I admit it: It’s taken me a long time to wrap my head around intersectionality. When Anne Ackerson and I started writing Women in the Museum five years ago, I would have told you all women experience sexism in the workplace. It’s what unites us. Well, maybe, but in retrospect so is the fact that we all walk upright and most of us have two eyes and two ears.
Even though I was taken to task more than a few times by women of color during the writing of Women in the Museum, I don’t think I really understood intersectionality until this summer. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder I heard a Black parent interviewed on NPR. They were talking about giving their children “the talk.” Anyone who has raised children knows parenting provides a wealth of things to worry about. All those worries escalate when children become teenagers, independent beings capable of making spectacularly bad choices. But listening to those parents, I realized my worries while raising two children were minor compared to theirs. So although we are united in parenthood, our experiences are vastly different. Of all the many things I worried about, car accidents, alcohol, bullying, drugs, you name it, I never worried about whether my children would be called out for simply being themselves. They are white, and therefore protected.
The term intersectionality belongs to Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a lawyer and civil rights advocate. She introduced it in a 1989 paper presented in Chicago, although she acknowledged it came from generations of Black women writing that, “In every generation and in every intellectual sphere and in every political moment, there have been African American women who have articulated the need to think and talk about race through a lens that looks at gender, or think and talk about feminism through a lens that looks at race. So this is in continuity with that.”¹ Later, she used the metaphor of a traffic intersection, with cars coming from several directions, to describe intersectionality, opining that when an accident occurs, it’s difficult to pinpoint who or what caused it. Just as when a Black woman is talked over, demeaned or harassed at work is it because she’s a woman or because she’s black? Or is it because she’s not in power and someone who’s male is or someone who’s white and male?
There are a lot of museums and heritage organizations hiring Black leaders at the moment, and that’s a good thing, but questions remain: Do organizations do the kind of soul searching they need to do during the hiring process so BIPOC leaders aren’t tokenized or hired to check a box? Here’s what I mean. If a board hires a person of color because it thinks it should, but never addresses its own biases and issues, what happens? The first months may be fine, maybe even the first year, but what happens when implicit bias burbles to the surface? What happens when it’s clear the board’s perception of its first Black director is riddled with preconceptions. The Board may have trouble articulating those feelings because board meetings are not generally the place for feelings. Yet without unpacking what’s happened, both leader and Board begin an alliance based on misunderstanding.
And what if the leader is a woman of color? What if the Board also has issues with gender, issues it’s never copped to? What if, in their heart of hearts, they perceive women as less competent, prone to emotions, possibly more devoted to family than being a director, and maybe not leadership material? That’s a dire picture, but it’s the “and also” of intersectionality. Women sometimes face an uphill battle when it comes to leadership, but women of color must also combat the additional lens of race, that’s often masked in the urbane, left-leaning world of museums. And women’s workplace experiences vary drastically, so boards, HR departments and museum leadership need to do more than congratulate themselves for stepping outside the box and hiring a candidate of color.
One of our Johns Hopkins Museum Studies students remarked this week how important it is to be able to come to work as your whole self. Too true. Some museum staffers have always had that luxury. And that’s the inflection point between diversity and intersectionality. Knowing your staff reflects your community and the world as we know it is important. That’s the cart. But the horse is offering the respect and support for each of those individuals to bring their whole being to work, and to feel supported in what they do. That’s the horse.
As we work to right the wrongs of more than a century of overpowering patriarchal whiteness and classism in museums and heritage organizations, we need to be mindful of not only creating a diverse workplace, but an equitable and supportive one as well. Inviting someone to the table isn’t enough. Sometimes the rules are mysterious, opaque, and strange. We owe it to every creative, diverse soul who works with us to offer them the support and the path, the cart and the horse, to navigate the museum world.
¹New Statesman. Retrieved 10.11.20. https://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could
I don’t usually comment negatively on other writing, but Lee Rosenbaum’s column about the Metropolitan Museum’s 96 retirees was, in my opinion, a little too glib. Mostly, it blithely overlooks the idea that two things can be true at the same time. Collectively, the employees she names have been at the Met a total of almost 300 years. Leaving aside their considerable contributions, they are unusual for their long stays at the museum, an average of 36.5 years each.
