This month many of us (the lucky ones) return to work in spaces we left four months ago. Depending on our own health and the health of those we care for, we may return full-time or touch base only intermittently while our real work life continues via Zoom. In either instance, our work lives are fundamentally altered, not just because we’re living through a pandemic, but because communication has changed.
Workplaces run on a hierarchy of communication from formal and serious–the annual letter from the museum president or HR stipulating your terms of employment–to all-staff emails, to more personal emails or Google chats. In our old lives, that hierarchy also included face-to-face meetings, and spontaneous hallway conversations. The latter two are becoming as rare as dial phones. And even when they take place, presumably half our face is masked so only our eyes convey emotion.
Then there’s Zoom. Could we have survived without it these last four months? Heck no. But it’s still challenging. I don’t know about you, but in my former life, I never thought about what direction I looked in staff meetings. My gaze moved naturally between speakers and listeners, and my note taking. But with Zoom, what was once your entire team together in a room is now reduced to faces in squares in their kitchens or home offices with the occasional pet or toddler wandering on screen. So when you speak to the whole, you’re actually speaking to eight individuals in eight individual spaces. It’s distracting, complicated, and occasionally confusing. Sometimes you don’t know what to focus on.
My daughter once had a science teacher whose opening assignment was to ask everyone to write one paragraph describing how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Believing it was an easy assignment, most students dashed off the paragraph in a few minutes. The teacher, however, showed up in class with a loaf of bread, jelly, peanut butter, and knives. Without attributing the author, she read each paragraph aloud while following their directions. The results were hilarious, but devastating. Knives wound up between slices of bread, and jelly or peanut butter were sometimes forgotten entirely. The message was clear: Directions need to be delivered in precise, understandable language or you can’t even make a simple sandwich. Now imagine how complicated actually running your museum, program or department will be when you’re communicating virtually and actually while masked and six-feet apart. Kind of like dancing backwards in high heels.
So…to make sure the sandwiches get made the way you want them, here are some simple suggestions for improved communication in the museum workplace:
- If some or all of your team still works from home, check in frequently. It doesn’t have to be long. A check-in that mimics a stop in an office doorway is fine, asking are you okay or is there anything I can help with?
- Even if they’re brief, set regular meeting times. In a world without much face-to-face contact, it’s important staff have meetings they can count on.
- Given that the post-COVID-world changes in a heartbeat, and ambiguity is practically a watchword, make sure your team knows they can bring you problems as they develop. You may want to consider borrowing an academic tradition and hold office hours. These can be real and held outside if weather permits or on Zoom at the same time each week. That way staff can always find you for a one-on-one that can be handled in under 15 minutes.
- Don’t forget recognition and applause. One of the many reasons life in the pandemic is hard is our daily interaction with colleagues is MIA. And it’s not just personal conversation or office gossip we long for. We miss colleagues telling us what they enjoy about our work, congratulating us when something goes well or giving us a high five. As leaders we need to remember that, and recognize staff achievements–you ran your first marathon alone, wearing a mask or your department’s digital takeover was the best ever–and say congratulations.
- And last, remember empathy. You may be powered up about your organization’s opening, but be mindful not everyone will find the return to work a piece of cake. Some may be worried about loved ones, struggling with childcare arrangements or processing how to deal with racism at work. Keep your door–metaphorical or actual– open and listen.
P.S. Since this spring’s string of racist murders, many students have started Instagram pages where they can reflect on what really went on behind the sunny and artificially diverse photos on school and college web pages. In the same vein, there’s now #changethemuseum. It’s jolting, heartbreaking, and anger inducing. If your organization has an HR department, you might want to share it. And if you are ever about to suggest an employee solve a workplace interpersonal problem on their own, give this page another look just to understand how horrific things can be.
Author photo, taken at Meow Wolf, Santa Fe, N.M., artist unknown
There is a whole lot of blame going on in the museum world with plenty directed at museum trustees. Where are their voices as the pandemic and the racism awakening unleash a Pandora’s box of anger? Anger at the irony of museum leadership releasing statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter while watching staffs decimated by COVID-19 furloughs and layoffs? Of museums sitting silent, serene and closed while women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA staff reveal that life inside isn’t so perfect?
Those of you who regularly read Leadership Matters know my antipathy to Twitter. But, though I rarely tweet, I do read, and recently there have been a a lot of comments about the need for a new sort of museum governance. (Can I pause here and say, how much I appreciate @MuseumsandRace’s series of questions on complicity. If you haven’t read them, you should. And if you need to spark staff or board discussion, use them.) But back to a new governance model. Many questions were raised by @TylerGreenBooks. He points directly at art museum trustees, suggesting art museums act like corporations not charities (his word), and that their boards are made up of folks whose major qualification for board membership besides money is “that they shop for art.” In fact, nonprofits, including museums, are corporations, just of a different type.
