As some of you know, I am spending this academic year as an interim library leader. Has it changed my work life? You bet. Instead of being the leader of a collection of inanimate objects, paintings and rare books, and the occasional historian for my colleagues in archives, I’m now the boss of myself while leading a department of seven. One of my charges is to ready our team for the hiring process that will take place in 2021 when we seek a permanent leader.
While there are pieces of this process that are organizational–which search firms to use, adding voices and layers to the interview process, having job description language checked for bias, eliminating implicit bias from the interview process–there are also details that belong to us. Those need to be unpacked before the process begins in earnest. This is not our first rodeo. We began in 2018 believing we could hire a two-year interim, someone who would offer us 24 months of stability while we got our house in order. It worked a decade earlier, but this time, no one wanted the job. We began again in 2019, only to be interrupted by the pandemic, ultimately stopping the search while travel and our organization shut down. Now we’re on the cusp of beginning again.
As a staff and as an organization we are committed to DEI. Last summer we wrote an Anti-Racist statement coupled with a programmatic action list. Yet, when we were asked recently whether we would consider someone without a master’s in library science as a way to make hiring more inclusive, there was a degree of consternation and pushback. Why? Well, probably lots of reasons from the most subjective–I struggled to get this degree, why should a director receive the big salary and perquisites when they didn’t–to concerns that someone without the degree literally wouldn’t understand the workings of an academic library, archives and special collections. And yet, the degree is a barrier. It is expensive, and in most cases, it teaches content not leadership. Too much content knowledge can plunge a leader into a this-is-the-way-it’s-always-done behavior, and cripple creativity. Perhaps in this moment we need a human who believes in what we do, who is empathetic and a good listener, someone who will translate the arcane necessities of our work for the larger organization; someone who makes us shine.
Recently we spent a staff meeting identifying qualities we’d like to see in a director. One of our colleagues mentioned she was more interested in hearing about a candidate’s ideas for the future than their past experience. In short, she’d like to hear where they want to take us. There was something hugely revolutionary in that statement. It pointed toward not finding the person we’re used to, but the person who will take us–maybe kicking and screaming– where we want to go. That might mean hiring someone younger, more agile, someone with more passion than experience or more experience than degrees.
We’ve also reflected on the type of questions we asked in the previous go rounds. Ten years ago we needed a leader to replace a retiree with a 40-year tenure. At the time, few of the team had graduate degrees, and many were part-time. After COVID we are a smaller group, but the vast majority have one or two advanced degrees. Below are the four considerations we might incorporate into our search. What would you add?
- Doing everything we can to break down our own biases about age, experience, education, gender and race to make us open to the widest variety of applicants, and galvanize our future.
- Hiring for our vision statement–even if we never get there–not for our past, whether personal or collective.
- Having the self awareness and understanding who we are now, and what kind of leader we need now.
- Accepting that challenge and growth means discomfort, and that mediocrity is boring.
After months of COVID furloughs, firings and cutbacks, last week deaccessioning took center stage in the museum world. If your mind was on other things, here’s a capsule narrative: In early October the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) announced it would sell three paintings by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still and Andy Warhol. It plans to use the money for collection development and to address pay equity issues. BMA’s deaccession follows the Brooklyn Museum’s sale of 12 paintings. Both museums are deaccessioning after AAMD’s April announcement announcing that it wouldn’t sanction museums using deaccessioning funds for general operating support for the next two years.
There are stark differences between the two cases. Like many organizations, the Brooklyn Museum received a $4.5 million PPP loan, and laid off 28 full-time staff this summer. The Baltimore Museum of Art has retained its staff and is reportedly solven. It will use the money to add to an endowment for the acquisition of work by BIPOC artists, while the remainder will create an endowment for staff salaries.
The two sales, and the AAMD’s summer ruling, are haunted by the 2018 deaccessioning by the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA. There, the trustees and then-director Van Shields chose to sell 40 works from the collection for $42 million in a lengthy case that brought censure from AAMD, AAM, and many of its peers. Until AAMD relaxed its rules, the Berkshire Museum case seemed precedent setting, the kind of legal and ethical puzzle that would be examined by museum studies students for decades to come. Unlike the current group of sales, the Berkshire Museum wasn’t trying to diversify its collection, make its salaries more equitable or survive a recession caused by a world-wide pandemic. When all the explanations were parsed, it seemed to be undergoing an identity crisis, and wanted to shed its century old role as a small city general museum with a jewel of an art collection and be something else. The elephant in the room is that a $42-million endowment, even in the face of a pandemic, is likely to lower a board’s anxiety level, whether the organization is open or not.
