This week we read two great posts, one in Alliance Labs titled “Leaving the Museum Field,” and one on Know Your Own Bone titled “Does Being a Nonprofit Impact Perceptions of Cultural Organizations?” If you missed them, read them. Soon. There is so much good writing out there, but these two pieces, which strangely echo one another, deserve your attention. Why? Because the museum field has a problem. And it needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Both posts examine issues affecting the museum workplace. The Alliance Lab’s article, written by four mid-career professionals, looks at attrition in the field. It’s based on a survey, with over 1,000 responses, conducted by the authors. The top three reasons their respondents gave for leaving the field include low pay, “other,” which included racism, poor or no benefits, and the inability to get or keep a job, and poor work/life balance. According to their survey the tipping point for leaving seems to occur sometime in a museum worker’s first decade or 16-25 years into a career. Among the former, the issue driving folks away seems to be pay, among the latter, it’s work/life balance. Apparently an investment of more than 25 years in the museum field means you’re here to stay.
Know Your Own Bone’s Colleen Dilenschneider asks us to think about how museums hide behind their non-profit status. She points out that visitors often don’t know or really care whether an organization has its 501C3 designation. People, she says, are sector agnostic. The museum world, however, is not. Here’s Dilenschneider making the point that museum missions get lost in proclamations of non-profitness:
Here’s how Disney does messaging: We are Walt Disney World. We create magical, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Buy a ticket.
Here’s how some museums do messaging: “We are a museum! We are a nonprofit organization. Buy a ticket.
We would add that all too often the myriad workplace issues described in the Alliance Labs article are the result of museums and heritage organizations who believe being a non-profit gives them a pass on paying equitable wages, having a personnel policy or dealing with staff who are victims of sexual harassment or racism. In short, while museums may use their non-profit status as a mask, offering up mushy or mediocre mission statements, we would also argue that it allows too many boards to behave toward museum workplaces in ways that are not tolerated on the for-profit side of things.
As you might imagine, Leadership Matters isn’t convinced that workplace attrition by the field’s best and brightest is its only problem. Here are our top four threats to the museum workplace:
- The field is over-credentialed. Surely you don’t need an advanced degree to become a museum intern or an assistant to an assistant? Does a bachelor’s degree teach you nothing? How hard can it be for the museum job sector to get off the graduate degree merry-go-round?
- Pay is too low and demands are high. We’ve probably written about this more than anyone else. We are adamant that museum boards and leadership need to invest in their staffs–in their salaries, benefits and professional development. Is it possible that by investing in the best staff it could, a museum might find capital expenses would come easier? And is it possible that there’s a high degree of workplace burnout because in too many workplaces staff aren’t led, they’re managed (and managed badly).
- Leadership is frequently mediocre. There’s been a lot of work on leadership lately across the field, but more is needed. While more and more new museum professionals seem to understand that leadership is an ingredient of a strong career whether you end up in the corner office or not, there are still too many boards whose understanding of the museums they lead is poor, resulting in weak decision making. And we’re not convinced that boards aren’t still trying to shift their fiduciary responsibilities to a museum’s top spot, making the ED the chief fundraiser not the leader.
- Conditions for women and minorities are not great. This is a bad one, and a thorn in the field’s side. It’s an impediment to diversity, and–when you combine racism, sexism, lack of paid family leave, poor benefits and long hours– a leading cause of people leaving the field.
If the last decade was a time of big building, maybe the museum world’s next decade could be the time to invest in building leadership capacity at all levels. What will the field look like in 2027 if internships and lower level positions are populated by smart, interested humans fresh from college? What will it look like if many museums have endowed positions, shifting cash to other places on the spread sheet? What will it feel like to be the only part of the non-profit world where women’s wages–all women’s wages–are equitable? And what would it be like if all museum leaders weren’t afraid to demand staffs treat each other with tolerance. Nirvana, right? But it’s something to work for.
We want to end this week’s post with hearty congratulations to our friends Bob Beatty and Steven Miller who both had books come out in September. They are: An American Association for State & Local History Guide to Making Public History (Bob) and The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text (Steven). Bravo to two humans who’ve done a lot to prevent museum mediocrity!
