This week I learned someone I’ve known for decades will be leaving their position. Amidst platitudes about going in a new direction and spending time with family there is the scent of a leave-taking that’s less than mutually acceptable. How is it that some museum and heritage organization leaders can believe life is good, and all is well, when their boards feel so differently? How do leaders lose touch with their organizational DNA enough to let things slip out of their hands? And isn’t there enough to worry about for leaders in age of COVID without constantly considering whether you’ve overstayed your welcome?
When you consider the careers of longterm leaders, there are some common characteristics. They are self-aware. I know, duh? But they really are. They review their days, their weeks, learning from what went well, while tweaking and changing what didn’t. And they definitely aren’t bored. In other words, five years, 10 years in, they are still creative, coming to work ready to collaborate for meaningful change, and constantly ready to think creatively about their organizations. And they have healthy, respectful, and productive relationships with their boards. This last one is perhaps the most challenging since it’s one person–you, the president, CEO, or director–and a group of people who, in theory, work collectively rather than individually. The board hired you, and frankly, good, bad or indifferent, they have all the cookies.
So how do you know when it’s time to go? Here are some things to consider:
- I know it’s COVID, and just walking into your office sometimes feels like a challenge, but does your leadership position feed your soul? Challenge and change keep us agile and resilient. A job with the comfort of a perfectly broken-in pair of shoes doesn’t always demand your creative side. Instead, it makes you complacent. Are you ready for a change?
- Conversely, are you stressed beyond measure? Do you long, not just for time off, but time away? Are you out of ideas, and it’s affecting your health, making you impatient and cranky at the very moment when your organization needs patience and empathy?
- Does it feel like there’s a shadow museum happening without you? Do conversations end when you walk into a room? Are decisions you once would have been integral to now made without your input? Is your relationship with your board, once friendly and collaborative, now a long slog over egg shells?
- When was the last time your board completed performance review for you? Indifference is sometimes worse than dislike. If your board won’t put the energy into its relationship with you, what does that tell you?
- While this is mostly about you, consider how your unhappiness affects your team. Staff who work for an engaged–and presumably happy–leader are 59-percent more likely to be engaged themselves.
There is an old adage that it’s easier to get a new job when you’re already employed than when you’re not. That might mean resigning a leadership position at your peak or soon after rather resting on your laurels. This is a moment when, unlike so much in leadership, it IS truly about you, and your ability to move elsewhere depends on your self-awareness and your humility, as well as your ability to recognize that you’ve done as much as you can do.
Museum leadership isn’t a lifetime appointment. You challenge and change an organization and you move on. You know deep down if your job as museum director is no longer fulfilling, and you may suspect that there is someone–maybe even someone on your own staff–who might make a better leader than you are now as opposed to the person you were when you arrived. Some leaders look several times a year–not formally–but they do put the periscope up and look around. For some, that may be too disruptive, but it exercises a set of muscles that otherwise lie fallow.
In Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord Anne Ackerson and I talk about leadership as a journey rather than an end game. Remember Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and how he stresses “Organizations learn only through individuals who learn?” Leadership is learning. If you’re not learning or someone is hell bent on preventing your learning, it’s probably time to exit gracefully.
Throughout the pandemic the world has been awash in online events, and that’s a good thing. You can travel to annual meetings, have cocktails with friends, take art or yoga, or learn a new workplace skill, all without leaving home. To date, I haven’t participated, but in January I saw an announcement for Syracuse University’s symposium on deaccessioning. March seemed like forever in the future, and I decided to take the plunge. Last week, I plugged in and listened, and I’m glad I did.
First, congratulations to Andrew Saluti, Program Coordinator for Syracuse’s Graduate Program in Museum Studies, and his colleagues across the University for shaping an incredibly timely, thoughtful and dynamic two days. How often do you get to sit at your kitchen table and hear Stephanie Johnson-Cunningham, Co-Founder of Museum Hue, Kaywin Feldman, Director of the National Gallery of Art or Anna Pasternak, Director of the Brooklyn Museum, and many more? It was amazing and overwhelming, but also deeply compelling. Some decade in the future when a graduate student listens to the recordings, I hope they parse what wasn’t said in addition to what was.
There were 10 sessions interspersed with keynotes from Johnson-Cunningham, Feldman, and Christopher Bedford, Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Some overlapped so it was impossible to hear everything, meaning I missed the inimitable Christy Coleman, and my colleagues Scott Wands and Larry Yerdon talking about historic sites and deaccessioning, committing myself to “Museums with Parent Organizations” since that speaks more to my life at the moment, but here are some random thoughts on deaccessioning and the two-day conversation.
