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
This week my local historical society–full disclosure, I am a board member–spent part of its monthly meeting discussing the American Association of State and Local History’s (AASLH) Standards and Excellence Program or StEPS. Now in its second year in Connecticut, where it is supported by the Connecticut League of History Organizations and Connecticut Humanities, StEPs brings museum 101 to small organizations. The program takes two years and each organization admitted is also partnered with a mentor. Participating organizations are encouraged, prodded and coaxed to meet like organizations around the state to compare problems, projects, and goals. They attend workshops with guest speakers where they are encouraged to bring as many board members as they want for a modest $10 each. All good, right? Well, yes, except for the part about Governor Dannell Malloy zeroing the Connecticut Humanities budget a month ago, it’s better than good. It’s very good, except for–wait for it–you knew it was coming–the program’s governance piece.
One of the bolder statements Anne and I made in Leadership Matters was that if museums and historical organizations had invested as much over the last quarter century in leadership as they had in interpretation and collections management, the field would be in a different place. In fact, we feel so strongly about this that before writing Leadership Matters we wrote an online handbook called “What Comes First?” for individuals charged with starting museums or historical organizations. (It’s available through the Museum Association of New York.) So while we’re totally on board with StEPs, we wish the governance piece were more rigorous.
It’s possible for a volunteer board to emerge from the governance section of the StEPs program, having shed the traditional mission statement of protect, collect and interpret the history of wherever, and yet still not understand the arc of growth that strong organizations take from mission-driven, all-volunteer boards to boards whose goal is to hire a part or full-time director. To us there is a difference. It doesn’t make the former bad people, but it certainly separates the sheep from the goats. And in a subtle way, the organizations that are able to make the leap, have also intuited the idea that as non-profits we hold a public trust. It’s not about the board’s comfort level around the table; it’s not about the parts of local history they are interested in, it’s about their community however it is defined. And it’s about a quality and commitment to leadership–which, granted could be all-volunteer–that keeps the organization on a forward, financially stable trajectory, committed to something more than mediocrity.
Which is worse: A historic house with beautifully organized and cared for collections, but no visitors, or the same historic house filled with laughter, argument, lively discussion, and plenty of people? No, we are not suggesting that collections aren’t important. They are. For most organizations they are the catalysts that spawn ideas. But too many history organizations and their staffs are mired in process to the detriment of leadership. Their leaders manage but do not lead.
So what are we suggesting? Well, for the complete laundry list, see page 201 of Leadership Matters and our Leadership Revolution Agenda for History and Cultural Organizations. In the short term, of course we support more states following Connecticut’s model–not the Governor–but CLHO and CTHumanities–and participating in StEPs or programs like it, but we’d push everyone one step further and ask them to not stop at a new mission statement, but actually talk about where they as a group want to see their organization in one, three or five years. And to jot down the things they need to get there. And to partner with their local Rotary or Chamber of Commerce or bank. Approaching non-profit work as if it were a business isn’t bad. After all, if your “product” is happy people in the galleries, noisy, contented children getting back on the school bus and a growing membership, what’s not to like.
Admittedly, we’ve been back for more than a week, but it takes a while to process a meeting as big as AASLH’s annual event. Here, in no particular order, are some take aways from our three-day adventure:
- Minneapolis is a pretty cool place. As is St. Paul.
- We were impressed by the Minnesota History Center and the Walker Art Center. In both institutions, their commitment to diversity showed big time.
- We really liked MHC’s insistence that museums need to meet teachers where they are–time starved and over-worked–and “curate” the vast field of history for them.
- We really liked the way Dina Bailey reinforced the notion of leading from the bottom up by saying that leadership is like sparks around a room–that every time a staff member raises a hand, volunteers for a project or takes part in discussion, they are leading.
- We got a lump in our throats listening to Ryan Spencer speak from his heart about being a servant leader and his devotion to museum stewardship.
- We loved hearing a group of museum women quote A. A. Milne while encouraging each other to be braver, smarter, stronger.
- We applaud members of AASLH’s program committee who are thinking about a 2015 session on “Leading Well, Leaving Well,” so discussion will start on how to leave while you’re at your best whether you’re 40 and moving on or 65 and bowing out.