Tyler Green also suggests art museum boards are “bereft of experts with knowledge and experience related to the charity’s mission” while adding that “wealthy trustees give the minimum institutionally required board dues, and go along to get along.” Is that true? I have no way of knowing. And given the huge variety, even among American art museums, it seems a massive generalization. However, AAM’s 2017 Museum Board Leadership Report tells us that 2/3 of museum directors say their boards have a positive impact on job satisfaction. Should we believe them? Or have they crossed some economic divide, setting them far from the world of their hourly staff? The Report also tells us the vast majority of museum boards don’t assess their own performance, a concerning fact given that it’s likely boards presume there’s a world of assessment going on inside the museums they govern. And it also offers this nugget: “Board members believe board diversity and inclusion are important to advance their missions, but they fail to prioritize action steps to advance these priorities.” That was three years ago. Has that trend continued? If yes, maybe @TylerGreenBooks is correct, but for an entirely different set of reasons.
A year ago, AAM launched its Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity & Inclusion initiative, bringing 51 museums and $4 million dollars together national initiative to diversify museum boards and leadership. That was the same time the Ford Foundation’s President, Darren Walker wrote, “everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board.” (The Ford Foundation is one of the initiative’s three supporters.) Walker says museums have veered too far in appointing trustees whose only defining characteristic is unimaginable wealth. He suggests that board diversity can’t be seen as a compliance issue, but instead must be a key transformative step. Is the answer museums without boards? How would that work, in a country where the vast majority of museum funding comes from private donation? Or is the answer better boards? And who watches the watch dogs?
This week Darren Walker wrote another opinion piece for The Times titled, “Are You Willing to Give Up Your Privilege?” It is directed at the world of the one-percent Walker now inhabits. He suggests, “The old playbook — giving back through philanthropy as a way of ameliorating the effects of inequality — cannot heal what ails our nation. It cannot address the root causes of this inequality — what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.’” He asks what those with power and privilege are willing to give up?
It seems to me this is a crucible moment for museum boards of trustees, a moment that demands action, because the righteous anger and discontent aren’t going away. And as Maxwell Anderson put it so succinctly in his recent essay for Apollo, “The privileging of endowment balances before the pandemic seems to many a short-sighted goal, resulting, as it did, in knee-jerk layoffs,” and a sense that once again in museum land, it’s money before people.
Museum boards have particular power; they fund, guide and determine an organization’s DNA. But the old ways aren’t working any more. Systemic, and in many a museum’s case, genteel racism, aren’t problems you can throw money at and hope they go away. Boards need to pause and figure out how to respond, acknowledging their responses affect not just their community–however that’s defined–but the staffs who are the lifeblood of America’s 35,000-plus museums. And before we’re all too smug, maybe this question–What are willing to give up?– is one all of us white museum folk need to answer. Our responses may be different than a board member’s, but all of us need to reflect on how we have been complicit and most importantly, how we will change.
Because making #BlackLivesMatter can’t happen without change. And change needs to come from the top.
The rocking and rolling of the museum world continued this week. At least three museum directors left their positions, and multiple organizations, including Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Peabody Essex and the Georgia O’Keefe museums, announced they would undergo staff reductions. Museums are often the trailing indicator in economic crisis and now it’s clear even for those able to open how many visitors won’t come, and how bad the balance sheets will be.
Through it all tributes and solidarity for Black Lives Matter crowd social media. They are well intentioned, but I’m reminded of that writing adage, “Show, don’t tell,” and I wish I knew what museums are actually doing to change the unredeemed, genteel racism that pervades so many of our institutions. Because the real work, the work that matters to staff of color, and ultimately to visitors of color, happens far from social media. So here are some thoughts:
- The Gender Pay Gap: I first wrote about the gender pay gap on this blog in 2014. Since then I’ve written 10 columns about it. If museum leaders were to do one thing to demonstrate they really believe Black Lives Matter, it would be closing the pay gap. Black women are paid 61-percent of what non-Hispanic white men are paid. That means they need to work 19 months to equal every year of white male employment. That is inexcusable. And, according to the Economic Policy Institute, 55-percent of working black women are mothers, many primary wage earners. That means their wealth gap has a significant impact, not just for them, but on their families. If your museum hasn’t already graphed your staff salaries by race and gender, perhaps that should be on your to-do list. With that information in hand, you can work to level the playing field. Anything less supports the genteel racism the museum field has tolerated for more than a century.
- Collections: We know from last year’s Williams College study that art collections in US museums are 85.4-percent white and 87.4-percent by male artists. We know that gender and race equity in science research is an ongoing problem and likely influences how science is presented to the public. And we know the inclusion of additional narratives, whether race, gender or both, are frequently a problem for traditional heritage sites dominated by white, male narratives. And then there is decolonization, a particular problem for collections that once saw themselves as encyclopedic, accepting and exhibiting objects from indigenous cultures while eliminating their voices and stories. Not every museum can follow the Baltimore Museum of Art’s lead, selling work by men, to grow the percentage of women artists, and women artists of color, in their collections. Changes like that take money, yes, but also extensive planning. Do the planning now, and re-write the narrative. Why? Because Black Lives Matter.
