First Kudos: To Mike Murawski for his new book, Museums As Agents of Change, released this week and available through Routledge. A co-founder of Museums are not Neutral, Murawski is a change maker himself, which is just one of the reasons this book is important.
Second, a shout out to AAM. In February I wrote a post complaining about how AAM’s newly-released Trendswatch had sidestepped the ways the pandemic harmed working women globally, and specifically women in the museum world. This week while scrolling through an AAM newsletter, I came across a link to Supporting Women in the Workplace During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic. It takes a big-hearted organization to course-correct, so thank you to AAM for providing resources for 50.1-percent of the museum workforce. And if women’s issues within the museum world concern you, join Gender Equity in Museums or GEMM.
Third, a bravo to my friend Frank Vagnone: If museum directors had fans like boy bands, I would be lined up post-concert to see Frank, president and CEO of Old Salem, Inc. Thoughtful, smart, and someone known to push the envelope on occasion, Vagnone writes the blog Twisted Preservation. This week he posted about the need to see COVID for what it is–not an 18-month stop between normal and new normal–but an inflection point that will leave many organizations devastated and fundamentally changed. If you’re a museum or heritage organization leader, you should read his post, and maybe use it as a point of discussion with your board.
And the deaccessioning debate continues: I am struck by the way this debate has become a binary choice. You’re either for it–a progressive–or against it or at least cautious about it–a traditionalist. And like all things in 2021, deacessioning is personalized, becoming a lens with a bifurcated view of the art museum world because, let’s face it, history and science museums aren’t making millions deaccessioning.
Lee Rosenbaum went so far as to metaphorically pit Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, opposite Phillipe de Montebello, former director of the Met, writing that Bedford is among “the new crop of museum directors and curators [who] have embraced social and political progressiveness as a primary part of their mission.” Rosenbaum suggests that “inclusivity and social relevance are laudable” but cautions “patience so museums don’t trash the time-honored achievements of past professionals.”
Where to start? Maybe with the idea that as I said a few weeks ago, deaccessioning is a tool in a tool box, a necessary one, but one that in order to wield successfully, needs a deep collection, a degree of wisdom and sophistication on the part of curators and museum leadership, and a strong community understanding. Second, that it’s possible for smart, thoughtful, forward-thinking organizations to hold two (or more) ideas in their heads at the same time–pruning and shaping the collection to help it better speak to the wider community–while also trying to create an equitable workspace that honors the values museums profess to support. Perhaps communities of color and museum staff are tired of waiting for museums who are afraid of trashing the time-honored path representing the way we’ve always done it?
When did putting community–whether that is your security guard’s hourly pay or your local community’s access to your collection– become a bad thing? Is it okay as long as it doesn’t privilege BIPOC artists over established white, male artists? Shouldn’t we all be modeling ofbyforall.org’s five steps for change? And how will change happen if our first act is to rush to the barricades defending what cannot change?
AAMD is like an exclusive gentleman’s club from the 1950’s. It costs money to belong, when you’re inside it seems powerful, but in reality its enforcement powers are limited. According to The New York Times, a recent vote on whether to codify the relaxed deaccessioning rules of COVID lost 91-88 with 48 members abstaining. Perhaps the 48 abstainers sided with MoMA’s Glenn Lowery who suggests this type of decision making shouldn’t happen in the middle of a crisis. And despite vaccines, and the falling number of COVID cases, we are still in a crisis.
And a lesson in humility: One of the lessons of leadership is that we continue learning. Always. Every day. And the day you stop, you should pack it in, and head for your rocking chair and your memories.
I manage a small collection inside a small, intentional community or a boarding school. Like any lone ranger, I wear the title “curator,” but many other hats –educator, registrar, packer, exhibit designer–as well. Our campus is still officially closed, but last week we hung an exhibit of 22 portraits, part of a project for our 9th and 10th-grade studio art students. Each student will select a portrait, reckon with it, react to it, and create a new work in response. When complete, the student work, curated and selected by their classmates, will hang in dialog next to the collection work. So far so good.
I finished the week with the show hung, but not the labels. I was tired, a lame excuse in retrospect, but nonetheless true, so I reasoned the labels could wait until Monday. Here is one of the portraits, a dual image of Mary Birch Coffing of Salisbury, Connecticut with Jane Winslow also of Salisbury.
