Joe Piette – https://www.flickr.com/photos/1097
Unless you buried your phone, you’re likely aware that for 19 days this fall staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art were on strike. Two years ago PMA workers unionized. What followed wasn’t workplace Nirvana, but rather protracted negotiations between their union and PMA leadership. Around the beginning of October when negotiations stalled, museum workers walked out.
From the sidewalks the striking workers watched, wondered and worried as PMA hung its Matisse show, while waiting for Sasha Suda, PMA’s new director, to acknowledge what was going on. Other museums and museum staff used social media to advocate for a sector-wide shunning of the Museum until the strike was settled, which it eventually was. Here are some of the Union’s contractual victories: cheaper healthcare; a month of paid parental leave (Previously, it was nothing); additional bereavement leave; a pay equity committee; limits on the Museum’s use of temporary staff and subcontractors.
It’s a David and Goliath story, and even without knowing much about museumland politics, it’s hard not to root for the underdog. But what about everyone else? What does PMA’s Union victory mean for the other 34,999 museums and heritage sites in the country, not to mention their 160,700 employees? In the long run, does a union victory in Philadelphia matter to the rest of us? Well, it should. The optimistic part of me hopes that slowly, very slowly, museum organizations, museum boards and leadership are waking up to the resource their staffs represent. While cynical board members may not care their organization’s staff are smart and dedicated, they surely understand that constant staff churn represents a ginormous investment as remaining staff cover positions while the organization advertises, interviews, hires and onboards, again.
And while this might be too Pollyanna of me, does the PMA settlement demonstrate museum staff have a voice, that their absence from work is meaningful, and negotiation is possible? Hopefully, yes. Here are seven other reasons why PMA’s union victory might be meaningful for museums and their leaders everywhere.
- If you didn’t know already, staff matter. I say that here often because it’s true. Our sites, whether they are about creative expression, heritage and culture or exploration and discovery are NOTHING without their staffs. Staff care, and museum leadership needs to care back. Whether it’s helping visitors find their way around a complex site, collaborating with communities to deepen understanding, hanging pieces correctly or making sure visitors and objects are safe, museum staff make it happen. Imagine Wilkening Consulting’s “Museum-Goers When Asked to Imagine No Museums” if instead it read, “Museum Boards When Asked to Imagine No Museum Staff….”
- Museums are workplaces not just community containers of beauty, history or science. Over the last quarter century, museums have neglected their workplaces, acting as though talking about staff, leadership and money was somehow in bad taste. From a failure to value leadership, failures to talk about leadership and the workplace, museums and museum organizations have acted as if their loftier goals meant museum magic had to happen regardless of poor pay, a gender pay gap, racial and class bias, workplace bullying, the ongoing imprint of patrimony, and on and on. Why do museum board members accept bad behavior on the part of leadership that they wouldn’t tolerate in the for-profit world?
- Scarcity: Striking is a huge risk. People don’t do it for fun. “We can’t” and “we don’t” are not phrases that move conversation between workers and museum leadership forward. They aren’t “Yes, and.“Whether your endowment is in the millions or barely anything at all, staff need leadership to be transparent. What would have happened if PMA’s leadership had acknowledged its HR issues from the get-go, beginning conversations with “There’s a problem, let’s fix it, acknowledging the need for dependable healthcare, the loss of loved ones, or the addition of a new human being in a family are moments PMA should provide for and support? Compromise is best begun from a positive place. If you, your board and leadership believe staff matters you will find a way to shake off scarcity’s shackles. Everyone wants a happy, engaged staff, but if the barista across the street from the museum makes more per hour than your front-line staff, can you blame them if they don’t want to stay?
- Staff–all staff–need to feel safe, seen and supported which is why your HR Policy matters: Do you differentiate between your staff–the full time, degreed folks–and the “workers”–the part-time, hourly folks? When was the last time you looked at your HR policy? When was it written? Is it time for an update? Is it easily accessible? Does everyone, from your housekeepers to leadership, know how to find it?
- Equity matters: What if the salary genie descended tomorrow and enabled you to raise everyone’s pay? Would you do it? Would you have equitable salaries? Maybe, but maybe not. You might be perpetuating a system that for generations paid women and people of color less. Don’t take blame, take action: do an equity audit so you know for sure.
