It’s a month since my last post. In that time Covid and all its attendant problems took a back seat to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To quote Thomas Campbell, Director of the Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco in a recent Instagram post, “Against the backdrop of the atrocious Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the appalling suffering it is causing, it seems almost disrespectful to speak of anything else.” A week ago, a quote from the Ukrainian Library Association made the rounds of social media. The Association posted to cancel its annual meeting writing, “We will reschedule as soon as we finish vanquishing our invaders.” How about the rest of us, would we be that brave?
It’s against that background–the idea that in an instant you can be forced to flee home, family, friends, and your known world–that it’s time to put the dipstick down on our own. So what’s the latest on the museum workplace? What I’m reading seems to offer some diametrically opposed messaging. Nationally inflation is at a 40-year high and as of December 2021, 61-percent of us were living pay-check-to-pay check. Among that group, those who are Gen Z’ers, have an average savings is $1,158. On the other hand, LinkedIn News reports that 38-percent of employees in the arts plan to leave their jobs in the next six months, along with 37-percent of those working in recreation and travel. I think it’s safe to assume some individuals in either group are museum folk.
These two data lines don’t necessarily seem to intersect unless we believe poor pay makes us more mobile, and maybe it does. Couple that with AAM’s survey of museums post-Covid where some 73-percent of respondents reported that thanks to PPP funding, their staffs were back at pre-March 2020 capacity, although hourly positions continue to be hard to fill. That group may overlap with the 38-percent of employees planning to switch jobs. They were the most discounted at the height of the pandemic, and, since they couldn’t work at home, the first to be let go, so it’s no surprise they aren’t rushing to return, and hopefully have found work elsewhere. Not to mention yesterday’s stabbing at MoMA. It redefined, in the most horrible way, the reason we call them front-line workers, and the risks they take in dealing with the public.
I want to pause here and say that when AAM released its Trendswatch report in the winter of 2021, I wrote a post expressing concern that it had missed the boat when it came to women. I felt women deserved more of a mention since they were disproportionately affected by Covid. Not that it’s all about me (it’s not), but it was such a relief (and a pleasure) to find AAM’s new Covid survey devotes time specifically to the pandemic’s effects on women and women of color.
So, so far, we know what we know: We’re struggling, everything costs more, 40-percent of us lost income during Covid from which we’ve likely not recovered. Women, who account for 51-percent of the museum workforce, bore a greater increase in responsibilities as staffs contracted. They also report they are less optimistic, more burned out, and, although the survey didn’t put it this bluntly, in many cases their poor compensation is overlaid by the gender pay gap. In addition, we’re still working through a lot of post-Covid fear and weirdness at returning to work or returning to work in person, and yet many museums are open or extending hours to something resembling life pre-pandemic times.
So clearly another shoe will drop. And apparently it’s the same old shoe: race, gender, and class aka income disparity, a subject highlighted in AAM’s post-Covid survey. In addition to its Covid data, AAM is also partnering with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and AAMD to try to understand how or whether the field has moved the needle on staff diversity. As Mellon puts it, “More than a marker of progress to date, this data serves as a tool for the future—whether quantifying the challenges we still face, establishing a baseline against which to measure impact, or equipping museums with the insight they need to structure and implement pipeline-building programs.” Mellon acknowledges that while there has been progress, it’s uneven. I would add that it’s uneven because too often museum boards, and in many cases their leaders, feel that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Many of them see their institutions as fine. Maybe not perfect–more money would be nice–but fine, and what’s fine to those at the top of the food chain, is often untenable to those further down.
So what’s to be done? Clearly the work begun on diversity and gender in the summer of 2020 remains unfinished. AAM, AAMD, the Mellon Foundation, the American Association for State & Local History (AASLH) and the National Council on Public History (NCPH) are all gathering data, but the randomness of equitable and humane work conditions remains a problem, a problem that is most acute for women and particularly women of color. I’ll close with the same suggestions I made a year ago:
- Does your organization post its values statement so visitors, donors, tradespeople, trustees and staff know where it stands on issues of DEI and specifically gender equity?
- Does your organization list salaries when posting positions? Within the institution, are your salary levels transparent?
- Does your museum offer equitable professional opportunities and mentoring?
- Does your museum have a policy on employee participation in public protest for gender equity and other forms of social justice?
- Have you completed an equity audit of your institutional salaries?
- Have you reviewed your human resource policies and procedures to reveal and address discriminating behavior?
- Are you confident, that an employee with a problem or a grievance can navigate your organization, and be treated equitably and fairly?