But none of that makes Rosenbaum’s comment that “they [the retirees] go down as a soothing palate cleanser after the vitriol from current and former staffers who (perhaps with some hyperbole) have accused the Met and other NYC cultural institutions of “consistent exploitation and unfair treatment of Black/Brown people” and “blatant disrespect and egregious acts of white violence toward Black/Brown employees.” The fact that both these ideas–that the retirees can praise the Metropolitan while current or recently furloughed staff accuse the Met of racism– are true, pretty much sums up the museum world’s current state of mind. In brief, not everyone’s experience is the same, there is no “right” career path in the museum world, and it’s wrong and disrespectful to assume otherwise. The Metropolitan offered this group of privileged white men and women a career home. They worked long and hard and made massive contributions in the world of art history, but their experience isn’t everyone’s, and it is disingenuous to the succeeding generations of employees to suggest it is. To be BIPOC in any storied, patriarchal, gilt-edged culture is a challenge. It’s exhausting, frequently frustrating, and requires a level of daily vigilance, probably unknown to Rosenbaum’s group of retirees.
There are so many things that go into being happy at work. The top four might include: Loving what you do; having a talent for it; being mentored and challenged; and receiving a fair and equitable salary and professional development opportunities. But then there are the hidden qualities: Is your workplace a value-driven culture? Is it a place where equity is a hallmark of work life whether you clean restrooms, arrange flowers or write scholarly catalogues about the world’s most famous paintings? Is it a place that’s kind and supportive regardless of who you are? And last, there are the personal issues. Some of us are optimistic and more resilient than others. And life today–even leaving aside the monster of COVID–is perhaps a teensy more complex than in the early 1980’s when many of the Metropolitan’s retirees started working there. Overlay all of that with an age so uncertain and fractured, and is it any wonder young, BIPOC employees are weary? How can they be sure why they were hired? Was it talent, ambition and creativity or some chemistry of guilt, DEI necessity, and brand development on the part of museums who believe they’re doing the right thing, but truly haven’t a clue, leaving new BIPOC staff to navigate their way through a world of — we want you — but now you’re here, figure it out on your own? Perhaps that’s more complicated than any of us older white folks know?
One last parenthetical note: The Metropolitan won’t be the the first or the last to have waves of Boomers retire as part of COVID retrenchment. Leave aside what they know about content, those retirees carry with them huge institutional history. So if you are a Generation Xer or a Millennial, who’s waited for this moment for what seems a lifetime, remember two things: Some day, in the not too far-off future you will be the ones a younger generation is waiting to move off stage. So help it happen with some grace. Listen for the knowledge and context they’ve accumulated, and work to understand the mistakes they made. It will make your organization a better place. And second, if the older generation wasn’t as kind, equitable or supportive as you needed, it’s your turn now. Be the leaders you wanted.
Kudos and a round of applause go to organizers June Ahn, Rose Cannon, Emma Turner-Trujillo. As someone who’s been an observer and a participant in the museum workplace for a long time, this conference was one of the most thought-provoking I’ve attended. Twenty four hours later, while on my morning walk, I was still ruminating on many of the conversations from the day before. And isn’t that what a good conference should do?
The day opened with a talk by Dr. Porchia Moore. She defined this moment as a point of crisis, a moment of shared trauma, especially for BIPOC museum staff, and she pointed out that the constant harping on “when we can return to normal,” is yet another slap in the face to so many, since “normal” for museums meant a racist, patriarchal, poorly paid, gendered workplace.
As an older, cisgendered white woman, I can’t disagree. There’s no doubt we’ve failed. It’s as if we’ve taken each object, each historic site, each painting, and told half its story. That silk wedding dress, worn by the wealthy landowner’s bride had a story before the wedding itself. Who tended the silk worms, who sacrificed to make the fabric, who shipped the fabric, who made each tiny stitch, who made sure it was spotless, not wrinkled or stained? And who was threatened and harmed if it was? For every object there is a dominant narrative and an untold narrative. If you’re white it’s too easy to revert to the dominant. It’s what we’ve always done, while making some audiences comfortable and disenfranchising others. Clearly to give our collections their full due, we must showcase their interwoven context, giving many narratives an equal chance to be heard.
I am less sure how Death to Museums or perhaps its aftermath, applies to museum leadership. Not because I don’t believe museum leadership needs an overhaul. It does. When Anne Ackerson and I wrote Leadership Matters in 2012 and its revision in 2019, we saw museum leadership clinging to mediocrity as a place of safety. No where is that more evident than in the thousands of mission statements telling the world museums preserve and protect collections. Cryogenic preservation facilities do the same thing, and they don’t pretend to be half as important as museums.
And there is no doubt museum leadership has made a world of bad choices regarding its workforce. Many of those choices–poor pay, anti-union, the gender pay gap, sexual harassment, no HR departments, workplace bullying and other forms of inhumane behavior–have made the news recently, and many are documented and discussed in blog posts here.
