Image: Courtesy of the American Alliance of Museums
By Guest Blogger Jackie Peterson
(See Jackie’s bio below)
Prior to launching the independent consultant phase of my career, I coveted the experience my museum-employed colleagues had going to AAM’s annual meeting. I used to think how wonderful it must be to learn what’s happening across our field, to meet new colleagues, to explore museums in a new or favorite city. But since striking out on my own, it has become clear this experience is no longer for me. Here’s why:
COST: Having to cover all of my costs to attend a conference now directly impacts my revenue. I’m only a few years into building my independent practice, so I’m not raking in 6-figure projects (yet). So I’ve had to be incredibly strategic about how I devote my resources to professional development. Like many others, I can no longer justify the cost. For all AAM talks about equity and inclusion, the cost of attendance continues to rise without addressing how it affects attendance. I am no longer a member of AAM, so even registering early would have cost me $695. Add the flight and lodging, and that’s a minimum total of $1850 – this doesn’t include meals or other networking and evening events. The response is always “We’re doing what we can to offset costs by offering scholarships.” The reality is that AAM estimates that 5,000* people attended the conference this year, and yet less than 1 percent** of attendees received a scholarship. That’s not equitable. I’m not saying every attendee needs a scholarship, but there are barriers inherent in the general pricing and pricing structure of this conference that prevent so many from being able to attend.
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: The Museum Expo is supposedly the largest generator of conference revenue, yet AAM continues to miss opportunities to be more equitable within this space. Rarely – if ever – have I seen AAM highlight vendors that are women-owned, LGBTQ+ – owned or POC-owned or any intersection therein. Like the overall conference, it seems like whoever can foot the bill gets to come. Yes, bringing in revenue is necessary, but surely there are ways to allow smaller businesses, especially local or regional vendors, to participate. To add to that, rarely does AAM advocate for local businesses (beyond museums) in the host city by providing attendees with that information and encouraging people to patronize them. This is information that is easily available from local chambers of commerce and other business organizations, and even easier for AAM to distribute. Every year, I continue to be disappointed by who appears in the Expo space, and who does not.
MEDIOCRE, STATUS QUO SESSION CONTENT: Very often I attend a session based on the program’s description (as many do) and find the content presented is much different than the description or the presenters just rattle off their latest professional achievements to a captive audience. On top of that, the same names and faces keep showing up. I spent some time combing through the presenters on the first full day of the conference (Monday, May 20). After some unscientific analysis, I found that of the 65 or so sessions that day (exclusive of those that took place in the Museum Expo), roughly nine had panelists that were 50-percent or more people of color. And a majority of the panelists (almost 75-percent) were managers, senior managers, department heads, directors or chief officers. Again, for all the talk of equity and inclusion, the conversations that happened that first day were led or facilitated by an overwhelmingly white group of people in senior positions. With some exceptions, this means the perspective on content being presented is very limited. And I am no longer interested in these kinds of conversations. It reinforces the idea that “leadership” is a position rather than a skillset that can be embodied and enacted at every level of an organization. More importantly, it limits opportunities for more junior staff and staff from underrepresented departments (security, facilities, maintenance, front-line visitor services staff) to engage more formally in field-wide conversations.
While I recognize that some of these issues are deeply systemic, many of them don’t require upending AAM as an organization to fix. Organizations like the National Council on Public History (NCPH), the Association of African American Museums (AAAM), and regional museum associations have already been making strides and taking measures to actively include people and keep conference content relevant, rather than simply posture. As a large organization, AAM is in a unique position to be the change, so to speak. But the more I witness personally and hear anecdotally from other colleagues, the more AAM seems to lack credibility and relevance to museum work.
Jackie Peterson is an independent exhibit developer, curator and writer based in Seattle, WA. She loves nothing more than working with museums to unearth and share their most meaningful – and more importantly, untold – stories.
Prior to establishing her independent practice, Jackie spent six years learning the museum trade at Ralph Appelbaum Associates in NYC. There, she served as a content coordinator and developer for a wide variety of projects from the NASCAR Hall of Fame to the S.E.A Aquarium at Resorts World Sentosa to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. She has always loved the intersection of public service, cultural institutions and education, and has landed in the exhibit design world in order to pursue this work.
Jackie currently serves on the steering committee for the Museums & Race initiative and on the Northwest Regional Council for the National Parks Conservation Association.