**Many speakers remarked that deaccessioning happens all the time. I’m not sure that’s true. With smaller collections, it’s always a possibility, but a muscle rarely used. In order to consider deaccessioning, a museum needs a collection deep enough to be pruned, and curators, leadership and a board skilled enough to go through a process that requires demanding research, strong internal policies, and leadership who understands its role. A small heritage organization with 12 walking wheels, a half dozen broken stoves, and a collection of stuffed birds and eggs it no longer wants, is in a very different position than a regional art museum with two Bierstadts, seven Coles, and a dozen deKooning drawings. The heritage organization may go through all the same steps to empty their storage areas, but the rewards are more about space gained than the lure of millions of dollars. Yet there are medium-sized to small organizations who own highly-marketable pieces, and throughout the two days it seemed as though no one wanted to say here’s what you shouldn’t do. There was a fair amount of prevaricating, of I-don’t-want-to-speak-for another-organization, and yet if you look back over the last 20 years, the stories we remember are the ones where things went south fast. Why? Because this is a system whose guardrails resemble an honor code. Staying inside the lines requires a level of sophistication and understanding that not every board or museum leader brings to the table.
**One of the things that came up early in the Symposium, but deserves examination is the cost of collecting. You might say, but it’s what we do. We’re museums after all. True, but not all museums are collecting institutions. Some, like MASS MoCA, don’t collect. They work as platforms for a changing group of artists and their work. But for museums and heritage organizations that have always collected, there is a human cost behind every acquisition, from shippers, registrars, and curators, to guards, educators and advancement people. In speaking about the Baltimore Art Museum’s decision to deaccession, Christopher Bedford remarked that if you have a gazillion dollar painting about social justice, and you pay the Black guard to protect it $12.50 an hour that is more than ironic, it’s unethical.
**Overall, this was a decorous event. There were clearly people who disagreed with one another, but there was no rancor and no emotion except passion for museums. The Berkshire Museum, perhaps the poster child for bad choices when it comes to deaccessioning, managed to secure its own session shared with staff from the Everson Museum, who this fall deaccessioned a Jackson Pollock. The session was moderated by consultant Laura Roberts. Speaking for the museum was its former director, Van Shields, and former board chair Elizabeth McGraw. Unlike a later session where moderator Kristina Durocher grilled former Randolph College trustee Peter Dean about the college’s sale of its paintings, Shields and McGraw faced no hard-ball questions. Their self-reported narrative is one of choosing to make hard choices, and having the community pillory them for it. Their stories stood in sharp contrast to Tracy Riese, a trustee for the Brooklyn Museum, who in the final session remarked, “Nobody in their right mind will reduce a collection so it’s not worth visiting….You aren’t looking to burn the furniture to feed the fireplace. That is extremely irresponsible.”
**In retrospect, one of the things that strikes me is how complex and multi-faceted deaccessioning is. Glenn Lowry, MOMA’s president, remarked that deaccessioning is a single tool in the museum leadership toolbox, adding that you use it when “you muster all the assets and put them in play for value in your community in a deep and everlasting way.” If you look back on the more contentious sales of the last quarter century many share a massive lack of transparency. Transparency doesn’t just mean reporting that certain objects are leaving the collection. Transparency means openness about mission, about why a particular piece no longer fits. Those conversations must happen internally before they happen externally, as the director, curators and board work to understand a painting’s meaning. Where does it fit in the collection? Is it an only child or does it have siblings either by the same artist or in the same period? What artists are missing from the collection? If a painting is sold, what would the museum add, and why? And on and on. Too often, it seems, smaller organizations look first at auction estimates, and the lure of the pot of gold means discussions–if indeed they take place– are laden with confirmation bias, and context becomes impossible. As Tracy Riese said, “Deaccessioning is one tool. You still need fund raising and earned income. I haven’t experienced my board refusing to raise money.”
**I came of age in a museum world bathed in the collect, preserve, and interpret philosophy. It was a world where the collection is all. Thankfully, things are changing. As Glenn Lowry put it, there has been a shift “Away from the sanctity of the object,” adding that [We are moving] to a new place, so our thinking about our assets has to change.” And mission, added Riese, is larger than all the objects. It’s a theme Johnson-Cunningham raised in the opening keynote: That a community-centered museum makes people its focus, and that is completely different from the encyclopedic, colonialistic premise of many museums of the early 20th-century.