But let’s imagine, it’s a new day. Gone are today’s museum boards, peopled with wealthy white men over 55, intermingled with the occasional, acceptable BIPOC. Their annual gifts are gone too as are their connections to wealth managers. So where will the money come from? Will museums follow a European model and be mostly government funded? What does that look like? Are our current federal museum workers happy at work? Is there racism, genteel or otherwise, at the Smithsonian or in the National Park Service? What does it mean to take the King’s shilling? Would museums be subject to the four or eight year cycle of political change that comes with elections? And on a more local level, how will museums run without boards or without a single leader whose role is, at some level, to be the decider?
Maybe I’m naive, but after a lifetime of working with and for, a variety of humans, it matters less to me what an organization’s structure is and much more what kind of people are in charge. Working in a museum ,where decisions are made by a group as opposed to an individual, is no guarantee of a humane, equitable workplace. In other words, to me it’s not the structure as much as it is the people in power.
Good leaders are good leaders whether they govern in groups or alone. I believe at the heart of good leadership is a strong sense of personal values, and an equitable, empathetic understanding and respect for staff, from the ones furthest from the seat of power to the ones closest to it. Any organization without that is an organization headed for peril.
Some museums–albeit not many–used the pandemic to reformulate. Yes, they had to let workers go, but they used the pause to reorganize, bringing workers back to more equitable wages, clear job descriptions and better-written HR policies. Anne Ackerson and I concluded each volume of Leadership Matters with a Leadership Revolution Agenda. Here’s my amended and abbreviated agenda for 2021 and beyond:
Leadership Revolution Agenda
- Accept this year’s uncertainty as the grounding for change. If you’re white, recognize your own whiteness and the walls it builds around you and your organization. Pledge to knock those walls down.
- Know what you don’t know. Pledge to recognize and fight against your own biases.
- Develop your own leadership practice.
- Figure out if you are an active listener. If not, learn.
- Practice self-care.
- Assist with or take responsibility for leadership training and development activities for your team, your department, your volunteers, or if you’re the lone professional, for yourself.
- Stand up for your colleagues when they become targets. Be a voice for the voiceless. Be an ally and an accomplice.
- Speak up for the counter-narrative whenever it’s absent.
- Accept this year’s uncertainty as the grounding for change. Recognize your own whiteness and the walls it builds around you and your organization. Pledge to knock those walls down. Apologize and own your organization’s past behavior.
- Acknowledge the importance of all your staff. Pledge to make yours a human-centered museum.
- Build something new. Complete an equity wage review. Pledge to resolve issues of wage imbalance based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
- Give staff a voice. Create space, virtual or otherwise, where staff can bring issues of inequity to the fore without fear of punishment. Pledge to listen and make change.
- Insist upon institutional support of the emerging leader and lone professional, and the diversification of governing boards.
- Don’t maintain the status quo; instead make a difference.
Use this moment and make change.
I want to conclude by honoring and thanking again this weekend’s speakers. They are the future and as complex as it’s clearly going to be, they are a courageous and awe-inspiring group.
Congressman John Lewis died of pancreatic cancer Friday. There aren’t many Congresspeople whose impact on the museum world is measurable. Lewis is one. He was a tireless advocate for the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture [NMAACH], working closely with Lonnie Bunch III, now Secretary of the Smithsonian, who writes “He was involved spiritually and strategically in almost all aspects of the museum.”
NMAAHC makes all of us proud to be in this field. It highlights the gaps and biases in the way American history is taught, told and understood, asking those of us who are white to open our hearts and minds to what we’ve failed to learn and understand, and it celebrates a culture and history long neglected. But apart from all of that is Lewis’ courage. Whether you were his constituent or not, whether you knew who he was or not, he stood up for justice and equality, advocating for the voiceless. There are those who are a steady force, advocating when the rest of us don’t have the courage, speaking out when most don’t think it’s their business. John Lewis was one of those people.
It’s way above my pay grade to think about who AASLH or AAM might honor in the coming year, but if ever there were an individual who deserved a national museum award in his name, it’s John Lewis. Not just for his work with NMAAHC, but because of his courage to speak up. Until recently, there wasn’t a lot of speaking up in the museum field at all. Ever. In fact, 25 or 30 years ago, the young were counseled to let things go, to look the other way so as not to “ruin their careers.” (I was one of those young people.) Their job wasn’t to ruffle feathers. Their job, wherever they were on the museum food chain, was to accept what powerful and monied board members wanted, and make it happen. These days, it feels as though that long period of acceptance, obeisance, and failure to act might be coming to a close. So what better time to honor courage in our field, then to name an award after the person who said, “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.”?
There is so much that’s not right in our field at the moment. A workforce that’s overwhelmingly white, without recognizing it perpetuates not just the symbolism, but the hierarchy of a job sector mired in the previous century; board members who haven’t sorted out that board membership isn’t about privilege but service; a field crippled by poor pay coupled with a monstrous gender pay gap; and leaders who mistake their office as an opportunity to lead badly, while bullying, harassing and failing to act in the face of ethics breaches.
