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.
Throughout the pandemic the world has been awash in online events, and that’s a good thing. You can travel to annual meetings, have cocktails with friends, take art or yoga, or learn a new workplace skill, all without leaving home. To date, I haven’t participated, but in January I saw an announcement for Syracuse University’s symposium on deaccessioning. March seemed like forever in the future, and I decided to take the plunge. Last week, I plugged in and listened, and I’m glad I did.
First, congratulations to Andrew Saluti, Program Coordinator for Syracuse’s Graduate Program in Museum Studies, and his colleagues across the University for shaping an incredibly timely, thoughtful and dynamic two days. How often do you get to sit at your kitchen table and hear Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham, Co-Founder of Museum Hue, Kaywin Feldman, Director of the National Gallery of Art or Anna Pasternak, Director of the Brooklyn Museum, and many more? It was amazing and overwhelming, but also deeply compelling. Some decade in the future when a graduate student listens to the recordings, I hope they parse what wasn’t said in addition to what was.
There were 10 sessions interspersed with keynotes from Johnson-Cunningham, Feldman, and Christopher Bedford, Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Some overlapped so it was impossible to hear everything, meaning I missed the inimitable Christy Coleman, and my colleagues Scott Wands and Larry Yerdon talking about historic sites and deaccessioning, committing myself to “Museums with Parent Organizations” since that speaks more to my life at the moment, but here are some random thoughts on deaccessioning and the two-day conversation.
**Many speakers remarked that deaccessioning happens all the time. I’m not sure that’s true. With smaller collections, it’s always a possibility, but a muscle rarely used. In order to consider deaccessioning, a museum needs a collection deep enough to be pruned, and curators, leadership and a board skilled enough to go through a process that requires demanding research, strong internal policies, and leadership who understands its role. A small heritage organization with 12 walking wheels, a half dozen broken stoves, and a collection of stuffed birds and eggs it no longer wants, is in a very different position than a regional art museum with two Bierstadts, seven Coles, and a dozen deKooning drawings. The heritage organization may go through all the same steps to empty their storage areas, but the rewards are more about space gained than the lure of millions of dollars. Yet there are medium-sized to small organizations who own highly-marketable pieces, and throughout the two days it seemed as though no one wanted to say here’s what you shouldn’t do. There was a fair amount of prevaricating, of I-don’t-want-to-speak-for another-organization, and yet if you look back over the last 20 years, the stories we remember are the ones where things went south fast. Why? Because this is a system whose guardrails resemble an honor code. Staying inside the lines requires a level of sophistication and understanding that not every board or museum leader brings to the table.
**One of the things that came up early in the Symposium, but deserves examination is the cost of collecting. You might say, but it’s what we do. We’re museums after all. True, but not all museums are collecting institutions. Some, like MASS MoCA, don’t collect. They work as platforms for a changing group of artists and their work. But for museums and heritage organizations that have always collected, there is a human cost behind every acquisition, from shippers, registrars, and curators, to guards, educators and advancement people. In speaking about the Baltimore Art Museum’s decision to deaccession, Christopher Bedford remarked that if you have a gazillion dollar painting about social justice, and you pay the Black guard to protect it $12.50 an hour that is more than ironic, it’s unethical.
**Overall, this was a decorous event. There were clearly people who disagreed with one another, but there was no rancor and no emotion except passion for museums. The Berkshire Museum, perhaps the poster child for bad choices when it comes to deaccessioning, managed to secure its own session shared with staff from the Everson Museum, who this fall deaccessioned a Jackson Pollock. The session was moderated by consultant Laura Roberts. Speaking for the museum was its former director, Van Shields, and former board chair Elizabeth McGraw. Unlike a later session where moderator Kristina Durocher grilled former Randolph College trustee Peter Dean about the college’s sale of its paintings, Shields and McGraw faced no hard-ball questions. Their self-reported narrative is one of choosing to make hard choices, and having the community pillory them for it. Their stories stood in sharp contrast to Tracy Riese, a trustee for the Brooklyn Museum, who in the final session remarked, “Nobody in their right mind will reduce a collection so it’s not worth visiting….You aren’t looking to burn the furniture to feed the fireplace. That is extremely irresponsible.”
