It is a new year. Many of us made lists last week, recommitting ourselves to the “new year, new you” maxim, foregoing some things, while trying to develop healthier habits. If you’re in this mode, think about self-awareness, not just for you, but for your organization.
We’ve written a lot about self-awareness here as a grounding principle for good leadership. Being a self-aware leader means knowing yourself. That doesn’t mean knowing whether you prefer mint chocolate chip to strawberry. It’s more about knowing your strengths and weaknesses. Personality tests can help. If that idea makes your skin crawl, think of it as a way to understand your behavior rather than as a definitive description of who you are. One I’ve recently discovered is the Heart, Smarts, Guts and Luck test. It’s built for business leaders so some of the questions don’t apply to museum folk, and participating means you need to supply some personal information so if that’s not for you, there are other tests like Meyers Briggs or Predictive Index.
Self-aware leaders also check-in regularly with themselves and others. Some review the day’s activities every evening, analyzing what happened and what they might have done differently. Others review monthly. The idea is to learn–over time–how and why you make decisions. The third in this trinity is being aware of others. Whether it is your team, your department, your entire staff, as a leader, you want to build a team that’s diverse yet complementary. You can’t do that without understanding staff strengths and weaknesses. So…in a nutshell it’s about knowing yourself, improving yourself, and complementing yourself.
But…if you really want to make a difference in 2018, take that mantra and apply it to your organization. Does your museum or heritage organization know itself? Do you and the Board really understand your organization’s DNA? Do you check in regularly and review how and why major decisions are made? When the Board makes a major decision, does anyone record the reasons why? Does your organization discuss past decisions looking for similarities before finalizing new ones? Or do a few individuals decide while others look up from their cell phones and nod? And does your museum know who it is in your town, city and region?
Part of answering all those questions lies in data. If you’re not already a fan of Colleen Dilenschneider and her blog “Know Your Own Bone,” you should be. She is masterful about the how and why of data for cultural organizations. Susie Wilkening continues to conduct deep research about museum visitors and their motivations for engagement. They will teach you that data is just numbers if you don’t ask questions. And you need to ask the right questions. Too many organizations are the equivalent of data hoarders. They have numbers for everything, but can’t make meaning out of any of it.
It’s still early in what promises to be a challenging year for museums. Take the time to make change. Commit yourself to understanding your leadership DNA, as well as that of your organization, commit yourself to questioning your organizational decision-making process, and commit yourself to using data in a meaningful way. Don’t let your organization be guided by anecdote and opinion. Be a self-aware organization and know what you know.
Happy New Year to everyone. We’d like to begin by thanking all of you, longtime readers and those who’ve just discovered us for your support, passion, and encouragement. Know you’re in good company. Leadership Matters had nearly 50,000 views in 2017–not our best year, that was 2016–but we’ll take it. While most of our readers come from the United States, people from 124 countries read this blog which tells us that questions and issues regarding museum leadership are universal. Our regular readers, garnered from WordPress, Instagram, and Facebook number 1,200. Building on 2016’s unbelievably popular post, Museums and the Salary Conundrum, 2017’s most read post was Are Low Museum Salaries Just a Money Problem? It seems there’s a theme here.
So now, suddenly, it’s a new year, and in a spirit of hope, here are our wishes–a baker’s dozen–for 2018.
- Museums develop and use equity and diversity policies to guide recruitment and conduct. AAM requires equity and diversity policies for all Accredited museums. AASLH requires equity and diversity policies as a StEPs standard. Need some help to jumpstart policy development? The Association of Science and Technology Centers’ Diversity Toolkit can be the place to start.
- That museums stop kicking the can down the road and address the wage gap now. You’ll find good information at the Gender Equity in Museums Movement (GEMM) website.
- More resource pooling or institutional merging among museums across discipline and geographic boundaries to increase impact and strengthen sustainability. Here’s a good starting resource from AAM.
- That museums remember that empathy isn’t just for the visiting public; it belongs in the workplace and boardroom too. The Empathetic Museum’s Maturity Model is a self-assessment that can help your institution better reflect and represent the values of their communities.
- Museums become recognized leaders in workplace reform, emphasizing workers and volunteers as valuable and valued human assets. Looking for ways to begin difficult conversations at work around equity, diversity, inclusivity? This article may help.
- That museums remember that no matter how carefully they construct their public face, boards, staff, and volunteers need to check bias at the door, and work to create open, authentic environments. Here’s a playlist of TED talks to share at work.
- Museums lead the way for nonprofits by becoming places where women DON’T experience sexual harassment. That means supporting women not just punishing men. Need some support? This one-pager from 9-5 might help.
- Museums lead the nonprofit world in board education and development.
- All museums articulate their organizational values and figure out tangible ways to live by them….every day. Doing so will keep them agile and responsive. The resources here and here will get you thinking about organizational culture and values.