In leaving the labels for another day, I forgot about my audience. I forgot they needed context, and most of all, in believing they could wait, I disrespected them. So when they reacted Friday evening about the portrait above via email and social media, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. They were concerned. They wanted information. By Saturday morning I’d reckoned with my own blindness and all the labels were up. Further, we’d reached out to students and offered to talk about the show as a whole, and the Coffing/Winslow portrait in particular.
The lesson for me was not just how a lone ranger needs to push through and finish what was started. It was about the obligation to empathize, to put oneself in the position of one’s audience, and try to imagine what tools are necessary to make their own judgements, to have their own dialog, their own reckoning. That’s all art asks of us: to be there; to be fully present for more than the 20-seconds most of us devote to standing in front of a painting. If that’s what we want from our viewers, then we have to give them a place to start that’s truthful but not opinionated, that leads to dialog not misunderstanding, and most of all that is respectful.
The good news is I know I’m still learning. I hope you are too.
Dear Laura Lott and John Dichtl:
I’m using this week’s post to address both of you. In your capacities as presidents of the two largest museum service organizations in the United States, you support, watch over, and guide the museum field. I’ve been writing this blog since 2012, and, if you read it, I’m sure there are weeks you wish I’d put away my laptop and call it a day. I don’t run a museum. I teach and write about museum leadership, and curate a small collection in an academic setting so my status is definitely more commentator than everyday participant. That said, I think we can all agree COVID has unleashed a Pandora’s box of problems in the museum workplace. As a result there is a ton of work to do around workplace relationships, at the very moment when there is a ton of work to do that is dependent on workplace relationships.
Where am I going with this? Weekly, I read @changetheboard, @changethemuseum, and more recently @changeberkshireculture. I am aware that happy people don’t post on these three sites, but even if we arbitrarily dismissed 50-percent of what’s written, what is left is shocking enough, and so much circles back to boards of trustees. They are the free-agents of the museum world, beholden to one “team” only until it no longer suits. Many have great wealth and great power. Many are smart, creative, and passionate about the museums and heritage organizations they serve. And many–seemingly–haven’t got a clue.
I am aware of AAM’s Trustee Resource Center and AASLH’s StEPs Program and technical leaflets, having used or participated in both. I also understand there’s great truth to the old adage “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” That said, haven’t we reached a moment where trustee education should be paramount? Writing in Leadership Matters, my colleague Anne Ackerson said, “Like staff leadership, board leadership is the all-important combination of knowing and doing. Before assuming governing roles, the overwhelming majority of board members receive nothing like the leadership training available to staff.” Yet they are the individuals charged with sustaining a museum’s DNA. As Anne sums up, “Every board needs to pick up the mantle of leadership and say ideas start here, resources start here, and courage starts here,” yet the pain evidenced in a year’s worth of Instagram posts makes it clear, that whether their intentions are benign or not, too many board members seem to have little understanding about their roles.
I understand you’ve already done a lot, and that the financial and workplace issues facing the field are huge and growing, but so much starts with the board. They have, to put it bluntly, all the cookies, and yet they often fail to use their power for good. They misunderstand the collective nature of their work while frequently failing to recognize their own implicit biases and racist behaviors. Too often they look at museum workers as people who couldn’t make it in law or business and therefore are somehow less-than. Some use their power to act as sexual predators; some align themselves publicly with unsavory individuals; many show little concern for staff beyond the director. Some misuse deaccessioning guidelines in order to relieve themselves of their fiduciary responsibility, and many use their power to privilege themselves over others. Perhaps board members aren’t your core audience. Yet their behavior is the proverbial pebble in a pond, affecting the entire museum workplace.
So is it time for AASLH and AAM to align, to join forces with people like Darren Walker, and organizations like NPQ and Of/By/For All for a board summit, a board boot camp, a board 2.0? I’m not totally naive, and I realize the people who might participate are the choir, the folks least in need of change, but imagine what that conversation would say to the field. At the most fundamental level, it would tell museum workers everywhere that AAM and AASLH recognize museum workplaces are in turmoil. It would acknowledge that change is necessary now, and bring together a group of talented people along with a group of trustees from the small and underfunded, to the huge and wealthy, to begin talking about museums as employers, and why staff matter.
