Every week when I sit down to write this blog I suffer a twinge of imposter syndrome. Yes, I’ve co-authored some books. I teach in the Johns Hopkins Museums Studies Program and I’ve given some lectures. I lead a staff; I care for a collection, trying to encourage a dialog between it and my school community. But, that doesn’t stop me from feeling as though I’ve said it all before or I really don’t know what I’m talking about, or if I do, I’m not saying it well enough.
In the northern hemisphere, this weekend is the Winter Solstice, the moment when the days are the shortest. Particularly this year, it’s the time when the calendar, seasons, and current events conspire, making us all ready for a little light and some hope. This is the last Leadership Matters post of 2020. I will be on hiatus from December 21 to January 3. Like me, you’re probably glad to see 2020 come to an end. Disruptive, downright dystopian, and disappointing it pushed us all in ways we never imagined.
With over over 52,000 views in 2020, Leadership Matters turned eight years old December 13. What started as a way to promote and enhance the first edition of Leadership Matters morphed into 416 posts, most by me, some by guest writers. The favorites this year were Looking for a New Leader: Putting Equity into Action, which garnered so many views I am still convinced WordPress made a mistake. It was followed by Leadership and Workplace Bullying and The Silent Treatment (and What to Do About It). That saddens me. Those posts were written in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and yet they are among the most read on this blog. What does it say about the museum workplace that discussions of bullying and non-speaking marathons draw so many readers?
And speaking of readers, you come from 159 countries around the globe. While most of you live here in the United States, there are many of you from Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and India. And you are joined by individual readers from the Isle of Man, Aruba, Haiti and St. Lucia, and many more. This year your numbers grew to 994, with more who find Leadership Matters on Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter. Wherever you are, thank you. Thank you for reading and thank you for being part of the museum/non-profit world that cares about its workplace, and recognizes how leadership as a practice, as a way of being, changes individuals and ultimately the organization in which they work.
And speaking of work, many museum folk aren’t working. The pandemic stole their jobs, furloughing them or eliminating their positions altogether. For those of us who are working, whether from home, museums or heritage sites or some hybrid of the two, we are the lucky ones. However damaged the field is, and there is a lot of work to do, those of us still lucky enough to be employed, do work we love, which brings me to this: If you are working, and can afford a gift, make one. Here in the United States you can always give to the Museum Workers Relief Fund, supporting those who’ve lost their jobs. You can also give to your favorite museum or heritage organization or to a national, state or regional museum service agency.
Much as we all want to demonstrate our love by just showing up, and wandering unmasked through our favorite site, that’s not possible right now, so we need to figure out how to support organizations that mean a lot to us, by being present in different ways. You can shop from the comfort of your home at museum shops, take an online class, listen to a lecture or go on a virtual tour. So, if you have the means, give. If money is short right now, give in other ways. Support your colleagues and your friends. Put five museum pals together at 5 o’clock one evening on Zoom and gab. Support one another. Create a Get-A-Job team, and work together on polishing resumes and Linkedin pages. Or sign the Gender Equity in Museums Pledge and make a personal commitment to ending sexual harassment in the museum workplace.
Whatever you do, make sure it constitutes actual change, however small or personal, not the sort of global ranting social media invites. Here is my list for change in 2021:
- Be the point person for a director search that starts by recognizing implicit bias, conducts an equitable search, resulting in a diverse, creative candidate who challenges us in new ways.
- Continue to diversify our collections, art, photography and rare books, through acquisition and in cataloguing language.
- Continue to shift our organizational lens so white privilege isn’t always center stage.
- Grow empathy.
- Nurture creativity.
What’s on your list?
Make 2021, not the year for change, but the year you change.
Be well. Stay safe. See you in January.
You don’t need me to tell you this, but in 10 months the workplace has changed fundamentally. Human interaction is reduced. At my organization, spontaneous hallway conversations are rare, and many people are only seen via a screen. And, if you’re lucky to have a face-to-face conversation, the most interactive portions of your colleague’s faces are covered. Hurried writing via email or Google chat complicates communication, creating endless email chains where once a single face-to-face conversation sufficed. Add to that, some people don’t read because they’re busy or stressed, some comprehend poorly or put off reading ’til late in the day, and by then whatever mini-crisis has passed without their input.