One of the many voices who joined the Baltimore Museum of Art discussion is Arnold Lehman, Director Emeritus of the Brooklyn Museum, and a former director of the BMA. Lehman’s knowledge of the BMA’s collection is deep, yet it’s clear the Museum’s decision is about more than its collection. Nowhere in his letter does Lehman hint that there are larger systemic issues at work inside the museum walls. And yet, here is BMA Director Christopher Bedford quoted in The Times: “This is done specifically in recognition of the protest being led by museum staff to be paid an equitable living wage to perform core work for an institution with a social justice mission — that symmetry between who we say we are and what we actually are behind our doors.”
I would like to think that over the last nine months museum leaders have realized that being temples to white men, whether to white male artists, builders, politicians or rich guys, has lost its appeal, particularly in a city like Baltimore with a majority Black population of 63-percent. Part of that behavior extends to the way staff is treated. And a museum staff is everyone, from the cleaners and the guards to the curators, and their treatment includes salaries.
Could Baltimore have handled its deaccession decision differently? Maybe. It could have left the inequity of its salaries unaddressed, and perhaps gone on to face the type of protest and press its New York City sister museums have experienced. It could have deaccessioned from the bottom up, selling many smaller works in an attempt to reach the necessary dollar level. It also could have selected paintings likely to sell to another art museum, thus keeping work on public view. It could, as Franklin Sirmans of Miami’s Perez Museum suggests, have made a commitment to collecting Black and Latinex artists years ago. (True, but few boards did, which seems to be the heart of the problem.) Or it could have selected a different trio of big-ticket paintings that likely would have enraged a different portion of the public. The fact of the matter is we don’t know. Boards and their directors are like families. You may theorize what’s going on inside based on what you see, but without an inside seat, you don’t actually know.
In May guest blogger Steven Miller wrote about museum boards, “….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?” Museums are expensive places to run, and unlike the proverbial widget factory, what museums sell doesn’t net a profit so their value and their income streams don’t intertwine.
Deaccessioning is an important and necessary tool for all museums, but when boards and directors use collections as a cash cow, it erodes public trust. In its 2016 report on Direct Care of Collections AAM wrote, “If a museum experiences financial difficulties, its governing body must make decisions that are consistent with its mission and its obligations to the public with regard to collections stewardship. It should ensure that funds realized from the sale of deaccessioned objects are never used as a substitute for fiscal responsibility.” That last sentence presages the Berkshire Museum’s choices, but doesn’t necessarily apply to the Brooklyn and BMA.
Context in these cases is important. What if the community both inside and outside the museum changes? What if the community no longer sees cultural gatekeeping for a culture in which it has no part as essential? Can you know that from the outside? Then, is the museum just a warehouse full of supposedly important stuff? To a purist, does that matter? And a decade from now, will we look back and realize this was a hinge moment for museums, and we will mark time regarding collections before and after COVID?
There are so many times in a museum’s life where good leadership is key, not just from the curatorial staff, the director, but the board as well. Deaccessioning is no exception. These questions, particularly in this moment of cultural and financial upheaval, seem peculiarly individual. Boards and directors may be asked to make the least bad decision, yet one that benefits their own organization, their own staff and their own community. And the solution for Baltimore may not be the solution for Rochester or LA or Brooklyn. Just another important reason why museum leadership truly matters in this age of discord.
Sometimes sports metaphors just work, so here goes: It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback what’s wrong with museums. Too often their boards are insular, classist, and totally risk averse. And thanks to the pandemic we now know some museums’ finances are more than a bit precarious. Too many are led by moderate, middle of the road white folks, who have struck a bargain with their boards not to sail too close to the wind, to keep everything as it was, limiting creativity and change.
Too few museums have addressed climate change. At some, it’s hard to find a recycling container much less a place to plug in your car or a field of solar panels or an acknowledgement in the disaster plan that climate change is a thing. Until the pandemic, there was an almost field-wide denial of the need to acknowledge race and gender issues in the workplace, to care for, support, and mentor museum staff, while also making leadership training an imperative. And last, but by no means least, there are way too many museums whose collections and exhibitions need a massive re-centering focused on life as it is, not life as it was, representing the rainbow of everyone as artists, scientists, thinkers, collectors, doers, and makers.