- Do you offer sexual harassment training along with DEI training in your workplace? And is your organization clear on its definition of sexual harassment, and how such cases are handled?
- Got time for a podcast? Listen to HBR’s Women at Work.
See you next month. In the meantime, be well, be kind, and do good work.
It is more than a decade since Anne Ackerson and I started working on Leadership Matters (2012), and so much is very, very different. We have long since ceased being the only voices calling for leadership reform in museums and heritage organizations. There are innumerable virtual and actual groups, supporting museum workers, and calling for change. The eight organizations operating under the Collective Liberation mantle are awesome examples of new groups doing great work. And that’s wonderful. One thing that remains the same, however, is leadership itself, how it’s taught and how it’s learned personally, organizationally, and through service organizations and in graduate programs.
Years ago I served on AAM’s annual meeting program committee. The year I participated, Anne and I also had a session proposal before the committee. That meant I had to leave the room during its discussion. Our session squeaked through, but not without comments on whether talking about museum work was really what AAM’s annual meeting was about. I am eternally grateful to the voices in the room who pushed our session through. Not because we needed to speak, but because the field needs to examine the way it works, and museum and heritage organization workers need AAM’s support–if only tacitly–in knowing talking about work is important. Change can’t happen until we acknowledge the problem. And talking about workplace issues is an acknowledgement that all is not Nirvana in museumland.
As I’ve mentioned many times here, Anne and I teach a course on museum leadership in Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies program. Hopkins is one of many museum studies master’s programs, but I’ll wager it is among a much smaller group offering leadership courses as part of museum studies. And there is an even tinier group that actually makes leadership a lynch pin of their programs. Why? I do not know. There are decades of examples of both great museum leadership and the truly horrific kind to remind us it isn’t just the collections or the historic buildings that make a great museum. It’s leadership.
Perhaps it’s not true any more, but for decades people were drawn to museum work because of the stuff: the art, the historic buildings, the textiles, the science, sculpture, jewelry, technology and pottery. What other career gives you the privilege of immersing yourself in creativity, invention, and discovery, in other places and times, as teacher, scholar or interpreter? And yet, if you’re successful, you quickly find yourself distanced from the very objects that attracted you in the first place. Instead, you manage people, people with needs, workplace quirks, illness, small children, elderly relations, and strident beliefs. It’s a different ballgame, and it’s leadership warts and all.
Leadership is about human relationships. You may find yourself as a leader at work, but a follower in the organization where you volunteer. Or the reverse may be true. No matter which side of the equation you sit on, leader or follower, it’s a truth you experience. Because of that, fixing what’s wrong belongs to all of us. It’s not the sole job of unions or boards of trustees, AAM, AASLH or AAMD. Each of us has a role, and a contribution to make, and unless and until there is a moment when museum governance as we currently know it ends, to be replaced by something completely different, then no single entity can wave a wand and end decades of genteel racism, gender stereotyping, patriarchal behavior and on and on. That’s why both volumes of Leadership Matters end with a Leadership Agenda, a list of directives for individuals, institutions, professional organizations, graduate programs and funders. Here is a sampling from each category:
- For Individuals: Seek opportunities to take new leadership responsibility in order to grow and expand skills. Practice new learning whenever you can. Prepare for serendipity.
- For Institutions: Realize that it is not your job to maintain the status quo. The job of institutions and their leaders is to make a difference.
- For Professional Associations: Insist on competitive, equitable pay and benefits to attract and retain great staff, institutional support of the emerging leader and the lone professional, and diversification of governing boards.
- For Graduate Programs: Create programs specifically for leadership development.
- For Funders: Promote hiring practices that eradicate exclusion, champion equity in hiring, promotion, access to leadership opportunities through collaboration with graduate programs and allied associations.
If solving the museum world’s leadership problems is something you care about, there are many more, and they are worth taking a look at. You can find the entire Leadership Revolution Agenda above. Which brings me to this: In December I plan to end this blog. I started it to promote our first edition of Leadership Matters in 2013, and it has challenged me, stretched me, helped me think things through, and, I hope, helped some of you as you navigate the sometimes choppy waters of the museum workplace. In the next six months, if there are topics you wish I’d write about, let me know. And if there is an blog post in your brain bursting to get out, let me know as well. Leadership Matters has a tradition of hosting guest bloggers so send a writing sample and your ideas.
In the meantime, stay safe, stay well, be kind.
First Kudos: To Mike Murawski for his new book, Museums As Agents of Change, released this week and available through Routledge. A co-founder of Museums are not Neutral, Murawski is a change maker himself, which is just one of the reasons this book is important.