**Last, DEI played an important role in many of the sessions. DEI at its best is participatory, nuanced, engaged and community driven. It is not, as Johnson-Cunningham said, “Black bodies (or black art work) in white spaces.” Linda Harrison, director and CEO of the Newark Museum, said her museum doesn’t separate DEI from racial, gender and pay equity. She suggested it’s easier to present DEI through collections, but added that does not represent change when behind the curtain “we are woefully 1972.” The Newark Museum has pledged itself to be “Of the community” as opposed to “For the Community.” That mindset contrasts starkly with the Berkshire Museum’s McGraw who remarked that “by bringing culture to everyone, they will have a greater appreciation,”a mindset that suggests the museum, as opposed to the community, knows all.
Not every university or museum graduate program has the wherewithal and resources to put together a program like Syracuse, but it sets an important and interesting precedent. Yes, a lot of interesting conversations happen at annual and regional meetings, but a 30-minute conversation about deaccessioning doesn’t hold a candle to this two-day event. Nor should it. Annual meetings are egalitarian by nature. They provide opportunities for both young and experienced leaders to speak about their work. That is very different from a curated and iterative conversation with some of the sharpest minds in the field. And the beauty of deaccessioning is that it’s a lens that looks at leadership, policies, pay equity, collections, research, and more. Whether you participated in the Symposium or not, maybe this is the moment to re-read your collection policy, and to make sure you understand your state rules and regulations regarding deaccessioning. You can follow with AAM’s Direct Care of Collections and Glenn Adamson’s In Defense of Progressive Deaccessioning.
Stay safe, stay well, stay masked. Spring is coming and so are vaccinations.
For those of us who live near Western Massachusetts, the Berkshires loom large. Long a cultural phenomenon, it’s an area beloved for its good food, good coffee, great music, theatre, and, of course, museums. This February, however, a new voice from the 413 area code appeared on Instagram. A cousin of @changethemuseum, @ChangeBerkshireCulture debuted on Valentine’s Day. Posting pastel hearts with messages like “I love you as much as museums love empty promises about prioritizing diversity,” it was clear from the get-go the writers were angry. There is now a collection of almost two dozen. Many posts are disturbing. Some name names–not people, but institutions–so it would be impossible for Berkshire museum leaders not to wince, but at a meta level, what’s most upsetting is these posts indicate a disregard for staff, and a deep vein of workplace discontent. But wait, you say, I don’t work in the Berkshires, and besides my staff isn’t like that. Are you sure? Do you check in regularly? And when you do, if you ask the questions, do you want to hear the answers?
Two things to think about, both for yourself and your team: The idea that there is work and there is everything else in your life, and the two are separate, is nonsense. It’s all your life, and some days are more messy and more complicated than others, but the notion that when you’ve reached some pinnacle of success you’ll have time for yourself–to swim, to walk, to meditate, to read–and until then you suffer, is also nonsense. The second thing to consider is that it’s not your job to make your staff or team members happy. You can’t. That’s their job.
So what’s the answer? Clearly, a half hour up the road from me is a group of distressed, angry current and former museum workers. Here are some things to think about. If you’re a longtime reader, you’ve likely heard some of them before, but here goes:
- Not surprisingly, a number of the @changeberkshireculture posts are COVID related, questioning how the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ rules have or have not been applied. As we’ve said a million times here, COVID exacerbates just about everything, so acknowledge it. Ignoring it, increases staff stress. For front-facing employees, it’s hard to be upbeat when you’re worried whether the group you are greeting is playing by the rules. For staff working at home and on site, work may feel as though it never ends and the stress build-up is very real. Does your organization have a COVID task force? Does it include staff from all levels? Do they update staff (and you) regularly? A staff who understands why a museum is doing what it’s doing may be less anxious, and less frightened of job loss if the museum is transparent from the beginning.
- Update your job descriptions. With COVID layoffs many staff took on additional jobs. Acknowledging the extra work is a much-needed measure of transparency. No, it doesn’t put food on the table, but coupled with a genuine thank you, it’s kind, and that’s something we can all use. Further, it confirms extra work took place, which could convert to a raise when things right themselves,.
