The International Council of Museums may seem like it has about as much to do with your work as New York’s fashion week does with your sartorial choices. In other words, not much. ICOM is literally some far-away group deciding things that have nothing to do with you, a museum leader with a new strategic plan underway, an underpaid and overworked staff, and insufficient funding for just about everything. But wait, maybe it does. Just as Fashion Week has a trickle-down effect on day-to-day wear for the average human, so too does ICOM’s decision making. So while it may seem like a lot of talk about a lot of nothing, ICOM’s proposed new museum definition, and its failure to pass, is actually kind of important.
For those of you for whom ICOM is a new acronym, the International Council of Museums was born in 1946, another child of the post-war baby boom. It’s opening meeting took place in Paris where its first-elected president was Chauncey J. Hamlin, politician, public figure, philanthropist, and president of the board of both the Buffalo Museum of Science and the American Museum Association (now the American Alliance of Museums.) In 2007, 61 years from its founding, ICOM adopted a “new” definition for museums:
“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”
This year, when ICOM members gathered in Kyoto, Japan the plan was to vote on another definition of museums, one that is far more aspirational then previous versions. Spoiler alert: the new definition wasn’t adopted. But for those of you who missed it, here it is:
Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.
Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.
So why should you care? Well, maybe you can’t. Maybe this week or next you just don’t have the bandwidth to think about the museum field at a global level. But if you do, here are some thoughts about why it might matter to you, toiling away in museum land around the globe.
- First, ICOM’s argument is your argument. You may not have hashed it out on a global stage, but how many of you have discussed Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry’s “Museums are not neutral” campaign with board or staff? And P.S. if you haven’t, you might want to. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to talk.
- Second, since 2007, ICOM has seen museums as “permanent institutions in service of society.” Before we even think about its proposed new definition, that’s an interesting line to parse. How many of you (and your boards) think of your institutions in service to society? And what about your definition of society? Is it inclusive?
- How many of you feel that too many museums, particularly, but not exclusively, American heritage institutions are blissfully disconnected from their communities? If your answer is yes, then the new definition might speak directly to you. It asks you to guarantee equal rights and equal access to collections, and to aim to contribute to human dignity and social justice. What does that mean for curators at fancy robber-baron houses? What does it mean for art museums where by some counts 87-percent of the work is by men, most of them white? What does it mean for your typical early 19th-century kitchen where for years the dangers and drudgery of housework is somehow subsumed in the nifty qualities of flat irons and wash boards?
It seems to me, far from the center of ICOM discussions, that the proposed definition asks two things of us all, one of which is far easier than the other. First, it asks us to stop pussyfooting around and tell our collections’ stories in a transparent, authentic way that connects past with present, telling the whole story even the parts we can’t show because we don’t own the stuff. Second, and this is trickier, it asks us to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Contributing is a loaded word. Is simply doing all the regular museum things–exhibitions, programs, fund raising but better—enough? Or do we need to actually take a stand? And does taking a stand affect development efforts, collecting, programming, and exhibitions? Does it blur the line between individual values and organizational ones? Does it mean we support our staff members who openly protest? And what would it look like? Would it mean that as the local historical museum we stand with our local human rights organization when a member of our community is about to be deported?
You don’t need me to tell you that museum land in the age of Google is different. Is it possible that whether ICOM makes a decision about a new museum definition or not, that all of us need to change? That if we can’t change, the public, who has the entire world in words and images on the their phones, will go somewhere else for information, for history, for tranquility, for a civics lesson, for connection? So regardless of what ICOM does, it’s up to you. Listen. Know what you don’t know. Know what your collection means, not just in a textbook sense, but to your community. Find and make meaningful connections, person to person, object to person, collections to community. Make museums matter.
P.S. In the spirit of bringing everyone to the table the wonderful Maria Vlachou directs us to a Padlet created by Anna Marras with voices from around the world commenting on what museums could and should do prompted by ICOM’s recent meeting.
Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you and were tender with you? and stood aside for you? Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
If you’re a museum leader, you may have heard you’re supposed to build a team on trust. Perhaps you read that here last week. You may also hear that leaders need vision. If asked, you may respond, you’ve got vision. Every day. And yet, things keep going awry. So here’s a question: Have you thought about the fact that you’re part of the team? That’s not as flip an ask as it sounds. After all, whether you step in and work side-by-side with your staff, chat with them daily or fill in when someone’s sick isn’t really the point. The point is you. Are you the change you want to see or are you just mouthing the words?
Sometimes when we’re the leader, we think we don’t have to change. After all, we’re the visionary. We’re the idea-maker. We can already envision the team, department or museum in its new guise. And yet, when we don’t see the change we expected from our team, who gets blamed? The team. If you were a psychologist, you’d attribute that behavior to self-serving bias, “the tendency to attribute positive events to their own character but attribute negative events to external factors.” Museum leadership is more than just will and skill; it’s also about personal change that mirrors and reflects the organization and the behavior you expect and want from staff.
Say you’re meeting with your front of the house staff about behavior at the reception desk. There have been complaints, one from a board member, that staff isn’t focused enough on visitors. There’s too much chatting, which has a tendency to veer toward whining. All that might be true, but before you sit down with staff, do a self-check. What is your behavior like around the reception desk? Is it the place you catch up on the group to-do list? Do you meet people there and then head to your office? In short, are you modeling the change you want? If not, don’t meet with staff right away. Work on your own behavior first. If you stop by the reception desk, do it intentionally. Introduce yourself to visitors. Welcome them to your museum or heritage site. Engage them for a moment. Stop buzzing by with little logistical details that take staff’s mind off their principal role: to make visitors feel welcome and comfortable. In other words, show don’t tell.
Once you’ve put your personal change in motion, you may want to start your next team meeting by explaining what you’ve done and why. Describe the problem as you saw it–a noisy, sometimes off-putting reception desk where it was hard for visitors to get the information they needed to navigate the site. Explain how you started with yourself first, and a personal check-in. Talk about the results. Without your disruptions, the front of the house staff is more focused. Then be really brave and ask what else you can do differently. Listen. Say thank you. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about your organization, and more particularly the visitor’s introduction to your site.
At the next meeting, ask staff whether they continue to see change. If not, why not? What’s holding them back? Use this pattern of self-reflection, discovery, re-evaluation, and recalibration for change museum-wide. And always encourage staff to begin with self-reflection.
Given Leadership Matters’ ongoing posts about the need for equitable treatment of museum workers, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the Tenement Museum, the most recent of New York City’s museums to have its education, retail, and visitor services staff unionize. This is the third time the Tenement Museum’s staff has tried to join Local 2110 UAW (United Auto Workers), the union that is also home to workers at Bronx Museum of the Arts, Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, and New-York Historical Society. Since collective bargaining just began, it will be awhile before staff knows whether their issues with overtime compensation, low wages, and no health insurance will bear fruit. Whether pay equity and closing the gender pay gap is also on the table isn’t known.
This Wednesday I will attend the New England Museum Association’s 100th Annual Meeting in Stamford, CT. Along with panel moderator Scott Wands (CT Humanities) and co-presenters Grace Astrove (Jewish Museum), Kelsey Brow (King Manor Museum), Ilene Frank (Connecticut Historical Society), and Diane Jellerette (Norwalk Historical Society), I will help lead a session titled “Low Pay, No Pay, and Poor Pay: Say No Way!”
Despite the alliterative and slightly confrontational title, our goal is to bring people together to talk honestly about one of the most difficult aspects of museum work: salary. We will lead table discussions on the following topics: emerging professionals and pay; unpaid internships; salary and benefits negotiation; race and pay; and gender and pay inequity.
Our goal is to give participants the opportunity to move from table to table potentially participating in multiple discussions before reporting out to the whole group. In part, that’s because there is no one size fits all compensation story. Pay is personal and pay is organizational. Pay relates to your personal narrative, your personality, and hugely to bias.
