Do Museum Staff Work for Intangibles?

intangible

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?

Joan Baldwin

Advertisements

Taking the Museum Gender Equity Pulse in Texas

tam-presentation.jpg

Texas may not have originated the phrase “Go big or go home,” but it could have. It’s a big place, bigger than France. Last week Leadership Matters traveled to Houston for the Texas Association of Museums (TAM) annual meeting where we keynoted day two for 550 museum folk from all corners of the state.

None of that is particularly unusual. Both of us speak fairly frequently on either leadership or gender or both. What was odd (and gratifying) was that out of the approximately 65 state, regional or national museum service organizations, it is TAM who chose to make gender equity the focus of its 2018 meeting.

Here on the East Coast, mention Texas and you may get some eye rolling. Folks will tell you that Austin has great music or food, but then conversation may turn to the fact that it’s a place you’re allowed to carry your holstered handgun out in public. Then there’s the weather (hot), and the fact that it might not have any trees. And maybe in the minds of the Metropolitan Museum-going public, it might not have any museums. But it does. Big ones, uber-wealthy ones, tiny historic sites, and major history museums, all nurtured and supported by TAM. And it is the TAM board and staff who chose this year–the year of Post-Weinstein, #MeToo, and #TimesUp– to make gender equity the centerpiece of its meeting.  (In 2017 TAM also launched a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion series headlined by Chris Taylor from the Minnesota Historical Society so this isn’t its first foray into challenging workplace issues.)

How bold was this gender equity focus? Pretty bold. Bigger organizations might shy away. Gender equity–despite its relentless focus on closing the pay gap, a gap that according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW) is dramatically worse for Native and Latina women than for black women, and certainly for Asian or white women–has been the after-thought problem in the museum world for 45 years. And this in a year when data shows us that nationally 81-percent of women and 43-percent of men experience sexual harassment in their lifetimes. Some might say that the museum world, with its 46.7-percent female workforce, should sit up and pay attention. That’s how TAM felt, and that’s how we found ourselves speaking to a lunch-time audience in the Hyatt Regency.

Before we went, we launched a survey on Facebook to confirm (or bust) what we believed about gender equity in museums versus working in other job sectors in the United States. As of Sunday 625 humans had taken part. The survey is still open if you’d like to participate. What did we learn? That 62-percent of those folks say they’ve been discriminated against because of their gender. And more alarmingly, that 49-percent have experienced verbal and/or sexual harassment at work. What does this say about the museum field? Haven’t you all had enough? Texas is taking care of its own, but isn’t it time for more museum service agencies to follow the TAM model and stand up and say gender inequity is a bad thing?

Gender inequity is insidious. For women of color, it means a workplace that mixes racial bias with gender bias in ways that multiply the occasions for hurt, harassment and EEOC complaints. We’ll leave you with the same quote that ended our TAM speech. It’s from a participant in our recent survey who wrote,

“I feel like a second-class citizen.”

No one working in the museum world should feel like that. We have the power to make change. Let’s do it.

Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson


Why Age Matters When You’re Setting the Staff Table

 

We begin by expressing our sadness and dismay over the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision allowing the Berkshire Museum to sell its paintings. Kudos to Berkshire Eagle reporter Larry Parnass for his dogged reporting, and applause for AAM and AAMD for their quick and direct response to the the ruling. Deaccessioning is not illegal. It exists for a reason. It’s also possible for a museum or heritage organization to change focus and mission. In the Berkshire Museum’s case, leadership seemed to say we’re in crisis, but we also don’t want to be who we’ve been, so we’re going to sell our heritage, become something different, and never have to fund raise again. There is a tangled web of leadership questions here. We hope that over the coming months, AAM and AAMD create safety nets for directors who find themselves with boards who want to sell their museum’s prime pieces and cite the Berkshire Museum as their example.

*****************

Say the word diversity and most people think race. But as we’ve said frequently on these pages, diversity actually means variety. Colleagues with identifiable differences produce a better more creative product than a homogeneous team. And age is another piece in the diversity puzzle. That means that while it’s critical to have staff of color and LGBTQ staff at the table, it’s also good to mix the very young with the long-tenured. Why? Because since you serve a diverse and changing community and few communities are homogeneous when it comes to age.