It’s AAM week–the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums. This year AAM is in Phoenix where it was (no lie) 110 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday. Because Leadership Matters is also a co-founder of GEMM we devoted ourselves to AAM’s diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion initiatives.
We started with “Beyond Diversity,” AAM’s DEAI working group. Led by Dr. Nicole Ivy, AAM’s Director of Diversity, four members of the working group talked about their six-month journey creating a shared vocabulary and basic principles to guide museum professionals in incorporating DEAI in their workplaces. Dr. Johnnetta Cole called the dialog around the table energizing, embodying what it meant to be “the other.” She reinforced the experimental nature of the process by recollecting a quote from her own mother and quoting Zora Neale Huston, who said that “if you jump for the sun and don’t make it, at least you get off the ground.”
Several of the panelists pointed out their work was an iterative process that succeeded because their team worked so hard. Nonetheless, at the conclusion of their comments, audience members challenged them, and by extension AAM, asking what AAM’s role would be in making change? One questioner said that she’d been in the field for five years, but wasn’t sure if she would stay because salaries are so low she isn’t sure she can afford it. Panelists deflected her question, responding that their job wasn’t to actualize, it was to frame the questions.
The following day we and GEMM joined other diversity and inclusion initiatives at AAM’s Diversity Forum. Each group made a brief presentation about its goals and work. Then participants moved from table to table, moving in and out of conversations. At the GEMM table women spoke about the pay gap, salary negotiations, and the rigors of combining parenthood with work. Participants allied over common problems, what to do about low salaries, and how to advise the next generation of museum professionals. Hopefully, the women who participated in the GEMM conversation left with renewed confidence and a sense of support.
It’s impossible to talk about the first full day of AAM sessions and not mention the opening session and the keynote. Certainly the moment when Hallie Winter, Curator at the Osage Nation Museum, received the Nancy Hanks award was a high point. The Hanks award goes to a museum professional who’s been in the field less than 10 years, and recognizes a specific achievement that benefits either the honoree’s home institution or the museum field in general. In a short video and in person, Winter’s brief acceptance speech was heart-breakingly wonderful, reminding all of us why we do what we do.
Then came Kevin Jennings’ keynote. Holy smokes. There are speakers and then there are the ones who get you where you live. Jennings, a former teacher, non-profit director, and writer is the new president of The Tenement Museum in New York City. Weaving his personal history with the museum’s story, and placing them both against a back drop of the national narrative stretching from roughly 1900 to the present, Jennings asked his audience to see themselves (and their stories) as facets in a bigger chronicle.
It’s rare to hear such a personal speech that was packed with leadership lessons if you knew where to look. He made himself vulnerable. He was funny. How many of us are ready to show a huge audience our high school prom picture? He talked about loss. He wasn’t afraid to pause so his audience could comprehend a wrenching turn in the story. It is the way good teachers teach, mingling the now with the then so listeners understand the iterative nature of time. And it’s the way we all need to approach our work, with open arms and minds so our audiences hear the echoes of their own stories. If you weren’t in Phoenix yesterday, try to listen to this speech when AAM makes its recordings available. You’ll be glad you did.
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.
In the wake of the ongoing dismay surrounding the Berkshire Museum’s decision to renovate its building, change its focus, and shore up a plundered endowment, and Lee Rosenbaum’s cautionary post about the National Academy of Design — another organization that hoped to cure its ills with cash — we’ve been thinking a lot about boards, board culture, board building, and board behavior.
We’ve written about museum leadership since 2013. Our focus has been the women and men leading museums and heritage organizations. Any of you who’ve read our posts know we believe passionately that the museum field needs to invest more in its leaders and staff than its infrastructure.
Lately museums have made news for a host of reasons including poor decision making and inattention. Each incident sends the press scurrying to find similar situations so the public is reminded of the field’s misdeeds. The field needs to make our job sector a place with better salaries, better benefits, HR offices, personnel policies, and gender equity training. That’s a cultural shift that isn’t going to happen overnight, and a lot of the heavy lifting needs to be done by museum boards. We don’t have a magic wand, but if we did, here are our five wishes for board behavior:
- Boards who understand why they’ve chosen to serve, who know that service is about the institution, whether it is tiny and all-volunteer or a community’s anchor store.