- The DEI Position: If you’re museum is lucky enough to have a Diversity position in this age of recession and furloughs, there’s still work to do. White museum leadership, boards, staff, and volunteers still need to grapple with their own roles and their own behaviors. And if you don’t have a DEI position, for the love of God, don’t burden a staff person, who also happens to be black, with that role. They’re navigating their own path as part of the 11-percent of black museum staff nationally. They don’t need to be a spokesperson for racial identity without compensation.
- The Other Pay Gap: The Bureau of Labor Statistics, who tabulates who’s working in the museum field and what they make, tells us our median compensation is $49,850 or roughly $24 an hour. In other words, we’re not a high-paying field. One of the by-products of the COVID-19 layoffs and furloughs is worker protests. In New York City, Minneapolis and elsewhere we’ve seen museum workers using an organization’s 990 forms to publish executive compensation numbers in contrast to hourly, front-facing staff pay. Many of those staff have graduate degrees and yet their take-home pay is perilously close to Federal poverty lines. If a museum director makes $750,000 with benefits, but her front-facing staff makes $12/hour with no benefits, is her pay too high or is their pay too low? Isn’t it time museums as a group talked about this and grappled with a recommended ratio? Boards aren’t usually fans of unions, and yet the reason staff join unions is because they need and want a living wage and benefits.
Talk is cheap. For organizations and individuals what you do is in many ways more important than what you say. If your organization believes Black Lives Matter, than show your staff and your community the steps you plan to take. Be the organization you say you are.
It’s three weeks since George Floyd’s murder, and public protests continue. In some states the virus escalates, while in others museums and heritage organizations begin a slow reawakening after the pandemic shut down. Last week, many museum writers and thought leaders posted reading lists, suggestions and commentary, asking those of us who are white (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that was 83-percent of museum workers in 2019.) to stop being so complacent. To make change. To understand not being overtly racist isn’t enough. Despite the overwhelming amount of information coming at us, it’s critical we engage. Trying to understand the ever-changing rules for opening after the virus is one thing, but now we’re battling two foes, COVID-19 and systemic racism.
As we set up the bowling pins again, but differently, I would like to throw something else in the mix. You’re likely familiar with “Museums are not neutral.” Created by Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry in 2017, it raced across social media as the catch phrase for individuals, museums and heritage organizations who understand their role as active, not passive, engaged not isolationist. So here’s my question: Does clinging to museum neutrality come from the same place as white people who declare they’re not racist? Don’t both ideas–the idea that a museum isn’t apolitical and the idea that without doing anything illegal or overt you can still engender and support racism–challenge our comfortable complacency, and our desire to stay motionless and opinion-less?
It’s always easier to say it’s not me, believing someone else will do the heavy lifting. You have a team to lead, a museum to run, an exhibit to design. Yet every single choice we make in service to the public is charged. From who sits around the board table, what the staff looks like, to our exhibit subjects, the ticket price, and how front-facing staff is trained, we choose. And those choices include and exclude, people, ideas, and possibilities. Isn’t choosing not to be a neutral museum a little like choosing to no longer be complacent in a racist society? Both choices ask us to understand how we got here. And both ask us to act.
So as you open the museum you closed three months ago, think about talking, listening, and learning.
LEARN: Know what you don’t know. Read, and then read some more. If you haven’t read James Baldwin since college, it’s time. And read what black women have to say. This week I read Dr. Porchia Moore’s post for Incluseum. It’s about mapmaking and we fragile white folk who can’t see the forest for the trees. I also read Rea McNamara’s “Why Your Museum’s BLM Statement Isn’t Enough,” and my colleague Carita Gardner’s piece on ways out of complicity. You’ll likely find pieces that speak to you, but don’t just read for a week or two. Make reading outside your bubble a practice.
LISTEN: Listening, as opposed to waiting to talk, means hearing what staff and colleagues say. Try to understand your staff’s experience with the museum field and with your organization may be different than yours. If your organization is located in a white, suburban neighborhood, your colleagues of color may pass through a series of gauntlets unknown to you just getting to work every day or going out on a lunchtime errand. You need to hear and understand those experiences around race precisely because they’re not yours.
TALK: Provide space and time for staff and colleagues to talk together. No, you’re not a therapist, but your staff needs to process what’s happened and be a party to opening a museum that’s different from the one you closed. A month ago that might have meant becoming an organization with a more robust virtual presence. Now we mean a museum that knows its own values, ready to be an active citizen. We mean a museum where staff of color feel free to challenge content because it’s inequitable, unfair or a narrative is missing. All of this means talking.
Change is hard, but this is long overdue. Social media is the low-hanging fruit of change. Systemic racism requires systemic change, and it’s individual change that creates organizational transformation. We’ve put this off for too long, and the 11-percent of Black museum colleagues are weary, angry, and beyond frustrated waiting for us to catch up. Let’s act now to create a museum world that’s more diverse, no longer has a gender pay gap (which adversely affects women of color), and where artists, scientists, and historians of color are equitably celebrated.