- Update your disaster plan. Many of us have taken our organizations through fire and flood, but if COVID taught us anything, it taught us that disaster comes in unexpected forms. Does your disaster plan include a pandemic? Do those plans include how-to’s, not just for leaving collections untended, but for how staff will be down-sized if that’s necessary? The perception from some of the posts in @changeberskhireculture is that plans were entirely quixotic, reactive, and rarely equitable.
- And speaking of equitable, what about your workplace? You can’t make your staff happy, that’s their job, but you can create an equitable workplace from the top down. When employees perceive that others are privileged in ways they are not, it leads to anger and dissatisfaction. Conduct a workplace equity audit. Doing so will help your museum or heritage organization think about how you hire, how you mentor and promote, whether your current HR policies invite implicit bias, and how your museum is governed, and the culture it creates.
- Stop worrying about happiness. Maybe whether we’re happy at work isn’t the question. Happiness, after all, isn’t a virtue, and yet we treat it as such. How often has someone stopped and told you to smile as if that would fix everything? Perhaps what we should strive for is a staff who is content because content staff think deeply about their work, approach it with enthusiasm, and look for creative answers to questions.
- Last, remember Nina Simon’s words from last week that prioritizing the safety and welcome of people with less access to power, means you are working for equity and inclusion.
There is something shaming and hugely wrong in asking staff, many of whom need to be intensely positive for visitors, not to be negative or complain, when so much about their workplaces is murky, inauthentic, and inequitable. That’s what comes through in @changeberkshireculture. And that’s what needs fixing. @changethemuseum and @changeberkshireculture are enough to scare anyone away from the field. We’re in a challenging time, and because of these challenges, we need to be mindful about those who work for and with us, and to constantly ask who we are empowering and why.
Try making one decision for equity and kindness this week and see what happens.
Two news threads sparked the museum world’s collective consciousness last week: One, Charles Venable’s resignation from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the second, the Metropolitan Museum’s announcement that it will take AAMD up on its COVID loophole, allowing art museums to put deaccession funds towards collections care as opposed to acquisitions. Both represent a tangle of hubris, classism, and self-importance that are sadly emblematic of the museum world in 2021.
For those who missed the Indianapolis debacle, it took place on the 100-plus acre museum campus known as Newfields. A year ago the Museum posted a position with the Oppenheim search firm, which included the line that the museum sought a director who would “maintain its core white audience.” The job announcement has been public for 10 months, but somehow only surfaced last week. That five word phrase may be the tip of an iceberg though. In July 2020, Keli Morgan, an associate curator who is Black, resigned barely two years into her tenure, citing the Museum’s toxic and discriminatory culture. Morgan’a resignation coupled with the horrendous job announcement makes you wonder. Couple that with Venable’s own strangely-worded response in an interview in The New York Times where he stops short of an apology, pointing to the use of “core white audience,” as intentional, meaning he wanted the white art museum audience to know the Museum wouldn’t abandon them. How do we unpack a situation where a 21st-century museum director felt the need to reassure its wealthy, privileged white audience? And in a job announcement whose primary audience isn’t the local community, donors or longtime audience, but presumably museum professionals most of whom are alert to the huge sea-change taking place in the field. The only good news was the Museum Board’s letter. In contrast to Venable’s waffling, the Board was contrite and direct, spelling out the changes it will take going forward. So what are the “tells” and take-aways in yet another blunder in pandemic museum leadership?
- While anecdotally at least more and more BIPOC staff are being hired for directorships and senior leadership, stories like this one demonstrate how deeply ingrained the culture of racism, hierarchy and patriarchy is in museum culture, particularly art museum culture.
- Clearly the Board knew where to turn to craft a statement that was authentic and apologetic, but where were they as their museum culture devolved? How many boards really understand their roles, not only the Byzantine non-profit rule variations from state to state, but what governance actually looks like? How many actually read AAM’s Core Documents?
- To quote President Truman, as a leader the buck stops with you. That said, you aren’t alone. The more eyes on decision making the better, including search firms you hire to speak for your museum. They represent your organization in the world so they must know you well, starting with your organizational values.
- The Internet is like a nuclear wasteland. Information may move around, but it never dies, and pretty much everything you’ve ever made public is available. Think about it.
- DEI isn’t only about hiring Black or Brown employees. It’s actually about white folks, seeped in privilege, doing the work, and that work is ongoing, not something you learn in a weekend workshop or by leaving White Fragility on your desk.