- Boards who believe in the museum field, who understand it’s a place with its own culture, rules, and most importantly, ethics and standards. Those standards weren’t invented a century ago because the folks at the newly-formed American Association of Museums (now American Alliance of Museums) had nothing else to do. On good days these ethics and standards actually inform what the field does.
- Boards who invest in museum leadership within their own ranks as well as staff ranks find that it can be a key to making change, not just an opportunity to shift the responsibility of leadership off their own backs.
- Boards who have a deep understanding of why their organizations matter know it is an understanding that informs and eases the ongoing task of raising money.
- Boards who know that museums hold the public trust, and realize that being a non-profit isn’t a ticket to practices and behaviors they wouldn’t sanction in their own businesses.
This sounds like we think all boards are badly behaved, and we don’t. Many, many are exemplary. But for the sake of collections, communities, and museum staffs, we’d like to see boards move the needle away from downright poor decision making and mediocrity. And the sooner the better.
As we predicted last week’s post generated some lively thoughts. Since not all our comments are posted on the blog itself, in the spirit of change coming from the bottom up, we thought we should share a comment with you. With the writer’s permission, here it is:
“I am in the process of writing a grant, or as we say, I am playing the hunger games. The request is for a FT staff position and the salary I am requesting is $33,000 plus health and life insurance, total compensation package approximately 40,000. I am requiring one year of experience (internships count), but I am not requiring an MA because I believe doing so has made our field less diverse and less equitable over the past 25 years. When I showed the job description and salary package to a colleague, her reaction was “Wow! That’s a lot of money.” When I explained that it was just over the soon to be minimum wage of $15 hr, she just said, “Oh.” We all need to stop thinking that an MA is required to work in a museum (or a library). We need to invest in the next generation, believe and act on the belief that less than minimum wage is unacceptable, for anyone.”
What would happen to the museum field if more people did this? No, one individual’s act won’t change the salary crisis, nor will it deal with the gender pay gap, but if even a quarter of museums opened their doors to newly minted college graduates, let them test the water, mentored them, advised them, would the field be worse off? Might it be more diverse as the writer suggests? Might emerging professionals be better off understanding the field a little bit before investing in graduate school?
Given our location near that hotbed of artistic happenings known as the Berkshires, we would be remiss if we failed to comment on the fracas generated by the venerable Berkshire Museum’s announcement last week. If you’ve been on vacation and cut off from news, the Museum disclosed plans to sell 40 paintings to increase endowment and make capital improvements. Needless to say, the news release sent shock waves through the museum world. While the Berkshire Museum isn’t alone–the Delaware Museum of Art did something similar in 2015 when it sold four paintings–monetizing the collection isn’t usually a board’s first or even second choice when it’s desperate for money. To date, the Museum received a letter from the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association of Art Museum Directors. Their joint statement included this line, “One of the most fundamental and longstanding principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset.” The Museum’s director responded in The New York Times by stating, “The fact is, we’re facing an existential threat, and the board chose the interests of this institution over the interests of these national professional organizations.”
What puzzles Leadership Matters is the same question we asked about Tom Campbell’s exit from the Metropolitan Museum: What was the board thinking? In that instance we were curious whether the board had given Campbell free rein, and then woken up to see the museum tipping toward financial disaster. Did something similar happen in Pittsfield, MA? What is the board thinking?
But more importantly the Berkshire Museum is not any nonprofit organization. It’s a museum. When current board members agreed to serve–and serve is an operative word– did no one tell them that a position on the Board, meant they were joining not only the Berkshire Museum, but the larger world of museums through AAM and AAMD? How did they get the idea that ignoring standards of accepted professional and ethical practice wouldn’t matter?
This situation is eerily reminiscent of Walter Schaub Jr.’s resignation from the Office of Government Ethics. At the time Schaub told National Public Radio, “Even when we’re not talking strictly about violations, we’re talking about abandoning the norms and ethical traditions of the executive branch that have made our ethics program the gold standard in the world until now.” Remind you of anything? How about we replace the words “executive branch” with the “America Alliance of Museums”? In other words, the Museum hasn’t done anything illegal, but its board chose to disregard the field’s ethical boundaries.