Museums do a lot of good in the world. They are trusted. They are places people want to be. But they can no longer be the beautiful place with the important stuff sitting on the sidelines. They can’t be neutral, and neither can their staffs. What better way to acknowledge this change than by honoring Congressman John Lewis, and those in our field working for the voiceless, whether in their communities or in their own workplaces? Who knows whether an award like this would ever happen. Like I said, it’s way above my pay grade, but in the meantime, we should all be our own John Lewis, speaking up, and standing up, so when our children ask what did you do and what did you say, we’ll have an answer.
This month many of us (the lucky ones) return to work in spaces we left four months ago. Depending on our own health and the health of those we care for, we may return full-time or touch base only intermittently while our real work life continues via Zoom. In either instance, our work lives are fundamentally altered, not just because we’re living through a pandemic, but because communication has changed.
Workplaces run on a hierarchy of communication from formal and serious–the annual letter from the museum president or HR stipulating your terms of employment–to all-staff emails, to more personal emails or Google chats. In our old lives, that hierarchy also included face-to-face meetings, and spontaneous hallway conversations. The latter two are becoming as rare as dial phones. And even when they take place, presumably half our face is masked so only our eyes convey emotion.
Then there’s Zoom. Could we have survived without it these last four months? Heck no. But it’s still challenging. I don’t know about you, but in my former life, I never thought about what direction I looked in staff meetings. My gaze moved naturally between speakers and listeners, and my note taking. But with Zoom, what was once your entire team together in a room is now reduced to faces in squares in their kitchens or home offices with the occasional pet or toddler wandering on screen. So when you speak to the whole, you’re actually speaking to eight individuals in eight individual spaces. It’s distracting, complicated, and occasionally confusing. Sometimes you don’t know what to focus on.
My daughter once had a science teacher whose opening assignment was to ask everyone to write one paragraph describing how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Believing it was an easy assignment, most students dashed off the paragraph in a few minutes. The teacher, however, showed up in class with a loaf of bread, jelly, peanut butter, and knives. Without attributing the author, she read each paragraph aloud while following their directions. The results were hilarious, but devastating. Knives wound up between slices of bread, and jelly or peanut butter were sometimes forgotten entirely. The message was clear: Directions need to be delivered in precise, understandable language or you can’t even make a simple sandwich. Now imagine how complicated actually running your museum, program or department will be when you’re communicating virtually and actually while masked and six-feet apart. Kind of like dancing backwards in high heels.
So…to make sure the sandwiches get made the way you want them, here are some simple suggestions for improved communication in the museum workplace:
- If some or all of your team still works from home, check in frequently. It doesn’t have to be long. A check-in that mimics a stop in an office doorway is fine, asking are you okay or is there anything I can help with?
- Even if they’re brief, set regular meeting times. In a world without much face-to-face contact, it’s important staff have meetings they can count on.
- Given that the post-COVID-world changes in a heartbeat, and ambiguity is practically a watchword, make sure your team knows they can bring you problems as they develop. You may want to consider borrowing an academic tradition and hold office hours. These can be real and held outside if weather permits or on Zoom at the same time each week. That way staff can always find you for a one-on-one that can be handled in under 15 minutes.
- Don’t forget recognition and applause. One of the many reasons life in the pandemic is hard is our daily interaction with colleagues is MIA. And it’s not just personal conversation or office gossip we long for. We miss colleagues telling us what they enjoy about our work, congratulating us when something goes well or giving us a high five. As leaders we need to remember that, and recognize staff achievements–you ran your first marathon alone, wearing a mask or your department’s digital takeover was the best ever–and say congratulations.
- And last, remember empathy. You may be powered up about your organization’s opening, but be mindful not everyone will find the return to work a piece of cake. Some may be worried about loved ones, struggling with childcare arrangements or processing how to deal with racism at work. Keep your door–metaphorical or actual– open and listen.
P.S. Since this spring’s string of racist murders, many students have started Instagram pages where they can reflect on what really went on behind the sunny and artificially diverse photos on school and college web pages. In the same vein, there’s now #changethemuseum. It’s jolting, heartbreaking, and anger inducing. If your organization has an HR department, you might want to share it. And if you are ever about to suggest an employee solve a workplace interpersonal problem on their own, give this page another look just to understand how horrific things can be.
Author photo, taken at Meow Wolf, Santa Fe, N.M., artist unknown
There is a whole lot of blame going on in the museum world with plenty directed at museum trustees. Where are their voices as the pandemic and the racism awakening unleash a Pandora’s box of anger? Anger at the irony of museum leadership releasing statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter while watching staffs decimated by COVID-19 furloughs and layoffs? Of museums sitting silent, serene and closed while women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA staff reveal that life inside isn’t so perfect?