For the last month I’ve worked with a small local history organization. It is big enough to employ a part-time staff member, own a building and a sizable collection, but small enough to suffer from too few resources and a certain amount of instability. Although it’s located in a little community, where many people with an interest in history and historic preservation know one another, its current board is largely new to the organization. They are each passionate about their slice of the pie whether it is black history, archaeology, women’s fashion, or early technology.
For years their mission was the classic “preserves, promotes and presents the history of” statement. Its blandness was used to respond to questions on grant applications and little more. Everyone believed they knew what it meant. Individually, their ideas about the same vague sentence sustained the organization in a half-hearted way. Collectively though–to quote Gertrude Stein–there was no there there.
The board has talked a lot recently about its hopes and dreams for this organization. They’ve talked about being a task-oriented board, and about living in a community where the demographic skews older not younger. They’ve argued–mildly–about whether history is a story or whether history is some immutable truth or both. They understand how wishy washy their current mission statement is, and they’ve gamely brain-stormed verbs to create a stronger statement that embodies their collective hope going forward.
What is apparent though is how fragile this formula is: A group of interested, committed people + mission = action. If we asked every history organization to bake a cake, they would all be different. And don’t get us wrong those differences are wonderful and important. But the fact that some hire a caterer, some bake one from scratch, and others buy gigantic sheet cakes at the grocery store affects the resulting party. And just as in cake baking there are outside forces working for or against the baking aka organizational stability.
Today, the museum field puts more resources into career training than ever before, but boards need guidance too. We understand that even gathering boards together is like herding kittens, but there is no question they need training, support, and encouragement. And yes, the StEPs program works to enable better board leadership, but boards change, sometimes quickly, and StEPs knowledge isn’t always passed on. The bottom line? The field needs to make the same sort of investment it’s making in staff, in boards because better boards mean stronger, better-enabled leadership and staffs, and more meaningful missions. We’re all for that.
This week there were a few articles and comments about the young and talented leaving the museum field. Principle among them was a post by Claire Milldrum on Paul Orselli’s blog. Pictured with her Corgi, she is apparently much happier in her post-museum life and for that Leadership Matters is glad.
We have written probably more than anyone else about work in the museum world. We have ranted about salaries, about living wages, and about the ridiculous cost of graduate school which, as Ms. Milldrum points out, seems to be the entry ticket for even the lowliest, most pathetic position at the biggest, fanciest museums. So don’t get us wrong when you read what comes next.
First and foremost one blog post is not data so everyone who commented as if this were a daily occurrence, where’s the data? Do we actually know how many young professionals leave the museum field before they actually start, scared off by the thought of low salaries (where there’s plenty of data) and high graduate school debt (where at least we have raw costs if not the number of students taking loans)?
Second, Milldrum conflates several things: galleries, libraries and museums, and work and internships, in all three sectors. While at the entry/internship level they may appear alike, in reality there are differences among the three fields. She also reports that she’s sad she’s not starting graduate school this month, but says she got into one of “the top grad schools in Library Science, and at one of them, a guaranteed student work job in my subfield.” Again, confusing because a masters in library science is not a degree in Museum Studies, art history or public history, it’s an MLS which provides entry to a field where the median salary is $57, 680, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and where the American Library Association lobbies hard for entry level salaries. Last, in my experience–and admittedly it’s only my experience–libraries do hire humans possessing only a bachelor’s degree for jobs not internships. They are not librarian jobs, but they are not internships, and allow a young professional a necessary window into the sector before they make a commitment to graduate school.
So while Milldrum’s career path was confusing, her charges about the museum world weren’t. It has a long and sorrowful history of maid-of-all-work internships that prepare participants for nothing except debt. And those type of internships are a not-so-subtle race and class barrier. (See The Diversity vs. Salary Question). Clearly, once she decided to forego graduate school and the museum world, Milldrum had the skill set to walk into a well-paying job in non-profit finance. And why couldn’t she have gotten a similar job in the museum world that would have allowed her a normal work week and a chance to go to the dentist? She’s clearly smart. She’s a good writer, and based her description of working both one job for pay, and another as a volunteer to build her resume, she’s a hard worker. Is the museum world really so rarified that it couldn’t stand an infusion of some folks with newly-minted bachelor’s degrees? I mean we love what we do, but this isn’t oncology after all.