Liz Lawley from Rochester, NY – Rooster 3, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3769073
It’s been an emotional week. We can rail against social media’s pervasiveness all we want, but the video of George Floyd’s murder forced us to look and be present. Suddenly it’s no longer possible to believe things aren’t that bad. They are. So from our living rooms, online, in parks, highway overpasses, or courthouse squares, alone and together, we began the work of ending systemic racism. Floyd’s death is only the latest in a long line of crimes stretching back to Emmett Till and beyond. And for those of us who’ve been happily ensconced in our white, liberal bubbles, perhaps there is a connection between our complacency and the eight minutes and 45 seconds that ended Floyd’s life.
So where are museums in all of this? Some are entirely present and forces for good in their communities, but some seem to believe hashtags function as a value statements. They don’t. I live in the northeast within an easy drive of many museums and heritage sites. In an admittedly anecdotal survey I scrolled the websites of a dozen art, history and general museums within 50 miles of me. What was I looking for? First to see if any of last week’s events had made it to their webpages. Second, to see if any had a values statement. Why does that matter? Maybe the public wants something more right now? Maybe the world cares as much about how a museum acts as it does about its role as collections steward. A mission statement tells the public what you do; a vision statement spells out who you want to be, but a values statement tells your staff, your trustees, your volunteers and your community how your organization behaves. And it affirms the behavior your organization expects at your site.
So, what did I discover? Only one organization had a values statement front and center on its webpages. Five of the 12 had new statements regarding George Floyd’s murder, systemic racism, and their beliefs. The remaining sites were unchanged. I understand that altering an organizational webpage isn’t as easy as changing your socks, and that many organizations utilize Twitter and Instagram for instant communication, but I don’t understand the absence of values statements. In a world where people are unkind, domineering, rude, and sometimes unlawful in our workplaces and sites, how does it hurt to say up front, “This is who we are. This is how we behave, and this is how we expect and hope you will behave too.”
Is a values statement a panacea in connecting a white, privileged museum or heritage organization to its wider community? No. Would it help? Maybe. Crafting a values statement asks your organization to focus not only on mission, but on engagement. Maybe mission statements aren’t enough any more? Perhaps museums need to be good citizens as well as good stewards.
A lot of wiser folks than I have written about the ease and superficiality of responding to a national crisis with a hashtag. If you haven’t already, you should read Mike Murawski’s post from this week. In it, he quotes Madison Rose whose response to #BlackoutTuesday was clear, concise and powerful. The questions she poses would make excellent fodder for discussions surrounding the creation of values statements. You may also want to read Vu Le’s brilliant “Have nonprofit and philanthropy become the white moderate that Dr. King warned us about?” In his piece, Vu suggests too many nonprofits are governed by white moderates whose emotional, financial and civic investment in the middle of the road prevents action. (That moderate sensibility did not, I might add, prevent them from furloughing hundreds of women and staff of color during the opening weeks of the virus. The point being, when they want to act decisively, they can.)
If a collective values statement seems a better choice than the social media equivalent of “thoughts and prayers,” talk with your staff. If your organization sees itself as apolitical, what does that look like in action, and most importantly, what does it look like for someone in your community? Does being neutral mean in times of community crisis a museum or heritage organization’s role is essentially unchanged? Or is there a civic role for your museum? And if yes, what might that look like? If your organization already has an active community role, can it be enhanced? And how can museums gently and explicitly let visitors know their sites are places hallmarked by kindness?
If George Floyd’s death stands for anything, perhaps it should mark the moment we re-centered, demonstrating that black lives matter, and creating more humane, value-driven organizations and museum workplaces.
People can cry much easier than they can change. James Baldwin
At the best of times leadership is a journey over peaks and valleys. Now is not the best of times. As of May 20 each of the 50 states began the slow march, from closed to open, towards some sort of post-COVID normalcy. As a result, museums and heritage organizations are also opening their doors. And museum leaders, like leaders everywhere, begin the summer with a boatload of new problems as worries over social distancing, appropriate cleaning, reliable testing, and devastating financial loss overlay the normal organizational problems of visitation, capital improvements, programs, and staffing.
And into all of this, there’s the question of personal fear. On a given day, leaders and staff may struggle with their own issues surrounding failure, criticism or discrimination, but COVID-19 adds something new. After months of self-isolation, Zoom meetings, and the comfort of your home cocoon, returning to work may be scary. Yet as a leader, whether of a tiny heritage site or a large science or art museum, need to work through these new fears and move organizations forward because COVID-19 has a legitimacy our own personal demons lack. Having killed 100,000 plus, it’s a diabolical enemy, deadlier than our personal angst about clowns, airplanes, or speaking in public. So how do you move forward while keeping your anxieties in check?
- Trust your team: If ever there was a moment to learn leadership is about collaboration, this is it. Yes, you’re the leader, whether of the program, team or museum, but trust those working under you. Grant them the autonomy and authority to make decisions without running every bit of minutiae up the organizational ladder. Utilize the diversity and skill of your leadership group by having them create or expand teams to address major organizational problems in the post-COVID landscape.