Those of you who regularly read Leadership Matters know my antipathy to Twitter. But, though I rarely tweet, I do read, and recently there have been a a lot of comments about the need for a new sort of museum governance. (Can I pause here and say, how much I appreciate @MuseumsandRace’s series of questions on complicity. If you haven’t read them, you should. And if you need to spark staff or board discussion, use them.) But back to a new governance model. Many questions were raised by @TylerGreenBooks. He points directly at art museum trustees, suggesting art museums act like corporations not charities (his word), and that their boards are made up of folks whose major qualification for board membership besides money is “that they shop for art.” In fact, nonprofits, including museums, are corporations, just of a different type.
Tyler Green also suggests art museum boards are “bereft of experts with knowledge and experience related to the charity’s mission” while adding that “wealthy trustees give the minimum institutionally required board dues, and go along to get along.” Is that true? I have no way of knowing. And given the huge variety, even among American art museums, it seems a massive generalization. However, AAM’s 2017 Museum Board Leadership Report tells us that 2/3 of museum directors say their boards have a positive impact on job satisfaction. Should we believe them? Or have they crossed some economic divide, setting them far from the world of their hourly staff? The Report also tells us the vast majority of museum boards don’t assess their own performance, a concerning fact given that it’s likely boards presume there’s a world of assessment going on inside the museums they govern. And it also offers this nugget: “Board members believe board diversity and inclusion are important to advance their missions, but they fail to prioritize action steps to advance these priorities.” That was three years ago. Has that trend continued? If yes, maybe @TylerGreenBooks is correct, but for an entirely different set of reasons.
A year ago, AAM launched its Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity & Inclusion initiative, bringing 51 museums and $4 million dollars together national initiative to diversify museum boards and leadership. That was the same time the Ford Foundation’s President, Darren Walker wrote, “everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board.” (The Ford Foundation is one of the initiative’s three supporters.) Walker says museums have veered too far in appointing trustees whose only defining characteristic is unimaginable wealth. He suggests that board diversity can’t be seen as a compliance issue, but instead must be a key transformative step. Is the answer museums without boards? How would that work, in a country where the vast majority of museum funding comes from private donation? Or is the answer better boards? And who watches the watch dogs?
This week Darren Walker wrote another opinion piece for The Times titled, “Are You Willing to Give Up Your Privilege?” It is directed at the world of the one-percent Walker now inhabits. He suggests, “The old playbook — giving back through philanthropy as a way of ameliorating the effects of inequality — cannot heal what ails our nation. It cannot address the root causes of this inequality — what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.’” He asks what those with power and privilege are willing to give up?
It seems to me this is a crucible moment for museum boards of trustees, a moment that demands action, because the righteous anger and discontent aren’t going away. And as Maxwell Anderson put it so succinctly in his recent essay for Apollo, “The privileging of endowment balances before the pandemic seems to many a short-sighted goal, resulting, as it did, in knee-jerk layoffs,” and a sense that once again in museum land, it’s money before people.
Museum boards have particular power; they fund, guide and determine an organization’s DNA. But the old ways aren’t working any more. Systemic, and in many a museum’s case, genteel racism, aren’t problems you can throw money at and hope they go away. Boards need to pause and figure out how to respond, acknowledging their responses affect not just their community–however that’s defined–but the staffs who are the lifeblood of America’s 35,000-plus museums. And before we’re all too smug, maybe this question–What are willing to give up?– is one all of us white museum folk need to answer. Our responses may be different than a board member’s, but all of us need to reflect on how we have been complicit and most importantly, how we will change.
Because making #BlackLivesMatter can’t happen without change. And change needs to come from the top.
The rocking and rolling of the museum world continued this week. At least three museum directors left their positions, and multiple organizations, including Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Peabody Essex and the Georgia O’Keefe museums, announced they would undergo staff reductions. Museums are often the trailing indicator in economic crisis and now it’s clear even for those able to open how many visitors won’t come, and how bad the balance sheets will be.
Through it all tributes and solidarity for Black Lives Matter crowd social media. They are well intentioned, but I’m reminded of that writing adage, “Show, don’t tell,” and I wish I knew what museums are actually doing to change the unredeemed, genteel racism that pervades so many of our institutions. Because the real work, the work that matters to staff of color, and ultimately to visitors of color, happens far from social media. So here are some thoughts:
- The Gender Pay Gap: I first wrote about the gender pay gap on this blog in 2014. Since then I’ve written 10 columns about it. If museum leaders were to do one thing to demonstrate they really believe Black Lives Matter, it would be closing the pay gap. Black women are paid 61-percent of what non-Hispanic white men are paid. That means they need to work 19 months to equal every year of white male employment. That is inexcusable. And, according to the Economic Policy Institute, 55-percent of working black women are mothers, many primary wage earners. That means their wealth gap has a significant impact, not just for them, but on their families. If your museum hasn’t already graphed your staff salaries by race and gender, perhaps that should be on your to-do list. With that information in hand, you can work to level the playing field. Anything less supports the genteel racism the museum field has tolerated for more than a century.