- Grow up: There’s a lot about adulting that’s ridiculously annoying: taxes, bills, being responsible, but like individuals, organizations need to grow up as well. PMA staff couldn’t grieve, and apparently, unless they had outside income, weren’t supposed to have children. Hiding behind the but-we’re-a-non-profit myth or that’s-the-way-it’s-always-been, doesn’t help anyone, least of all staff. Surviving in the museum world shouldn’t be a form of hazing–I suffered, therefore the next generation should suffer. Adult organizations recognize they’re hiring people, people with lives, loved ones and families. Their boards need to do the work so that staff can be their best selves.
- Directors aren’t just leadership’s boss: Museum directors or presidents are responsible for the entire staff, not just the leadership team. Your leadership team may be the folks you see frequently, but if harassment happens, if 40-percent of your front-line staff has to get second jobs to make ends meet, you should know. And hopefully work to make change. What would have happened if Sasha Suda had started her first week by greeting the strikers? What would that have looked like?
I’ve been writing this blog for a decade, and railing, whining, and preaching for Museumland to take staff as seriously as it takes its audience. And yet, here we are 10 years later, and the needle hasn’t moved much. Workplace Bullying is still one of my most popular posts. What does that tell you besides the field is littered with leaders who equate power with being mean? And yet, our field is full of talented, smart people. How hard is it to treasure them? What is the living wage in your region, town, city? Does your board know what percentage of your organization’s positions fall below the living wage? In September I participated in an AASLH panel titled Approaching the Museum Worker Crisis through Systems Thinking. We used the hashtag #workingonmuseumwork. Forget the hash tag. Twitter may be on the respirator by then, but what if we–and by we I mean museum service organizations, museum leaders and museum staff–dedicate 2023 to museum workers? What could the museum world look like then?
Be well. Be kind. See you in December.
We don’t need leaders, we need just need a load of people working together to make sure everyone else is alright. Jayde Adams in Serious Black Jumper
There is little doubt Covid lifted the rock off a host of museum leadership issues. In the hierarchy of museum problems, some point to our class-driven, patriarchal, colonial, racist organizational culture. Others feel the first priority on the road to organizational health might be to eliminate the person in the top spot. While I understand the cries of “Do away with museum leadership,” (I mean look at the tangled mess at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), to date, no one seems to have suggested a workable alternative more detailed than “We don’t need the leaders we’ve got.”
Many of us know or have worked for a bad leader. My optimistic self would like to think that while not perfect, today’s museum leadership is an improved version of the leadership I encountered when I began my museum journey decades ago. At least I would like to think it is. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics lets us know who’s working in museums, it’s sometimes difficult to parse exactly who occupies the top spot. Nevertheless, groups like Museum Hue and GEMM act as a kind of collective consciousness for us simply by taking note of leadership change as it happens.
That is not to say bad leadership’s been banished. Recently I reached out to a younger colleague to ask if they would be interested in a newly-opened leadership position. It’s not a small job, but the outgoing leader has done little more than use the museum and its contents as wallpaper for a personal agenda. While they were honored I thought of them, they said no immediately because a) They’re still recovering from being beaten up in their last leadership position, and b) They feel organizations who hire bad directors, and then publicly praise them, likely have no idea what good leadership is. Probably true. Boards perpetuate their own bad culture by repeatedly hiring versions of the same leader , and then scratching their heads when the scenario repeats itself for the umpteenth time.
So what would museum leadership look like minus the trope of the highly-paid soul in the biggest office with the most perks? One model might be the idea of co-CEO’s. The most obvious version of that is, of course, the Metropolitan Museum, which until recently had both Daniel Weiss, serving as business and administrative leader, and Max Hollein, looking after programming and curatorial issues. Dual leadership, where one leader’s responsibilities sometimes point inward while the other looks outward, has been used successfully in educational settings, but the Met’s choice was unusual in the museum world. It’s also one more easily accommodated at an organization like the Met with an endowment bigger than a tiny country’s GDP. After all, how many boards, who regularly grumble about salaries, would agree to the equivalent of two top positions? And yet, it’s a model that, while unspoken, exists at some government museums, where the top position is appointed, while the deputy director runs day-to-day operations. In the past, this model was often gendered, with the top post going to a man, while the worker-bee position was filled by a woman.
Maybe you read Niloufar Kinsari’s article in the June NPQ? There Kinsari describes moving her organization, away from top-down leadership. One thing I found compelling was her transparency about both the process and her own feelings. She recalls the factory collectives she visited in Argentina, describing them as places where “self-management, mutuality, respect, and dignity were the norm.” What’s not to like, right? So, after discussion and a vote by her staff, she proposed to her board that she lose her ED title. And the board’s response? Initially, it said no. The title stayed, but the organization continued to change, creating a dual-headed leadership structure not unlike the Met’s. This allowed Kinsari time to wrestled with her own demons about self-worth and hierarchical conditioning. As a woman of color, Kinsari writes, “I had been conditioned all my life to chase the positive feedback loop of visibility and status. Attaching some of my professional self-worth to my title was second nature.”