- Protect your staff: They know your collection, care for and love your site, and hold its institutional history. Yet some may have coped with separation, illness, and death or huge financial loss. Acknowledge what they’ve gone through. Create a leadership group whose charge includes protecting staff as well as visitors, recognizing that some staff deal with the public daily while others not so much. Side note: If you ever wondered about creating an organizational values statement, now might be the moment to write one. Being transparent about organizational beliefs will support both staff and your wider community.
- Be as transparent as possible: Fear of the unknown is a real thing. If you name it, whether it’s the monster under the bed or the fear of cleaning public restrooms, it lessens its power. Communicate clearly. Let staff and visitors know what you don’t know, and also what you’re trying to do to ameliorate problems.
- Frame the questions: By asking big questions with the most elastic borders, you’ll get the most information. When team discussion drifts into the weeds, delegate someone to identify the minutiae and find the answers. Don’t waste the group’s time theorizing about things better left to those who do them every day.
- Reflect, and reflect again: Panic and fear makes us want to act quickly. While it’s hard to learn new organizational patterns in the midst of crisis, ask your museum leadership team for data as opposed to anecdotes. Then, reflect on what’s worked so far, and more importantly what didn’t. Hold each new piece of knowledge against the particularities of your museum or your site. Make decisive, but measured decisions.
Last, you’re probably as weary as I am of hearing that “we’re all in this together.” But like it or not, we are. And we’re all scared and anxious together too. And it’s not just the virus. Museums and heritage organizations will reopen not just in a post-virus world, but also on the eve of a national election in a country newly scarred by racist behavior. We must be empathetic individually and collectively, building community by offering space for reflection, discussion and understanding as we move forward. And last, but not least, if your team is onto a good thing, whether about fear or another COVID-19 issue, share it this week through the brilliant and virtual #museumsurvivalkit.
In Part II of a duo of guest blog posts (See May 11 for Part I) guest blogger Steven Miller examines the fate of museum collections in the Post-COVID age.
On April 15th the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issued a press release announcing it had “…passed a series of resolutions addressing how art museums may use the restricted funds held by some institutions.” One part of the announcement stated “…an institution may use the proceeds from deaccessioned works of art – regardless of whether the works were deaccessioned before or after the date of these resolutions – to support the direct care of the museum’s collections.”
Museums are unique in their self-declared reliance on objects to justify their existence. Collections act as evidence of the subject a museum exists to explain. Acquisitions provide meaning about human history, creativity, and the sciences. Over the years the idea evolved that museum collections are held for the long term, a notion entirely generated by museums themselves as they devote considerable resources to save collections from theft, natural disaster, civil destruction, physical deterioration, etc. Though phrased in a way that suggests caring for collections is of importance to the AAMD, museums can interpret “direct care” as they wish. Collection sale profits can cover utility bills, capital expenses, debt payments, employee compensation, you name it. No one is checking.
If anyone ever doubted that museums are expensive organizations to run, COVID-19 proved them wrong. With many museums closed or trying to figure out how to open after 11 weeks of closure, admission and programming income is gone, and boards and their leadership are left to figure out the way forward. The AAMD’s April 15th announcement seems to provide an income option as it suggests collections are expendable financial assets.
In the early 1970s selling museum collections became highly controversial. Reacting to intense public debate, the museum field structured guidelines for the practice. Selling was condoned only if proceeds were allocated for future collection purchases, and/or the direct care of collections. Though these recommendations are accepted by most museums, unless restrictions apply to certain objects, museums can do with them as they wish. (Restrictions, legal or social, might apply to endangered species, stolen objects, materials of importance to indigenous peoples, or, things given or sold to museums with ownership caveats prohibiting future removal.) The majority of museum deaccession policies omit concerns for preserving what is being disposed of. The AAMD mirrors that practice.
Deaccession by unrestricted sale essentially amounts to the destruction of objects a museum once owned and cared for. Why does the AAMD like this? For me, the answer is money. As a membership organization the AAMD’s unspoken priority is to attract and keep customers – e.g., members, and because museums sell collections, AAMD condones the activity.
In the United States it is the duty of museum trustees to sustain institutions for which they are responsible. As noted, the effect of an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic makes their work incredibly difficult. The challenges are mind-boggling. Ultimately, practical solutions for museums are almost entirely of a fiscal nature. What will it cost to survive, how will survival be defined, and, where will the money come from, not to mention when?
The AAMD’s resolutions were made “…in recognition of the extensive negative effects of the current crises on the operations and balance sheets of many art museums – and the uncertain timing for a museum’s operations, fundraising, and revenue streams to return to normal.” Although a devastating idea, the gesture is probably of little consequence. Anyone familiar with the American museum world knows boards of trustees do whatever they feel like. Now as they face terrible choices to be responsible museum stewards, they will do whatever they legally can with whatever resources they have at hand. In the case of collection sales, the action touches on an argument voiced loudly in some museum circles: What is more important: collections, institutions, or museum employees?
Unless there are ownership restrictions prohibiting the selling of collections, nothing is exempt from this option. What was once acquired by people, for people, conserved, studied, and exhibited by and for people is lost. Remaining documentation is irrelevant, and public sale of art, historic artifacts, and scientific specimens invariably results in their disappearance forever.