- Collections: We know from last year’s Williams College study that art collections in US museums are 85.4-percent white and 87.4-percent by male artists. We know that gender and race equity in science research is an ongoing problem and likely influences how science is presented to the public. And we know the inclusion of additional narratives, whether race, gender or both, are frequently a problem for traditional heritage sites dominated by white, male narratives. And then there is decolonization, a particular problem for collections that once saw themselves as encyclopedic, accepting and exhibiting objects from indigenous cultures while eliminating their voices and stories. Not every museum can follow the Baltimore Museum of Art’s lead, selling work by men, to grow the percentage of women artists, and women artists of color, in their collections. Changes like that take money, yes, but also extensive planning. Do the planning now, and re-write the narrative. Why? Because Black Lives Matter.
- The DEI Position: If you’re museum is lucky enough to have a Diversity position in this age of recession and furloughs, there’s still work to do. White museum leadership, boards, staff, and volunteers still need to grapple with their own roles and their own behaviors. And if you don’t have a DEI position, for the love of God, don’t burden a staff person, who also happens to be black, with that role. They’re navigating their own path as part of the 11-percent of black museum staff nationally. They don’t need to be a spokesperson for racial identity without compensation.
- The Other Pay Gap: The Bureau of Labor Statistics, who tabulates who’s working in the museum field and what they make, tells us our median compensation is $49,850 or roughly $24 an hour. In other words, we’re not a high-paying field. One of the by-products of the COVID-19 layoffs and furloughs is worker protests. In New York City, Minneapolis and elsewhere we’ve seen museum workers using an organization’s 990 forms to publish executive compensation numbers in contrast to hourly, front-facing staff pay. Many of those staff have graduate degrees and yet their take-home pay is perilously close to Federal poverty lines. If a museum director makes $750,000 with benefits, but her front-facing staff makes $12/hour with no benefits, is her pay too high or is their pay too low? Isn’t it time museums as a group talked about this and grappled with a recommended ratio? Boards aren’t usually fans of unions, and yet the reason staff join unions is because they need and want a living wage and benefits.
Talk is cheap. For organizations and individuals what you do is in many ways more important than what you say. If your organization believes Black Lives Matter, than show your staff and your community the steps you plan to take. Be the organization you say you are.
How many of you are museum leaders? Are you lonely? If you’re nodding, you’re not the only one. By some estimates, 42-percent of for-profit leaders confess to feeling lonely all or part of the time. Leadership is isolating. You’re happy in your job; it’s challenging, but there are things that can’t be shared. Some days are stressful. You know things you can’t un-know, and the decisions you make often feel like they’re yours alone.
There are ways to make the top spot less isolating. You can allow yourself to be vulnerable with your leadership team. By learning to express feelings–as opposed to parsing problems–you model vulnerability and build trust. You can create a peer group or ‘kitchen cabinet’ that you meet with regularly to share frustrations, ideas, and to problem solve. You may also have close friends, unconnected with your museum, who listen well or a few well-placed mentors. Those outlets are yours and yours alone. And they don’t put you in the position of treating any of your staff or leadership team differently.
There are families, governments, and workplaces where power masquerades as friendship, love or connection. It is, to quote a Latin phrase we’ve all heard too much recently, a quid pro quo. Grandparents pay for college tuition, but only if they select the school. A town official looks the other way when a local non-profit needs a variance, but then asks the non-profit to support something else in exchange. A museum leader wants her staff to like her so she adjusts their schedules to accommodate their personal circumstances. These are all ways to create connection and make an individual feel liked. The only problem is they aren’t sustainable because they’re based not in authenticity and equity, but on transaction.
These days when we say the words workplace equity, what comes to mind is race, gender, access, and the way we treat one another in the museum workplace. But far from values statements and HR policies there’s day-to-day life where equity happens, and the ongoing question of who gets what. Who gets noticed? Who is hourly and who is salaried? Who gets to work on plum assignments? Who gets to travel on the museum’s dime? Who never met a deadline that wasn’t moveable? Who leaves early for soccer practice? Who is chronically late, but excused? Who is plucked from the group to meet with a trustees? Whose work is nominated for a prize? We could go on, but you get the picture.