Imagine that into all of this steps an interim leader. I became one in July, but as staffs shrink across the museum world, there are many taking on new positions in addition to their old ones. So what’s an interim’s role? Is it simply as place holder, making sure the program, department, museum or library doesn’t burn down before the real director arrives? As an interim are you expected to lead or simply to supervise? Should you have a point of view?
I’ll be honest, organizational vision was not at the top of my list this summer when I stepped into a leadership role. COVID pushed pretty much everything off the table as we worked to figure out how to open a library, archives and special collections while also keeping our community and ourselves safe. But we figured it out, and while COVID continues to escalate, we are blessedly free of illness. Most importantly we have an operational template that seems to work; however, our search for a new director is stalled again so is it time for some vision?
As I’ve probably shared, we are working through a series of workshops led by an experiential education leader to help us communicate better with one another. The team has worked without me until now, outlining communication issues and strategies it wants to address. Currently they’re utilizing Henry Cloud’s The Power of the Other. Cloud describes four “corners of connection,” places we go, and modes of behavior we adopt that range from isolationist to a permanent feeling of imposter syndrome, to folks who need to be bathed in adoration more or less permanently. Corner four is the place we all want to be, with people who connect from an authentic but vulnerable place.
So is there room for interim organizational vision in a workplace operating in the midst of a global pandemic and beset with some typical workplace communication issues? Sometimes an organization hires an interim precisely so it can institute change without having it affect the permanent leader. And sometimes it hires an interim to hold the fort until a permanent replacement is found. If the choice is binary, we fall more into the latter category than the former. So…the vision thing? Should someone who’s holding the fort have a vision? I’m going to say yes, particularly since our organizational sense of self wasn’t rock solid to begin with. And what’s my vision? To begin with, that we should take joy in the good work we do together, and through the work to create a culture built on kindness, empathy and learning agility. Second, to stop seeing ourselves as victims. We don’t need a new director to fix some imaginary set of faults, but instead to challenge us and help us become better at what we do. To prepare for that, we need a leader who puts connection first; who models it, who looks for it, who delights in it. We also need a leader who thinks in two time frames, strategies for the moment, and frameworks for the future. I hope for the short term I can be that person. And as a team we need to think that way because we’re not treading water. Everything we do lays foundations for future building.
So if you find yourself suddenly a temporary leader, even if it’s only to cover a maternity/paternity leave, here’s my two cents:
- Diagnose what’s happening now, and look for ways to improve.
- Be prepared to ask tough questions, challenge assumptions, and have uncomfortable conversations.
- Know your program, department or museum’s DNA. Understand how “now” connects to the future.
- Take care of your team. Help them self-reflect so they grow.
Sounds kind of like real leadership doesn’t it? It is. Interim leadership isn’t and shouldn’t be the poor stepchild of leadership. Unlike, permanent leadership, it has a beginning, middle and an end, but whether it’s two months or two years, it’s leadership. And once again, especially now, especially in museums everywhere, leadership matters.
P.S. I want to give a shout out to my colleague Anne Ackerson’s new project. In collaboration with her partners, the wise and talented Dina Bailey and Gail Anderson, she has created The Resilience Playbook, an opportunity to work with all three to figure out where your organization should go next. Built around goals, plays, and self-assessment, it seems like the perfect tool to create change and leave the COVID swamp behind. Sadly, it’s available only for organizations. Maybe the version for individuals will show up in 2021?
After Thanksgiving, I’ve often found inspiration for these pages in the best aspects of the holiday: kindness, collaboration, trust. This year, finding goodness in the waning months of 2020 seems a Herculean task. Many museum workers are no longer employed. One in three museums nationwide may never reopen. Those that have opened, did so under strange and constricting conditions, only to find themselves closed again as the pandemic sky rockets. And the museum field continues to make headlines, not for its great exhibitions or good works, but for poor leadership, lack of concern for its workers, and monetizing collections, aka deaccessioning.