I know there are voices clamoring for an end to boards altogether. And that may come. I don’t have an opinion because I haven’t heard a viable alternative except some nirvana where endowments magically grow without supervision. So because of the current–probably outdated–model, we have a bit of a crisis. We have groups of people charged with leadership and governance who don’t recognize (or don’t care) what the system looks like when it works well. And we have a lot of anger, and a lot of mistrust. This week I plan to attend Syracuse University’s “Deaccessioning After 2020.” This promises to be a rich and meaningful conversation. Surely there are lawyers, board members, museum leaders, and non-profit pundits who could tackle the question of boards of trustees in a similar manner? Boards are often reluctant to speak, as if everything they do has a security clearance so high mere mortals couldn’t possibly understand. Yet isn’t it time boards admitted they are human too, and shared their common narratives? Isn’t one of COVID’s lessons about honesty and transparency?
Anyway, just a thought, albeit one that took six paragraphs. Best wishes to both of you for the coming year. I am sure it will be equally challenging, but for different reasons.
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.
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 fall Anne Ackerson and I teach a course in museum leadership for Johns Hopkins University. It’s online and asynchronous so for much of the semester we know our students only through class discussion. Towards the end, though, they’re asked to create a career development plan. That’s the moment I frequently feel guilty because we discover how far some of them are stretched. They’re working, going to graduate school, taking care of parents, parenting children, coping with illness, looking for jobs and dealing with unexpected expenses. And, of course, there’s COVID.
I have been thinking about that experience of leadership–because what is teaching but another form of leadership–and how important it is to create a sense of trust, while at the same time maintaining a balance between personal and professional, friendliness and friendship. Feeling safe, seen and supported is key to a well functioning team, but where is the line between personal and workplace? And how much is too much? Where is the line between supportive and hovering?
I once had a colleague who completed a complicated divorce, at work, on the phone, sitting six feet from me. Every day she would settle in, turn on her computer, give every appearance of working, and then the phone calls would begin, endless, whispery dialogues about how to untangle a marriage. I suppose it was a compliment that she allowed me enough to hear so many intimate details, but that’s not the kind of trust that builds a team. Context helps, but only when it speaks to character. And I don’t know about you, but when your team is on a screen, trust building is a challenge.
When you Google workplace trust you get 265,000,000 results, and that’s just the articles. Put the articles end to end and they’d stretch half way around the world. Clearly we all think it’s important, and yet when the rubber hits the road, how it’s implemented is a different kettle of fish. In 2019 Amy Jen Su wrote Do You Really Trust Your Team (And Do They Trust You?) for Harvard Business Review. Su identifies four areas where trust can be wonky in the workplace: Whether you trust your team’s ability to perform; whether you trust their judgement, meaning do they bring good judgement to questions besetting your museum or heritage organization? Do you trust your team to represent you and your museum? Su argues answers to these questions are more data driven and less subjective than the last group which reflect “softer” more subjective behaviors like discretion. For example, being transparent is a big deal in leadership at the moment, but it’s hard to be transparent if you don’t trust your team to be discrete. Su also asks whether you trust your team to keep each other safe, meaning can they argue without plunging into a non-speaking marathon? Do they tolerate bullying? Are they kind and appreciative of one another? She also asks leaders whether they actually create teams from across the organization to manage projects, arguing that working collectively connects us to our organization, which in turn, builds trust.
What was interesting to me about Su’s approach was that it points out in a quiet, firm way how much individual behavior affects a group. If, deep down, you don’t believe your team has what it takes to make a presentation to the board, you’re going to hover, micro-manage and potentially destroy whatever confidence they bring to a nerve-wracking experience. You control your behavior. Taking care of that first, avoids pigeon-holing your colleagues as not quite capable. For more on the architecture of building trust, you might also enjoy Brene Brown’s Seven Elements of Trust.
This winter my team is working with an experiential educator in a series of guided workshops to help us get to know one another better. When COVID arrived, some of us had a long institutional history while some were still in a learning curve. Quarantine, masks and Zoom don’t exactly break down barriers so our team building workshops provide ways to learn about one another that will hopefully lead to more confidence (and trust) as we move forward. For me though, as important as the workshops have been, working together to create a number of successful projects was equally important. Moving from idea to discussion, experimentation to implementation asks each of us–no matter where we are in the hierarchy– to give and to get, to control and let go, to be the leader and be the follower.