Milldrum’s post isn’t data, but perhaps it’s a bellwether, and we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge that and compile the data. In the meantime, if you’re in museum HR or director of a small museum, would it hurt if you lobbied for an entry level position or two without a graduate degree? Is a master’s degree necessary for every job in your institution? If not, be the person who breaks the mold. Hire someone with smarts and passion and see what happens. The field will likely be better for it.
We’ve just returned from Austin, Texas and AASLH’s annual meeting that brings history museum folks together every year in a new spot. The skies were blue, and the location in the center of the University of Texas campus beautiful. What’s not to like about sitting with coffee and colleagues in a beautifully-planted courtyard between sessions? But one of the best moments was hearing Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.
This amiable, relaxed, yet powerful conversation was a tone-setter and a metaphor for the way the field has changed over the last decade. There was no lecture, no powerpoint, no white guy behind the podium. Instead Walker chatted with Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, and an interviewee in our Leadership Matters book. Walker is a slight man, warm and funny, but someone who knows where true north is. His view of history is nuanced, and his approach to the human race generous. “We all romanticize and mythologize our narrative,” he said, “because we need to do that. How do we talk about the journey without demonizing the choices that were made?”
Asked what quality is needed for today’s leadership, Walker had a one-word answer: courage, adding that there are a host of disincentives to leading with courage, but because the risk now is greater than ever, now is the time to speak up, speak out, and be bold. He suggested that even 20 years ago the American narrative was more straightforward, less complex, but less honest. He sees today’s national narrative as more oppositional, making leadership difficult. “Great leadership is about bridge building,” Walker said, adding, “It’s much harder to build a bridge than a wall.”
He urged the audience to speak up and speak out. “Progress won’t be made unless we get uncomfortable. Our boards can be very comfortable with privilege and prestige.” He believes what we need from boards today is people comfortable with justice, equity, fairness, and opposition.
When Bailey asked him if museums should be neutral, Walker responded with a story, remembering when a Ford Foundation board member asked him why the Foundation supported artists making political art. Walker’s response was that art has always been political to some degree or another, and it’s naive and dishonest to believe otherwise. “Privileged people and institutions don’t like change,” he quipped, adding that privilege becomes a collective around the board table.
Walker talked about the fact that it’s possible to succeed without humility or curiosity because success insulates people from the hard reality of truth telling. He cautioned the audience that sometimes it’s necessary to engage with board members in a way that helps them realize they are speaking from privilege. “Trustees want to do right,” Walker said, “but we all bring our own bias and limitations.” He urged the audience to meet people where they are, and for museum leaders to remind their boards that they are there not just to preserve but to innovate.
One sobering note before we close. As part of the AASLH Conference we presented a panel discussion with four interviewees from our book, Women in the Museum, and just as we did at AAM, we asked the audience for a show of hands indicating who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Almost the entire audience raised their hands. Nationally, one in three women experience workplace sexual harassment, and over 71-percent don’t report it. Isn’t it time the museum field took Darren Walker’s advice and stepped up, spoke out, and showed some courage in protecting and supporting its female employees?
Photo by Wyona Lynch-McWhite
We begin this week’s post with a note of hope and encouragement for our friends and colleagues at museums and heritage organizations in and around Houston, Texas. Museum leadership can be challenging in the best of times, but this disaster surely tested all of you. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, your families, and the organizations and collections you serve and protect. And for our readers, know that both AAM and AASLH have disaster advice on their web pages. In addition, AASLH is actively collecting for storm relief online and at its annual meeting that begins Wednesday. Last, if you haven’t reviewed your site disaster plan recently, now might be a good time. If there ever were a metaphor for what leaders do, it’s a disaster plan. Leaders always need to be prepared for whatever comes next.