And yet, organizations sometimes fail to look at older staff as anything other than a liability. They command high(er) salaries, they have opinions–sometimes too many–and you know someday they’ll retire, but the waiting is driving you crazy. In fact, it’s no surprise that when CFOs and directors look at longtime staff they see dollar signs because in financial terms they represent money that could be saved or better yet divided between multiple new positions.

So what’s the big deal? These folks will retire anyway, and goodness knows there’s a line around the museum workspace of Gen Xers and Millennials waiting to move up. First, it’s hard to generalize. Perhaps you know staff who are genuine fossils, whose sole reason for working is to cross the Medicare finish line. But what about the ones who’ve stored away a wealth of organizational history and narrative? The ones who know where you’ll find all the information you need. Or what about staff who, despite their greying hair, have reached a place overflowing with creativity? Or what about geezers who are models and mentors for younger staff? Is it equitable to let age be the only determinant?

Younger employees sometimes face a similar situation. They don’t get hired because they don’t have any experience, and they don’t have any experience because they don’t get hired. And then, when they are hired, particularly if they’re women, they are frequently patronized and talked over which means they are not taken seriously, which makes it harder to move forward.

The point is only that diversity is about variety. It is about making your staff reflect your community, and it is about understanding and acknowledging that a diversity of lived experience makes for better chemistry and more creativity around the table. (Don’t believe us? Read McKinsey’s 2018 report on Diversity.) A diverse team also makes a group more aware of its own biases because interaction with staff who are younger, older, LGBTQ or people of color challenges entrenched beliefs at work where everyone shares (hopefully) a common goal.

It may be a lame metaphor, but if you need an image for diversity at its best, remember the Muppets. Yes, The Muppets. I heard Frank Oz talk about their back stories Saturday, and one line stuck with me. He said all the Muppets are very different, flawed characters–even Kermit–and yet they made music, had adventures and looked out for one another. You could do worse than to have staff members as different as Miss Piggy and Floyd Pepper.

Joan Baldwin

 


Museums = the Labor of Love? Not Quite

parts-and-prototypes_0

Once again we find ourselves responding to an Alliance Labs post, this one titled The Labor of Love: Revaluing Museum Work, written by Emma Boast and Maddie Mott, and originally published on Medium, December 20, 2017 and republished by Alliance Labs this week. Here goes:

Dear Emma & Maddie:

Your article could be summed up in one sentence: Too often museums and heritage organizations put staff last, not first.  Leadership Matters is filled with pleas to boards and museum leaders to recognize the value of human capital. We’ve said it at least once a month for 36 months. It’s not buildings or collections that drive museums, it’s people.

A lot has happened since you originally wrote your piece. It’s odd to think that something written 15 months ago can already be,  if not out of date, then out of context. Today the world of work is beset with questions of #MeToo and sexual harassment, yet many things–particularly as they relate to women and work–are unchanged. If you need evidence for that, know that in 1974 a group of women known as the Women’s Caucus approached AAM with a list of grievances. With the exception of more women in museum leadership, most of the Caucus’s complaints are as true today as they were 44 years ago. And it is this Groundhog Day-quality of trying to make change at 35,000-plus organizations that is daunting. Museum employment is shackled by a legacy of gender inequity coupled with largely invisible race and class barriers.

But back to your piece. First, a caution about comparing museum work with academia. If by academia you mean a teaching position in a two or four-year institution, there are disgruntled overeducated employees in both sectors; however, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tells us that, as of May 2016, there were 1.3 million postsecondary teachers at U.S. colleges/universities, professional schools, and junior/community colleges earning a median salary of $75,430.  Among curators in museums and other institutions where education requirements and job responsibilities are similar (if not often the same) to postsecondary teachers, the BLS 2016 employment number stood at 11,170, earning a median salary of $58,910. While it’s common knowledge, particularly at big universities, that adjuncts are the indentured servants of the academic world, contrasting museums and academia isn’t an apples to apples comparison. And don’t forget that many postsecondary teachers are unionized — that can make a big salary/benefits difference.

Second, your comments on advancement: If you yearn to be a curator, and in fact become one, what does advancement look like? Might it mean moving to a leadership position where ultimately you manage people rather than care for things? Or does it mean moving to a larger organization where you manage a more dynamic collection as well as staff?