- Museum boards commit to sharpening their governance knowledge; museum staff commit to sharpening their creative edge. Together, boards and staff commit their museums to becoming active and transparent learning organizations. What will you do to create the change that will make 2018 better?
- Museums emphasize building endowment as a key strategy leading to long-term financial stability. Coupled with community building grounded in a dynamic and relevant mission, the result is a museum at its most resilient in the face of economic and social change. This article from the Nonprofit Quarterly offers an excellent overview about what an endowment is and underscores the importance of organizational commitment to building and maintaining one.
- Museums make time to hit pause, to plan, to think big, fight mediocrity and encourage community engagement. Consider how you will nourish creativity among your staff.
- Museums commit to an open, fair, equitable hiring process; that they cease posting jobs without posting salaries, and that they stop insisting on a graduate degree for every position. Nicole Ivy’s article starts the conversation.
And don’t let the wishes end here. Let us know what you care about and what you wish for in 2018, and if you’d like to write a guest post, send us a writing sample, and a possible topic.
Anne Ackerson & Joan Baldwin
This week we read two articles: Whiteness and Museum Education by Hannah Heller, and published on the blog Incluseum, and Does Art Breed Empathy? on Artnet News. If you missed them, read them because they ask us to address the humanity in what we do.
Heller, a museum educator and a doctoral student, wrote a scholarly article on the risks and problems when white museum explainers bring baggage, bias, and presumption to the gallery floor. While her sample is admittedly small, the examples she offers are telling, and they point out the complex hierarchy of language, symbol, color, and subject that art museum volunteers, staff, and curators interpret for the public.
The second piece is about the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), which just received a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to investigate “how to spark and nurture empathy through the visual arts.” The article quotes MIA’s director, Kaywin Feldman, who says, “One of the most meaningful aspects of this encounter is the awareness it can awaken of a common humanity—an immediate sense of connection between the viewer and someone who may have lived in a very different time and place.”
After reading both pieces, here is our plea: Clearly, at least among art museum folk, there is a groundswell that for too long museums have been too white, too hierarchical, too biased. They are long overdue for change, and that’s a good thing, right? We also know without respect, compassion and empathy, a diverse audience is window dressing not community. And community is what we want, right? But here’s our question: What good is building community with visitors if we don’t begin with the museum workplace? Without internal change don’t museums become the organizational equivalent of do as I say, not as I do?
This is not a criticism of MIA or indeed of any other museum that’s making its collections and programming more empathetic. But how can any staff member unlearn bias or move from sympathy to empathy as Heller suggests unless that’s behavior that’s asked for in the hiring process, around the staff table, and most particularly, around the board table? Heller quotes Ruth Frankenberg, writing that too often whiteness is defined as what I’m not, that whatever isn’t known or familiar is tinged with differentness, with not following a mysterious set of rules that because you’re not white you don’t understand. But don’t museums need to articulate what they stand for? Not just the endless collect, preserve and care for line, but actually what kind of organizations they are?
Maybe you lead or work in an organization that knows itself and is clear about its values. But what if you don’t? Imagine you’re interviewing someone for a new position. If you walk in the interview room and meet an openly transgender candidate are you confident you and your staff can check your bias at the door? If so, that’s great because that’s not the case in the majority of American workplaces. What if the candidate is female, brown skinned and overweight? Studies show us that candidate, if she were hired at all, would receive a significantly lower salary than her tall, fit, white, male counterpart. How does your organization make situations like these equitable? Is it possible that the museum-going public aren’t the only people we need to stifle our biases and prejudices around? How about our colleagues?
Our hope, as we come to the end of another year, is that museums who want to address questions of race, gender, class and bias, start from the center first, and that museum leaders lead the charge. If your staff knows that empathy and equity are organizational values, might that change how they deal with each other and the public? As a leader, do you know your biases? Do you lead a value-driven organization? Are you open about change? Is your museum such a friendly, creative place that no matter who comes in the door, they wish they could work there?
Leadership Matters will be away until January 2 when we will return with some wishes for the museum world in the New Year. In the meantime, much happiness for all our readers during the holidays,
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
Above: Old Salem President Frank Vagnone doing his own bit of hands-on learning
at the museum.
While my position is “Curator,” it’s for a school not a museum so a lot of daily museum life passes me by. Recently, though, I visited Franklin Vagnone, in Winston Salem, NC. Frank is one of my heroes, a museum thought leader who is generous, truthful, and authentic. For those of you who don’t know, Frank is President of Old Salem Museum & Gardens, a position he’s held for just about a year. Frank also runs Twisted Preservation his cultural consulting firm, work that takes him around the world, thinking, talking, and quite literally shaking up traditional stand-behind-the-rope sorts of historic house interpretation. (And if you are a historic site person, and haven’t read his book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums you should probably order it. Today.)
