Museum Leadership: Your Observation is Your Obligation

AASLH 2019 Women WorkshopIf leaders were cartoon characters, they’d have heads topped with arrows instead of hair. Why? Because whether they mean to or not, leaders exude direction. They are points on the organizational compass. And when direction isn’t clear there are plenty of folks in the hallway, around the coffeemaker or after meetings to interpret what has or hasn’t been said. That’s a preface to what follows, meaning I may not be correct. After all, I’m only an observer.

If you couldn’t attend last week’s meeting of the American Association of State and Local History in Philadelphia, it was a good one. Anchored by the indomitable Eastern State Penitentiary, and the city’s other national historic sites, not to mention its many museums, the conference drew a large crowd. The theme was “What Are We Waiting For?” but the subtext was certainly history’s importance in understanding the present. It was there in the keynote, moderated by Sean Kelly, Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, and featuring Susan Burton, a Los Angeles-based writer and prison reform activist whose memoir details a 20-year cycle of addiction, pain, sadness and prison, and Dr. Talitha LeFlouria, a University of Virginia associate professor, and author of Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, where the arrow pointed directly from centuries of enslavement to decades of mass incarceration. And it was also there in Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s myth-toppling speech about George Washington’s obsessive search for his runaway slave Ona Judge. And, I’m sure it was there in the many panels, tours, and countless conversations as conference attendees struggled, argued, and supported one another in connecting past and present. If you want to interpret those directional signals, what you might say is the complacent, white, male narrative of the past is disappearing, replaced by a host of other black and brown voices, from individuals who’ve been here months, and those whose past stretches back to enslavement or others whose land was stolen, and they lived out their days on reservations.

For me though there was another signal: The four panels and one workshop that addressed women in the history museum workplace. Anne Ackerson and I have written and spoken about this topic for almost seven years, and in that time there were more than a few moments when getting one panel on women’s issues for AASLH or AAM seemed like an achievement. So maybe I’m reading too much into this, but finding AASLH President John Dichtl in a panel titled “#MeToo: AASLH, NCPH and the Field” was a sea change. Perhaps it’s AASLH’s size and more cohesive membership, but its leadership is clearly listening to women’s issues in the field. When asked to post salary ranges in their job announcements, AASLH did. And their willingness to open the annual meeting to discussions about women’s leadership, sexual harassment in the field, and pay equity tells me they’re acknowledging that while the heritage organization/history museum workplace might not be Nirvana, they want to make it better.

So, here’s a thank you: Thank you for a great conference. Thank you to AASLH’s leaders and planners for changing the narrative; thank you for publicly acknowledging the consequences of workplace harassment, and gender pay inequity. Thank you to the male leaders who showed up to represent at four of the five sessions. Kudos to all the women who spoke, especially those brave enough to reveal personal stories.

One final plea though: Do something with what you learned. Commit to personal change. Be kind. Support one another. Don’t do it because someone’s different than you. Do it because you are colleagues. If you are a leader, and haven’t addressed the gender pay gap in your organization, do an equity audit. See how bad things are. If you don’t have a values statement or a statement about the kind of behavior you expect in your museum or heritage site, write one. Don’t wait ’til next year to hear it another time and realize 12 months went by and you didn’t move the needle at all.

Make change now. Do it as individuals, do it as organizations. To quote Enimini Ekong, Superintendent of Nicodemus National Historic Site and Chief of Education and Interpretation at Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, “Your observation is your obligation.” So for goodness sakes look and then act.

Joan Baldwin


Our Deep Dive into History Museum Leadership at the AASLH Leadership Forum

 

AASLH Leadership ForumAlong with 999 or so folks, we’re back from Kansas City, MO and AASLH’s Annual Meeting. There we caught up with old friends, celebrated change in the history museum field, and bemoaned the state of the world. Some of us enjoyed some Kansas City barbecue too.

Leadership Matters went–in part–to lead the annual Leadership Forum. One of a number of pre-conference workshops, the Forum, as distinct from the History Leadership Institute which happens in November, is a four-hour intensive on one or more aspects of leadership. This one moved from the broad-based to the particular, from organizational to personal, covering three big topics: Empathy & Equity in the Workplace; Staff as Assets or Liabilities; and finally, a look at Career Alignment and Choices.

The empathy and equity section asked participants to define the two words, to address how and where they were found at participants’ museums and sites, and whether it’s possible for a workplace to have empathy without the equity. Section two addressed questions of staff: Whether boards, CFOs, and EDs look at staff and see a great, yawning cavern of salaries, benefits and issues or whether they see creative, entrepreneurial folk devoted to the organization and each other. The last section was based on a personal career narrative, and asked participants to think about their own museum practice. Questions like what are your career constants, what makes you happy, what do you want to create circulated around the room. The group also talked about kick-in-the-pants career change, how upending it is, and how sometimes it brings great joy.