One thing we’ve tried to point out on these pages is that in a small field where, to date, an advanced degree is the ticket for admission, moving up frequently means a leadership position which many museum professionals are ill-prepared for. But perhaps the point is advancement means different things in different parts of the museum job sector. If you want to be an ED, the path is pretty clear; you hop scotch your way from smaller to bigger. But if you’re a curator or an educator, there is likely to be a fork in the road, where you decide whether advancement is more important than what brought you to the field in the beginning. Finally, is zig-zagging up the ladder as much of a problem for museum professionals as organizations failing to provide even the most minimal professional development opportunities? We think the answer is no. All staff need professional development.

Third, we fundamentally disagree with the notion that change can’t happen piecemeal–that no single museum can make change alone. In fact, that IS how it’s happening. Individual museums with forward-thinking leaders and boards create workplaces where employees prosper. As a result, those institutions flourish. Museums that pay pitiful wages, offer no benefits, and make serving on a jury easier than going on maternity leave, don’t attract and retain creative, driven staff. They do the opposite.

We support the changes you call for: eliminating degree requirements, investing in existing workers, and helping with work/life balance, but it’s hard to believe that two 21st-century women left closing the gender pay gap out of the equation. It’s a pervasive and ongoing problem, affecting all women, but women of color, and queer and transgender women disproportionately. Until the museum field pays its staff equitable and living wages, this will always be a job sector known for its lack of diversity and its abundance of quit-lit. Last, we believe that AAM Accreditation and AASLH StEPs should require their member organizations demonstrate they not only have HR policies, but how complaints and harassment are handled.

Thank you and Alliance Labs for keeping this conversation going. It is an important one. For the second time in less than a month, we’ll close by asking: Isn’t it time for a wage summit that would bring together big thinkers from inside and outside the museum field to tackle this problem?

Joan Baldwin

 


If You Can’t Say It, We Can’t See It: Why Museum Vision Matters

Postcard

True confessions: This week I participated in a meeting where midway through a participant asked why our discussion mattered. The meeting’s over-arching topic was communication so the good news is this staff member felt relaxed and fearless enough to ask that kind of question. The bad news is that if even one person was confused enough to ask, the heart of the matter was lost.

So this is a note to all of you in museum leadership positions. You may have a bundle of good ideas rattling around in your head, but that isn’t vision. If you can’t say it, we can’t see it. In 2014 when we wrote Leadership Matters, Anne Ackerson interviewed Van Romans, President of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Romans talked about drawing his vision (if you’re struggling with this, know that Romans once worked for Disney). His approach wasn’t that different from the Heath brothers “destination postcards”. (Hint: If you haven’t read Switch, put it on your list now.)

If you think about it, a postcard is a great metaphor. You’re on a trip. You send the card that says “Wish you were here.”  As museum leaders, that’s what you need to do:

  • Tell a story that’s compelling enough that staff can visualize the landscape once change is complete.
  • Make sure your story’s achievable.
  • Be clear about the journey you’ll take, and who needs to be on the bus.

Back to the meeting: we received an explanation, but it was mushy and unsatisfactory, as if our leader sent the image of a beach at sunset, but left the back blank. Don’t forget  vision provides focus. It’s hard for staff to nest in the weeds when you’re constantly moving forward.

Your vision should have some meat on its bones; it needs to provide the “why” for your program, department or museum. Telling staff things will be better if they do X, Y, Z isn’t enough. They’re adults. Let them in on your thinking. Trust them. And last, and perhaps, most importantly, be prepared for push-back. Change is hard, harder for some than for others. Test your ideas out, do your research, experiment alone and with staff. If you aren’t convinced, why should anyone else be?

Today more than ever museum leadership needs to pull itself out of lame mediocrity. Invent. Experiment. Fail. But for goodness sake have a vision that matters.

Joan Baldwin


What’s Missing From “7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down”?

Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 3.17.35 PM

As people who’ve written and spoken about the museum pay crisis since 2012, Leadership Matters was heartened to read 7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down. Written by Michael Holland, it was wonderful to see such an important topic addressed by a forum like Alliance Labs since by inference it carries AAM’s blessing. But that was before we read the article. In our opinion, Holland skipped a few key points. And judging from some of the 20-plus comments, one of which was ours, we weren’t alone. So here’s our response:

1: Gender inequity and the pay gap failed to make Holland’s list. In some ways this isn’t a surprise. Michael Holland is male, and by his own admission, he frequently works for large, well-endowed museums so maybe he hasn’t encountered the gender pay gap? Maybe he doesn’t know that many women doing work similar to his (exhibit design)–not to mention the traditionally female bastions of museum education or event planning– will not make as much as he did in 2017 until April 10 of this year? Maybe he doesn’t understand that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the museum field is 46.7-percent female, and that when a field slips down the pink collar slope it’s not a good thing?

2. While Holland lists the “Spousal Income Subsidy” as a way the field depends on hiring people who bring along a second income, he never explores what that means. Whether it’s an employee with a hedge fund spouse or an employee with a trust fund, the need for a second income frequently acts as a class and race barrier. Is it any wonder the museum workforce has a diversity problem? 

3. He addressed the question of a burgeoning number of museum studies programs, offering both undergraduate and graduate training, and the resulting glut of too many inexperienced candidates desperate for employment, but he doesn’t mention these programs are costly, and that many emerging professionals begin their working careers with educational debt that’s the equivalent of a mortgage. And yet we work in a field that tells people if you don’t have a master’s degree, you can’t come to the party.

4. This is a corollary to #3. Holland makes passing reference to unpaid internships. (It appears he’s not a fan.) But he never addresses the damage done by an expensive graduate school education, followed by a series of unpaid or poorly paid internships, meaning that someone could be “in the field” for four years or so before finding a salaried position. And that’s if they’re lucky.

Don’t get us wrong. We’re glad Holland wrote his article, glad to see it published by Alliance Labs, and glad to see it debated and questioned in the Comments. Sometimes it’s depressing being the broken record yammering about gender, pay equity, poor pay, and lousy leadership every week. So–in the tradition of Leadership Matters–where we believe we can all make change, here are some things that might help the museum salary crisis.

For individuals, and women especially: Don’t take a job without negotiating. Use the GEMM (Gender Equity in Museums) 5 Things You Need to Know About Salary Negotiations tip sheet. And for goodness sake look at MIT’s Living Wage Calculator to make sure you can afford to live (really live) on what you’re being offered. If you’re already working in a position you enjoy, when your annual review rolls around, don’t forget to ask for a raise. Again, there’s a 5 Things Tip Sheet for that.

For organizations and directors: Work with your board to make sure it understands the value of your museum’s human resources. People matter. Make sure you and your board know what it costs to live in your community. Make sure the board understands the cost of a churning staff, the time it takes new staff to get up to speed, the resulting loss of institutional momentum and organizational knowledge when someone leaves, and the damage done when a team is disrupted.

Solve your wage equity problem first. Do men at your organization make more than women? Do white women make more than women of color?

If you’re faced with the you-can’t-get-blood-from-a-stone argument, make an effort to put all the other pieces in place to support staff–HR support, equitable benefits, paid time off, maternity/paternity leave, even housing if that’s available. When was the last time you reviewed your personnel policy? Make sure new applicants know the work you’ve done around wages and benefits.

For regional and national museum service organizations: Isn’t it time for a wage summit that would bring together big thinkers from inside and outside the field to tackle this problem?

Joan Baldwin


Talking About Gender @ the Small Museum Association Meeting

SMA Table Discussion

This week Leadership Matters spoke on Women in the Museum at the Small Museum Association conference in College Park, MD. Actually we did less talking and more listening. While women in the museum workforce are often acutely aware of inequities–whether compensation, promotion, mentoring–they consistently battle boards, HR departments and museum leadership who act as though gender equity isn’t a problem or at least not a problem they need to devote time to.

Because we believe we are all change makers, we asked our audience to break into groups and respond to questions about how their own organizations advance gender equity. What followed was a lively discussion. When groups reported out, three topics predominated: salary inequity, salary negotiation, and the ever-present issues of childcare and the workplace.