Kinsari and Pangea Legal Services have continued to flatten their hierarchy, and although she doesn’t explain it, her article concludes by saying the organization now uses a “hub” model where “staff self-organized to co-lead internal administration and development committees, including finances, communications, human resources, governance, and operations hubs.” Are museums doing this? If yes, how did their boards react? And is this kind of change easier to effect in a lean organization like Kinsari’s, where the biggest investment is the staff, as opposed to many museums with challenging collections to contend with, not to mention complex campuses populated with aging infrastructure?
It seems as though museum leaders behave badly daily. Not all of them certainly, but enough so there is a steady drain of emerging and mid-career folk who’ve simply had enough, and they’re leaving. Soon. Or they’ve already left. They’re filled with regret, but they’ve had enough. Would a different leadership model change things? Maybe. Sadly, though, organizations most likely to experiment with new leadership models probably already have a healthy culture of collaboration, mutual support and empathy. Change for them is natural whereas organizations prompting people to leave the field are stagnant, rigid, patriarchal, and far from empathetic. Not to mention that too often their pay stinks especially when compared with non-museum employment.
This sounds dark, but some days it feels like evening with the orchestra playing, and if we look, we’d see the iceberg coming towards us. We’ve talked ad nauseam about leaders’ individual behavior, but how should the architecture of museum leadership change to prevent the ongoing brain drain? I’d love to hear some thoughts.
In the meantime, be well, be kind, and make change where you can.
See you in August,
There’s no doubt we live in a divisive time: The vaccinated versus the unvaccinated, Red versus Blue, environmentalists versus climate deniers, the uber-rich versus everyone else? And for many workers it’s Striketober. Where is the museum world in all this angst and anger? With the release of AFSCME’s Accountability Report on Museums last week, it seems like these divisions are lapping at our shores. As Christy Coleman tweeted when she Tweeted the link to the AFSCME report: “It’s not a good look.” Too true. In fact, it’s living proof that phrase Museums Aren’t Neutral, usually suggesting a value-driven turn for the greater good, has another darker side.
If you missed seeing the AFSCME report, you should read it. It’s the reason boards hire gazillion-dollar law firms to keep their staffs from unionizing because once that door opens, unions like AFSCME publish reports like this one. What it lays bare is the kind of behavior we hope isn’t happening, but clearly is: That a number of very big, very wealthy museums took PPP money available in the pandemic’s wake, and then rather then using it to keep their staffs intact, they let their lowest paid staff go, emerging a year later with their endowments unscathed. In fact, the report suggests that some of the qualifying museums could have withstood the loss of visitation due to pandemic closings, without receiving PPP at all, but collecting it allowed their endowments to grow. How did that happen? Well, remember when we all went into hiding early in 2020? The markets took a deep dive then too, which may account for the circle-the-wagons approach at many of the big well-endowed museums. But three months later, with stimulus checks written and the hunt for a vaccine underway, it bounced back and stayed that way. The labor market, however, did not recover. In January 2020 unemployment was at 3.5-percent, the lowest it’s been in forever. A year later, unemployment had climbed to 10-percent, with a huge drop in women’s employment and an ongoing hit to the travel, entertainment, and culture industries. Who works there? Oh yeah, museum folks.
Here are some examples from the AFSCME report: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, despite ending FY 2020 with a $2.3 million surplus and receiving $3.3 million in PPP loans, laid off 97 workers during the pandemic. Then there is the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the leadership made headlines in 2020 for looking the other way in the face of sexual harassment while spending thousands of dollars on a union-busting law firm to fight their workers’ organizing effort, received a $5.1 million PPP loan. Not surprisingly, PMA turned around and let 127 workers go during the pandemic. And then there’s the Boston’s Museum of Science that had too many employees to qualify for the first round of PPP. How do you fix that? Let half of them go and then get a PPP check for $4.7 million this year.
Scott Fitzgerald once quipped, “The rich are different from you and me,” and Hemingway is supposed to have responded, “Yes, they have more money,” but when you read AFSCME’s report, it does seem as if those differences have permeated the big institutions, resulting in behavior that, from the outside at least, appears valueless at the very moment when museums cry out for values. While AFSCME’s report puts the country’s larger museums under the microscope for taking PPP with one hand, while letting staff go with the other, it makes clear they were not alone in reducing staff during the pandemic. The report underscores that while almost all museums reduced staff hours–affecting 43-percent of the workforce who lost approximately $21,191 per person– 53-percent of the country’s museums reduced staff positions as well. Since women occupy 50.1-percent of the workforce, and since many women and women of color occupy hourly and frontline positions, museum women took a particularly hard hit.