**In retrospect, one of the things that strikes me is how complex and multi-faceted deaccessioning is. Glenn Lowry, MOMA’s president, remarked that deaccessioning is a single tool in the museum leadership toolbox, adding that you use it when “you muster all the assets and put them in play for value in your community in a deep and everlasting way.” If you look back on the more contentious sales of the last quarter century many share a massive lack of transparency. Transparency doesn’t just mean reporting that certain objects are leaving the collection. Transparency means openness about mission, about why a particular piece no longer fits. Those conversations must happen internally before they happen externally, as the director, curators and board work to understand a painting’s meaning. Where does it fit in the collection? Is it an only child or does it have siblings either by the same artist or in the same period? What artists are missing from the collection? If a painting is sold, what would the museum add, and why? And on and on. Too often, it seems, smaller organizations look first at auction estimates, and the lure of the pot of gold means discussions–if indeed they take place– are laden with confirmation bias, and context becomes impossible. As Tracy Riese said, “Deaccessioning is one tool. You still need fund raising and earned income. I haven’t experienced my board refusing to raise money.”
**I came of age in a museum world bathed in the collect, preserve, and interpret philosophy. It was a world where the collection is all. Thankfully, things are changing. As Glenn Lowry put it, there has been a shift “Away from the sanctity of the object,” adding that [We are moving] to a new place, so our thinking about our assets has to change.” And mission, added Riese, is larger than all the objects. It’s a theme Johnson-Cunningham raised in the opening keynote: That a community-centered museum makes people its focus, and that is completely different from the encyclopedic, colonialistic premise of many museums of the early 20th-century.
**Last, DEI played an important role in many of the sessions. DEI at its best is participatory, nuanced, engaged and community driven. It is not, as Johnson-Cunningham said, “Black bodies (or black art work) in white spaces.” Linda Harrison, director and CEO of the Newark Museum, said her museum doesn’t separate DEI from racial, gender and pay equity. She suggested it’s easier to present DEI through collections, but added that does not represent change when behind the curtain “we are woefully 1972.” The Newark Museum has pledged itself to be “Of the community” as opposed to “For the Community.” That mindset contrasts starkly with the Berkshire Museum’s McGraw who remarked that “by bringing culture to everyone, they will have a greater appreciation,”a mindset that suggests the museum, as opposed to the community, knows all.
Not every university or museum graduate program has the wherewithal and resources to put together a program like Syracuse, but it sets an important and interesting precedent. Yes, a lot of interesting conversations happen at annual and regional meetings, but a 30-minute conversation about deaccessioning doesn’t hold a candle to this two-day event. Nor should it. Annual meetings are egalitarian by nature. They provide opportunities for both young and experienced leaders to speak about their work. That is very different from a curated and iterative conversation with some of the sharpest minds in the field. And the beauty of deaccessioning is that it’s a lens that looks at leadership, policies, pay equity, collections, research, and more. Whether you participated in the Symposium or not, maybe this is the moment to re-read your collection policy, and to make sure you understand your state rules and regulations regarding deaccessioning. You can follow with AAM’s Direct Care of Collections and Glenn Adamson’s In Defense of Progressive Deaccessioning.
Stay safe, stay well, stay masked. Spring is coming and so are vaccinations.
Two news threads sparked the museum world’s collective consciousness last week: One, Charles Venable’s resignation from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the second, the Metropolitan Museum’s announcement that it will take AAMD up on its COVID loophole, allowing art museums to put deaccession funds towards collections care as opposed to acquisitions. Both represent a tangle of hubris, classism, and self-importance that are sadly emblematic of the museum world in 2021.
