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.
As the Berkshire Museum‘s (Pittsfield, MA) drama roils on, the museum world is thinking a lot about deaccessioning. And it should. The New England Museum Association even added a last-minute session to its annual meeting roster to talk about it. But here at Leadership Matters, the Berkshire Museum’s problems have made us think a lot about boards, board behavior, and organizational culture.
Remember Bill Clinton’s famous tag line, “It’s the economy, stupid”? How about a variation on that for the museum world: “It’s the board, stupid.”? How many of a museum or heritage organization’s problems, both financial and cultural, trace back to the board? Yes, yes, mission and vision are really important, but assuming they’re beautifully crafted in the beginning, they don’t have power on their own. They’re just words. The folks empowered to carry them forward into the world, to interpret them, to make the magic happen, are first and foremost, board members, and in a recent Stanford survey of non-profit boards 27-percent of board members lack a the depth of knowledge, and the engagement required to help their organizations succeed. Pretty shocking.
At larger museums, boards are often referred to with the pronoun “they,” as in “I wonder if they will give us a raise this year?” They are rarely seen except when they meet on site several times a year. Then, the most jaded staff make jokes about which board members will be able to find the meeting room. They have all the cookies, and yet it’s so easy for them to lose their way, literally and figuratively.
And who can tell them anything? They are the board. They hire the museum leadership that we write about each week on these very pages. This is not to say all museum and heritage organization board members are jerks. They are not. Many are exemplary human beings, but just as being promoted from assistant director to director doesn’t make you any smarter, neither does board membership. And yet so much depends on board members’ good work. So if you’re a board member, if you work with museum boards or if you’re a museum director who wields some influence, here are some things we hope you’ve tackled:
- Does your board understand its legal responsibilities? Is that information available in their board handbook? Does your organization have regular check-ins about those responsibilities vis a vis the organization?
- What kind of orientation does your board offer new members? If information is passed orally from member to member, you may want to re-think that. There is plenty of support for how to design a board orientation plan. We are particular fans of Joan Garry because of her clear, simple approach. You could do way worse than to take her advice.
- Does your board have a strong nominating or governance committee? Do they understand your organization deeply and completely enough to know that being wealthy and well-connected might not be all your organization needs?
- Is your board among the 52–percent of non-profit boards nationally whose work is done by a board within a board? If the answer is yes, do you understand when and how that happened, and whether it is still working?
- Does your board have a respectful, collegial relationship with your executive director? Does it have succession plans for board and staff leadership?
- Does your board understand that its primary responsibility is fiduciary? According to the Stanford survey only 42-percent of all non-profits have a “give or get” policy where members are required to donate or raise a particular amount each year. That might not work for your board, but even a modest required donation levels the playing field, and reminds all board members why they are there.
There is no nirvana of boards where everyone internalizes the museum’s mission, gets along with the executive director, contributes time and money and gets others to do the same, but if board members universally understood their trusteeship as work, based in a museum’s mission, perhaps there would be less disruption, less mediocrity, and more organizational success, and raising operations endowments by selling the collection would never ever be considered.
This week we read two great posts, one in Alliance Labs titled “Leaving the Museum Field,” and one on Know Your Own Bone titled “Does Being a Nonprofit Impact Perceptions of Cultural Organizations?” If you missed them, read them. Soon. There is so much good writing out there, but these two pieces, which strangely echo one another, deserve your attention. Why? Because the museum field has a problem. And it needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Both posts examine issues affecting the museum workplace. The Alliance Lab’s article, written by four mid-career professionals, looks at attrition in the field. It’s based on a survey, with over 1,000 responses, conducted by the authors. The top three reasons their respondents gave for leaving the field include low pay, “other,” which included racism, poor or no benefits, and the inability to get or keep a job, and poor work/life balance. According to their survey the tipping point for leaving seems to occur sometime in a museum worker’s first decade or 16-25 years into a career. Among the former, the issue driving folks away seems to be pay, among the latter, it’s work/life balance. Apparently an investment of more than 25 years in the museum field means you’re here to stay.
Know Your Own Bone’s Colleen Dilenschneider asks us to think about how museums hide behind their non-profit status. She points out that visitors often don’t know or really care whether an organization has its 501C3 designation. People, she says, are sector agnostic. The museum world, however, is not. Here’s Dilenschneider making the point that museum missions get lost in proclamations of non-profitness:
Here’s how Disney does messaging: We are Walt Disney World. We create magical, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Buy a ticket.
Here’s how some museums do messaging: “We are a museum! We are a nonprofit organization. Buy a ticket.