Philosophically, if museums are about anything, they are about longevity. Most will survive the current plague and get back to the work. But that will take a year or two. Staff will be lost, capital projects stalled, cash on hand spent, and funding sources eviscerated. Regardless, encouraging the sale of collections is foolish for several reasons. In addition to violating the preservation trust museums espouse, it says all museum collections can be bought, just name your price. Moreover, it will reduce future meaningful collection donations. The vast majority of what is in art and history museums has been given not purchased. Who wants to make a charitable donation to an entity that is just looking for retail inventory? Finally, when the best and most important content of a museum is sold, why visit it?
It’s been a while since I’ve written about gender and the museum world, and as we enter week nine of the COVID-19 pandemic, here are a few things I’ve been thinking about:
First, if you think sexual harassment in the museum world is over, because everyone’s working from home or furloughed, it isn’t.
We’re undoubtedly looking towards a post-COVID future where job competition will be furious. Anxiety never brings out the best in people, and stringent budgets combined with a tight job market does not lend itself toward a humane workplace. Just last week Art News reported on sexism and racism allegations at the Akron Museum of Art. The article, which suggests the museum’s Executive Director Mark Masuoka and another senior administrator, Jennifer Shipman, were responsible for allowing an atmosphere of discrimination to flourish. And remember the news at the Erie Museum of Art when the board realized who it had hired? That was only four months ago. The good news is that in both cases it was the boards, not museum leadership, who seem to appreciate the dire consequences of a troubled workplace. For Akron, there are allegations that management used the pandemic to eliminate whistleblower employees who had previously complained about sexual harassment. People who are threatened will deflect any way they can, using the it’s–not–me–it’s–the–pandemic excuse. But workplaces that were humane before COVID-19 will remain humane. Those that weren’t are likely to be challenging places to work especially if you’re a woman. Side note: Without wading into the politics of Tara Reid’s complaint against presidential candidate Joe Biden, there is a lesson in her narrative for all women in today’s workplace. If you are sexually harassed at work or even if something unsettling happens to you, write it down. In pen, on paper, with dates for each and every incident, the old fashioned way. You may not be ready to talk, you may not have processed what’s happened to you, but get your thoughts down in the moment, and put them in a safe place.
Second, there is no doubt this pandemic hit women harder than men.
Economists quipped that the 2008 Recession was a Mancession because some 70-percent of job losses happened to men. This time, the COVID-19 pandemic hit women hard. In fact, women haven’t experienced a double-digit unemployment rate since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began reporting job loss by gender in the 1940s. April’s rates for women were 16.2-percent. We can’t say what the job loss is for museum women because curiously of all the folks reporting, from AAM to the regional service agencies, no one seems to be collecting data based on gender. What does that tell you?
We do know two things, however: First, much as we’d like to think the museum workplace is different from regular offices filled with cubicles and Steve Carell-like characters, it’s not. So if the national data tells us women working in the hospitality and recreation industries are the worst hit, it’s likely museum women are too. In addition, we know that 40-percent of households earning less than $40,000 experienced at least one job loss in March. The BLS tells us museum employees have a median salary of $48,000, so how do you think museum women fared? In addition, it’s women who shoulder the brunt of child or elder care, home schooling and many home chores. According to a recent survey by Syndio, 14-percent of women thought about quitting their jobs in the last two months simply to relieve the pressure of being teacher, day care coordinator, working person, and household manager.
Last, what did the pandemic teach us, and what could we possibly change as we try to ready museums and heritage organizations to open in a socially-distanced world with a vicious virus lurking in the background?
First, we know that pre-COVID-19, women made up 50.1-percent of all museum workers. We also know that in the museum world’s highly pink-collar employment, men and women cluster on gendered lines, with women filling education departments, while men are more often grouped in exhibit design, leadership, and plant operations. And we know the same problems that plague the national employment market, bedevil the museum world: There is a gender pay gap; health insurance–if it’s offered–is tied to employment; childcare is ridiculously expensive; many employees do not receive paid sick leave; and many women (and some men) would benefit by more flexible hours to accommodate family responsibilities.
So, as you restart your organizational engines, here are some things to remember about women returning to your workplace:
- Working from home doesn’t have to be confined to pandemics. Within your organizational culture, how can virtual work be structured so employees working from home still feel connected to your organization? How about flextime? Often women are responsible for getting a family–children or elders–ready to begin the day. Breakfasts, lunch to go, dressing and commuting to school, daycare or appointments take time. Would it help women (or primary parents) in your organization to begin and end the work day at times that support their schedule while still providing the organization with the agreed upon time?
- Women are paid less. You don’t have to believe me. Read AAUW and the Center for American Progress. Isn’t it time your organization did an equity pay audit, and raised women’s salaries?
- How many organizations let frontline staff go during the virus because within the organizational culture they have one skill set? Can you change your museum culture so that all hourly staff are cross trained? How would things look if hourly staff had a primary task, say, elementary school tours, coupled with a secondary task working elsewhere, not just in emergencies, but always?