For those who missed the Indianapolis debacle, it took place on the 100-plus acre museum campus known as Newfields. A year ago the Museum posted a position with the Oppenheim search firm, which included the line that the museum sought a director who would “maintain its core white audience.” The job announcement has been public for 10 months, but somehow only surfaced last week. That five word phrase may be the tip of an iceberg though. In July 2020, Keli Morgan, an associate curator who is Black, resigned barely two years into her tenure, citing the Museum’s toxic and discriminatory culture. Morgan’a resignation coupled with the horrendous job announcement makes you wonder. Couple that with Venable’s own strangely-worded response in an interview in The New York Times where he stops short of an apology, pointing to the use of “core white audience,” as intentional, meaning he wanted the white art museum audience to know the Museum wouldn’t abandon them. How do we unpack a situation where a 21st-century museum director felt the need to reassure its wealthy, privileged white audience? And in a job announcement whose primary audience isn’t the local community, donors or longtime audience, but presumably museum professionals most of whom are alert to the huge sea-change taking place in the field. The only good news was the Museum Board’s letter. In contrast to Venable’s waffling, the Board was contrite and direct, spelling out the changes it will take going forward. So what are the “tells” and take-aways in yet another blunder in pandemic museum leadership?
- While anecdotally at least more and more BIPOC staff are being hired for directorships and senior leadership, stories like this one demonstrate how deeply ingrained the culture of racism, hierarchy and patriarchy is in museum culture, particularly art museum culture.
- Clearly the Board knew where to turn to craft a statement that was authentic and apologetic, but where were they as their museum culture devolved? How many boards really understand their roles, not only the Byzantine non-profit rule variations from state to state, but what governance actually looks like? How many actually read AAM’s Core Documents?
- To quote President Truman, as a leader the buck stops with you. That said, you aren’t alone. The more eyes on decision making the better, including search firms you hire to speak for your museum. They represent your organization in the world so they must know you well, starting with your organizational values.
- The Internet is like a nuclear wasteland. Information may move around, but it never dies, and pretty much everything you’ve ever made public is available. Think about it.
- DEI isn’t only about hiring Black or Brown employees. It’s actually about white folks, seeped in privilege, doing the work, and that work is ongoing, not something you learn in a weekend workshop or by leaving White Fragility on your desk.
- Maybe this calls for a bold statement? Maybe the Indianapolis Museum of Art should take a page from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland and hire LaTanya Autry to help them re-center, bridge build, and create a new face for the museum? Now is the time for Indianapolis to prove it isn’t neutral.
The Metropolitan Museum made the news when it announced its $150 million deficit stemming from the pandemic. Many museums closed all or part of the last 12 months are in the red, but everything about the Met is huge and so is its debt. What was different about its announcement was the indication that it is in conversations with auction houses, and considering using the AAMD’s COVID window to utilize deaccessioning profits for direct care of collections. The announcement set social media tongues wagging. Why? Are people really worried the Met will deaccession something famous, well-known and much loved? Or is it because museums with gigantic endowments aren’t supposed to run a deficit? To quote Erin Richardson of Frank & Glory: “We can’t treat museums like we do Americans seeking public assistance – in that they must have liquidated all assets before receiving SNAP or welfare. Boards are fiduciaries not banks. Their role is to govern the organization on behalf of the public trust. Sometimes the trust beneficiaries (us) don’t like the trustees decisions.”
Deaccessioning is largely an art museum problem, meaning the majority of US museums, even if they felt it was a way to raise money, don’t have collections that would net enough on the auction block, nor do many have collections with the depth, that were they to weed, would allow them to raise significant money. But for some reason the Met’s announcement pulled the recently-healed scab off the deaccessioning discussion once again. So what are the “tells” and takeaways here?
- Deaccessioning is a tool many museums use, but disastrous scenarios like the Berkshire Museum’s $53.5 deaccessioning in 2018 left everyone with PTSD. Not all deaccessioning is alike or to put it another way, every deaccessioning decision is different.
- There is a theory that as the Met goes so goes the field. The Met is the largest American art museum, but art museums represent only 4.5-percent of all museums. Is the Met an influencer? Maybe, but perhaps not here. Somehow the Brooklyn deaccessioned $31 million worth of art last fall without causing a ripple.
- Deaccessioning is complex, but if you’re involved in museums, it’s worth understanding. Once again, AAM delivers with its Direct Care of Collections pdf.