Did I forget anything? Probably, but making the list isn’t the problem. No doubt you have an if-I-ran-the-museum-field list of your own. But how do you start a revolution? Whose responsibility is that? Do we make change incrementally, one organization at a time, which seems to be happening thanks to places like the Baltimore Museum of Art and Old Salem Museum and Gardens, or all at once? What role do AAM and AASLH play? And where do we begin? Is that Les Misérables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing” playing in the background?
I spent some time last week exchanging emails with a group of museum thought leaders around the need for systemic change. No one painted a rosy picture, but if you want a revolution, here are ten things to ponder:
- If boards are part of the problem, do you reform them–(Is that possible?)–or do away with them?
- Is part of board reformation repopulating them, not just with token BIPOC folk, but humans whose value-added isn’t their wealth but their values, the museum equivalent of Congressman John Lewis?
- If you do away with boards, who hires and provides oversight for museum leaders, whether it’s one director or co-directors because God knows there are enough examples of directors behaving badly?
- Should endowments change? Should museums and heritage organizations only invest in companies making a positive sustainable or societal impact?
- Does having have many, many small donors balance the wishes and desires of a few wealthy donors?
- And speaking of endowments, do museums need a different funding model? If you look at Stanford’s Ten Nonprofit Funding Models, museums don’t fit easily into any of them. Someone needs to articulate the difference between a museum’s value for its community versus its economic engine. Clearly the two are separate, and if its funding model is more than allowing a group of rich one-percenters donate to an endowment, then what is it?
- How do museums get out of their bubbles and understand that ownership of the rare, the beautiful, the unusual doesn’t always make them community assets?
- Replacement–whether humans on staff or boards or one big painting for work by BIPOC artists–isn’t change. Change is acknowledging the history of your organization’s actions and creating an architecture that brings your whole community to the table now and in the future.
- Should all museums be required to have values statements that fit their particular ethos, culture and community?
- How can we create a job sector where you don’t necessarily need a graduate degree to participate, where you will earn an equitable, living wage or better, and where leadership matters? Is AAM’s plan to get creative workers back to work enough?
Revolutions take motivation. They coalesce around message and messenger, an individual whose empathy and enthusiasm is contagious. They need a memorable speech, treatise or slogan, that is tweeted, repeated, and forever associated with the movement. And they need all of this done again, and again until change happens. The museum world is overdue for change, but we need a leader and a message. Are you that person? Can you lead us to a museum-world green new deal because many of us are waiting in the wings to help?
Let me begin by saying that I think co-leadership is a great idea. It spreads decision making, which is healthy. It brings new voices to the table, and by its very nature it presumes a level of humility and understanding that a solo leader may never grapple with. That said, is it a cure-all for what ails the museum world? I’m not sure.
In his recent blog post, Making the Case for Collaborative Leadership in Museums, Mike Murawski lists a number of successful dual postings from Bowdoin College’s museum to the Five Oaks Museum, and across the pond to the Birmingham Museum Trust. But there are numerous solo director acts that, at least from the outside, demonstrate successful leadership–Christy Coleman at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Robert Krett at Connecticut Historical Society, Frank Vagnone at Old Salem Museum and Gardens, and Lisa Lee at Chicago Housing Museum. Here’s a hypothesis: It’s not the method; it’s the people, good leadership is good leadership whether it’s brought to you by a single leader, a duo or a trio.
Murawski highlights five qualities that deepen with paired leaders. He lists more effective decision making, cultivating innovation and growth, valuing relationships, promoting shared leadership across an organization, and the way a dual leadership model promotes equity and social justice within museum culture. While these are all important characteristics, they can (and do) and happen with a skilled solo leader, and might not happen with an incompetent duo. In fact, given the museum world’s current turmoil, it’s challenging to think of boards of trustees, hiring duos when many seem to be using COVID-19 as an excuse to off-load directors at an alarming rate. Were the trend toward hiring two to take hold, the pair also need to be great communicators and have enormous trust in one another. They need to acknowledge their own strengths and weaknesses and know how they are each other’s better half because, as in any strong partnership, there will be days when the organization needs the strengths of one more than the other.