How do you build trust?
This week someone sent me an infographic that read “Good libraries build collections; great libraries build communities.” Although it’s about libraries, it could just as easily apply to museums. It stayed with me because it gets to the perennial issue of which is more important, a museum’s collection or its people.
Maybe it’s the social media bubble I’m in, but I continue to read posts lamenting deaccessioning. It doesn’t matter where it’s happening or what’s being sent to auction, the subtext is that deaccessioning is wrong, unnecessary, and museums should hold onto everything they’ve got. These posts ignore the fact that the museum world as a whole has undergone a 10-month stress test that shows no signs of letting up. It has exposed every fault line imaginable from the predominant white narrative, to the number of white male artists in art museums, to the gendered, genteelly racist nature of research and interpretation. It’s caused staffs to unionize, spawned the Museum Workers Speak Relief Fund, raising almost $77,000 for museum workers who’ve lost their jobs. In short, in less time than it takes to make a human, the museum world has turned upside down.
So how will museums and their leaders move forward? To be clear, deaccessioning is primarily an art world phenomenon since it’s art that commands the kind of prices that make a difference to endowments; that leaves the door open for historical societies, libraries, and college and universities to identify their big-ticket paintings and cull their collections. But to step back, maybe it’s important to name the big questions first. Although we sometimes act like there are laws around deaccessioning, there aren’t. Expectations and ethics exist, but nothing more. And boards can do what they like with endowments. The fact that they mostly do the same thing–invest as wisely as they know how–reflects what happens when non-profit and for-profit worlds come together. But as we know, the pandemic revealed a host of museum problems, many of which we’ve talked about here. Museum staff are often underpaid, especially the non-curatorial staff as is the case at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Museum leadership is sometimes lacking as we witnessed earlier this year at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the New Museum. And museums, despite their outwardly liberal stance, limit artists and staff of color in benign yet oppressive ways.
So is deaccessioning an answer? Deaccessioning is a process that can align collections with mission. Purists might be happier if collections were static, but a collection that’s 86-percent white and male might need to change. Few museums serve communities that are 86-percent white and male? Is it any wonder that in Baltimore, a city that’s 61-percent Black, a largely white art collection might not have the charm of a more diverse one? While judicious deaccessioning can change collections, what about the workplace? Sadly, the problems of equitable wages, poor leadership, and workplace injustice can’t be solved with more BIPOC artists in the collection.
As this monstrous year comes to a close, what’s on your board and staff’s to-do list for 2021? Where will you build community, both inside and outside the museum?
- Where are your organization’s stress lines? Are they internal or external?
- What changes will you make for your community once you are able to be mask-less and fully open?
- Do you see your organization as a place where people–possibly people with differing views on science, elections, race or gender–could come together to talk? Could your collections serve as a catalyst?
- When was the last time your board discussed staff salaries? Not as individual compensation, but as a concept. How does your museum or heritage organization’s pay stack up in your community? Does it clear the living wage threshold?
- Have you asked your board to talk about how important pay is? It’s important in their own companies; it’s important for their partners and their children. Why wouldn’t equitable pay also be important for museum employees?
- Are there endowed and named positions at your organization? Has your board considered creating named positions to shift monies from higher-paid positions to lower paid ones?
- With a COVID vaccine in our future, what changes will you make in your staff? Will you bring back everyone who was furloughed or bring back fewer, but at better wages? How will you make those decisions?
- Is there a gender equity pay gap at your museum? Is 2021 the year to do a gender/race pay audit?
- If your museum or heritage organization doesn’t have a DEI coordinator, would your board be willing to work with a consultant to help shift its default setting from a white lens first?
As I’ve said before, every board is different, but most abhor bad publicity; nor do they like being shunned by their peers, and they are disinclined to spend chunks of endowment they and their predecessors spent years amassing. That said, if 2020 taught us anything, it taught us how powerful social media can be in giving the voiceless a voice, and fair warning to any board choosing to ignore its community.