The Take Aways
- Make sure your policies and guidelines are up to date. Know what they say. If you haven’t read them in a while, it might be good to take a look, just in case someone thinks the way to financial salvation is monetizing the collection.
- Knowledge is power. Read Steven Miller’s book Deaccessioning Today or find his guest blog post here, and share with your board.
- Collecting is a process, an expensive one. Every single piece or living thing in your collection represents a percentage of the care and attention of one or more people, not to mention the people who publicize and raise money for it. Collections aren’t just things. They represent people too. Think about it.
Museums have a world of problems these days. Many haven’t seen their audience except through Zoom in almost a year. Many face huge deficits. Underlying it all, social media beckons, inviting us all to rant, pontificate, and rave. Museum staff–those who are employed–work hard, often for inequitable salaries. Sometimes they are overworked, bullied and harassed, and find themselves in situations where they have no recourse, and yet they are the folks who help make the thousands of objects, paintings, and living things speak. Without them, museums are big warehouses with expensive climate control. I’ll close with a quote from the inimitable Nina Simon, which, as far as I’m concerned says it all: “When you prioritize the safety and welcome of people, who have lower access to power, you are working for equity and inclusion. When you prioritize the comfort and preferences of people with higher access to power, you are working against it.” Hold that thought when you make leadership decisions, when you write on social media, and when you place objects before people.
This week someone sent me an infographic that read “Good libraries build collections; great libraries build communities.” Although it’s about libraries, it could just as easily apply to museums. It stayed with me because it gets to the perennial issue of which is more important, a museum’s collection or its people.
Maybe it’s the social media bubble I’m in, but I continue to read posts lamenting deaccessioning. It doesn’t matter where it’s happening or what’s being sent to auction, the subtext is that deaccessioning is wrong, unnecessary, and museums should hold onto everything they’ve got. These posts ignore the fact that the museum world as a whole has undergone a 10-month stress test that shows no signs of letting up. It has exposed every fault line imaginable from the predominant white narrative, to the number of white male artists in art museums, to the gendered, genteelly racist nature of research and interpretation. It’s caused staffs to unionize, spawned the Museum Workers Speak Relief Fund, raising almost $77,000 for museum workers who’ve lost their jobs. In short, in less time than it takes to make a human, the museum world has turned upside down.
So how will museums and their leaders move forward? To be clear, deaccessioning is primarily an art world phenomenon since it’s art that commands the kind of prices that make a difference to endowments; that leaves the door open for historical societies, libraries, and college and universities to identify their big-ticket paintings and cull their collections. But to step back, maybe it’s important to name the big questions first. Although we sometimes act like there are laws around deaccessioning, there aren’t. Expectations and ethics exist, but nothing more. And boards can do what they like with endowments. The fact that they mostly do the same thing–invest as wisely as they know how–reflects what happens when non-profit and for-profit worlds come together. But as we know, the pandemic revealed a host of museum problems, many of which we’ve talked about here. Museum staff are often underpaid, especially the non-curatorial staff as is the case at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Museum leadership is sometimes lacking as we witnessed earlier this year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the New Museum. And museums, despite their outwardly liberal stance, limit artists and staff of color in benign yet oppressive ways.
So is deaccessioning an answer? Deaccessioning is a process that can align collections with mission. Purists might be happier if collections were static, but a collection that’s 86-percent white and male might need to change. Few museums serve communities that are 86-percent white and male? Is it any wonder that in Baltimore, a city that’s 61-percent Black, a largely white art collection might not have the charm of a more diverse one? While judicious deaccessioning can change collections, what about the workplace? Sadly, the problems of equitable wages, poor leadership, and workplace injustice can’t be solved with more BIPOC artists in the collection.
As this monstrous year comes to a close, what’s on your board and staff’s to-do list for 2021? Where will you build community, both inside and outside the museum?
- Where are your organization’s stress lines? Are they internal or external?
- What changes will you make for your community once you are able to be mask-less and fully open?