If you could gather board members together from the museums highlighted in the AFSCME report, what would they say? Would they tell you what they do with their museum’s endowment is the board’s business? Would they respond that their primary duty is fiduciary, meaning they protect their museum’s endowment at all costs? And would they add, they are well-endowed for a reason? Maybe. But is it possible to hold onto your values, protect your staff, AND protect your endowment? And what happens when directors accept 7-figure positions? Do their values change? Is it easier to lay off staff you rarely see or interact with? Maybe. Although in fairness, Museum of Science President Tim Ritchie ,who received PPP funding after reducing staff, also reportedly took a 50-percent pay cut. One of the points the report makes is that over the last 25 years, as government support for museums lessened, the influence of rich donors grew, writing “This heavy reliance on rich donors allows wealthy individuals to essentially ‘buy’ a board seat and then dictate the museum’s priorities and control its finances.”
AFSCME’s wrote its report, not simply for the greater good, but to promote its work as a voice for unionized workers. Some might argue that is the greater good, but it’s worth pointing out that its position is not without bias. AFSCME wants us to know it helped museum workers during the depths of the pandemic and beyond. One of the examples it gives is the Buffalo (NY) Zoo where it bargained for zoo workers when leadership wanted to increase their healthcare costs by 30-percent.
So what does all this mean? If big museum boards, driven by Wall Street, choose museum presidents and directors, isn’t it likely they will select candidates whose attitudes towards race, gender and class resemble their own? If so, what’s the likelihood they will select people who who will speak for hourly workers, for women, and people of color?
How do museums use the power they have for good? Wilkening Consulting’s 2021 Survey tells us that after friends and family, museums are among the country’s most trusted institutions. And a percentage of the public seems comfortable with museums as little islands of neutrality, presenting facts, figures and data. That said, the group not included (at least not by name) in the survey is museum workers themselves. Maybe that’s part of the issue? Maybe once you’ve seen how the sausage is made, it’s hard to be neutral? If you know your museum operates with an ad-hoc attitude toward HR issues, lets racist and sexist workplace comments slide, gives its leadership giant raises while providing none for staff or increasing their healthcare costs, how do you trust the place you work for? It seems to me, one of the hardest things today’s museum leaders must do is demonstrate the same concern and values they show for their collections and communities to the people who work for them.
Be well, be kind, stay safe.
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.
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?
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.
Sometimes sports metaphors just work, so here goes: It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback what’s wrong with museums. Too often their boards are insular, classist, and totally risk averse. And thanks to the pandemic we now know some museums’ finances are more than a bit precarious. Too many are led by moderate, middle of the road white folks, who have struck a bargain with their boards not to sail too close to the wind, to keep everything as it was, limiting creativity and change.
Too few museums have addressed climate change. At some, it’s hard to find a recycling container much less a place to plug in your car or a field of solar panels or an acknowledgement in the disaster plan that climate change is a thing. Until the pandemic, there was an almost field-wide denial of the need to acknowledge race and gender issues in the workplace, to care for, support, and mentor museum staff, while also making leadership training an imperative. And last, but by no means least, there are way too many museums whose collections and exhibitions need a massive re-centering focused on life as it is, not life as it was, representing the rainbow of everyone as artists, scientists, thinkers, collectors, doers, and makers.
Did I forget anything? Probably, but making the list isn’t the problem. No doubt you have an if-I-ran-the-museum-field list of your own. But how do you start a revolution? Whose responsibility is that? Do we make change incrementally, one organization at a time, which seems to be happening thanks to places like the Baltimore Museum of Art and Old Salem Museum and Gardens, or all at once? What role do AAM and AASLH play? And where do we begin? Is that Les Misérables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing” playing in the background?
I spent some time last week exchanging emails with a group of museum thought leaders around the need for systemic change. No one painted a rosy picture, but if you want a revolution, here are ten things to ponder:
- If boards are part of the problem, do you reform them–(Is that possible?)–or do away with them?
- Is part of board reformation repopulating them, not just with token BIPOC folk, but humans whose value-added isn’t their wealth but their values, the museum equivalent of Congressman John Lewis?