This week my organization spent time discussing issues of gender in order to prepare the community to support transgender and gender non-conforming students. We were lucky enough to have Mb Duckett Ireland, Choate School’s Diversity Education Chair speak to us. Late in the talk Mb dropped a line about intention versus impact. It stuck with me, and I thought about it the rest of the week.
There are so many moments when leaders intend one thing, and the result is the opposite. If you asked me to sum up everything I’ve read about intention vs. impact since Mb’s talk, it would be: It’s not about you; it’s about the person you’re talking to.
Too often we assume that positions of leadership automatically confer brains, kindness and respect. Sadly, as all of us who’ve worked for lousy leaders know, there’s nothing automatic about it. But back to intent vs. impact. Imagine, you are a museum leader, and you make a comment to a staff member. You mean it in a jovial, friendly way, but as soon as the words are out of your mouth, you realize something’s happening. And it’s not good. What do you do? Well, too often we retreat, we try to pretend whatever happened didn’t happen and move through the rest of the day. And if we’re confronted with what happened, we rarely sit right down in the space that makes us uncomfortable and say, holy smokes I was rude. We don’t engage because it’s uncomfortable to say “I messed up,” and because we’re afraid of making a bad situation worse.
One of the things the privileged (and all of us who are leaders, and therefore deciders occupy a place of privilege to a greater or lesser degree) don’t seem to realize is that tiny comments, assumptions, jokes and judgments aggregate. And it really doesn’t matter if you were “just trying to be funny” if on the receiving end it’s not funny but hurtful. Your intentions may be good, but your impact biased. And it’s your impact that packs a punch especially when later instead of apologizing you try to explain you’re not a misogynist or a racist or both.
As leaders we not only provide the vision and roadmap for our organizations, we model a way of being. Acknowledging that staff members have different identities, and working to create equitable workspaces is something all museum leaders need to do. We all mess up occasionally. When that happens do what needs to be done: Admit your mistake; connect with the person you’ve hurt or offended; reach out. You’ll find you build a team not a hierarchy.
We begin this week’s post with an invitation. For all of you traveling to Austin for AASLH’s annual meeting beginning September 6, we hope you will join us for “Workplace Confidential: Museum Women Talk Gender Equity,” a panel discussion on women in the museum workplace. Moderated by Anne Ackerson with panelists Ilene Frank, Shakia Gullette, Wyona Lynch McWhite, and Jessica Phillips, this panel is for everyone across the history museum world who has experienced gender-related workplace issues. It’s for emerging professionals who’ve had to deal with sexual harassment; it’s for women of color, who deal daily with the intricate intersection of low pay and benign racism, and for leaders who handle complex personnel issues daily. Panels like this one can’t wave a magic wand and send you home to a changed workplace, but they can help you feel you’re not alone, and offer advice and encouragement.
So if you’re going to be in Austin, we hope we’ll see you September 7 at 1:45 pm. Anne and I will also be around afterwards if you want a copy of our new book, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace. We’ll even sign it for you!
Last week Artnet News ran an article titled “Is It Time for a Woman to Run the Metropolitan?” Their answer was a resounding yes, and just in case the Metropolitan’s interview list isn’t gender balanced, Artnet provided them with names of 11 stellar female candidates.
Leadership Matters would like to see the Metropolitan with a woman director too, but we’re going to go out on a limb here: The Met’s having a woman director is not the goal. The goal is equity in the hiring process. Frankly if the Met’s destiny is female leadership, history tells us now might be the moment. The museum has reorganized its leadership structure so that whoever becomes director will report to Daniel Weiss, President and COO. This “almost” position is a traditional spot for women. It is a place they frequently occupy in government museums, playing the role of task-oriented collaborator while the political appointee (often a white male) in the corner office is the performance based communicator. In addition, if you scan leadership positions in American museums, you will find that women are often hired to lead troubled organizations. Once they are off the respirator, they’re frequently handed back to a male leader.