For many board members, staff represent a yawning cavern of expense and escalating benefits. And while boards may adjust an executive director’s salary and benefits package to attract and keep the multi-talented person they believe their museum deserves, beyond the aggregate numbers, they rarely dip into compensation for staff further down the food chain. Thus, for the most part, pay is an executive director versus current or potential staff question, meaning when an offer is made both individuals need to be at the top of their game. The executive director needs to fully understand her budget, know whether she can negotiate and how far she’s willing to go. The individual needs to have some sense of salary range–which is why posting salaries and ranges is so important–and how much it costs to live in the area in question and meet expenses. She also needs to know what she thinks she’s worth, and whether she’s willing to walk away if an offer is too low.
Negotiations like these are made more complicated by gender and race. Job applicants have to find ways to ask whether the museum has completed a pay equity survey and adjusted salaries accordingly. Presumably any organization that’s already had a Marc Benioff-like moment would be overjoyed to talk about it, but you can’t be sure. And in some organizations, too many questions — from women and particularly from women of color — translate into a stridency organizations want to steer clear of.
Then there is the whole issue of new professionals negotiating for the first time, or those still in graduate school who want or need internships. We would like to announce that unpaid internships were as antiquated as the rotary phone, but sadly they’re not. NEMA has been stalwart in its support for mutually beneficial internships, but the museum world is still riddled with epically bad The Devil Wears Prada experiences. And being treated like crap when you’re being paid is one thing, but being treated like crap for donating your time seems like the definition of insanity.
One of the blue-sky hopes for this session is to actually come up with a series of proposals that will help move the salary debate forward. Since not all of you will be in Stamford this week, if there are changes you’d like to see — organizationally, regionally, and nationally — let us know. Let’s make some noise and make some change.
As some of you know, Anne Ackerson and I teach a course in Johns Hopkins’ graduate program. Leadership of Museums, runs in the fall so, at the moment, we are deep into questions of why leaders do what they do. This week one of our students asked some pointed questions about the connection between courage and confidence. For me, her comments had particular resonance since I witnessed several leaders fail in the courage department during the work week.
When our student co-joined these two qualities, I believe she was thinking of the definition of confidence that goes, “A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities,” as opposed to “the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.” How that first definition relates to courage is interesting. The OED defines courage as “The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.” Do museum leaders or wanna-be leaders need both confidence and courage or is one enough?
As leaders there’s no quality you need more than self-awareness, and self-awareness is fertile ground for confidence. Knowing yourself, understanding your faults, and being able to act on that knowledge makes for great, confident leadership because to quote the OED, you appreciate your own abilities.
But what about courage? Museum leadership 101 isn’t exactly an assault on Mount Everest. How often is courage necessary? My answer? More than you think especially when people–volunteers, board members, visitors and colleagues– speak from a worldview laden with bias. This week colleagues of mine were victims not only of unkindness, but racism and gender stereotyping. What’s a leader’s role when a team member demeans or castigates another in public? And what happens when those remarks are rooted in bias or stereotype? Should you say something? Maybe? But speaking up takes more than confidence. When emotions are high, when one colleague defines another using stereotypes, it can be a frightening situation. You’re the person staff looks toward, yet you’re afraid you’ll say the wrong thing and make the situation worse. What if you betray your own bias, and don’t appear equitable? What if you sound garbled and confused?
All possible, but think about the consequences of staying silent. At the very least you will experience a loss of trust. After all, the berated staff member, not to mention the ones listening, expect leadership to step in. When you don’t, they wonder if you really do have their back. Second, by not acting, you make it seem as if the organization itself is complicit in your silence. That permits either side–bully or victim– to use your inaction to bolster their arguments. Last, how does not saying anything hold up against your own values? How do you feel when you don’t live up to your own expectations?