- Do you see your organization as a place where people–possibly people with differing views on science, elections, race or gender–could come together to talk? Could your collections serve as a catalyst?
- When was the last time your board discussed staff salaries? Not as individual compensation, but as a concept. How does your museum or heritage organization’s pay stack up in your community? Does it clear the living wage threshold?
- Have you asked your board to talk about how important pay is? It’s important in their own companies; it’s important for their partners and their children. Why wouldn’t equitable pay also be important for museum employees?
- Are there endowed and named positions at your organization? Has your board considered creating named positions to shift monies from higher-paid positions to lower paid ones?
- With a COVID vaccine in our future, what changes will you make in your staff? Will you bring back everyone who was furloughed or bring back fewer, but at better wages? How will you make those decisions?
- Is there a gender equity pay gap at your museum? Is 2021 the year to do a gender/race pay audit?
- If your museum or heritage organization doesn’t have a DEI coordinator, would your board be willing to work with a consultant to help shift its default setting from a white lens first?
As I’ve said before, every board is different, but most abhor bad publicity; nor do they like being shunned by their peers, and they are disinclined to spend chunks of endowment they and their predecessors spent years amassing. That said, if 2020 taught us anything, it taught us how powerful social media can be in giving the voiceless a voice, and fair warning to any board choosing to ignore its community.
Change isn’t about talking it’s about doing. It might mean deaccessioning, but it might also mean simply understanding where your organizational stress points are and creating a plan to address them. If the world’s scientists can make a vaccine to defeat a vicious virus in less than 10 months, what will you do to make change in the first 10 months of 2021?
The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. ‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking around. Lewis Carroll
Every leader out there knows some weeks are just not your week or as an old friend used to say, “Some days you get the bear, and others the bear gets you.” I’ll just put this out there: a) What is life without irony? and b) How funny is it that after eight years of writing about leadership as a follower, now the shoe is on the other foot?
I understand what it is like to be on the receiving end of a leader who can’t apologize or who can’t make decisions to save their soul. I’ve thought deeply about what it means to be bullied at work, to have your colleagues shun you because supposedly you can’t get along with the person who’s bullying you. But in those situations I was only responsible for myself. Leadership is different, right?. I know, duh?
As a leader I’m responsible not just for myself, but for my team, for their well being and professional growth at work. So here’s what I’ve been thinking about: I have a team member who appears to collaborate, who appears to listen, who seems friendly and nice, but I’ve come to realize maybe what’s happening is more like a facade where credit is given, but where collaboration is absent. Why? Well maybe there are some control issues going on, maybe there is some insecurity, but I’m an interim leader not a psychologist, and all I know is absent real collaboration we don’t get a multiplicity of skills, voices, and creativity.
Let me pause and say that the work in question is good and in some instances very good. It’s brought our team attention, compliments, and respect. So what’s not to like? Well, sharing credit with your colleagues isn’t sharing ideas. And despite the rhetoric, it’s exclusionary. People are left out, and when they’re excluded often enough, they stop trying, which in a weird way fulfills the bias of the bossy team member who acts as though they weren’t good enough in the beginning. What makes a person want to do everything themselves? Why don’t they trust their colleagues? I don’t honestly know, but here’s the journey I’ve been on this week:
- First, I had to get my own feelings out of the way. I’m someone who would likely walk over broken glass to avoid out-and-out conflict, so there’s that. Sitting down to explore something negative isn’t my go-to place as follower or leader.
- I also had to figure out whether my distress was because another team member had been hurt or because my own ideas were being stone walled. That meant exploring this pattern of someone who says they’re happy to partner, but only if things are done their way, while making everyone else feel a teensy useless. Was I just cranky because my own ideas weren’t being applauded? The answer was maybe, until I realized this wasn’t about me. Projects and programs are outward facing, and in this case, the community needs to decide what’s useful, not an individual, and particularly not me.
- Next I had to talk about what was happening without making it personal, and hopefully to help our team member be not only self-aware, but socially aware, conscious of how their colleagues are feeling.
- Then there is that old saw, listening. Perhaps we all need periodic re-sets on whether we’re really listening or just waiting to speak.