In no particular order, here are some things that struck us:

  • Museum women still fail to negotiate and they consistently underestimate their abilities. We know that failing to possess all the qualifications for a particular job does not stop men from applying, but it does stop women. Moreover, we know that in the world of work 57-percent of men negotiate for their first salary versus 5-percent of women. Men attribute their success to themselves; women attribute their success to others or a lucky break.
  • Even without a transparent salary scale or salary bands, it’s an open secret that many museum salaries border on the unlivable. This is why it’s important to believe in your own worth, to use the Living Wage calculator, and to negotiate from the beginning.
  • Women still shoulder the bulk of housework and childcare. This complicates their work life so that it becomes a ridiculous and ongoing internal struggle about how to negotiate parenthood and career. This complicated struggle causes women to delay career advancement in order to get past the early childhood years.
  • We aren’t always each other’s biggest supporters, as women or as humans. Most women in our audience recognized the importance of both mentoring and a personal posse or kitchen cabinet. (Those are friends and colleagues who listen to you, but are clear-eyed enough to tell you when you’re wrong or you’re behaving like a jerk.) But few could point to bosses or boards who acknowledge gender issues–not to mention gender complicated by race and gender identity–as a career impediment.

If you are a museum leader or worker is gender equity your problem? You bet it is. Your colleagues, your team, your department and your organization are your problem. You don’t get to wring your hands and moan about the lack of diversity in the museum workforce when you’re not actively working to raise salaries so museum workers don’t need well-off partners or parents to make ends meet. You don’t get to pontificate about how important it is for museums to engage with their communities if you fail to acknowledge the very real and complex issues of 46.7-percent of your workforce. And you don’t get to whine about millennials and their attitudes toward work if you aren’t actively mentoring, guiding and advising the next generation.

Stellar organizations are value driven organizations. They put the most diverse group at the table they can, and treat staff as equitably as possible. Museum workers who are treated equitably are happy, and happy humans are creative humans. What organization doesn’t want that?

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


The Silent Treatment (and what to do about it)

Silent Treatment

Before we begin this week, let me express our profound sadness in light of the Berkshire Museum agreement with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. While it is wonderful that Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop will remain in the public domain, the decision seems to leave the door open for any museum to use its collection as a trust fund. If a board expresses fundraising fatigue or fear that a major campaign will not make its goal, it can always look for something to sell. So those of you who are museum leaders, think carefully about how you will respond when a board member’s response to a big capital expense is, “Can’t we just sell our Frederick Church painting?” What will you say? Is referencing AAM’s ethical standards enough? Was it ever enough? Or was it the last leftover from the age of museum patriarchy and gentle person’s agreements?

******

Apart from deaccessioning, we wanted to talk about executive directors who don’t use their words. We’ve written here about directors who can’t stop talking, but this is the opposite. To be clear, this isn’t a judgement on personality. Some directors are not Chatty Cathys. This is about leaders using silence with negative effects.

Think that doesn’t happen? Were you never in middle school or worse in a relationship where someone stopped speaking to you? This is the workplace equivalent of that. Sometimes this happens when new leaders worry about separating emotions from words. They don’t want to yell. Women, in particular, don’t want to yell because studies show us that an angry woman at work is judged much more harshly than an angry man. As a result, they don’t say anything. Or worse, a leader approaches staff weeks after something went badly, and by then it’s too late.

So silence is used to guard against anger and emotion, but there are also leaders who use silence to ostracize staff. They forget to tell them things; they don’t read weekly reports or share important news. As a result, staff find it increasingly hard to complete tasks because museum workplaces run on information. If a major benefactor is waffling, but no one tells you; if there are four candidates for the curator’s position not three, and so on. Incomplete tasks mean poor progress for individuals, departments and museums as a whole.

But for a staff member who tries to explain what’s going on, silence is a deviously tricky weapon. It is after all a sin of omission. No one yelled at you, no one’s overtly hurt you, so what’s the big deal? In fact, silence, coupled with ostracism is the polite form of workplace bullying, and far more common than bullying itself. A 2014 survey by the University of British Columbia of American workers, found that ostracism is far more common (71%) than harassment which was experienced by only 29%.

So what should you do?