While we can hope some gazillionaire raises his hand at Sotheby’s, buys a painting or two and donates them to another museum, the Berkshire Museum’s pending sale seems like a train that’s not going to stop. But before you get too smug that this sorry state of affairs would never happen at your institution, we suggest there’s always work to be done. This is probably a teachable moment. When was the last time your board familiarized itself with terms like “fiduciary” and “duty of care”? Did they receive or are they reminded of AAM’s Pledge of Excellence or AAMD’s Code of Ethics regularly? Is it worth discussing that museums and heritage organizations don’t operate in vacuums, but collectively agree to abide by the field’s ethical boundaries? That is an obligation, not a choice. Like so many other things–political office, for example–you can’t only follow the rules when they suit you. The museum field is the wonderful, complex place it is today because we collectively agree to serve our public. So let’s do the best we can to protect the objects, living things, buildings, and sites entrusted to us.
There is no question that museum salaries are the field’s third rail. Whenever they are mentioned here, we see a spike in readership and the number of comments. Museum directors tell us that if salaries go up, there’s no money for heating/cooling or the education department or exhibits or the institution’s digital presence. Or how about an organization’s crumbling infrastructure? After our July 10 post a reader wrote, that she felt the low salary issues were really a two-fold problem. On the one hand there’s salary equity within an institution. Her concern was directors whose salaries are out of proportion to the rest of the staff. Obviously if a director’s or CFO’s salaries are hugely inflated in comparison to other staff, that is a problem that needs the board’s attention, and the first issue might be getting them to understand this type of inequity is a problem. And speaking of salary inequities, don’t forget the gender salary gap, but more about that later.
The writer’s second point relates to the you-can’t-get-blood-from-a-stone argument. Here’s what she wrote,” The other issue has to do with the limited overall funding available for running a museum (which could probably be expanded to most of the non-profit sector). Many (most?) museums are challenged to find additional sources for staff salaries since we are “overhead”, along with utilities, insurance, snow removal, etc., rather than programmatic activities (for which funds can more readily be obtained). I’m not sure what the solution to THAT is.”
You know this. You live with it. It is part and parcel of museum leadership in 2017. And we get it. We really do. But here’s a thought, not a judgement: Are there decisions that museum service organizations, boards and museum leaders could make over the long term leading to better salaries?
Let’s pause to note that Leadership Matters believes many small and medium sized museums don’t allow themselves to think long term. And by long term, we mean five to 10 years in the future. The reasons for that are likely complex, from poor trustee training, to dismissive attitudes toward museums and heritage organizations in general, to the risk-averse nature of many non-profit boards or an ingrained belief that a board’s role is to maintain status quo rather than to work for change. But the museum field’s salary problem demands long-term planning.
So what is the solution? There isn’t just one. The low salary problem grew over time, nurtured by the hierarchical nature of the field, and the museum world’s gentle tip towards a pink-collar workplace. The fact that a master’s degree is almost de riguer for employment brings a huge group of debt-ridden employees to museums every year. These factors make museums easiest for employees with second incomes–family money or high earning partners–creating a vicious circle where the wealthy stay on, while others leave. That may be a huge generalization, and many of you can point to exceptions, nonetheless, this is a complex problem involving race, class and gender. It took decades to create and it will take decades to undo. So here are some suggestions for change:
While who gets paid what is, at the highest level, a board thing, we believe it’s time for AAM and AASLH to step up to the plate. While AAM, AAMD, and the regional museum organizations have religiously collected salary data for decades, it’s largely a passive commitment. If you or your organization buy the survey, you may use it to your heart’s content, but isn’t it time for our national museum associations to follow the American Library Association and stipulate a minimum salary for museum professionals? The cynics among you may ask what good would that do? In the short term, precious little. Over the long term, however, a minimum salary for directors might give organizations pause before they hire a maid-of-all-work at $28,000, while allowing job applicants the courage to say no thank you, your position doesn’t meet the national association’s base salary.
Museums and heritage organizations have to be encouraged to endow positions. That isn’t something just for colleges or huge, wealthy organizations. What better way to acknowledge the importance of staff in keeping organizations alive and changing? Yes, it’s costly, but endowing positions frees up cash for other anxiety-provoking expenses.