And while the empathy, trust, and transparency that skilled co-directors model is important, those characteristics are also possessed by good solo directors. Near the end of Leadership Matters we wrote a chapter titled “How Do We Know What We Know?” There we summarize the characteristics and traits we encountered in interviewing 36 North American museum and heritage organization directors. And what did we find? That leadership isn’t something that comes with age; that perseverance matters as leaders take advantage of repeated practice in recognizing problems, evaluating alternatives, and providing solutions. Our interviewees are risk takers both organizationally and personally.” Last, and perhaps most important here, these leaders see themselves not as lone rangers, but as part of a whole. We quote Melissa Chiu, now Director of the Smithsonian’s Hirschhorn Museum, saying bluntly, “You can’t do it on your own.
As I wrote last week, there is a lot of epically bad leadership in the museum world that’s somehow been unmasked in the COVID crisis. And bad doesn’t just mean, bullies or harassers, bigots and predators. Sometimes it’s just the slow drip of ineptitude and mediocrity. Will co-directorships fix that? Maybe? If they possess all the qualities of a skilled empathetic solo act with an extra dose of trust and humility on the side that allows them to work in daily partnership and collaboration. But one presumes they need that anyway. It’s a leadership must-have.
I wish there were a cure-all for the leadership trough we’re in at the moment, and I wish it were as simple as hiring two versus one. But I don’t believe it is. Leadership isn’t a position. It’s a way of being. It’s a practice. There are people in the museum field who are leaders despite the fact that their title is Associate Registrar or Volunteer Coordinator or Assistant Curator. Why? Because they are self-aware, they are authentic, they’re creative and not afraid to take risks, and they are courageous. Those are the people we need to nurture and mentor. The leadership problem is one that needs to be tackled on so many levels from boards of trustees to graduate programs, to AAM and AASLH. We need to understand our industry is made up of people, people who matter, and we need to nurture and invest in the next generation of leaders before they all leave the field.
This week I spoke to a researcher and statistician. She is interested in resilience, both individual and organizational, and she likened the last six months to a hurricane. Not the kind of weather event described in museum disaster plans, but epically disastrous none the less.
Disasters lay bare your weak points: You failed to get enough insurance; you built too close to the shore; you neglected to maintain equipment, and on and on. But they also expose less obvious weaknesses: organizations that stifle creativity; organizations where staff isn’t valued; and perhaps, most importantly, poor leadership.
Years ago when Anne Ackerson and I first started writing and speaking about leadership in the museum world, it seemed as though we were the only ones talking about it. People were a little mystified by what we had to say, as if they wondered whether poor or mediocre leadership was actually a thing or just something we were whining about. Occasionally it was difficult to get a panel about leadership on the roster at national meetings because the running of museums and heritage organizations was not on program committee’s favorite topics. There was a sense that if things weren’t going well leadership wise, that the fault lay with poor choices by a given museum’s board of trustees not a systemic crisis in the field itself. Yet look at the field now. The storm of COVID-19 has laid bare a world of lousy leadership, harassment, and racial inequity. And it doesn’t have to be this way.
Not everyone entering an MBA program expects to be Jeff Bezos, but almost every MBA program offers its first year students a variation on Harvard’s Leadership and Organizational Behavior course, the assumption being that whether you lead or whether you follow, you need to understand the importance of good leadership, and its impact on organizational behavior. With the exception of programs like John F. Kennedy University’s dual degree program in Museum Studies and Master of Business Administration, the same is not true among museum studies programs. In the museum field, leadership is viewed as a choice. Students say, “I’m not sure I want to be a director. It’s too stressful.” Then, five years into their career, they find themselves leading a curatorial team of 10. They’re not the museum director, but their position requires all the same skills and decision making.
Is it possible that the hue and cry for a “new form of leadership” in museums is the result of decades of leadership by people forced to learn on the job? Some perform brilliantly–witness the 36 interviews in Leadership Matters. They are leaders who bring equal measures of self-reflection, humility and empathy to their museums every day. But many do not. Would a graduate program save them and prevent their organizations from being becalmed in a sea of mediocrity or worse, becoming poster children for harassment, bullying and racism? Maybe. At least it would point out that leadership is part and parcel of museum life, whether we choose to be directors or not.
Not every museum or heritage organization will survive the COVID crisis. Isn’t it incumbent on museum graduate programs everywhere to acknowledge that leadership training isn’t a through line to the director’s office? Sometimes it’s about behaving like a leader no matter where you are in the museum hierarchy. Mid-career museum professionals seem stunned by the fact that promotion takes them further and further from the the subject matter that drew them to the field in the beginning. Instead of wrangling objects, paintings or scientific specimens, now they wrangle humans, registrars, fellow curators, art handlers, consultants, and more. And it’s epically more challenging.