- Daycare is frighteningly expensive. According to the Center for American Progress, the average cost of infant daycare in the United States averages $1,230/month, and for a preschool child, $800/month. What are the demographics of your staff? Are many of them parents? When you hear griping about salaries remember some of them may shoulder childcare costs equal to a mortgage. In an ideal world, large museums would have their own daycares. Failing that, would your museum consider a partnership with a local day care? Your education department provides an agreed upon amount of programming, and your staff get a discount.
- One thing the pandemic has taught us: viruses spread and sick people should stay home. Staff without paid time off are either forced to take unpaid leave or to come to work sick. Even before COVID-19, illnesses at work affect large numbers of staff. According to Kaiser Health News, “The lower likelihood of paid sick leave for part-time workers has a disproportionate impact on women, who are more likely than men to hold part-time jobs…… Nine in ten (91%) workers in financial activities have paid sick leave, compared to less than half of workers in leisure and hospitality (48%) and accommodation and food services (45%).” The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires employers with less than 500 staff to provide two weeks paid leave for sick employees, and two-thirds regular pay for those caring for someone who’s sick. If you don’t already offer paid time off, is that something you can institute?
Environmentalist Bill McKibben says the dumbest thing we can do post-COVID is to set up the bowling pins in exactly the same way. How will you make change in your workforce, and how will it support 50.1-percent of your staff?
Stay well and stay safe,
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employed persons by detailed industry, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. 2019. bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm. Accessed May 18, 2020.
By Steven Miller, Guest Blogger
On April 15, in an attempt to help member museums during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issued a press release announcing it had “…passed a series of resolutions addressing how art museums may use the restricted funds held by some institutions.” Key wording in the announcement stated “… the AAMD will refrain from censuring or sanctioning any museum – or censuring, suspending or expelling any museum director – that decides to use restricted endowment funds, trusts, or donations for general operating expenses.” The information included how endowments are defined. It provided wording about ways they could be raided by museums. The resolutions also included new exemptions about how money gained from the sale of deaccessioned museum collections can be used for the “direct care of collections.” The statement went on to explain, “AAMD also recognizes that it is not within the Association’s purview to approve the redirection of restricted funds. However, it hopes that these resolutions will serve as an endorsement to donors or the relevant legal authorities, encouraging them to permit the temporary use of these funds for unrestricted needs.”
This blog post focuses on the endowment issue.
Museums are expensive places to run. Money primarily comes from three sources: earned income, endowments, and charitable donations. Earned income is customarily realized by such things as admission fees, retail sales, memberships, and space rentals. Endowments comprise funds gifted or otherwise allocated to sustain operations or designated programs. Charitable donations involve money freely given for general or specific uses.
Funding for American museums has been abruptly reduced as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. Most institutions are closed. This means attendance and retail profits are almost entirely lost. Downward valuations combined with large emergency withdrawals have reduced investment portfolio size and returns. Many museums find charitable giving reduced to a trickle as donors hold back.
Museum boards of trustees are going nuts trying to assure the survival of their organizations for which they are responsible. Their struggles are almost insurmountable. Practical solutions are almost entirely of a fiscal nature. What will it cost to survive, how is survival defined, and, where will the money come from, not to mention when?
The AAMD’s resolution announcement was made “…in recognition of the extensive negative effects of the current crises on the operations and balance sheets of many art museums – and the uncertain timing for a museum’s operations, fundraising, and revenue streams to return to normal.” In the abstract it’s a nice gesture. In reality, it has little weight. In fact, museum boards have always had the right to go to donors or their heirs to make restricted funds less restricted in order to survive a financial crisis.
Museum endowments range from huge to negligible and their purposes and structures range from specific to general. Usually they are invested in conservative monetary instruments, mostly stock and bond portfolios. These are managed either by professional money managers or designated members of a museum’s board of trustees. Responsible museums have investment policies. They spell out how funds are retained and used. As with other policies, the one regarding investments is agreed on by a board of trustees and kept in governing documents.
Anyone familiar with the American museum world knows boards of trustees do as they wish within sometimes broad legal parameters. For the most part their decisions are beneficial or at least not too damaging. Now, all face terrible choices regarding the very survival, much less longevity of museums, in this country. For the most part trustees are doing whatever they legally can with whatever resources they have, which include endowments.
Having directed a museum in 2008 when the Great Recession hit, I witnessed how one board of trustees dealt with endowments. Their example is unfolding again. The board analyzed the institution’s endowments. Unrestricted funds were spent down to cover operating costs. Trustees approached people who had established restricted endowments, or the donor’s heirs to request a release of the restrictions. Permissions were granted for all such endowments. Substantial cost-saving measures were instituted by me, starting with a voluntary 40% cut in my salary. Other compensation was reduced incrementally with the lowest paid employees suffering the smallest cuts. Furlough weeks were also instituted. We emerged from the mess having cut one position and that person was quickly rehired. A dozen years later, as COVID-19 unfolds, the lost endowment funds from 2008 have still not been replenished to their original levels.