Part of leadership’s isolation is leaders can’t have favorites. As a leader, you need to understand and tame your own biases, and you can’t use your power to grant favors for those you like. Creating an equitable workplace means….
- Starting with your employee handbook: Looking at the language. Might it affect one demographic differently than another? Can you fix it?
- Does your museum have a values statement? If so, how do you use it to guide daily practice? If not, why not?
- Do your rules about personal leave apply to everyone equitably? For example, are family leave — human leave — available equitably, because life comes at us all fast? And do you permit personal time that recognizes not all of us celebrate the same holidays at the same time? A small thing, but a nod that your organization embraces and supports difference.
- Are rules about promotion and professional development transparent?
- How are new ideas heard? How hard is it for an idea to make its way from the hourly staff to the salaried staff? If it’s challenging does that reinforce the idea that salaried staff are the idea makers? Where is the inequity in that?
Museum workplaces are microcosms of the wider world. As a leader you and your board have the opportunity to create and shape an organizational culture that is human-centered and fair. In many ways the workplace you create has a profound impact on the way your organization appears in the world. (If you need an example of what an organization looks like that neglects values and does not keep its staff safe, seen and supported, look no further than the Philadelphia Museum of Art, fast becoming the poster child for an unethical work environment.)
You can’t control each and every staff person’s behavior, but you can create a place where staff feel respected and nurtured. So build human-centered policies, and don’t let them languish. Apply them and watch your staff flourish.
Image: Museum of Happiness
Twelve days into the new decade, and so much has happened. Last Monday the museum world reacted to President’s Trump’s threatened bombing of Iranian cultural sites with responses from AAM, AASLH, AAMD, and even social media from the circumspect Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was the week’s beginning. By week’s end, The Times had published an article on Joshua Helmer, once employed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and now director of the Erie Art Museum. In a #MuseumMeToo moment, Helmer is accused by both current and past colleagues of sexual harassment.
I had planned to write about white people trying to do the right thing, but before we go there, I need to say something. The Joshua Helmer scandal not only generated a social media storm, but a Change.org petition demanding Helmer’s firing. Meanwhile, Friday, the Erie Art Museum released the following statement,”The Erie Art Museum Board of Directors takes seriously all allegations of misconduct. Prior to offering Mr. Helmer the position at the Erie Art Museum, the Board, with the help of an employment consultant, conducted due diligence including background checks. No issues were identified during our due diligence.”
The subtext here is a board who says it did its research. If the complaints about Helmer are true, then it sounds as though the board is shifting blame to its recruitment firm or the Philadelphia Museum of Art for failing to divulge what they knew. But here’s what’s really bothering me: In 48 hours the Helmer firing petition garnered over 2,000 signatures. GEMM–Gender Equity in Museums Movement–has its own page on Change.org, a pledge to stop sexual harassment in museum workplaces. In six weeks it has yet to amass 500 signatures.
Why is it so easy to sign the Helmer petition, but not the GEMM pledge? Does encouraging Helmer’s firing make you feel like you’re doing something? Does it take the onus off you, and put it where it seems to belong? For centuries powerful people have used authority to coerce sexual favors and harm the less powerful. Yet sexual harassment remains an ongoing problem in the museum workplace. Imagine, for a minute, if the GEMM pledge had been around when Helmer left the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Could employees who signed it remain silent as a purported harasser left for a new position? It’s each of us who makes change. Not “them,” whoever “they” are. And we make change by changing our behavior. Sign the GEMM pledge. Don’t wait. Do it today.
So what I really meant to write about is this: In my ongoing journey recognizing the limitations and boundaries of my own whiteness, sometimes I hear stories that speak to the way we as white humans think we’re doing the “right” thing, but it backfires majestically. Let’s imagine there’s a white development officer and a curator who’s a woman of color. The curator knows of an eminently successful young, black businessman who’s just sold his company for $30 million. She follows him on social media, knows he’s a collector, and has met him at a social event. She discusses this with the white advancement officer who’s aware of the businessman’s success. She asks the museum to approach him because her upcoming show will include several artists he collects. She’s hoping for additional underwriting for her exhibit and maybe an acquisition fund for artists of color. Instead, the development officer asks her to reach out first. In his world, it’s better if the businessman is approached by a) someone he sort-of knows, and b) by someone of color. He may also be scared–scared he’s not culturally astute enough–and he’ll say something wrong, and he doesn’t want to be wrong. The curator of color is angry because to her the optics look terrible. The collector isn’t a small business owner. He’s a gazillionaire who’s just sold to a multi-national corporation. Why shouldn’t he be treated like any other 1-percent entrepreneur?