We conclude Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord with a Leadership Agenda. (To read the full agenda, click on the tab at the top of the page.) If I were to write the agenda today, I would change our suggestion for graduate programs from “Introduce leadership training and development in all course work,” to “Make leadership training a core course of study.” Whether you dismantle the traditional organizational hierarchy or maintain it, the individuals making decisions need to understand that museums are more than content. They are about people, and people need good leaders at all levels.
MB-one – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76476300
Museums have reached a crisis point. Directors continue to lose their positions. Many front line staff are gone, perhaps forever. Staff have been underpaid, threatened, harassed, and bullied. As a result, some have unionized. ‘Midst it all is a growing movement calling for dismantling museums as we know them. No more directors, new types of funding models, and most importantly an end to museum boards. So this week Leadership Matters writes to board members to say it’s time to step up, lean in and get busy.
Dear Museum Board Members,
It’s wrong to generalize and group board members from the United States’ 35,144 museums together, but truthfully, whether you govern a gigantic museum like the Metropolitan or a tiny historical society, you do the same thing. While there are differences in scale between being a New York City museum board member and serving on a board in a rural town, you are likely the important, wealthy folk in your particular community. But service is probably the operative word here. Just like the director and the staff, board members serve the institution, and this week, this month, is the moment for you to raise your voices. Museums need you. Your museum needs you.
You may have joined the board because a friend asked or because you have an interest in the museum or heritage organization’s subject, but once you’re a member, your obligation is to its health and safety. You may see the board as primarily responsible for protecting the museum’s assets, but it’s bigger than that. Collectively you understand the museum’s DNA, its values and its culture. You set its tone, hire its director, and know the community it serves.
So what have you done while the museum world rocks and rolls its way across such a choppy sea? How has the COVID belt-tightening affected your bottom line? Has your museum laid off staff? Has that affected staff diversity? Has it affected programming? And what has your museum done for its community during the pandemic? Do you have a community garden? A homework help program? Offer space for the food bank? Since George Floyd’s death has your board met to talk about racism and bias in your museum? Is that something that is important to your museum and to your community? Statistics tell us that 84-percent of American board members are white, male and over 55. That doesn’t make you bad people, but it might make discussing racism challenging. Can you find someone to help your board talk about that?
Perhaps you know all this? Perhaps you’ve been absurdly busy since March 15. But if not, here are five things to ponder as you steer your museum into the future:
- Lead a Value-Driven Organization: Hardly a week goes by without a museum being called out for bad behavior. Directors behave like dictators, curators harass staff, institutions have non-existent HR departments or personnel policies, and board members express surprise when people retaliate. Staff join unions because they are weary of inequitable pay. They sue because they’re tired of going to work–work they love–to be bullied and harassed. If none of these things have happened on your watch, congratulations, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune. Ask yourself what you’ve done this week, this month, this year to create a value-driven organization. Does your museum have a values statement? Does it have a personnel policy? Does your staff feel safe, seen, and supported? Even if you don’t believe that’s your job, surely it is your job to protect the organization’s reputation and its assets by keeping it out of the press and the courts? Governance that’s value driven will never take you down the wrong path.
- Take Responsibility and Apologize if Necessary: AAM tells us people trust museums, that the public considers them more reliable than books, teachers or family narratives. And yet, organizations are only people, and sometimes people mess up. Whether you deaccessioned in a clumsy way and insulted your community, whether you’ve bumbled along in a genteelly racist way insulting members of your community, whether you failed to listen to whistle blowers and permitted inappropriate or illegal behavior, sometimes the board, speaking for the museum, must apologize. It’s what adults do. So when and if you need to apologize, don’t hide. Say you’re sorry and for the love of God, change the behavior that led to the incident in the first place.
- Know Your Museum’s Staff: You may have joined the board because of your love of the museum’s subject matter, your interest in history, science or anthropology, and that’s important. But make no mistake, it’s your museum’s staff that is the organization’s life-blood. Without them, all of them, the museum is a giant warehouse. When was the last time you spoke to your museum staff? Not the fancy curators who care for your favorite collections, but the front-facing staff. Years ago, at my organization we had a trustee who always chatted with us. He was a person with a famous name, and a distinguished career, who spoke multiple languages, but he engaged. Often a week or more after the board was on site, those of us who talked to him would receive a postcard telling us how much he’d enjoyed the conversation. Speaking for myself, it made me feel seen, and acknowledged for the work I do. As we weather this storm of a pandemic, recession and social and political upheaval, it is imperative that you realize your decision making affects people, not just the rise and fall of the endowment.
