone looking between the lines it’s clear that Tom Campbell’s exit was choreographed down to the last step. From the outside, we can’t know what went wrong. Governing an organization that is bigger than many small towns can’t be easy though. While his successes are clear up to and including a lovely, tightly written plea on the power of the NEA published in The Times, as the week dragged on his colleagues and the press dissected his failings as well.
But the point of this post isn’t to judge Tom Campbell at all. The point is that for the foreseeable future he will be the director who resigned from the Met, and the trustees? Well, they will still be trustees. And that, for all you directors out there should be a warning as big as “Surrender, Dorothy” in the Wizard of Oz. You can be friendly with trustees, but except in rare cases, you are not their friend. You can always be cast as the lightning rod. If you think for a minute that Tom Campbell ramped up the Met’s digitization program, took over Met Breuer, and lured Sheena Wagstaff away from the Tate to Met Breuer, on his own without the board’s oversight, you are living on another planet. George Goldner who led the Met’s prints and drawings department for 21 years was blunt in his assessment of the trustees role. “It is unconscionable that the pension of a person making $60,000 a year is cut through no fault of his or her own, whereas senior board members, who must in part take responsibility, have borne no part of the blame or burden.” (And for all of you out there who look to the Met as the Harvard of museums, note the $60,000 a year reference.)
So here are five take aways if you’re a director or a board member:
- Don’t say this is a big museum problem, and it can’t happen to me. This is a lesson in director/trustee relationships writ large.
- If you are a board member, this is a gentle reminder that while you are not compensated for your work, it is work, and deserves your undivided attention. Remember, your failure to act, to speak up, or to govern results in actions that may adversely affect both the organization and its staff.
- Both directors and board members need to listen to each other. Really listen. If you’re an executive director and you receive mixed or vague messages, meet with your executive committee. Ask for a clarifying conversation. Iron out the problems before they metastasize.
- If you are frequently confounded and confused by your board, perhaps the conversation should begin by clarifying roles and responsibilities.
- As a board member, make sure your board has a defined process for evaluating your director’s job performance. Take it seriously. It’s not a judgement of the director so much as it is an acknowledgement of how director and organization mesh. You can’t participate, if you don’t understand your organization.
Navigating rough water is easier when boards and directors work together. Tell us how your organization’s board and staff meet challenges.
This guest post coincides with AAM’s Museums Advocacy Day in Washington, DC. It is a perfect time to highlight the importance of year-round advocacy for individual museums and the museum field.
Developing Museum Champions Through Advocacy
By Karen A. Witter
Do you have museum champions in your community, city council, school board, state legislature, and Congressional delegation? Would people speak out immediately if something were proposed that would adversely impact your museum? Do you have relationships with elected officials at all levels of government? Is advocacy part of your institutional culture?
Advocacy involves communicating what your museum does and why it is important. Ongoing advocacy helps build a stronger institution. Now more than ever, elected officials at all levels of government need to understand the value of museums to their constituents. All kinds of issues are at play in Congress and State Houses across the country that could impact museums. A myriad of organizations are advocating for their interests; museums also need to be heard.
Advocacy is often compared to donor cultivation…get to know elected officials, just as you get to know donors, before you ask for anything. However, I am convinced that advocacy is also similar to disaster planning – being prepared in case proposed actions would adversely affect your organization. In a time of crisis, you need champions who already understand the value of your organization.
If we want people to support museums as essential assets in large and small communities across our country, we need an ongoing and concerted effort to convey the value of museums. We need national, regional, and state associations to advocate on behalf of the museum field, and we also need individual museums and museum professionals at the grass-roots level to support that effort. The people museums serve can be highly effective as advocates. Just as museums ask individuals to become donors, we need to ask constituents to be advocates.
Creating a culture of advocacy starts at the top, but staff at all levels, board members, volunteers, constituents, and the many people who value museums all play a role. Embrace advocacy as another tool in your toolbox to build a stronger organization. Do simple things, but do them often to create a culture of advocacy.
• First, don’t ever think, “that will never happen”. No one expected the governor of Illinois to shutter the 138-year old Illinois State Museum for 9 months and terminate the entire senior management team. It will take years for the museum to recover.
• Cultivate relationships before you need anything. Maintain long-term relationships, and cultivate new ones. Don’t take anyone for granted. Don’t write anyone off. Communicate regularly. Say thank you when appropriate. Send a letter to newly elected officials who represent people you serve. Congratulate them on their election and invite them to visit. Offer to be a resource as they navigate their new role.
• Be a part of your community not apart from your community. Are your staff, board members, leadership team, and director well known among your business community, education sector, arts community, and with elected officials? Encourage staff to get involved in the community where they can apply their expertise.
• Compile and tell your stories continuously. Engage people’s hearts with stories of how your museum makes a difference. Museum educators can collect stories about your museum’s impact on student learning. Museum registrars and curators can provide stories that reveal the significance of your collections and what compels people to donate objects to your museum. Board members and volunteers can describe what motivates them to support your organization.
• Share these stories with elected officials and community leaders. Send pictures of elected officials’ constituents visiting your museum. Ask others to share their experiences with elected officials. Ask visitors to write letters to the editor and post comments on social media. Find simple ways to let elected officials know how you serve their constituents.
• Document the impact of your museum with facts and figures. Develop an economic impact statement and educational impact statement for your museum. Collaborate with other museums in your community to demonstrate your collective impact. See the American Alliance of Museums’ web site for a template and sample statements .
• Develop an annual advocacy plan. Create a simple plan by outlining a few things that can be done each month, and involve staff, board members, and volunteers.
• Learn more about how to engage in advocacy. If you think advocacy is someone else’s job or are not comfortable with advocacy, step out of your comfort zone and attend advocacy sessions at conferences and sign up for advocacy webinars. If you are in a leadership role but don’t think there is the time or resources to support advocacy, learn more about how to participate in advocacy efforts with a modest investment. There are ways to support AAM’s Museums Advocacy Day without going to Washington, D.C. The AAM web site provides easy ways to lend your voice.
• Make advocacy a strategic priority. There’s far too much at stake for museums to sit on the sidelines. Ask what your organization is doing to advocate for your museum and the museum field, and volunteer to participate. Be an advocate for advocacy.
Karen A. Witter is a part-time museum consultant who worked in Illinois state government for 35 years. She is a former natural resources policy adviser to the Governor, cabinet-level state agency director, and associate director of the IL State Museum. She is a past president of the Association of Midwest Museums and frequent presenter about advocacy at state, regional, and national museum association conferences.
She will be presenting a free AASLH webinar, Everyday Museum Advocacy, on March 6.