Museums need to become the non-profit world’s leaders in addressing the gender pay gap. The salary gap is not a myth, but a real thing–look at AAMD’s report on salary equity and AAM’s newest salary survey–and is something every organization needs to address. What would happen if the museum field were known as the job sector that made women’s salaries equitable first? That means making sure all women’s salaries are equal since statistics show women of color and queer women don’t make as much as white women, and only then adjusting women’s salaries to meet men’s. How would that affect hiring and more importantly, retention?
Last, AAM, AASLH, AAMD, the regional service agencies, and the United States’ many museum boards have to support and encourage salary growth. From the accreditation process to the StEPs program, staff salaries and benefits have to matter in a visible, tangible way. Organizations should be open and transparent about staff turnover, about their ability to hire above their city’s Living Wage. Why? Because a well-paid, content, smart staff drive organizations forward. And that’s a cultural shift.
This is a problem for all of us. Let’s work for change.
In the wake of our return from AAM’s annual meeting in St. Louis, we’ve thought a lot about the lily whiteness of the museum field. It’s a monumental problem, and to be fair, it’s a problem the field is working hard to solve. But salaries are also an issue, and here the field is far less aggressive, indeed it’s sometimes silent. And yet until we acknowledge how questions of diversity and salary are linked, neither will be solved, and we will live on as the profession best practiced by white young men and women with trust funds.
Leadership Matters is not the first to talk about the diversity/salary link. Many voices over the last five years have raised this question, not the least of which was Museum Workers Speak in its rogue meeting two years ago at AAM in Atlanta. But what floats to the surface from these speeches, panel discussions, tweets and blog posts is overwhelmingly about race, not salary.
Many museums’ origin stories belong to the oligarchs, whether male or female, who, often with the noblest of intentions, created collections for the rest of us. They are traditional, hierarchical organizations, and until about 25 years ago, led predominantly by traditional, white men burdened with more scholarly degrees than leadership experience. (If you need a 21st-century version of this story, look no further than the great, grand Metropolitan Museum. Inside a Met Director’s Shocking Exit.)
The worst cases of diversity-fixing have involved keeping everything the same, but strategically replacing a member of a museum’s leadership team with a person or persons of color. No one can object. The optics are right, and in many cases those hires actually made and continue to make change. And one assumes they were hired at better than average salaries, although we know, that if the person of color in question is a woman, her salary is likely to be almost 30-percent less than her white male colleagues. The Pollyanna in us can say something is better than nothing. At least she’s there. Small steps, blah, blah. Yes, but…..
At the staff level, where men and women with newly-minted graduate degrees compete for a ridiculously small number of jobs, many with poor to pathetic salaries, things don’t change. (Panera Bread pays its shift supervisors $11.48/hour and we’re pretty sure they don’t require an advanced degree.) And it’s here that race and class come face to face with a job sector that expects a master’s degree, maybe an internship or two, before offering a life-time of earning less than $50,000 annually. Why should a young woman of color invest in graduate school to then have to pay student loans while earning less than $15/hour with no benefits? Why should young women who want to combine parenthood with career, work for museums whose response to child bearing is “Use FMLA, and we’ll hold your job for you” or worse, “Our staff is under 50 people, so we don’t have to offer FMLA”?
Yes, we’ve been a too-white, sometimes biased field for too long. But built into too many museum’s workplace DNA is the idea that you are lucky to be there at all. This is the evil stepsister of Elizabeth Merritt’s Sacrifice Measure. There, she defined a culture where predominantly white, well-educated wanna-be museum staff were willing to live with too many roommates, and skimp on their daily lattes in order to work in the rarified atmosphere of museums and cultural organizations. But how about the museums that exploit that desire? Who in action and deed tell emerging professionals you only need to sacrifice for a decade or more and then your median salary will be $48,000. Really?
If you taught public school, worked in a public library, which also require a master’s degree, your salary would be transparent and your national organization–the American Library Association or your teachers union might take a stand about what salary was appropriate for a masters degree holding person with some experience. We could be wrong, but we have trouble imagining a municipal library saying “We’re non-profit, so we can’t pay that much.” You could envision the ladder you might climb, and it wouldn’t involve hopping from part-time work, to a grant-funded position before finally reaching a full-time position. Don’t get us wrong. We’re not suggesting that other fields are nirvana, but until the museum field–from the top–AAM, AASLH, museum thought leaders and board members– tackles this problem we will be a field easiest occupied by those with high-earning partners or trust funds. That does not make for a diverse workforce.
Joan H. Baldwin