- Maybe this calls for a bold statement? Maybe the Indianapolis Museum of Art should take a page from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland and hire LaTanya Autry to help them re-center, bridge build, and create a new face for the museum? Now is the time for Indianapolis to prove it isn’t neutral.
The Metropolitan Museum made the news when it announced its $150 million deficit stemming from the pandemic. Many museums closed all or part of the last 12 months are in the red, but everything about the Met is huge and so is its debt. What was different about its announcement was the indication that it is in conversations with auction houses, and considering using the AAMD’s COVID window to utilize deaccessioning profits for direct care of collections. The announcement set social media tongues wagging. Why? Are people really worried the Met will deaccession something famous, well-known and much loved? Or is it because museums with gigantic endowments aren’t supposed to run a deficit? To quote Erin Richardson of Frank & Glory: “We can’t treat museums like we do Americans seeking public assistance – in that they must have liquidated all assets before receiving SNAP or welfare. Boards are fiduciaries not banks. Their role is to govern the organization on behalf of the public trust. Sometimes the trust beneficiaries (us) don’t like the trustees decisions.”
Deaccessioning is largely an art museum problem, meaning the majority of US museums, even if they felt it was a way to raise money, don’t have collections that would net enough on the auction block, nor do many have collections with the depth, that were they to weed, would allow them to raise significant money. But for some reason the Met’s announcement pulled the recently-healed scab off the deaccessioning discussion once again. So what are the “tells” and takeaways here?
- Deaccessioning is a tool many museums use, but disastrous scenarios like the Berkshire Museum’s $53.5 deaccessioning in 2018 left everyone with PTSD. Not all deaccessioning is alike or to put it another way, every deaccessioning decision is different.
- There is a theory that as the Met goes so goes the field. The Met is the largest American art museum, but art museums represent only 4.5-percent of all museums. Is the Met an influencer? Maybe, but perhaps not here. Somehow the Brooklyn deaccessioned $31 million worth of art last fall without causing a ripple.
- Deaccessioning is complex, but if you’re involved in museums, it’s worth understanding. Once again, AAM delivers with its Direct Care of Collections pdf.
The Take Aways
- Make sure your policies and guidelines are up to date. Know what they say. If you haven’t read them in a while, it might be good to take a look, just in case someone thinks the way to financial salvation is monetizing the collection.
- Knowledge is power. Read Steven Miller’s book Deaccessioning Today or find his guest blog post here, and share with your board.
- Collecting is a process, an expensive one. Every single piece or living thing in your collection represents a percentage of the care and attention of one or more people, not to mention the people who publicize and raise money for it. Collections aren’t just things. They represent people too. Think about it.
Museums have a world of problems these days. Many haven’t seen their audience except through Zoom in almost a year. Many face huge deficits. Underlying it all, social media beckons, inviting us all to rant, pontificate, and rave. Museum staff–those who are employed–work hard, often for inequitable salaries. Sometimes they are overworked, bullied and harassed, and find themselves in situations where they have no recourse, and yet they are the folks who help make the thousands of objects, paintings, and living things speak. Without them, museums are big warehouses with expensive climate control. I’ll close with a quote from the inimitable Nina Simon, which, as far as I’m concerned says it all: “When you prioritize the safety and welcome of people, who have lower access to power, you are working for equity and inclusion. When you prioritize the comfort and preferences of people with higher access to power, you are working against it.” Hold that thought when you make leadership decisions, when you write on social media, and when you place objects before people.
Ages ago I was helping a relative in the kitchen. She had two children under five, and the kitchen was a quiet center in a certain amount of chaos. I remarked that I didn’t understand how she put together an interesting meal with everything else on her to-do list. Her response? “Sometimes it’s the only creative thing I do all day.” At 20, single, and probably monumentally self-absorbed, this struck me as odd and a little pitiful. I thought creativity belonged to talented folk–artists and scientists, writers and choreographers–not something possessed by an overworked parent at a kitchen counter.
I was really young, but the idea that creativity is the exclusive domain of artists and inventors is still alive and well. So is the belief that creativity is a special talent gifted only to a few. Fast forward again, and here we are almost a year into a pandemic. The lucky among us are working, and luckier still if we work in our museums as opposed to our kitchen tables. But our human interactions are still limited, confined by masks, separated by six feet, and reduced to images on Zoom.