Anyway, part of the fun of visiting museum colleagues on their home turf is you get to be a tourist with the best of all possible guides: the museum leader. The weather was beautiful, and Old Salem is ridiculously picturesque, but better than all of that there were close to 1,000 school children on site, accompanied by parents, teachers and younger siblings. It was awesome. Surrounded by shouts of “It smells good in here!” and “Look at this!,” it reminded me why I got into this business in the beginning. And looking back on being engulfed in nine year olds busy folding laundry and trying to make a rope bed—the barriers in the Old Salem Brother’s House are gone—it made me grateful to be a museum person or at least part of the wider museum community.
We’ve talked about some dark stuff on these pages: sexual harassment; workplace bullying; bad boards; and most recently, the trials of searching for a job in a way too crowded field. But at heart, and I can’t speak for all of you, it’s a field we love. And part of why we love it is that sharing is fun, whether it’s sharing knowledge–how did people without electricity read in bed?–or sharing experience–folding a large linen shirt isn’t as easy as it looks—or sharing an explanation–like why static electricity makes your hair stand up–or looking for answers: Why do an artist’s brush strokes move in one direction and not the other? That joint search for answers, whether it’s with excited elementary students or committed and curious adults, is a journey worth taking. So here are my top five reasons to be grateful for being in this field:
- I get to work, meet, and speak with some truly fabulous humans, who challenge and change the museum world.
- Being in a museum, as opposed to being on the Internet, means being in the presence of something real. That brings its own awesomeness.
- Being in the museum world means we’re often in the presence of beauty, and it’s ours to care for as best we can.
- The objects, art, scientific discoveries, even the plants and animals we care for, all have stories, and it’s an honor to share stories with the public.
- Museums are metaphors for so much else. Each well-worn spinning wheel, each deKooning sketch, each set of medical instruments is a window into another place and moment. We’re the bridge, and that’s a great place to be.
Does this field make you grateful? Why?
Thursday I spent the day at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Although I wore my “Museums are not neutral” T-shirt, I’m not sure anyone noticed. The topic of museum neutrality, however, is one that interests us here at Leadership Matters because it intersects directly with how museum directors lead, and the role museums and history organizations play in their communities.
Museum neutrality has been in the wind for a while now. For some it means, museums should openly take a stand on issues of community or national interest. For others, it means museums should use their scholarship to refute false narratives in an age of post-truthiness.
A notable example of a museum taking a stand took place last winter when the Trump administration banned travel and rescinded visas from seven majority-Muslim nations. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), usually a-political, responded by removing work by Picasso and Matisse and hanging paintings by living artists from the banned countries. And just in case MoMA’s selfie-taking audience missed what was going on, it labeled each newly-displayed painting with the following lines, making it crystal clear where it stood on the travel/immigration debate.
“This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.”
Given MoMA’s size, wealth, and presence in the art world, it’s likely that Glenn Lowry and his senior staff took more than a few minutes to decide how to respond to the travel ban. And given what we heard from Shankar Vedantam, National Public Radio’s Social Science correspondent this week, that’s a good idea. Vedantam reported on the risks CEO’s take when they invest in social responsibility. And based on the researchers he interviewed, doing good with corporate profits can be bad. Here’s why: In the corporate world everything points towards making money. No surprise there. And community aid, activism, diversity initiatives, and support for education don’t get the product out the door. Nonetheless, they do generate a lot of good will, and that should be good for the corporation, yes? Not necessarily.
Vedantam interviewed Timothy Hubbard who teaches at Notre Dame University. He and two colleagues studied what these types of community investments mean for CEOs’ careers. In a nutshell, here’s what Hubbard said, “We see this double-edged sword where if the firm is doing well, investments in corporate social responsibility can buffer a CEO from dismissal. But on the other hand, if there’s negative financial performance, it can really set the CEO up for a situation where they could likely be terminated.”
We aren’t aware of any work on whether acts of social responsibility by museum leadership shortens an executive director’s tenure, but since many museum board members come from the corporate world, it’s worth bearing in mind. Nonetheless, there is a difference between taking a stand, and taking a stand relating to facts, collections and the truth. Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellman, a CEO of the Gates Foundation, was also interviewed on NPR this week. Desmond-Hellman makes the point that,”Scientists can’t be ivory tower,” adding that “What we’re really hearing from people is I no longer trust authority.”
She suggests that scientists (and we would argue curators, conservators, museum educators, and directors) need to be part of the public dialog. She asks her fellow researchers when was the last time they attended a PTA meeting, Cub Scouts, your church, synagogue or mosque, adding “If we’re not part of that dialog, soon science won’t matter.” (And maybe history or culture?) She points out that in an age when the public relies more on emotion and personal belief than scientific evidence, then there’s a problem.
We believe first and foremost that museums have to understand their communities, and their entire community, not just the largely white, heterosexual, wealthy community who wanders their galleries and attends openings. But how do museums decide when and how to take a stand? Is what’s relevant to the director important to the community? And how about the board? As a director, if you take a stand will it matter to the people you’re trying to support? Does not being neutral mean being a good citizen, and how should an organization be a good citizen? How do museums engage their communities while being transparent?
Tell us what you think.