In the workplace courage isn’t solely about riding in on your white horse to protect staff from bias-filled bullies. Courage is what allows us to admit a mistake in public, or say we’re sorry. It’s coming to the aid of a friend who’s being hit-on by someone they clearly want no part of. It’s standing up for the values and voices missing from the table.
We live in a world where everyone comments–on news stories, Twitter, Facebook, and in real life. Being willing and able to say stop, to say that’s unkind, or those are not the values this organization stands for, takes confidence and courage. What museum would be hurt–particularly back-stage in the workplace–by an extra dose of courage? Let’s find some.
If you read anything about leadership, you will hear the words teamwork. It’s used in job descriptions as in “We want a team player,” and in dismissals, “She wasn’t a good fit, not a team player.” In short, it’s the 21st-century building block for organizations big and not so big.
In small museums your team may be everyone–trustees, volunteers, administrative assistant, the director (you) and another staff member–while in larger institutions, the people in your department constitute your team. In giant institutions, your team may be the folks you work with daily. You may see others from your department only weekly or monthly.
Webster’s lists three definitions for the word team: a group of people who compete in a sport; a group of people who work together; and last-for all of you in living history museums–a group of two or more animals used to pull a cart or wagon. By contrast, the Business Dictionary defines team as “A group of people with a full set of complementary skills required to complete a task, job, or project.” It goes a step further by pointing out that “A team becomes more than just a collection of people when a strong sense of mutual commitment creates synergy, generating performance greater than the sum of the performance of its individual members.”
Let’s pause here to point out that a well-functioning team doesn’t necessarily adjourn to the neighborhood watering hole after work or have pot luck dinners together. It can. But as a museum leader, it’s not your job to create friendships. It’s your job to define the team’s goal and provide the resources (money, additional people/expertise, and time) to achieve it. Everyone may agree that your mission is to serve public, but there are likely as many variants of that ideal as you have staff members. Your role as a leader is to define how you want that goal accomplished. Otherwise the work you assign is simply a variation of that old story of the leader sending a worker out to bring home a rock. When he sees the rock, he says, “No, not that one.” Do not make your team guess what you want. Conversely, if you’re a team member and feel as though you’re being sent to look for a rock, ask your director to define what she’s looking for. Repeat it back. Make sure you understand. (And she does too.)
Next, you need to insure that your team has the right composition. Perhaps some of you are sighing right now, the thought bubble over your heads reading, “Who is she kidding, there is no money to hire the perfect team or will to fire chronically weak members.” True enough. But all business research points to more success and innovation when teams are diverse, meaning not just racially, but age, gender, and professional focus too. So what do you do? If you work in a medium to large institution, consider pulling in team members from other departments. Don’t make them tokens. They will hate it and so will you. Bring them on because they have skill sets and points of view you need, and be transparent about it. If you need a 25-year old who Tweets on the way to work, then let your team know that’s why she’s in the room. And if you work in a tiny or small institution, consider team building as a way to grow your organization. Ask the folks whose skill sets you need to join for the duration of a particular project. Tell your team to take an afternoon off once a week so that the new director of the Boys and Girls Club can join you in the evening because that’s when he’s free to volunteer.
Last, and most importantly, make sure your organization can support the team in whatever project you’ve assigned from the most mundane–is there adequate meeting space and IT support for them to work–to money and board or leadership consent. There’s nothing worse for team members than working on a project only to be told that leadership isn’t supportive, and all their work is for naught.
Hopefully, if you provide your team with a clear goal, have the right people around the table, and adequate support for them to do their work, they will develop a shared mindset around the project whether it’s a large exhibit, a benefit, or a new way of working with your community. If you are a director, build in periodic check-ins to look at how well the team understood the project mission, absorbed new members, and is moving toward a successful conclusion. And remember to say thank you. In the museum world there’s no such thing as end-of-year bonuses, so make your thanks genuine, not perfunctory. And if a team member steps out of her defined task to take on a new role, be sure to ask if there are ways you as leader (along with the organization) can support that new skill.