Sunday morning I woke to discover Tony Hsieh, entreprenuer and Zappos founder had died. One of my leadership heroes, the 46-year old Hsieh made headlines in the late 1990’s when he bought a shoe company called ShoeSite.com that ultimately became the Internet giant Zappos. Hsieh believed trust and friendliness were what create return customers online or in person. His decision-making-at-the-point-of-transaction philosophy, where call center staff were encouraged and trusted to make the best decisions they could in the moment, transformed Zappos. Later he embraced Holacracy, a method of decentralized management and organizational governance, changing and challenging Zappos still further.
What does any of this have to do with museums? Maybe nothing, but Hsieh’s ideas of empowering staff and creating an organization where a call center employee has an equal voice in creating change echo a lot of what many museum thought leaders have written and spoken about since the start of the pandemic. And yet, when the National Gallery of Art (NGA), along with museums of art in Boston, Houston and London’s Tate cancelled their joint Philip Guston exhibit, social media was swamped with opinions and feelings about how wrong they were.1 Midst all the noise, NGA director Kaywin Feldman suggested that, among other reasons for pressing pause on the show, were the security guards. She described them as “experts in the general public, and they know much more about our public, about public reactions and understanding, than I do sitting in my office up here.” When was the last time you heard an art museum director reference their security guards’ opinions in a public interview and how Hsieh-like was that? Feldman also makes the point that her thoughts are about NGA only, and that the other partner museums have their own approach, community, staff, and reasons for wanting to press pause.
If the Guston exhibit is a microcosm of the kind complex problem museums will continue to confront post-pandemic, shouldn’t we as bystanders be equally nuanced in our response to their choices? The debate has aligned itself in two buckets: whether museums are about people (staff and community take precedence) or about things (collections are preeminently important). When collections take precedence, the museum’s role is to protect, preserve and exhibit. On the human side of the argument, staff are seen as key to making collections speak, hopefully telling an object’s full story truthfully and without bias, overlaying the knowledgable expert with diverse and authentic narratives.
When we think about how the museum world might move forward, it’s worth remembering there are some 35,000 museums in the U.S. Yet art museums comprise only 4.5-percent of the total, even though they’ve garnered 100-percent of the of the news recently. So it’s helpful to remember that art museum problems are not always a reflection of the museum world as a whole. In addition, there is social media, an ever- hungry animal, encouraging us to respond quickly, to “like” something or to comment. As a result we find ourselves commenting not always on facts but sometimes on opinions perpetuating a narrative that isn’t fact-based, but amplifying a museum chronicle where staff is mistreated, DEI issues are rife, boards are groups of uncaring, entitled, privileged white folks. Some or all of that may be true for some institutions, but let’s be clear that not all 35,000 museums suffer these symptoms in concert.
So where do I find hope? This month, I saw it in our Johns Hopkins graduate students, in NEMA conference participants, in Gender Equity in Museums Facebook members, and in my friends and colleagues throughout the field. They are committed, smart and intentional. They don’t expect some faceless power to make change for them, but, instead, are eager to make change for themselves, their colleagues and the field as a whole.
Some days it’s hard to know what matters and what doesn’t. If nothing matters, there’s no point. If everything matters, there’s no purpose. It’s up to this next generation of museum workers to find the bridge between the two.
As you look toward a post-pandemic museum world, where do you see hope?
- Smee, Sebastian. “In Postponing Guston Exhibition, the National Gallery and Three Other Museums have made a Terrible Mistake: The Cancellation of “Philip Guston Now” is Patronizing and Outrageous.” WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post.
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.
Of all the things COVID-19 has unmasked for museums–race, class, money, #museummetoo, digital sophistication, collecting practices–communication is rarely at the top of the list. And yet, for those of us who are back in the office, attempting a new normal-normal, communication is the core of what we do, and it’s challenging.