I don’t think you can contemplate creativity and museums without referencing Creativity in Museum Practice. Written by Linda Norris and Rainey Tisdale, two humans who are always ahead of the curve, it’s a book that actively encourages you to engage, to remember what drew you to the museum field in the beginning, and to build creativity into your work life, not leave it to artists, writers and MacArthur winners. The bottom line? We all have the ability to be creative. Think of how you re-arranged your living room during COVID to allow for daily yoga or dancing or how you taught yourself to bake bread and grow vegetables. No, you didn’t win a prize, but you used your imagination to strategize, to problem solve, and improve your day-to-day life in tough times.
There is a lot about museum work that is like housekeeping, that feeling that as soon as one collection is safely catalogued and stored, another awaits; as soon as one foundation requests zips off into the Internet, another sits unfinished; ditto exhibits, virtual or actual, and on, and on. But somewhere in there, whether you’re confined at home, or six feet from colleagues at your workplace, you need to step out of your Cinderella role and shake it up a little. Norris and Tisdale quote creativity guru Michael Milchalko’s SCAMPER, a mnemonic for helping integrate idea generation into daily life: S stands for substitute something; C for combine with something else; A is adapt something to it; M is modify or magnify; P is put it to some other use; E is elminate something; and R is reverse or rearrange. Imagine how applying SCAMPER to tasks your team have done 100 times might change things.
But wait, you’re probably thinking, as am I, inserting one more thing into a crowded team agenda might just be the tipping point. Thanks to COVID, there is already too much to do, too few people to do it, and intense competition to get it done in a way that sets you apart from the crowd. True. Yet it’s likely what sets us apart from the crowd is our organizational ability to substitute something, to add something new, to modify or magnify a program or an idea we used before to quote SCAMPER. And what does it take to do that? Oh, creativity. So as a museum leaders or followers, how do we utilize our individual and collective creative brain power?
If you’re a leader:
- Reward failure. Recognize that good ideas come from experimentation, and most importantly from collaboration. So build the ability to fail into your museum culture, and be transparent when your own ideas founder.
- Present problems as challenges, and wait for collaborative answers. If you’ve always done an annual event one way that COVID makes impossible, ask for ideas. And then wait. Build in extra time to allow your staff to talk, ideate and experiment.
- Remember to press pause. People need time to create. They need to know just thinking isn’t a bad thing. Model it. Make your museum culture a place where it’s okay to say “I’m just thinking.”
- Get out of the office. If you aren’t working in your museum, this won’t be hard. If you are, meet your staff on a walk instead of six feet apart in a conference room. Sometimes a change of scenery sparks idea making.
- Reward good ideas. Not all ideas are earth changing, but if staff trust their colleagues enough to share, that’s a good thing, and even small changes make work life more efficient.
If you’re a follower:
- Believe in yourself. Whether you’re a leader bringing an idea to the board or a staff member offering one to a department head, trust that you know what you’re talking about.
- Find inspiration. Sometimes it’s a quote, sometimes it’s an image, sometimes a word cloud. Fill your office wall with what inspires you.
- Work with a partner. It’s no surprise that we work better with some colleagues than others. Their particular skill sets fit ours in ways that make us comfortable so try out ideas together. Pitch a project and share what you’re reading.
- Get outside. Whether you’re working at home or at work, get outside every day for a walk. Banish your current project from your brain. Look up and look around.
- Promise yourself to read. If your position allows, spend 30 minutes a day reading, whether it’s the books or magazines stacked on your desk or a new volume of essays or poems. Write down the quotes that are meaningful to you. See where they take you.
- Give back. If you’re lucky enough to be offered time to think, ruminate and create, use it wisely and well.
In 2018 Gallup did a survey on creativity in the workplace. It’s unlikely there was a huge percentage of museum folk among those polled. Nonetheless, only 18-percent of American workers reported they could take risks at work. That same survey tells us that only 35-percent of workers say they are actually asked to be creative at work, and when they are, it’s infrequent.
There’s been a lot written about the museum world recently, how it’s stodgy, boring, white, male, hierarchical, and hidebound. Many museums are also chronically underfunded, a situation made maddeningly worse by the pandemic. Under-resourced organizations are rarely risk takers. It’s hard to pause and be creative when money is tight, but in a weird way, it almost feels as if that’s what the universe is asking us. No one wants another Zoom meeting, but maybe that’s because of the agenda, not Zoom itself. What happens if you tackle one idea every two weeks as a group–full staff, department, program–however you define your tribe? Make chat comments anonymous and SCAMPER through a problem. What have you got to lose? Maybe your collaboration will be worth it.