Tell us how you work with teams.
First, we would like to offer a huge thank you to everyone who viewed, read, tweeted, commented, signed up to follow or otherwise joined us in musing about museums and leadership as well as women and museums during 2015. And you should know you weren’t alone. We almost tripled our visitors with 14,852 in 2015 versus 4,4119 the year before. That amounted to 23,262 views, an average of 1.7 per reader, but who’s counting?
It is particularly gratifying that outside of the United States, home to the majority of our readers, we reached folks in 92 different countries and territories this year. Many of you are in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, but it is awesome to think that the problems and questions of museum leadership and of women in the museum world are common to directors, curators and museum educators whether you are in the Palestinian Territories, Botswana or Cyprus or 90 other places.
We recognize and value the naysayers among you who think our focus on women in the museum workplace is too narrow, too myopic or too simplistic. We continue to believe that inclusion at its most basic level is first and foremost about equality between the sexes. It does not exist in most American and global workplaces. But without it, diversity in every other sense of the definition is just so much window dressing.
Your favorite posts were: “Can Museum Women Have It All?” followed by “Is Negotiating Not a Museum Thing?” and “Ambition in the Museum Workplace.” Together they netted a whopping 4, 651 readers. Not like the Kardashians we realize, but for us big numbers.
So with all of that in mind, here are some predictions, hopes and fears for the coming year:
For individuals: We hope individuals engage in active career planning that includes salary discussion and negotiation; We wonder if we will see more women tapped as CEOs of large museums (and we’ll see more women board chairs, too); And we hope that we hear museum staffers speak up when women and minorities are left out of the conversation or diminished intentionally or unintentionally. Remember what Gloria Steinem says: “If you’re called a bitch, smile sweetly and say thank you.”
For organizations: We wonder whether more museums will commit to gender equity in pay and promotions through transparent and accountable practices; We hope that leadership development of boards and staffs is an encouraged, supported, and ongoing practice; And we hope museums, historic houses and heritage organizations will make 2016 the year for personnel; that they will create a personnel policy if they do not have one and invest in their staff.
For the museum field: We see strong leadership for gender equity as an ethical imperative for our professional associations and leading museums; We hope that just as it’s taken on diversity, AAM will see gender as a topic that matters to our industry and that ongoing gender issues also relate to the overarching topic of inclusion; We hope to see more leadership development opportunities at conferences and in the programming of our professional associations. Last, we hope to see the field identify and model successful, sustainable ways to achieve greater diversity of staff, boards and audiences in all types of museums.
To begin, if you’re looking for an interesting listen, try Museopunks. This week hosts Suse Anderson and Ed Rodley examine ICOM’s existential crisis over the definition of the word ‘museum’ by gathering voices from around the world. Each of the 11 participants (myself included) muses on the nature and importance of the definition. For those of us at work in museum land it’s an interesting chorus. Take a listen.
This was also the week Anne Ackerson and I talked about gender and leadership with our Johns Hopkins graduate students. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned gender here, but given that we’re a century from the passage of the 19th amendment, it’s appropriate to remember (again) how far we’ve come, and how much work there is left to do. In addition to talking with our students, I also listened to NPR’s On Point where Meghna Chakrabarti and David Folkenflik spoke with three individuals about the fact that 2019 marks the moment when women become the majority in the college-educated workforce.
As a woman and a member of a generation who were trail blazers in the workplace even when we didn’t realize it, I need only speak with our graduate students to understand the breadth and depth of the distance we’ve travelled. The women are acutely aware of workplace gender issues, having suffered the slings and arrows of mansplaining, verbal head-patting, not to mention more pointed harassment. Unlike my generation, many are also woke to the wage gap. For the men, things are different. They are different, and quick to point out that they are not their father’s or grandfather’s generation. Some reference the strong women in their lives, suggesting the way they were raised means they behave differently. And therein lies an issue. They believe their values and behavior will change the museum workplace. I hope they’re right.