Here are some completely unscientific observations:

  • Gone are the days where history museum leaders haven’t got a clue about leadership. They get it. They may lead fraught, overwhelmed lives, but they get it.
  • History museum professionals don’t press the pause button often enough.
  • Some history museum leaders spend too much time alone.
  • Talking about why we do what we do is as important–if not more so–than talking about how we do it.
  • Pay equity makes some leaders nervous and fires up others.
  • Based on listening to this room of 30 individuals, too few think intentionally about their careers with any regularity.
  • A lot of people seem to think once they are parents or partnered or both, their careers are stuck.
  • The vast majority of the room seemed to feel they have audience empathy knocked. Empathy on the back stage side–for staff, board and volunteers–appears trickier.
  • Brene Brown’s short video on the differences between empathy and sympathy was a fan favorite.
  • Best line: A participant telling her supervisor she was quitting. “I have one short, precious life, and it’s too short and too precious to work for you.” The original included a strategically placed f-bomb which gave the whole sentence a lot of zing.

As we told the roomful of leaders, it was an honor to participate. Although admittedly this was a self-selected group, people seem to embrace leadership at all levels. By that we mean the doing of leading, not seeing the director’s position as a conclusion. And that’s a blessing. While there is always work to do–especially back stage, especially on workplace race and gender issues–without sounding too Pollyanna-like, it feels as though there’s finally a sea change taking hold on the leadership front.

Joan Baldwin


Hearing Darren Walker and Other Thoughts About Texas

Dina - Darren Photo

We’ve just returned from Austin, Texas and AASLH’s annual meeting that brings history museum folks together every year in a new spot. The skies were blue, and the location in the center of the University of Texas campus beautiful. What’s not to like about sitting with coffee and colleagues in a beautifully-planted courtyard between sessions? But one of the best moments was hearing Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.

This amiable, relaxed, yet powerful conversation was a tone-setter and a metaphor for the way the field has changed over the last decade. There was no lecture, no powerpoint, no white guy behind the podium. Instead Walker chatted with Dina Bailey,  CEO of Mountain Top Vision, and an interviewee in our Leadership Matters book. Walker is a slight man, warm and funny, but someone who knows where true north is. His view of history is nuanced, and his approach to the human race generous. “We all romanticize and mythologize our narrative,” he said, “because we need to do that. How do we talk about the journey without demonizing the choices that were made?”

Asked what quality is needed for today’s leadership, Walker had a one-word answer: courage, adding that there are a host of disincentives to leading with courage, but because the risk now is greater than ever, now is the time to speak up, speak out, and be bold. He suggested that even 20 years ago the American narrative was more straightforward, less complex, but less honest. He sees today’s national narrative as more oppositional, making leadership difficult. “Great leadership is about bridge building,” Walker said, adding, “It’s much harder to build a bridge than a wall.”

He urged the audience to speak up and speak out. “Progress won’t be made unless we get uncomfortable. Our boards can be very comfortable with privilege and prestige.” He believes what we need from boards today is people comfortable with justice, equity, fairness, and opposition.

When Bailey asked him if museums should be neutral, Walker responded with a story, remembering when a Ford Foundation board member asked him why the Foundation supported artists making political art. Walker’s response was that art has always been political to some degree or another, and it’s naive and dishonest to believe otherwise. “Privileged people and institutions don’t like change,” he quipped, adding that privilege becomes a collective around the board table.

Walker talked about the fact that it’s possible to succeed without humility or curiosity because success insulates people from the hard reality of truth telling. He cautioned the audience that sometimes it’s necessary to engage with board members in a way that helps them realize they are speaking from privilege. “Trustees want to do right,” Walker said, “but we all bring our own bias and limitations.” He urged the audience to meet people where they are, and for museum leaders to remind their boards that they are there not just to preserve but to innovate.

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One sobering note before we close. As part of the AASLH Conference we presented a panel discussion with four interviewees from our book, Women in the Museum, and just as we did at AAM, we asked the audience for a show of hands indicating who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Almost the entire audience raised their hands. Nationally, one in three women experience workplace sexual harassment, and over 71-percent don’t report it. Isn’t it time the museum field took Darren Walker’s advice and stepped up, spoke out, and showed some courage in protecting and supporting its female employees? 

Joan Baldwin

Photo by Wyona Lynch-McWhite


Museum Workplace Confidential: An Opportunity for Women at the Met and Come See Us in Austin

Metropolitan Museum of Art

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!

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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.

Joan Baldwin

 


Are Low Museum Salaries Just a Money Problem?

Money

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.

Joan Baldwin

 


The Diversity vs. Salary Question

Museum Worker of Color

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


Leadership from the Ground Up

onward upward

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.

Joan Baldwin