Change isn’t about talking it’s about doing. It might mean deaccessioning, but it might also mean simply understanding where your organizational stress points are and creating a plan to address them. If the world’s scientists can make a vaccine to defeat a vicious virus in less than 10 months, what will you do to make change in the first 10 months of 2021?
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 months of COVID furloughs, firings and cutbacks, last week deaccessioning took center stage in the museum world. If your mind was on other things, here’s a capsule narrative: In early October the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) announced it would sell three paintings by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still and Andy Warhol. It plans to use the money for collection development and to address pay equity issues. BMA’s deaccession follows the Brooklyn Museum’s sale of 12 paintings. Both museums are deaccessioning after AAMD’s April announcement announcing that it wouldn’t sanction museums using deaccessioning funds for general operating support for the next two years.
There are stark differences between the two cases. Like many organizations, the Brooklyn Museum received a $4.5 million PPP loan, and laid off 28 full-time staff this summer. The Baltimore Museum of Art has retained its staff and is reportedly solven. It will use the money to add to an endowment for the acquisition of work by BIPOC artists, while the remainder will create an endowment for staff salaries.
The two sales, and the AAMD’s summer ruling, are haunted by the 2018 deaccessioning by the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA. There, the trustees and then-director Van Shields chose to sell 40 works from the collection for $42 million in a lengthy case that brought censure from AAMD, AAM, and many of its peers. Until AAMD relaxed its rules, the Berkshire Museum case seemed precedent setting, the kind of legal and ethical puzzle that would be examined by museum studies students for decades to come. Unlike the current group of sales, the Berkshire Museum wasn’t trying to diversify its collection, make its salaries more equitable or survive a recession caused by a world-wide pandemic. When all the explanations were parsed, it seemed to be undergoing an identity crisis, and wanted to shed its century old role as a small city general museum with a jewel of an art collection and be something else. The elephant in the room is that a $42-million endowment, even in the face of a pandemic, is likely to lower a board’s anxiety level, whether the organization is open or not.
One of the many voices who joined the Baltimore Museum of Art discussion is Arnold Lehman, Director Emeritus of the Brooklyn Museum, and a former director of the BMA. Lehman’s knowledge of the BMA’s collection is deep, yet it’s clear the Museum’s decision is about more than its collection. Nowhere in his letter does Lehman hint that there are larger systemic issues at work inside the museum walls. And yet, here is BMA Director Christopher Bedford quoted in The Times: “This is done specifically in recognition of the protest being led by museum staff to be paid an equitable living wage to perform core work for an institution with a social justice mission — that symmetry between who we say we are and what we actually are behind our doors.”
I would like to think that over the last nine months museum leaders have realized that being temples to white men, whether to white male artists, builders, politicians or rich guys, has lost its appeal, particularly in a city like Baltimore with a majority Black population of 63-percent. Part of that behavior extends to the way staff is treated. And a museum staff is everyone, from the cleaners and the guards to the curators, and their treatment includes salaries.
Could Baltimore have handled its deaccession decision differently? Maybe. It could have left the inequity of its salaries unaddressed, and perhaps gone on to face the type of protest and press its New York City sister museums have experienced. It could have deaccessioned from the bottom up, selling many smaller works in an attempt to reach the necessary dollar level. It also could have selected paintings likely to sell to another art museum, thus keeping work on public view. It could, as Franklin Sirmans of Miami’s Perez Museum suggests, have made a commitment to collecting Black and Latinex artists years ago. (True, but few boards did, which seems to be the heart of the problem.) Or it could have selected a different trio of big-ticket paintings that likely would have enraged a different portion of the public. The fact of the matter is we don’t know. Boards and their directors are like families. You may theorize what’s going on inside based on what you see, but without an inside seat, you don’t actually know.
In May guest blogger Steven Miller wrote about museum boards, “….the effect of an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic makes their work incredibly difficult. The challenges are mind-boggling. Ultimately, practical solutions for museums are almost entirely of a fiscal nature. What will it cost to survive, how will survival be defined, and, where will the money come from, not to mention when?” Museums are expensive places to run, and unlike the proverbial widget factory, what museums sell doesn’t net a profit so their value and their income streams don’t intertwine.