We would add that all too often the myriad workplace issues described in the Alliance Labs article are the result of museums and heritage organizations who believe being a non-profit gives them a pass on paying equitable wages, having a personnel policy or dealing with staff who are victims of sexual harassment or racism. In short, while museums may use their non-profit status as a mask, offering up mushy or mediocre mission statements, we would also argue that it allows too many boards to behave toward museum workplaces in ways that are not tolerated on the for-profit side of things.
As you might imagine, Leadership Matters isn’t convinced that workplace attrition by the field’s best and brightest is its only problem. Here are our top four threats to the museum workplace:
- The field is over-credentialed. Surely you don’t need an advanced degree to become a museum intern or an assistant to an assistant? Does a bachelor’s degree teach you nothing? How hard can it be for the museum job sector to get off the graduate degree merry-go-round?
- Pay is too low and demands are high. We’ve probably written about this more than anyone else. We are adamant that museum boards and leadership need to invest in their staffs–in their salaries, benefits and professional development. Is it possible that by investing in the best staff it could, a museum might find capital expenses would come easier? And is it possible that there’s a high degree of workplace burnout because in too many workplaces staff aren’t led, they’re managed (and managed badly).
- Leadership is frequently mediocre. There’s been a lot of work on leadership lately across the field, but more is needed. While more and more new museum professionals seem to understand that leadership is an ingredient of a strong career whether you end up in the corner office or not, there are still too many boards whose understanding of the museums they lead is poor, resulting in weak decision making. And we’re not convinced that boards aren’t still trying to shift their fiduciary responsibilities to a museum’s top spot, making the ED the chief fundraiser not the leader.
- Conditions for women and minorities are not great. This is a bad one, and a thorn in the field’s side. It’s an impediment to diversity, and–when you combine racism, sexism, lack of paid family leave, poor benefits and long hours– a leading cause of people leaving the field.
If the last decade was a time of big building, maybe the museum world’s next decade could be the time to invest in building leadership capacity at all levels. What will the field look like in 2027 if internships and lower level positions are populated by smart, interested humans fresh from college? What will it look like if many museums have endowed positions, shifting cash to other places on the spread sheet? What will it feel like to be the only part of the non-profit world where women’s wages–all women’s wages–are equitable? And what would it be like if all museum leaders weren’t afraid to demand staffs treat each other with tolerance. Nirvana, right? But it’s something to work for.
We want to end this week’s post with hearty congratulations to our friends Bob Beatty and Steven Miller who both had books come out in September. They are: An American Association for State & Local History Guide to Making Public History (Bob) and The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text (Steven). Bravo to two humans who’ve done a lot to prevent museum mediocrity!
For the last month I’ve worked with a small local history organization. It is big enough to employ a part-time staff member, own a building and a sizable collection, but small enough to suffer from too few resources and a certain amount of instability. Although it’s located in a little community, where many people with an interest in history and historic preservation know one another, its current board is largely new to the organization. They are each passionate about their slice of the pie whether it is black history, archaeology, women’s fashion, or early technology.
For years their mission was the classic “preserves, promotes and presents the history of” statement. Its blandness was used to respond to questions on grant applications and little more. Everyone believed they knew what it meant. Individually, their ideas about the same vague sentence sustained the organization in a half-hearted way. Collectively though–to quote Gertrude Stein–there was no there there.
The board has talked a lot recently about its hopes and dreams for this organization. They’ve talked about being a task-oriented board, and about living in a community where the demographic skews older not younger. They’ve argued–mildly–about whether history is a story or whether history is some immutable truth or both. They understand how wishy washy their current mission statement is, and they’ve gamely brain-stormed verbs to create a stronger statement that embodies their collective hope going forward.
What is apparent though is how fragile this formula is: A group of interested, committed people + mission = action. If we asked every history organization to bake a cake, they would all be different. And don’t get us wrong those differences are wonderful and important. But the fact that some hire a caterer, some bake one from scratch, and others buy gigantic sheet cakes at the grocery store affects the resulting party. And just as in cake baking there are outside forces working for or against the baking aka organizational stability.
Today, the museum field puts more resources into career training than ever before, but boards need guidance too. We understand that even gathering boards together is like herding kittens, but there is no question they need training, support, and encouragement. And yes, the StEPs program works to enable better board leadership, but boards change, sometimes quickly, and StEPs knowledge isn’t always passed on. The bottom line? The field needs to make the same sort of investment it’s making in staff, in boards because better boards mean stronger, better-enabled leadership and staffs, and more meaningful missions. We’re all for that.