Second, a shout out to AAM. In February I wrote a post complaining about how AAM’s newly-released Trendswatch had sidestepped the ways the pandemic harmed working women globally, and specifically women in the museum world. This week while scrolling through an AAM newsletter, I came across a link to Supporting Women in the Workplace During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic. It takes a big-hearted organization to course-correct, so thank you to AAM for providing resources for 50.1-percent of the museum workforce. And if women’s issues within the museum world concern you, join Gender Equity in Museums or GEMM.
Third, a bravo to my friend Frank Vagnone: If museum directors had fans like boy bands, I would be lined up post-concert to see Frank, president and CEO of Old Salem, Inc. Thoughtful, smart, and someone known to push the envelope on occasion, Vagnone writes the blog Twisted Preservation. This week he posted about the need to see COVID for what it is–not an 18-month stop between normal and new normal–but an inflection point that will leave many organizations devastated and fundamentally changed. If you’re a museum or heritage organization leader, you should read his post, and maybe use it as a point of discussion with your board.
And the deaccessioning debate continues: I am struck by the way this debate has become a binary choice. You’re either for it–a progressive–or against it or at least cautious about it–a traditionalist. And like all things in 2021, deacessioning is personalized, becoming a lens with a bifurcated view of the art museum world because, let’s face it, history and science museums aren’t making millions deaccessioning.
Lee Rosenbaum went so far as to metaphorically pit Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, opposite Phillipe de Montebello, former director of the Met, writing that Bedford is among “the new crop of museum directors and curators [who] have embraced social and political progressiveness as a primary part of their mission.” Rosenbaum suggests that “inclusivity and social relevance are laudable” but cautions “patience so museums don’t trash the time-honored achievements of past professionals.”
Where to start? Maybe with the idea that as I said a few weeks ago, deaccessioning is a tool in a tool box, a necessary one, but one that in order to wield successfully, needs a deep collection, a degree of wisdom and sophistication on the part of curators and museum leadership, and a strong community understanding. Second, that it’s possible for smart, thoughtful, forward-thinking organizations to hold two (or more) ideas in their heads at the same time–pruning and shaping the collection to help it better speak to the wider community–while also trying to create an equitable workspace that honors the values museums profess to support. Perhaps communities of color and museum staff are tired of waiting for museums who are afraid of trashing the time-honored path representing the way we’ve always done it?
When did putting community–whether that is your security guard’s hourly pay or your local community’s access to your collection– become a bad thing? Is it okay as long as it doesn’t privilege BIPOC artists over established white, male artists? Shouldn’t we all be modeling ofbyforall.org’s five steps for change? And how will change happen if our first act is to rush to the barricades defending what cannot change?
AAMD is like an exclusive gentleman’s club from the 1950’s. It costs money to belong, when you’re inside it seems powerful, but in reality its enforcement powers are limited. According to The New York Times, a recent vote on whether to codify the relaxed deaccessioning rules of COVID lost 91-88 with 48 members abstaining. Perhaps the 48 abstainers sided with MoMA’s Glenn Lowery who suggests this type of decision making shouldn’t happen in the middle of a crisis. And despite vaccines, and the falling number of COVID cases, we are still in a crisis.
And a lesson in humility: One of the lessons of leadership is that we continue learning. Always. Every day. And the day you stop, you should pack it in, and head for your rocking chair and your memories.
I manage a small collection inside a small, intentional community or a boarding school. Like any lone ranger, I wear the title “curator,” but many other hats –educator, registrar, packer, exhibit designer–as well. Our campus is still officially closed, but last week we hung an exhibit of 22 portraits, part of a project for our 9th and 10th-grade studio art students. Each student will select a portrait, reckon with it, react to it, and create a new work in response. When complete, the student work, curated and selected by their classmates, will hang in dialog next to the collection work. So far so good.
I finished the week with the show hung, but not the labels. I was tired, a lame excuse in retrospect, but nonetheless true, so I reasoned the labels could wait until Monday. Here is one of the portraits, a dual image of Mary Birch Coffing of Salisbury, Connecticut with Jane Winslow also of Salisbury.
In leaving the labels for another day, I forgot about my audience. I forgot they needed context, and most of all, in believing they could wait, I disrespected them. So when they reacted Friday evening about the portrait above via email and social media, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. They were concerned. They wanted information. By Saturday morning I’d reckoned with my own blindness and all the labels were up. Further, we’d reached out to students and offered to talk about the show as a whole, and the Coffing/Winslow portrait in particular.