- And last, as part of listening, to discover a way team members can identify their strengths so when they do collaborate, they contribute the best of their skillsets?
Change is a challenge, but it’s necessary to keep us all growing. There are too many days when like Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts we’d like to say, “Off with your head,” rather than ask open-ended, thought provoking questions that create a safe space for creativity. But it is creativity we all need to move our team, program, museum or heritage organization out of mediocrity. So let’s play to our strengths, listen, and let ourselves be vulnerable. Who knows how we’ll transform.
P.S. In one final nod to the ongoing deaccession discussion, if you haven’t read Glen Adamson’s In Defense of Progressive Deaccessioning in Apollo Magazine, read it. It’s beautifully expressed, thoughtful without being ranty, and it makes it clear deaccesioning is more than a binary choice of keep or sell. Done right it is thoughtful, nuanced and about the future, not an apology for a century of bad choices.
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.
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?
By Steven Miller, Guest Blogger
Barring loss of life, perhaps the most alarming tragedy museums fear is collection destruction. We recoil at the thought of objects disappearing from cherished public repositories of our shared culture. Diligent museums focus considerable attention on protecting the art, artifacts and scientific specimens in their possession.
To be sure, in spite of the best protective measures, losses happen. A few horrible examples include: The thirteen works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, in 1990; the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the Iraq War in 2003; the recent fire and destruction at the National Museum of Brazil. Fortunately, these museum catastrophes tend to be exceptional. Statistically, most of the things most museums own are relatively safe. Or so we thought.
In May the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) sold a large painting by the Jewish Russian émigré Mark Rothko (1903-1970). The action was legal and approved by the institution’s board of trustees. At auction the picture realized $43.75M ($50.1M with fees). Where’s the Rothko now? Auction houses, in this case, Sotheby’s, understandably do not reveal bidder information.
Whether by sale, gifts, or trashing, the disposal of museum collections is almost as old as museums. Today unrestricted selling on the open market is highly popular. Or, perhaps it simply enjoys the most notoriety. The SFMOMA incident is only a recent example. This subtraction choice raises a large question in my mind. What preservation responsibilities do museums have for pieces they deaccession? Once something is on the auction block, for example, chances are good it will leave the protected public realm forever, lost as a document held for years in public trust on behalf of past, present and future generations.
The sale of museum collections on the open market seems a civic tragedy. This arena of private commerce is not devoted to preserving things for public benefit. An argument can be made that anyone paying $50.1M for something has a vested interest in keeping it safe. But who knows? The secret world of art wheeling and dealing destroys scores of paintings with varnish and wax relining–no doubt to the horror of artists like Picasso and Braque–or through neglect or ignorance.
It is interesting the gusto with which deaccessioning is now embraced by museums who rarely (ever?) express concern for the physical well-being of what leaves the collection. How does this reflect what Steven Lubar writes in his excellent book: Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present, [Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, 2017, p. 137]. “When museums collect things, they take on ethical obligations not only to the communities those objects come from, or are meaningful to, but also to the objects themselves.” Does this suggest why deaccessioning still elicits loud criticism? Does it suggest why complaints always come from outside the museum world?
Controversies about museum deaccessioning inevitably focus on boards of trustees as they make final departure decisions for pieces deemed no longer a fit. Questions are asked: Why don’t the trustees pony up whatever money is needed in a particular circumstance? Is the museum in financial duress? Why not sell things to another museum, thus keeping the piece and its records altruistically preserved? What recourse do scholars have when seeking information about lost collections? How do donors respond to the loss of their gifts? Aside from a convenient tax deduction, who will donate to a place for which collections are money in the bank to be raided at will?
Years ago I wrote a piece called “Guilt-Free Deaccessioning” for the American Association of Museums’ magazine Museum News (now Museum) about the advantages of deaccessioning by inter-museum transfer. Today I would use a different title: Win, Win, Win, Win Deaccessioning. Why? Because the museum removing an item presumably wins with its departure, the museum getting the object wins by its acquisition, the object wins by surviving, and the public wins with continued access. Inter-museum transfer happens. I hope it becomes a first-choice option rather than an afterthought. It will certainly reduce the growing notion that all museum collections can be purchased.