Their words were echoed by the On Point interviewees, one of whom suggested part of our problems stem from the Boomer generation. Although I’d like to be more optimistic, it’s hard to believe that once the last Boomer folds her tent and heads for retirement, that the workplace will be cleansed of gender bias. While anything is possible, as far as I know, Target’s toy section is still filled with gendered toys: girls’ toys are pink and sparkly and boys’ toys are camouflage-colored and make noise. Even searching for a toy is a gendered experience. I don’t mean to single out Target, only to point out that unless millennials were raised by unique parents, they are just as likely to suffer gender imprinting as earlier generations, and are as subject as the rest of us to the relentless barrage of gender norms. And woe betide the non-binary child for whom a neat parsing of pink and princess vs. red and soldier does not not fit.
The point is only–and we’ve said this countless times here–workplace equity isn’t about you and your politically correct feelings. Your upbringing and your beliefs are in fact, immaterial. What matters is how you act: How the bucket of impressions and experiences you carry with you takes meaning as it makes its way into the world. No matter how kind, empathetic and understanding you are, if somewhere in your lizard brain, you implicitly believe that men are natural leaders, that informs your decision making as leader and follower. Museum workplace gender bias is still a thing, and change only happens when staff is self-aware, understands their workplace culture, and when museums and heritage organizations actively support staff in all their glorious diversity.
While we’re waiting for perfection:
- Don’t ascribe bias to one generation while not looking to your own as well.
- If you have power, acknowledge it.
- Don’t ask for feedback if you aren’t ready for a response that may be at odds with yours.
- Try not to avoid conflict at the expense of honest communication that could clear the air.
- If you are in a leadership position, know yourself and how you present. Ditto for your museum or heritage organization.
- Remember, you make change through action, and your observation is your obligation.
- Be respectful of other’s experience. No matter how informed, intentional and empathetic you are, their narrative may be different, and it takes time to build trust.
Yours for an equitable workplace,
Image: Portland Art Museum
While Leadership Matters is thankful for its loyal readership, our readers rarely — unless we’re writing about poor pay — comment much. Surprisingly, last week’s post on board culture generated some meaty discussion both here and on AAM’s Open Forum. Comments ranged from T.H. Gray’s definition of a Board of Trustees: “Museum amateurs charged with leading museum professionals,” to Steven Miller’s response on the Open Forum. The crux of much of the discussion was whether and how museum boards influence workplace culture.
Several of you, including Conor Hepp and Steven Miller, suggested that it is staff leadership who create organizational culture which the board monitors. Miller too pointed out that museum boards are distanced from organizational daily life, and their lack of training causes problems. He wrote: “I agree with Conor’s points that trustees are usually removed from a museum’s daily internal life. There are exceptions, of course, and they usually play out in small museums or with trustee committees that are close to certain museum offices, departments or operations. There can be many cultures within a museum, some known to trustees some not known.” Leadership Matters‘ Anne Ackerson also responded to Hepp, pointing out that “the leadership team is responsible for nurturing (or stunting) the day-to-day institutional culture. Don’t forget, though, that the board also has a culture that permeates staff leadership ranks.”
So which is it, chicken or egg? Do boards create and influence workplace culture or is that the responsibility of the leadership team? We agree there are likely many cultures at work in any organization, and the bigger the museum, the more likely that multiple cultures will flourish. That said, what’s the board’s role? And what about Anne’s idea that board behavior sets an example (and a culture) for the entire organization? If a board relegates women to event planning or overseeing the volunteer program, doesn’t that set an example for the organization’s attitude toward women? If the ED came to a board like that with questions about salary equity or the gender pay gap would the board step out of character and work for change?