The inauguration is over. For many, the new presidency lessens the feeling of daily doom, and we turn back to work that needs to be done. So here are three topics I’ve been thinking about in the world of leadership:
Reading Nina Simon in Connecticut in the Age of COVID
Ages ago–although time is mutable in a pandemic–our library purchased Nina Simon’s book The Art of Relevance. It arrived, and then it sat in my office for months while we coped with COVID. This week, I read it.
Many of us have been Nina fans for years, beginning with her Museum 2.0 blog and her book The Participatory Museum. The writing in The Art of Relevance is clear, lean, and often funny, as Simon builds her arguments like elegant equations. You can probably complete your first reading in a weekend, although I suspect you will want to go back and read it again.
In no particular order, here are a few of my favorite Ninaisms.
- “It’s not about you. It’s not about what you think people need, want or deserve.” That’s followed by a dozen paragraphs discussing dogs, babies, elucidating the difference between want and need, ending with this: “Talking about what people need is like talking about going to the dentist. It sounds like a painful utility. I don’t want to offer a service people would rather avoid. I want to offer the most desirable experience possible. I want our work to be wanted.”
- “When we invite in outsiders of any kind, we have to do it on their terms not ours. It’s their key. It’s their door. “
- “The greatest gift insiders can give outsiders is to help them build new doors. To say, I want you here, not on my terms, but on yours.”
Responding to a Comment
Last week I received a comment, which is a rare enough occurrence. The writer, who might live outside the United States, wrote to ask why so much of this blog questions the role of leaders, rather than followers. They wondered why the colleague I mentioned, who worked on her divorce rather than her workload, wasn’t chastised, and they pointed out trust is, in fact, a two way street. Yes, followers must trust leaders, but leaders also trust followers, and mistrust happens for both. The most obvious example might be working at home because of the pandemic. For some, like my colleague, that could mean five hours of Netflix, online fitness, and divorce planning versus three hours of actual work.
My response? First, thank you. Blogging is often a one-sided dialog so it’s nice to hear from readers. This comment pointed out something I’m not sure I was actually aware of. Maybe moving from follower to leader six months ago subtly changed my point of view? I do know that whether you are leader or follower, accountability is key. Without a metric that defines who you are in relation to organizational goals, your worklife is liable to be aimless, arbitrary, and ill-defined. Little is expected of you–at least that’s the way it feels–and your connection to your museum or department takes on a Cinderella cast of of menial tasks in endless repetition.
That brings me to my last topic for this week…..
The Idea that Museums are Populated by Perfectionist Control Freaks
First, I wish museums’ problems could be boiled down to one thing. That having a little fun at work, taking ourselves a little less seriously, talking about life backstage or experimenting with some sarcastic label writing might help. Those are some of the suggestions from Isabel Singer in a piece subtitled How We Might Get Museums to Loosen Up? Again, I wish it were that easy.
Let’s face it, some folks are funnier than others, some more detail oriented, some rule players, some not. But Singer seems to suggest the museum world has an over abundance of perfectionists whose control freak attitudes hold museums back. True? I struggle with blaming the entire workforce for our collective psychological makeup. I wonder instead, whether a constant scramble for money makes museums cautious. Risk and experimentation come with the possibility of failure, and failure costs money and time, which is also money. Caution isn’t always a psychological flaw; sometimes it’s just treading carefully. When you have a moment, talk with your museum leader about what they might do if money were no option.The answers may surprise you.
And while it’s important to have fun, to enjoy work, and feed our souls, to return to Nina Simon’s wise counsel, it’s first about the people we serve, and our ongoing search for the keys that make us relevant to them and their lives. As Simon reminds us, relevance is a process of constant reaffirmation and reconnection. In other words, what you think is funny or sarcastic or risk taking only works if it connects with the audience you’re trying to reach.
A generation of us were raised around museums and heritage organizations whose missions were all some variation of collect, preserve and interpret as if we were all-knowing hoarders trying hard to guard and elevate our great treasures. In doing so, Simon writes, we imbue collections with power, and after a while we’re more involved with the rituals of protection than the objects themselves, much less the world outside our doors. Instead, she asks us for a little empathy and the imagination to connect the treasures we’ve spent decades protecting with individuals in our communities. Your key to understanding those treasures won’t be mine, nor mine yours, but Simon suggests it’s our duty as museum folk to open the doors and let the light in.
“The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”, January 20, 2021.
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.