The lesson for me was not just how a lone ranger needs to push through and finish what was started. It was about the obligation to empathize, to put oneself in the position of one’s audience, and try to imagine what tools are necessary to make their own judgements, to have their own dialog, their own reckoning. That’s all art asks of us: to be there; to be fully present for more than the 20-seconds most of us devote to standing in front of a painting. If that’s what we want from our viewers, then we have to give them a place to start that’s truthful but not opinionated, that leads to dialog not misunderstanding, and most of all that is respectful.
The good news is I know I’m still learning. I hope you are too.
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.
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.
In Part II of a duo of guest blog posts (See May 11 for Part I) guest blogger Steven Miller examines the fate of museum collections in the Post-COVID age.
On April 15th the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issued a press release announcing it had “…passed a series of resolutions addressing how art museums may use the restricted funds held by some institutions.” One part of the announcement stated “…an institution may use the proceeds from deaccessioned works of art – regardless of whether the works were deaccessioned before or after the date of these resolutions – to support the direct care of the museum’s collections.”
Museums are unique in their self-declared reliance on objects to justify their existence. Collections act as evidence of the subject a museum exists to explain. Acquisitions provide meaning about human history, creativity, and the sciences. Over the years the idea evolved that museum collections are held for the long term, a notion entirely generated by museums themselves as they devote considerable resources to save collections from theft, natural disaster, civil destruction, physical deterioration, etc. Though phrased in a way that suggests caring for collections is of importance to the AAMD, museums can interpret “direct care” as they wish. Collection sale profits can cover utility bills, capital expenses, debt payments, employee compensation, you name it. No one is checking.
If anyone ever doubted that museums are expensive organizations to run, COVID-19 proved them wrong. With many museums closed or trying to figure out how to open after 11 weeks of closure, admission and programming income is gone, and boards and their leadership are left to figure out the way forward. The AAMD’s April 15th announcement seems to provide an income option as it suggests collections are expendable financial assets.
In the early 1970s selling museum collections became highly controversial. Reacting to intense public debate, the museum field structured guidelines for the practice. Selling was condoned only if proceeds were allocated for future collection purchases, and/or the direct care of collections. Though these recommendations are accepted by most museums, unless restrictions apply to certain objects, museums can do with them as they wish. (Restrictions, legal or social, might apply to endangered species, stolen objects, materials of importance to indigenous peoples, or, things given or sold to museums with ownership caveats prohibiting future removal.) The majority of museum deaccession policies omit concerns for preserving what is being disposed of. The AAMD mirrors that practice.
Deaccession by unrestricted sale essentially amounts to the destruction of objects a museum once owned and cared for. Why does the AAMD like this? For me, the answer is money. As a membership organization the AAMD’s unspoken priority is to attract and keep customers – e.g., members, and because museums sell collections, AAMD condones the activity.
In the United States it is the duty of museum trustees to sustain institutions for which they are responsible. As noted, the effect of an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic makes their work incredibly difficult. The challenges are mind-boggling. Ultimately, practical solutions for museums are almost entirely of a fiscal nature. What will it cost to survive, how will survival be defined, and, where will the money come from, not to mention when?
The AAMD’s resolutions were made “…in recognition of the extensive negative effects of the current crises on the operations and balance sheets of many art museums – and the uncertain timing for a museum’s operations, fundraising, and revenue streams to return to normal.” Although a devastating idea, the gesture is probably of little consequence. Anyone familiar with the American museum world knows boards of trustees do whatever they feel like. Now as they face terrible choices to be responsible museum stewards, they will do whatever they legally can with whatever resources they have at hand. In the case of collection sales, the action touches on an argument voiced loudly in some museum circles: What is more important: collections, institutions, or museum employees?
Unless there are ownership restrictions prohibiting the selling of collections, nothing is exempt from this option. What was once acquired by people, for people, conserved, studied, and exhibited by and for people is lost. Remaining documentation is irrelevant, and public sale of art, historic artifacts, and scientific specimens invariably results in their disappearance forever.
Philosophically, if museums are about anything, they are about longevity. Most will survive the current plague and get back to the work. But that will take a year or two. Staff will be lost, capital projects stalled, cash on hand spent, and funding sources eviscerated. Regardless, encouraging the sale of collections is foolish for several reasons. In addition to violating the preservation trust museums espouse, it says all museum collections can be bought, just name your price. Moreover, it will reduce future meaningful collection donations. The vast majority of what is in art and history museums has been given not purchased. Who wants to make a charitable donation to an entity that is just looking for retail inventory? Finally, when the best and most important content of a museum is sold, why visit it?