  1. Marshal your facts. Are you the only one who’s being left out and not spoken to? Admittedly, it’s cold comfort, but at least it’s not you.
  2. Is there a work colleague you can speak with who might shed some light on your departmental or museum work culture? Are you not being spoken to because you’re not being noticed or is it more deliberate than that?
  3. Is this something only you notice or has your work colleague observed it too? If not, don’t think you’re being gaslighted. Your work experience may not be theirs.
  4. Channel your inner Michelle Obama and “When they go low, you go high.” Put your game face on. Stay positive in public. Be prepared. Speak up when you know something. Don’t let ostracism and silence lead you to doubt yourself. That said, keep a log describing when and how the silent treatment occurred.
  5. The last, and the hardest step is to confront the person. If it’s your ED, you may want to go to HR first, but don’t be surprised if you don’t get much of a reaction. HR sometimes doesn’t realize how hard the silent treatment can be. If it’s a co-worker who’s shut you out, be prepared for the fact that she may not admit what’s happened. Plan, but don’t script your conversation, and make sure your goal is to come away with a resolution.

It’s February. If there ever was a month where we need our words, it’s this one. Use them. Communication builds trust, trust builds loyalty. Together they create a hothouse of creativity and a happy staff.

Joan Baldwin


What the Deaccessioning Dilemma Says About Museum Leadership

auction block

It’s been six months since the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA announced its New Vision , and then dropped the other shoe, telling the public that the cost of the new vision would be underwritten by selling 40 paintings from its collection. And for more than 182 days, the museum world has been in an uproar. If you played a word association game, and the words were Berkshire Museum, way too many of us would respond with “deaccessioning.”

We wrote about the  controversy months ago when it seemed the sale was imminent. Since last summer, deaccessioning’s become a new word, something parsed by journalists and art critics alike who tried to explain that even though the use of proceeds from deaccessioned items is not a law (except for New York State Education Department-chartered museums and historical societies) or even a rule, it’s a professional standard museums are expected to live by and with. And while Nina Simon may be correct, that use of proceeds from deaccessioning is an inflexible and antiquated standard, for those museums that are collecting institutions, it functions like the nuclear deterrent, holding big and small institutions in check, a necessary yet Faustian gamble that collecting institutions buy into. And here’s the logic behind that antiquated standard: Museums are non-profit organizations because they hold property (often collections) in the public trust. If those same collections can be monetized at the drop of a hat, where’s the trust?

As a museum, your non-profit status is, in part, secured by your organization’s willingness to stand behind your mission, and in doing so, make objects, art and the like available to all of us. So like Nina Simon, we believe  the Berkshire Museum controversy is not an issue solely about deaccessioning. It’s about leadership. Why? Because the Museum’s deaccessioning is a by-product of a series of decisions made by the board and director. It’s the story of a local, regional and national community who responded negatively, not only to the proposed sale, but also to the move toward a museum far more committed to science and technology than to art and the gentle “Window on the World” concept of its founder.

Granted, we only know what the Berkshire Museum has shared on its website, but when organizations anticipate change they examine the future like master chess players, thinking through as best as they are able, all the consequences of their actions. How did the the Museum’s 21-member board and its director get this so wrong, producing such a firestorm of antipathy?

If you read the Berkshire Museum’s timeline for its Master Planning Process, you discover that together with Hancock Shaker Village, it hired TDC, a Boston-based firm specializing in non-profit management three years ago. It was TDC’s 2015 report that stipulated “significant need for capitalization in order to provide sufficient endowment for the Berkshire Museum to support its operations.” (Side note: Among the eight principals on TDC’s website, not one has an arts background, much less a museum background.) And it was TDC who hired Experience Design out of Providence, RI, “to help identify scenarios for the Museum’s future and produce an interpretive plan for the scenario ultimately selected.” Again, we don’t know the real story, only what the Museum chooses to write, but based on its website, there is an odd distance between the Museum and its community. And neither the New Vision nor the Planning Process Timeline express much joy or love for the elegant Renaissance Revival building or its contents.

So what lessons can we learn from this as yet unfinished drama? Here are five thoughts for board members and directors to consider. We don’t know whether they apply in this situation, but we offer them nonetheless.

Being a board member–and some would argue being a museum director–is about service, collective work to safeguard, interpret, collections, ideas and living things for and with the public. Lesson 1: Know your institution. If the only places you know how to find at your museum are the board room and the restroom, you don’t know enough. Learn the campus. Find the furnace room. See collections storage. Know whether exhibit design is done on site or somewhere else. Know the staff by name. Know the important pieces, places, and their stories.