Have you ever finished work and felt as though maybe you hadn’t said anything even though you engaged with colleagues all day? You weren’t mean. You weren’t demanding, but throughout the day it felt as though there was a scrim between you and your team? As if whatever you were saying, muffled by your mask, a piece of plexiglass, six feet of separation, or Zoom, just didn’t compute?And then, as a kind of coup de grâce you learn your team thinks it communicates poorly. You could blame the masks, Zoom, the plexiglass, or the six feet of separation or maybe you could accept the challenge and try to improve your own communication skill set. I am, and here are three things I’m thinking about:
- Poor communication is a symptom not a cause: When humans in the workplace grapple with difficult but ill-defined issues, people tend to fixate on communication. What they really want is information, but because information is slow in coming they focus on a human, suggesting their director or the board are poor communicators. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” If you make communication the problem, you may miss the real issue altogether. Gather your team, and ask them to focus not on communication, but on their work. Perhaps it feels impossible to plan anything–the annual spring fundraiser or book an exhibit for 2022– because no one knows how long the pandemic will continue? Then the issue isn’t necessarily communication, but planning in the face of so many unknowns.
- Which segues to communication as something you participate in, not something that happens to you. Too many times the workplace turns us into children, waiting for someone further up the food chain to tell us what’s coming and what to do. Yes, many of our museums and heritage organizations are hierarchical. Your direct report, whether that’s the director or chief curator or shop manager may know things before you do, but when they talk, whether six feet away, in an email, or via Zoom, that’s communication. Be present. We need to bring our whole selves to these interactions so we don’t miss information because communication is also listening, reading and comprehending. COVID has made that more challenging which is why we all need to work harder.
- Last, communication is value-driven. It is a way to convey who you are. It’s also a way to empathize. Be humble. If you see a colleague in trouble, see if you can help. If you feel a story’s not being told, ask why not. If you have an idea, make a proposal. Each of us is unique in our experiences, our world view, the culture that shaped us. We all want to work in the kind of museum where we can be our whole self, but we need to act on the fifty-percent of the equation that’s ours. If we hold back and blame colleagues for not understanding us is that their fault? If an idea doesn’t make it onto the agenda, should we blame the team because they didn’t intuit what was in our head?
We hear a lot about when the pandemic is over as if someone somewhere will press a switch, and we will return to life as we knew it. But we know it won’t be like that, and also that once there is a reliable vaccine, the mending and the healing will take a long time. Many days it’s difficult to stay focused. Take time to let your staff talk about how the pandemic has affected them personally. Meet regularly in small groups or Zoom’s breakout groups to make sure no one’s voice gets lost. Let’s all pledge to help each other feel valued, appreciated and confident.
Sometimes sports metaphors just work, so here goes: It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback what’s wrong with museums. Too often their boards are insular, classist, and totally risk averse. And thanks to the pandemic we now know some museums’ finances are more than a bit precarious. Too many are led by moderate, middle of the road white folks, who have struck a bargain with their boards not to sail too close to the wind, to keep everything as it was, limiting creativity and change.
Too few museums have addressed climate change. At some, it’s hard to find a recycling container much less a place to plug in your car or a field of solar panels or an acknowledgement in the disaster plan that climate change is a thing. Until the pandemic, there was an almost field-wide denial of the need to acknowledge race and gender issues in the workplace, to care for, support, and mentor museum staff, while also making leadership training an imperative. And last, but by no means least, there are way too many museums whose collections and exhibitions need a massive re-centering focused on life as it is, not life as it was, representing the rainbow of everyone as artists, scientists, thinkers, collectors, doers, and makers.
Did I forget anything? Probably, but making the list isn’t the problem. No doubt you have an if-I-ran-the-museum-field list of your own. But how do you start a revolution? Whose responsibility is that? Do we make change incrementally, one organization at a time, which seems to be happening thanks to places like the Baltimore Museum of Art and Old Salem Museum and Gardens, or all at once? What role do AAM and AASLH play? And where do we begin? Is that Les Misérables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing” playing in the background?
I spent some time last week exchanging emails with a group of museum thought leaders around the need for systemic change. No one painted a rosy picture, but if you want a revolution, here are ten things to ponder:
- If boards are part of the problem, do you reform them–(Is that possible?)–or do away with them?
- Is part of board reformation repopulating them, not just with token BIPOC folk, but humans whose value-added isn’t their wealth but their values, the museum equivalent of Congressman John Lewis?