My time dealing with the 2008 fiscal debacle was the most difficult leadership challenge I ever faced in my career. I am grateful to avoid the current boondoggle. But, as a member of two non-profit boards (an art conservation center and a college alumni/ae group) I am witnessing trustees struggling to make ends meet and how the AAMD’s resolutions have no meaning. Censuring or sanctioning member museums or directors will carry little weight. When push comes to shove, boards of trustees need to make difficult decisions based on a lot of unknowns. Unless the AAMD can pony up significant cash assistance, given the fiasco museums face now, they have sound arguments for contradicting their best intentions.
AAMD Board of Trustees Approves Resolution to Provide Additional Financial Flexibility to Art Museums During Pandemic Crisis (Press release, April 15, 2020)
If I were Randy Rainbow I’d begin this post with a clever song about my ongoing crush on the Philbrook Museum. But I’m not. My singing is cringe worthy, although my crush is real. How can you not love an organization that writes about post-pandemic life like this? “The museum we closed will not be the museum we open.”
Yesterday I heard an NPR interview with a Boston doctor. He explained ER visits are down because many people will endure pain rather than expose themselves to the virus. He suggested ERs have to learn to do two things at once: Be familiar, caring places we’re not afraid to go for stitches or a broken limb, but also be the entry point for Coronavirus patients. It occurred to me that may also be true for museums. Museums need to do two things at once as well: the familiar in-person experience and a whole other multi-leveled virtual one.
More than 20 years ago the Internet dissolved library walls. Suddenly physical space didn’t matter. Walls were porous because information was everywhere, from the books you checked out, to whatever you found on the library’s computers and databases, to ultimately, your laptop and cell phone. As devices became increasingly sophisticated, so did librarians, not because they no longer believed in the power of books (they do, passionately), but because they knew we needed guides through the wild world of the digital universe. To an outsider, the library pivot felt pretty seamless, shifting from a place where access only happened in the traditional reading room to an all-enveloping library where the focus is on you and your access to information. How did museums miss that boat? Where were they when the shift to the digital universe happened?
Clearly, some folks got on board, which brings us back to the Philbrook. Under normal pre-COVID circumstances, a resident of Connecticut (me), would not likely know much about a museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But I discovered the Philbrook on Instagram several years ago where it already possessed a lively social media universe rooted in its site and collections. In a piece written for AAM, Philbrook President Scott Stulen describes the museum’s closing: “On March 13th, a cross-departmental group assembled. We had just cancelled the opening to our new exhibition that evening and met to actively respond to the expected (and unexpected) challenges ahead. This group quickly mobilized the entire staff, guided by the priorities to ensure the safety of staff and the public while stabilizing the museum financially. There was also a realization that our mission to connect the community to art and gardens was not on pause, it was just moving to new platforms.”
The Philbrook, along with many other museums and heritage organizations, understands museum collections have a power beyond the sanctity of space. It wants you to visit, but equally important, the Philbrook seems to want you to know them, virtually and actually, their values, their beliefs, even the museum cats. And they don’t see their virtual collections and exhibits as some sort of junior varsity version of themselves. Rachel Cohen wrote “What We Miss Without Museums” for last week’s New Yorker. Cohen talks about her life pre-children, visiting the Metropolitan weekly. She is a master of slow looking. Yet after she became a parent and regular museum visits were more difficult, she started to take pictures, creating her own virtual exhibits. She writes, “Every day, I use a few of my photos of artwork to write an entry for an online notebook. I’ve been keeping the notebook on and off for years, but now I do it urgently, sending messages in bottles to friends and strangers, trying to offer what I’ve stored, what I miss.”
I wonder two things about museums in the post-COVID universe: Will the ones who survive be the ones who saw themselves as more than repositories? And will the ones who survive successfully be those who recognize the collections’ energy to serve audiences in a multitude of ways, not because we’re in a pandemic, but because it’s the smart thing to do? And in doing it well, will they acknowledge museums too have no walls? Nothing can replace standing in front of your favorite painting, seeing a living creature or sharing space with an object of historic significance, but is it a binary choice? Is an actual visit the only choice? Or is there another that’s different, but equally important?
This week Wilkening Consulting posted an infographic about virtual museum content and the public. Among the things it points out is that most adults don’t look to museums as a virtual source. Can that change? Wilkening reports her respondents are still looking for hope, for escape, to understand the pandemic experience, and to make connections while maintaining social distance. Raise your hand if you don’t at least have something hopeful you can offer.
As states loosen pandemic restrictions, medical experts warn it may be a year or more before we return to something like our old lives. So as museum leaders and followers how will we ride out the next 12-18 months?
- In times of crisis it’s easy to fall into the trap of the hero/shero, but is any of us capable of having all the answers? Don’t we need one another? Be the leader who values interdependence.
- Work with your staff to build a collaborative model where your museum is more than the keeper of the rare and the special.
- Understand your organization’s DNA. Know your organization well enough to make gentle fun of it.
- Take care of your staff. They are your museum and they can help move it forward from the COVID-19 pause.
- Know your community. Ask it how you can help?
- Don’t stop connecting.