Even though we wrote the book on women in the museum workplace, there’s something really depressing about parsing the leadership game by gender. In an equitable world we would assume that the Metropolitan’s top-five list might include women, people of color, and openly gay or queer candidates because we would assume that good leadership is good leadership. We would assume that as the country’s largest museum, the Metropolitan wants to lead by example. We would assume it incorporates blind screening into the hiring process, and that HR staff and board committees discussed how unintentional bias affects hiring. (They could learn a lot from AAM here.) Last, we would assume that the Metropolitan wants a professional with a proven track record and a particular skill set. This is very important for candidates who are not white males. Why? Because statistics show us that men are promoted on promise and potential while women are promoted on performance.
The bottom line? It would be awesome to see the Metropolitan join the Brooklyn Museum, giving us two organizations with budgets over $15,000, 000 with woman directors, but it’s the process we care more about. Changing lives for women leaders means museum workplace culture must change too, and that means boards need to be open, transparent, intentional, and as bias-free as possible in the hiring process. When it comes to hiring, boards need to recognize that what is paramount is the museum, not their private discomfort or uneasiness in the face of difference.
There is a trope in leadership literature that says you can learn from bad leaders just as you can from good ones . It’s cold comfort though when you are stuck in a soul-sucking job with a boss who doesn’t know how to lead. You find yourself raging or crying, lists full of things to do, but little authority to do them. You’re alternately placated or bullied so every workplace interaction is a walk over eggshells. In short, you’re so miserable it’s hard to learn anything until you’re safe in your next position where hindsight is a great teacher.
The vast majority of us watch events in Washington, D.C. from a distance, but it is possible to learn something about leadership just by observation. So, here Leadership Matters distills 10 lessons from the disruption and chaos at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
- Planning really helps. Today’s museum leaders juggle an absurd number of plates. Having an agreed upon plan and policies is something board, staff and volunteers can support and depend on.
- It’s a given that museum leaders should surround themselves with the most talented team they can attract and afford. The lesson is listen to the talent. If they’re really so smart, if they really have particular areas of expertise, use it. Don’t make decisions without them.
- Check your biases at the door. If you secretly long for some stereotypical workplace where sparkling white women in tailored dresses laugh discreetly, while white men in expensive suits make weighty decisions, keep it to yourself. The world has changed. Join the 21st-century. Your organization needs a unifier, not a divider. Be the unifier.
- Deal with your anger somewhere else. We all get angry. As leaders, mostly we don’t show it, especially the personal, whiney variety.
- Respect social media. It’s a powerful thing. If you choose to ignore it, you’ll pay a price. If you choose to participate without a communications plan, you’ll pay a different price.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. If you’re not a good speaker or writer, have staff help you craft your remarks. The more important the event, the more important your remarks. Ditto if spreadsheets drive you to distraction. Staff can’t get you off the hook, but they can and will support you. Again, use their expertise.
- Respect your office. Understand on whose shoulders you stand, literally and metaphorically. Know the history of your organization, know its subject matter. Believe in it.
- Don’t take it personally. Being a leader means a lot of anger, complaint and crankiness floats in your direction. Pay scales to parking, health benefits to number of exhibitions, exhibit content to stock in the shop, it all comes back to you. Or rather to you as the executive director. Separate your emotions from your job.
- Be ready to apologize. You’re not perfect. Leaders who can’t apologize breed staffs who can’t trust, and bad karma abounds.
- Be kind. Yes, as a museum leader your plate is full, but you model the behavior you want in others. A warm, kind leader tends to attract a warm, kind staff. Not so kind leaders tend to attract different folks. Ask yourself–am I the person I want to work for?
The President’s post-Charlottesville remarks are a slow-burning fuse. AAM, AASLH, and many state arts councils have written responses. And this week the Committee on the Arts and Humanities walked off the job in protest. Leadership is tough enough without steering the ship of state into an ocean littered with anger and racism, a place where everyone feels entitled and emboldened to utter the first thought that comes to mind. And it’s an especially strange world where it’s possible to learn leadership by doing the opposite of what the 45th president does.