A Bard College graduate, Steven Miller has been in the museum field for nearly five decades as a curator, director, trustee, writer, critic, and consultant. A curator with the Museum of the City of New York for sixteen years, he subsequently administered and directed five regional history museums. He also taught in several graduate museum studies programs including sixteen years with the Seton Hall University MA Program in Museum Professions. He received a Graduate Certificate in the Principles of Conservation Science, International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Rome, Italy. He is the author of The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text, Wiley, 2018; Deaccessioning Today: Theory and Practice, Rowman & Littlefield, 2018; and How to Get a Museum Job: An Inside Perspective, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. Deaccessioning is a subject that has long intrigued him.
Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960; 69 x 50 in.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, acquired through a gift of Peggy Guggenheim; © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel
We begin by expressing our sadness and dismay over the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision allowing the Berkshire Museum to sell its paintings. Kudos to Berkshire Eagle reporter Larry Parnass for his dogged reporting, and applause for AAM and AAMD for their quick and direct response to the the ruling. Deaccessioning is not illegal. It exists for a reason. It’s also possible for a museum or heritage organization to change focus and mission. In the Berkshire Museum’s case, leadership seemed to say we’re in crisis, but we also don’t want to be who we’ve been, so we’re going to sell our heritage, become something different, and never have to fund raise again. There is a tangled web of leadership questions here. We hope that over the coming months, AAM and AAMD create safety nets for directors who find themselves with boards who want to sell their museum’s prime pieces and cite the Berkshire Museum as their example.
Say the word diversity and most people think race. But as we’ve said frequently on these pages, diversity actually means variety. Colleagues with identifiable differences produce a better more creative product than a homogeneous team. And age is another piece in the diversity puzzle. That means that while it’s critical to have staff of color and LGBTQ staff at the table, it’s also good to mix the very young with the long-tenured. Why? Because since you serve a diverse and changing community and few communities are homogeneous when it comes to age.
And yet, organizations sometimes fail to look at older staff as anything other than a liability. They command high(er) salaries, they have opinions–sometimes too many–and you know someday they’ll retire, but the waiting is driving you crazy. In fact, it’s no surprise that when CFOs and directors look at longtime staff they see dollar signs because in financial terms they represent money that could be saved or better yet divided between multiple new positions.
So what’s the big deal? These folks will retire anyway, and goodness knows there’s a line around the museum workspace of Gen Xers and Millennials waiting to move up. First, it’s hard to generalize. Perhaps you know staff who are genuine fossils, whose sole reason for working is to cross the Medicare finish line. But what about the ones who’ve stored away a wealth of organizational history and narrative? The ones who know where you’ll find all the information you need. Or what about staff who, despite their greying hair, have reached a place overflowing with creativity? Or what about geezers who are models and mentors for younger staff? Is it equitable to let age be the only determinant?
Younger employees sometimes face a similar situation. They don’t get hired because they don’t have any experience, and they don’t have any experience because they don’t get hired. And then, when they are hired, particularly if they’re women, they are frequently patronized and talked over which means they are not taken seriously, which makes it harder to move forward.
The point is only that diversity is about variety. It is about making your staff reflect your community, and it is about understanding and acknowledging that a diversity of lived experience makes for better chemistry and more creativity around the table. (Don’t believe us? Read McKinsey’s 2018 report on Diversity.) A diverse team also makes a group more aware of its own biases because interaction with staff who are younger, older, LGBTQ or people of color challenges entrenched beliefs at work where everyone shares (hopefully) a common goal.
It may be a lame metaphor, but if you need an image for diversity at its best, remember the Muppets. Yes, The Muppets. I heard Frank Oz talk about their back stories Saturday, and one line stuck with me. He said all the Muppets are very different, flawed characters–even Kermit–and yet they made music, had adventures and looked out for one another. You could do worse than to have staff members as different as Miss Piggy and Floyd Pepper.