- If you do away with boards, who hires and provides oversight for museum leaders, whether it’s one director or co-directors because God knows there are enough examples of directors behaving badly?
- Should endowments change? Should museums and heritage organizations only invest in companies making a positive sustainable or societal impact?
- Does having have many, many small donors balance the wishes and desires of a few wealthy donors?
- And speaking of endowments, do museums need a different funding model? If you look at Stanford’s Ten Nonprofit Funding Models, museums don’t fit easily into any of them. Someone needs to articulate the difference between a museum’s value for its community versus its economic engine. Clearly the two are separate, and if its funding model is more than allowing a group of rich one-percenters donate to an endowment, then what is it?
- How do museums get out of their bubbles and understand that ownership of the rare, the beautiful, the unusual doesn’t always make them community assets?
- Replacement–whether humans on staff or boards or one big painting for work by BIPOC artists–isn’t change. Change is acknowledging the history of your organization’s actions and creating an architecture that brings your whole community to the table now and in the future.
- Should all museums be required to have values statements that fit their particular ethos, culture and community?
- How can we create a job sector where you don’t necessarily need a graduate degree to participate, where you will earn an equitable, living wage or better, and where leadership matters? Is AAM’s plan to get creative workers back to work enough?
Revolutions take motivation. They coalesce around message and messenger, an individual whose empathy and enthusiasm is contagious. They need a memorable speech, treatise or slogan, that is tweeted, repeated, and forever associated with the movement. And they need all of this done again, and again until change happens. The museum world is overdue for change, but we need a leader and a message. Are you that person? Can you lead us to a museum-world green new deal because many of us are waiting in the wings to help?
This week I had a staff member resign. Although they had been offered feedback, support, and encouragement, ultimately they decided to leave. Which is fine. Staff need to choose what is best for them. But organizationally, two narratives circulate. One, outlined by the staff person, and given to close friends and colleagues, and another by the leadership that is a version of the classic “this staff member chooses to seek new challenges.” Neither is very satisfying, and neither is honest.
Personnel issues are poor examples of leadership’s failures to be honest or transparent because ethically and legally most of the time organizations need to keep their mouths shut. But they also point out one of the issues with transparency. We have the facts: A staff person resigned, but the facts don’t tell us why, and it’s the why humans want.
Here is where transparency and honesty collide. Transparent is defined as “easy to perceive or detect” and also “having thoughts, feelings, or motives that are easily perceived,” and yet time and again it’s directed at leadership implying they were not being honest, which means “free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere.” But how much can you tell? How honest are you willing to be? And if you focus more on “the what” than “the why,” will you create a kind of “gotcha culture” within your museum or heritage organization?
When someone we know receives a big promotion, my husband often quips they are the same person today they were yesterday, adding that the promotion, the increased salary, and the perquisites don’t make anyone any smarter. We might hope that in the wake of the trust a museum places in a director that leadership comes with a huge dose of humility, but too often it doesn’t. So we have my-way-or-the-highway leaders certain they know it all, and they don’t. And their nervousness at not knowing everything makes them protective of what they do know. Meanwhile, staff, particularly those who’ve worked through an almost seven-month pandemic, don’t want surprises. They don’t want to guess when the next wave of terribleness will hit them. They are weary. They want honesty and a degree of control over a world that seems frighteningly turbulent. They want leaders who will share what they know, and more importantly share a plan of action based on what they know.
So maybe it’s not just transparency we’re after? Maybe we want more than the facts. Maybe we want honesty delivered with a side of humility. Because when staff ask for honesty they also ask for trust. And when leaders trust staff with information, whether in person, via Zoom or in emails, they signal their belief in staff. But that information–whatever it’s about–must come coupled with honesty. Leaders need to say here is what I know about this particular issue, but here is what we need to think about. Honesty banishes the proverbial elephants from the room, and nurtures relationships.
As we weather this crisis, here are some things to consider about honesty and transparency for individuals practicing leadership throughout museums and heritage organizations:
- When you need to deliver information, sort out the facts from the “whys” and make sure you deliver both. When you don’t know, say so.