Remember in serving and protecting the institution, you serve your community which may be local, regional, national or international.  Lesson 2: Know your community. If you have questions about who participates at your museum, ask them. Remember, you need to know three things: Who your community is as a whole; who comes to your museum and most importantly who doesn’t. If you are considering a change, will it serve those who love your organization and make those who are indifferent into friends? If not, why not?

Don’t believe that an absence of affirmation means your community doesn’t care. To quote Joni Mitchel sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Lesson 3: Be a good communicator. Individually, but most importantly collectively, boards need to communicate clearly and well. If you’re on the board, and you don’t understand something, how will the public understand? Just because a board operates as a collective body doesn’t mean it can’t (and shouldn’t) engage in vigorous discussion around change.

Trust is something that’s earned. Lesson 4: Trust your community. To trust them, you have to know them. (See Lesson 2). That means if you hire consultants on a planning project, you have to provide them with every bit of knowledge you have, and let the chips fall where they may. It means if your hope to change your institution depends on the sale of much loved pieces, you need to say that.

And the last lesson? If you’re asked to serve on a board, believe in the institution that’s asking. Anything else is like buying a house you intend to tear down.

Tell us how your board faces the big decisions.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


So What Does Your Museum Stand For?

Core values

This blog is starting to sound like a broken record. For more times than we can count, we’ve advocated for museums, heritage organizations, and museum service organizations to be value-driven entities. And what do we mean by that? We mean organizations willing to stand up for their beliefs.

Remember the T-shirt that says “Museums are not neutral”? Maybe you wear it proudly, maybe not. If it’s not a slogan you support, is that because you believe leadership is separate from your own beliefs and practices? How does that even work? Is caring about and for objects, buildings, art or living things a value system? No. Collecting, preserving and interpreting might be what your organization does; it’s not what it believes. So what does your organization stand for?

Our beliefs follow us to work. They influence hiring, board and volunteer selection. They weave their way into job descriptions. They affect curatorial decisions, programming and communications. Beliefs can keep staff inured in their own privilege, preventing them from walking in another’s shoes. And when we allow personal beliefs to influence organizational culture negatively, it’s called bias. Like, when a museum hires a diverse team, and then expresses consternation when its ideas land outside the traditional, patriarchal, often white organizational bubble. This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, you don’t hire a diverse staff just for the photo ops do you? Remember, unchecked bias and absent values can cripple museums and heritage organizations, not to mention the staff they harm.

Once again we’d like to suggest that as leaders, your self-awareness affects not only your ability to understand others, but through you, your museum’s ability to adapt and change. You begin by knowing yourself, and knowing what you believe in. If you are an open, warm, empathetic person, who leads with her staff rather than in front of it, you model core values. Whether you acknowledge it or not, those values influence your museum’s decision making.

Suppose you have a department chair who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The good news is her staff constantly pushes itself to meet her expectations. The bad news is she’s demeaning and disrespectful when things don’t go her way. You find her staff pacing far from their offices, trying to shake off the latest slights. Her department is famous for resignations that cost your museum money and reputation. Worse, because she doesn’t lead with, she’s alienated the very people who might advise her to behave differently. Clearly if you’re the ED, it’s time for a conversation. How could a museum values  statement underpin this conversation? Would it be easier to ask for change based on a shared set of values that include equity, empathy and understanding?

Perhaps a values discussion and the creation of an organizational values statement is on your 2018 to-do list. Don’t put it off. Sit down with your staff and board, and talk about what matters. Do environmental issues top the list? Then how do your museum’s policies and practices reflect environmental preservation? How about gender equity? Is that something you, your staff and board believe in? What changes can you make in governance, HR, exhibitions and programming that reflect an equitable workplace?  Does your board and staff believe history has a role in changing communities? How should that resonate in your workplace? Say what you mean. Write it down. Then stand behind it.

An organizational values statement may seem like just one more piece of woo-woo fluff that bloggers and self-help books throw at you in the midst of real life riddled with budget shortfalls, rising health insurance, deaccession proposals, and staff turnover. Maybe. But we suggest that in times of crisis, it’s values that hold organizations together.

Joan Baldwin