What’s wrong here? Well, a lot, but definitely a failure to communicate. The white advancement officer is unable or unwilling to confess he feels ignorant, something he’d do in a heartbeat if the prospect were an international, and there were a language barrier. In addition, he’s comfortable letting the curator of color carry the burden of race. She, on the other hand, reads the situation from the black entrepreneur’s point of view and suspects he’ll be insulted if he isn’t treated like every other big giver the museum approaches.
So where does leadership come into all of this? Good leaders understand their own limitations and vulnerabilities. Humbling themselves in front of colleagues, admitting what they don’t know, and asking for help come naturally. When we’re all being our best selves–admittedly a daily struggle–we need to model great leader behavior: stop worrying about judgement, stop worrying about control, stop writing the script for others, and instead communicate and collaborate. What if the advancement officer admitted a gift from this young entrepreneur would be a first from a non-white donor, and he was scared of messing it up? What if he asked for the curator’s help and collaboration instead of turning the ask back to her? What if she felt she could say, I am not the spokesperson for my entire race? And further, what if, as a woman of color, she also didn’t need to worry about being characterized as brash and pushy?
There are a number of ways this story could have gone. I offer it only to point out how our narratives hem us in. Understanding our own parameters enough to know what we don’t know, and having the courage to be vulnerable are leadership practices we all need to develop.
Photo by Robert J Weisberg
To begin, I want to announce Gender Equity in Museums Movement’s (GEMM) Pledge to End Sexual Harassment in the Museum Workplace. GEMM released the Pledge November 12. It is available on its website and on Change.org. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 338,000 museum employees in the United States. In 2018, 49.5-percent were women. Based on the two surveys conducted in 2018 by Anne Ackerson and me, and a second by nikhil trivedi and Aletheia Wittman, roughly 49-percent of those identifying as women reported experiencing verbal or sexual harassment at work. I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a shockingly high percentage.
Signing the pledge takes a few minutes. It asks signers to, among other things, refrain from sexist language, to be open to dialogue about museum workers’ concerns and needs, and to create and nurture workplaces free of sexual assault and understanding of consent. Maybe you’re not someone who signs things, maybe you believe sexual harassment doesn’t happen in museums or maybe you think it’s simply not your problem. The museum workplace is many things: It’s creative, sometimes inclusive, dynamic, frequently stressful, achingly beautiful, and filled with many big and small moments of discovery and learning. Sexual harassment doesn’t belong there. You are only one person out of 338,000, but by signing, you tell the world, and most importantly your co-workers, you will do your part. Join GEMM in pledging to help end workplace sexual harassment in museums and heritage organization. And don’t save it for later, do it today.
Last week I gave the keynote at the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS) meeting in Philadelphia. It was an honor and a privilege, but like any new experience, it made me think. Many of the attendees came from large museums–large enough where the curator or collections manager doesn’t wear a different hat depending on the day. Based on the crowd, many are women, and many are white. That doesn’t make them bad people, but they might be ground zero for the museum world’s old-school hierarchical leadership. Other front-facing departments–education, development, leadership–have diversified more quickly, but this world, on which so much depends–if you can’t find an object, it doesn’t matter how special a curator you are–is in some ways landlocked, caught in a century-old tradition of women caring for and organizing stuff.
That made me think for possibly the umpteenth time about leadership and hierarchy. When you think about diversity, what do you think of first? Be honest. Do you think about race? Gender? Age? You have heard me say–probably too often–how important it is to have everyone at the table, and yet creating a staff who represents your community is a challenge, but say you’re successful. Say your department is like a little utopian United Nations. Say they range from Millennials who tolerate Boomers, Christians who work along side Muslims, men who work respectfully with women, gender fluid folk with resolutely cisgender. But you’re all in the same department. How does an organization’s internal segregation and stratification affect the product, the idea making, the program, the exhibit?
None of this may apply if you work at a small museum. You may see your frontline staff daily, and they may also function as security. But what if you’re part of a larger organization? How often do you talk with staff outside your department about a project that affects them? Do you speak as equals or as one staff explaining its needs to another? All I’m suggesting is diversity and inclusion is more than just outward appearances. It’s more than the Instagram-able group around the table. It’s making sure varied constituencies across the museum or heritage organization have a voice. Maybe it bothers you that there are always folding chairs in your newly-redesigned admission area? Were your frontline staff part of the architects’ focus groups? How about your volunteer coordinator? Did anyone mention what percentage of your visitors are retired? That’s a banal example, but it speaks to how listening to many voices from across an institution makes it a better place. And breaking down hierarchical barriers is another avenue to creating a diverse and healthy workplace.
So….the intentional museum flattens hierarchies and contributes to diverse idea-building by allowing staff at all levels to:
- disagree with one another
- be themselves in the workplace
- contribute to the best of their abilities