- Transparency and honesty are aspects of communication. Leaders take blame for being poor communicators, but sometimes staff can’t communicate either. They are fearful of disagreeing with one another because they have to work together. Practice being a good communicator no matter where you are in your organization. And if you find good communication happening in a particular program or department, ask why. Then listen and learn.
- Share what you know when you know it. And listen to what staff say in response.
- Make yourself available. Be there for your staff virtually or actually.
- When you make a mistake, be honest. Apologize. Move forward. If you don’t, no one else will either.
Be well and stay safe.
Let me begin by saying that I think co-leadership is a great idea. It spreads decision making, which is healthy. It brings new voices to the table, and by its very nature it presumes a level of humility and understanding that a solo leader may never grapple with. That said, is it a cure-all for what ails the museum world? I’m not sure.
In his recent blog post, Making the Case for Collaborative Leadership in Museums, Mike Murawski lists a number of successful dual postings from Bowdoin College’s museum to the Five Oaks Museum, and across the pond to the Birmingham Museum Trust. But there are numerous solo director acts that, at least from the outside, demonstrate successful leadership–Christy Coleman at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Robert Krett at Connecticut Historical Society, Frank Vagnone at Old Salem Museum and Gardens, and Lisa Lee at Chicago Housing Museum. Here’s a hypothesis: It’s not the method; it’s the people, good leadership is good leadership whether it’s brought to you by a single leader, a duo or a trio.
Murawski highlights five qualities that deepen with paired leaders. He lists more effective decision making, cultivating innovation and growth, valuing relationships, promoting shared leadership across an organization, and the way a dual leadership model promotes equity and social justice within museum culture. While these are all important characteristics, they can (and do) and happen with a skilled solo leader, and might not happen with an incompetent duo. In fact, given the museum world’s current turmoil, it’s challenging to think of boards of trustees, hiring duos when many seem to be using COVID-19 as an excuse to off-load directors at an alarming rate. Were the trend toward hiring two to take hold, the pair also need to be great communicators and have enormous trust in one another. They need to acknowledge their own strengths and weaknesses and know how they are each other’s better half because, as in any strong partnership, there will be days when the organization needs the strengths of one more than the other.
And while the empathy, trust, and transparency that skilled co-directors model is important, those characteristics are also possessed by good solo directors. Near the end of Leadership Matters we wrote a chapter titled “How Do We Know What We Know?” There we summarize the characteristics and traits we encountered in interviewing 36 North American museum and heritage organization directors. And what did we find? That leadership isn’t something that comes with age; that perseverance matters as leaders take advantage of repeated practice in recognizing problems, evaluating alternatives, and providing solutions. Our interviewees are risk takers both organizationally and personally.” Last, and perhaps most important here, these leaders see themselves not as lone rangers, but as part of a whole. We quote Melissa Chiu, now Director of the Smithsonian’s Hirschhorn Museum, saying bluntly, “You can’t do it on your own.
As I wrote last week, there is a lot of epically bad leadership in the museum world that’s somehow been unmasked in the COVID crisis. And bad doesn’t just mean, bullies or harassers, bigots and predators. Sometimes it’s just the slow drip of ineptitude and mediocrity. Will co-directorships fix that? Maybe? If they possess all the qualities of a skilled empathetic solo act with an extra dose of trust and humility on the side that allows them to work in daily partnership and collaboration. But one presumes they need that anyway. It’s a leadership must-have.
I wish there were a cure-all for the leadership trough we’re in at the moment, and I wish it were as simple as hiring two versus one. But I don’t believe it is. Leadership isn’t a position. It’s a way of being. It’s a practice. There are people in the museum field who are leaders despite the fact that their title is Associate Registrar or Volunteer Coordinator or Assistant Curator. Why? Because they are self-aware, they are authentic, they’re creative and not afraid to take risks, and they are courageous. Those are the people we need to nurture and mentor. The leadership problem is one that needs to be tackled on so many levels from boards of trustees to graduate programs, to AAM and AASLH. We need to understand our industry is made up of people, people who matter, and we need to nurture and invest in the next generation of leaders before they all leave the field.