Except in the tiniest organizations, boards cannot and should not be involved in micromanaging the workplace. But in the case of these big-ticket issues involving institutional values, we agree with Anne: The board sets a tone. In a perfect world, the board is both a microcosm and a mirror. It reflects the community it serves by making sure everyone is at the table, and, once seated, that everyone has a voice. In addition, it understands that its behavior — inclusive, empathetic, and creative — is a model for the museum itself. Last, it knows that a value-driven board attracts and retains museum leadership with similar qualities.
To circle back to last week’s post, if Wall Street is a bellwether for anything, executive behavior — both on and off the board — is important. For Wall Street good behavior, setting values and acting on them suddenly seems to have monetary value, which is not nothing when mergers and acquisitions count in millions of dollars. How long will it be before a nonprofit board is taken to task or taken to court for its knowledge and complicity in sexual misconduct, racist or xenophobic behavior? In the Lake Wobegon of nonprofits, where all museums are above average, we’d like to think boards behave well just because it matters and that’s their job. But in a world where victims can share their stories in a heartbeat, everyone needs to check their biases and, most importantly, be empathetic. Here at Leadership Matters, we believe that begins with the board.
We’d like to end this week’s post with a hearty congratulations to Local 2110 UAW, a chapter of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), organizing for union rights across New York City. After 122 days it reached an agreement on behalf of union members at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). As reported by Hyperallergic, the agreement means all employees will receive raises of 3% or $1,600, depending on which amount is greater, with the lowest-paid 25% of workers receiving 4% greater additional income or higher. MoMA staff will retain their single coverage health benefits without employee contributions, and employees utilizing family coverage will not see an increase in their contributions as a result of their new raises. To learn more about Local 2110, click here.
When I talk to museum professionals, especially those just establishing themselves
in the field, there is often a romanticized view of consulting work. You get to focus
on your passions, you keep things fresh, you have flexibility. And you can make a
living. All of these can be true, and working as an independent professional can be a
wonderful fit for many. However, I think it does all of us a disservice if we gloss over
the unique challenges independent professionals face, whether they remain for
many years or see themselves returning to employee status in the future
“Consultant” and “Founder” is a title that I’ve held for four years, starting when I left
my full time job to stay home with my baby. I was lucky I had that choice, the
position I left would have meant long hours away from home, and an uneven
schedule that I didn’t want. However, I also knew that I had professional passions I
wanted to nurture. The best (and most fiscally reasonable) way to balance giving up
a full time income was to become a consultant.
That makes it seem so simple, but of course it is more complicated than that. I was
lucky that my professional networks kicked in at the right moment, and I landed a
fulfilling project that helped me jumpstart. There was also the fact that we could
depend on my spouse’s income. It also doesn’t address the long stretches where I
had no projects to work on or the project I lost when I became pregnant again.
That is my story, but I knew that other independent professionals had a different
experience. I created a survey that I shared online to get feedback from others on
the benefits, challenges and motivations for getting into consulting.
The results came in fast and furious, and people were eager to share the many
benefits of being an independent professional. You have independence and
flexibility in your schedule, pay, location and projects. It can help bridge the gap if
there is a lack of full time work or give you a chance to collaborate with
organizations you are interested in. You can also focus your work on your passions.
Along with the benefits, the survey provided a cleareyed look at the challenges.
Freedom and the flexibility is often the main draw of independent work, but it is
exhausting to maintain. Balancing multiple projects sometimes results in a “feast or
famine” scenario where you are either overwhelmed with work or trying to keep
busy. You may be constantly on the hunt for projects or trying to prove your worth
on just one so when it’s time for a contract renewal you feel secure.
Sick days don’t exist…or parental/caregiver leave. Those are just times when you
aren’t working and aren’t getting paid. If you are the primary breadwinner it may
not feel stable. I’ve also experienced a different feeling as the trailing partner, I feel
like I need to pick up all the slack at home to compensate for my lower paycheck.
Within projects it can be hard to feel part of the workplace social aspect. Maybe you
aren’t onsite, maybe you are in at odd times or move from project to project. The boost you get from colleagues can be vital to mental wellbeing at work, and is often
missing from contract work.