- Take BIPOC and Gender Issues Seriously: If you’re a white man or woman of privilege, you may think a lot of what you hear about race and gender is more whining than reality. Before you dismiss it, talk to your museum staff. Talk to the guards. Talk to the folks who clean your restrooms or transport art work or greet visitors and ask about their experiences. Listen to what they say. Women, women who are Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and BIPOC museum folk in general, aren’t delusional. Their lives really are different than those of us who are white and privileged, because they are hallmarked by a level of racist and sexist behavior that would astound you. Does your organization protect its female-identifying and BIPOC staff? Do you know? If you don’t, you need to find out. If they have no way to report racist or sexist behavior, your organization is heading for a cliff.
- Leadership Matters: We have said this so many times on these pages, but it really matters who leads your organization. Hiring a director isn’t a task to be handed off to a search firm. It’s not a task to rush through. It’s a learning experience for you and your fellow board members. So much depends on the person you hire. They are the bridge from you to the staff and from the organization to the wider world. Their values have to match yours. Collectively you must respect them, and they you. Just like the board, they must also be a value-driven individual who believes in people, listens with empathy, who has vision, courage and discipline. And that’s on a good day without a pandemic and recession. And remember, a good fit is a good fit. Experience isn’t a panacea. Plenty of people have been in the museum field a long time, and yet they’re terrible leaders. If you find the qualities you need in someone young, don’t let that deter you. Talk about how you might invest in that person through training, mentoring, and leadership development, and hire them.
Museums matter. Your service to museums matters. You can’t be the best board member if you don’t recognize, acknowledge and plan for the myriad changes happening in the museum world. Being part of a small organization doesn’t give you permission to do a mediocre job. Do your best. Support your staff. Make your museum a humane institution. Make it known in your community as a compassionate, creative player.
Congressman John Lewis died of pancreatic cancer Friday. There aren’t many Congresspeople whose impact on the museum world is measurable. Lewis is one. He was a tireless advocate for the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture [NMAACH], working closely with Lonnie Bunch III, now Secretary of the Smithsonian, who writes “He was involved spiritually and strategically in almost all aspects of the museum.”
NMAAHC makes all of us proud to be in this field. It highlights the gaps and biases in the way American history is taught, told and understood, asking those of us who are white to open our hearts and minds to what we’ve failed to learn and understand, and it celebrates a culture and history long neglected. But apart from all of that is Lewis’ courage. Whether you were his constituent or not, whether you knew who he was or not, he stood up for justice and equality, advocating for the voiceless. There are those who are a steady force, advocating when the rest of us don’t have the courage, speaking out when most don’t think it’s their business. John Lewis was one of those people.
It’s way above my pay grade to think about who AASLH or AAM might honor in the coming year, but if ever there were an individual who deserved a national museum award in his name, it’s John Lewis. Not just for his work with NMAAHC, but because of his courage to speak up. Until recently, there wasn’t a lot of speaking up in the museum field at all. Ever. In fact, 25 or 30 years ago, the young were counseled to let things go, to look the other way so as not to “ruin their careers.” (I was one of those young people.) Their job wasn’t to ruffle feathers. Their job, wherever they were on the museum food chain, was to accept what powerful and monied board members wanted, and make it happen. These days, it feels as though that long period of acceptance, obeisance, and failure to act might be coming to a close. So what better time to honor courage in our field, then to name an award after the person who said, “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.”?
There is so much that’s not right in our field at the moment. A workforce that’s overwhelmingly white, without recognizing it perpetuates not just the symbolism, but the hierarchy of a job sector mired in the previous century; board members who haven’t sorted out that board membership isn’t about privilege but service; a field crippled by poor pay coupled with a monstrous gender pay gap; and leaders who mistake their office as an opportunity to lead badly, while bullying, harassing and failing to act in the face of ethics breaches.
Museums do a lot of good in the world. They are trusted. They are places people want to be. But they can no longer be the beautiful place with the important stuff sitting on the sidelines. They can’t be neutral, and neither can their staffs. What better way to acknowledge this change than by honoring Congressman John Lewis, and those in our field working for the voiceless, whether in their communities or in their own workplaces? Who knows whether an award like this would ever happen. Like I said, it’s way above my pay grade, but in the meantime, we should all be our own John Lewis, speaking up, and standing up, so when our children ask what did you do and what did you say, we’ll have an answer.
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.