Deaccessioning is an important and necessary tool for all museums, but when boards and directors use collections as a cash cow, it erodes public trust. In its 2016 report on Direct Care of Collections AAM wrote, “If a museum experiences financial difficulties, its governing body must make decisions that are consistent with its mission and its obligations to the public with regard to collections stewardship. It should ensure that funds realized from the sale of deaccessioned objects are never used as a substitute for fiscal responsibility.” That last sentence presages the Berkshire Museum’s choices, but doesn’t necessarily apply to the Brooklyn and BMA.
Context in these cases is important. What if the community both inside and outside the museum changes? What if the community no longer sees cultural gatekeeping for a culture in which it has no part as essential? Can you know that from the outside? Then, is the museum just a warehouse full of supposedly important stuff? To a purist, does that matter? And a decade from now, will we look back and realize this was a hinge moment for museums, and we will mark time regarding collections before and after COVID?
There are so many times in a museum’s life where good leadership is key, not just from the curatorial staff, the director, but the board as well. Deaccessioning is no exception. These questions, particularly in this moment of cultural and financial upheaval, seem peculiarly individual. Boards and directors may be asked to make the least bad decision, yet one that benefits their own organization, their own staff and their own community. And the solution for Baltimore may not be the solution for Rochester or LA or Brooklyn. Just another important reason why museum leadership truly matters in this age of discord.
Of all the things COVID-19 has unmasked for museums–race, class, money, #museummetoo, digital sophistication, collecting practices–communication is rarely at the top of the list. And yet, for those of us who are back in the office, attempting a new normal-normal, communication is the core of what we do, and it’s challenging.
Have you ever finished work and felt as though maybe you hadn’t said anything even though you engaged with colleagues all day? You weren’t mean. You weren’t demanding, but throughout the day it felt as though there was a scrim between you and your team? As if whatever you were saying, muffled by your mask, a piece of plexiglass, six feet of separation, or Zoom, just didn’t compute?And then, as a kind of coup de grâce you learn your team thinks it communicates poorly. You could blame the masks, Zoom, the plexiglass, or the six feet of separation or maybe you could accept the challenge and try to improve your own communication skill set. I am, and here are three things I’m thinking about:
- Poor communication is a symptom not a cause: When humans in the workplace grapple with difficult but ill-defined issues, people tend to fixate on communication. What they really want is information, but because information is slow in coming they focus on a human, suggesting their director or the board are poor communicators. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” If you make communication the problem, you may miss the real issue altogether. Gather your team, and ask them to focus not on communication, but on their work. Perhaps it feels impossible to plan anything–the annual spring fundraiser or book an exhibit for 2022– because no one knows how long the pandemic will continue? Then the issue isn’t necessarily communication, but planning in the face of so many unknowns.
- Which segues to communication as something you participate in, not something that happens to you. Too many times the workplace turns us into children, waiting for someone further up the food chain to tell us what’s coming and what to do. Yes, many of our museums and heritage organizations are hierarchical. Your direct report, whether that’s the director or chief curator or shop manager may know things before you do, but when they talk, whether six feet away, in an email, or via Zoom, that’s communication. Be present. We need to bring our whole selves to these interactions so we don’t miss information because communication is also listening, reading and comprehending. COVID has made that more challenging which is why we all need to work harder.
- Last, communication is value-driven. It is a way to convey who you are. It’s also a way to empathize. Be humble. If you see a colleague in trouble, see if you can help. If you feel a story’s not being told, ask why not. If you have an idea, make a proposal. Each of us is unique in our experiences, our world view, the culture that shaped us. We all want to work in the kind of museum where we can be our whole self, but we need to act on the fifty-percent of the equation that’s ours. If we hold back and blame colleagues for not understanding us is that their fault? If an idea doesn’t make it onto the agenda, should we blame the team because they didn’t intuit what was in our head?
We hear a lot about when the pandemic is over as if someone somewhere will press a switch, and we will return to life as we knew it. But we know it won’t be like that, and also that once there is a reliable vaccine, the mending and the healing will take a long time. Many days it’s difficult to stay focused. Take time to let your staff talk about how the pandemic has affected them personally. Meet regularly in small groups or Zoom’s breakout groups to make sure no one’s voice gets lost. Let’s all pledge to help each other feel valued, appreciated and confident.