That seems like a long list of negatives, but it is not meant as a complaint. Instead, it
is meant as a reminder of the challenges that come with all those benefits. If you are
considering contract work it is important to think about how it will affect all aspects
of your life including personal and longterm professional. If you are already an
independent professional, it is good to remember that the challenges you face are
unique to this type of work, and it is ok to acknowledge them, and look for solutions
that work for you..
The number of independent museum is professionals is growing. At the 2015
American Alliance of Museums conference 18% of attendees identified as
consultants, the largest group represented (Museum Magazine July/August 2015),
but it isn’t something that is frequently talked about or well understood by people
entering the field. For every person who does it by choice, there are others who
consult because jobs don’t exist or they aren’t able to take a full time position and
meet other responsibilities.
As contractors or potential contractors, we need to know our rights so we can
protect ourselves legally and financially. As independent contractors, we must speak
up when we need support from our professional networks, so that we are informed
and make sure potential employers are also informed. We also need to acknowledge
specific challenges we face in the work/social environment, and in our personal
lives. One of the points that survey respondents made again and again was not to
undersell your talents or the value of your time just because you believe in the cause or have a passion for your work. Your expertise deserves to be acknowledged and
your work fully compensated.
If you are a museum leader, you need to make sure that you know the legal
definition of “contractor,” and also think about why the position you’ve advertised
should be filled by a contractor not a staff person.. Keep your oversight expectations
in mind, (Are you a hands on or hands off manager?) and the scheduling needs of the
organization. Also, don’t forget the social aspect of work. Do you want your
contractors to participate in the daily life of the museum? Is it a requirement or a
choice? Remember, you are bringing in a consultant because they have expertise
and can provide you with a service. Respect their contribution and skills.
Including independent professionals in museum work can be a huge benefit to both sides. The contractor does work they are interested in, on a schedule that meets
their needs, while the museum gets some outside expertise and completes a project
that might otherwise get left behind. However, it isn’t a perfect fairytale fix, and it
doesn’t look the same as a staff position. If we acknowledge that, and keep it in mind
going forward everyone will be better off.
Employee vs. Independent Contractor: Who Am I?
The IRS is the final arbiter of whether someone is an “employee” or an “independent contractor.” There are lots of resources on their website , but the details can be a little confusing. In general, if you provide a service to an organization, you are
probably an independent contractor. However, if the organization controls what will
be done and how it will be done then you are an employee. They have three
guidelines that you should assess to determine what your relationship with the
1. Behavioral : Does the company control or have the right to control what the
worker does and how the worker does his or her job?
2. Financial : Are the business aspects of the worker’s job controlled by the
payer? (These include things like how worker is paid, whether expenses are
reimbursed, who provides tools/supplies, etc.)
3. Type of Relationship : Are there written contracts or employee type benefits
(i.e. pension plan, insurance, vacation pay, etc.)? Will the relationship continue and
is the work performed a key aspect of the business?
For independent contractors in museums, it is critical to look at the “type of
relationship” assessment. The IRS specifically details that if the person provides
services that are “key aspects of the business” then they are more likely to be
controlled by the organization and therefore are employees. Also, the permanency
of the relationship needs to be looked at. “If you hire a worker with the expectation
that the relationship will continue indefinitely, rather than for a specific project or
period, this is generally considered evidence that the intent was to create an
It really does matter whether you fit the legal definition of employee or independent
contractor because it changes the tax and compensation responsibilities of you and
your employer. If you aren’t sure, you can file IRS Form SS-8, Determination of Worker
Status for Purposes of Federal Employment Taxes and Income Tax Withholding
(PDF) but it may take 6 months to get a determination. For additional help, you can
also see if there is a small business development center, state office or nonprofit that provides guidance.
Sarah Erdman is a mom, museum professional and early childhood educator. Her research and professional practice explores how museums and educators can connect to make meaningful experiences for young children. She writes at cabinetofcuriositiesva.com/blog/