- If you do away with boards, who hires and provides oversight for museum leaders, whether it’s one director or co-directors because God knows there are enough examples of directors behaving badly?
- Should endowments change? Should museums and heritage organizations only invest in companies making a positive sustainable or societal impact?
- Does having have many, many small donors balance the wishes and desires of a few wealthy donors?
- And speaking of endowments, do museums need a different funding model? If you look at Stanford’s Ten Nonprofit Funding Models, museums don’t fit easily into any of them. Someone needs to articulate the difference between a museum’s value for its community versus its economic engine. Clearly the two are separate, and if its funding model is more than allowing a group of rich one-percenters donate to an endowment, then what is it?
- How do museums get out of their bubbles and understand that ownership of the rare, the beautiful, the unusual doesn’t always make them community assets?
- Replacement–whether humans on staff or boards or one big painting for work by BIPOC artists–isn’t change. Change is acknowledging the history of your organization’s actions and creating an architecture that brings your whole community to the table now and in the future.
- Should all museums be required to have values statements that fit their particular ethos, culture and community?
- How can we create a job sector where you don’t necessarily need a graduate degree to participate, where you will earn an equitable, living wage or better, and where leadership matters? Is AAM’s plan to get creative workers back to work enough?
Revolutions take motivation. They coalesce around message and messenger, an individual whose empathy and enthusiasm is contagious. They need a memorable speech, treatise or slogan, that is tweeted, repeated, and forever associated with the movement. And they need all of this done again, and again until change happens. The museum world is overdue for change, but we need a leader and a message. Are you that person? Can you lead us to a museum-world green new deal because many of us are waiting in the wings to help?
MB-one – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76476300
Museums have reached a crisis point. Directors continue to lose their positions. Many front line staff are gone, perhaps forever. Staff have been underpaid, threatened, harassed, and bullied. As a result, some have unionized. ‘Midst it all is a growing movement calling for dismantling museums as we know them. No more directors, new types of funding models, and most importantly an end to museum boards. So this week Leadership Matters writes to board members to say it’s time to step up, lean in and get busy.
Dear Museum Board Members,
It’s wrong to generalize and group board members from the United States’ 35,144 museums together, but truthfully, whether you govern a gigantic museum like the Metropolitan or a tiny historical society, you do the same thing. While there are differences in scale between being a New York City museum board member and serving on a board in a rural town, you are likely the important, wealthy folk in your particular community. But service is probably the operative word here. Just like the director and the staff, board members serve the institution, and this week, this month, is the moment for you to raise your voices. Museums need you. Your museum needs you.
You may have joined the board because a friend asked or because you have an interest in the museum or heritage organization’s subject, but once you’re a member, your obligation is to its health and safety. You may see the board as primarily responsible for protecting the museum’s assets, but it’s bigger than that. Collectively you understand the museum’s DNA, its values and its culture. You set its tone, hire its director, and know the community it serves.
So what have you done while the museum world rocks and rolls its way across such a choppy sea? How has the COVID belt-tightening affected your bottom line? Has your museum laid off staff? Has that affected staff diversity? Has it affected programming? And what has your museum done for its community during the pandemic? Do you have a community garden? A homework help program? Offer space for the food bank? Since George Floyd’s death has your board met to talk about racism and bias in your museum? Is that something that is important to your museum and to your community? Statistics tell us that 84-percent of American board members are white, male and over 55. That doesn’t make you bad people, but it might make discussing racism challenging. Can you find someone to help your board talk about that?
Perhaps you know all this? Perhaps you’ve been absurdly busy since March 15. But if not, here are five things to ponder as you steer your museum into the future:
- Lead a Value-Driven Organization: Hardly a week goes by without a museum being called out for bad behavior. Directors behave like dictators, curators harass staff, institutions have non-existent HR departments or personnel policies, and board members express surprise when people retaliate. Staff join unions because they are weary of inequitable pay. They sue because they’re tired of going to work–work they love–to be bullied and harassed. If none of these things have happened on your watch, congratulations, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune. Ask yourself what you’ve done this week, this month, this year to create a value-driven organization. Does your museum have a values statement? Does it have a personnel policy? Does your staff feel safe, seen, and supported? Even if you don’t believe that’s your job, surely it is your job to protect the organization’s reputation and its assets by keeping it out of the press and the courts? Governance that’s value driven will never take you down the wrong path.
- Take Responsibility and Apologize if Necessary: AAM tells us people trust museums, that the public considers them more reliable than books, teachers or family narratives. And yet, organizations are only people, and sometimes people mess up. Whether you deaccessioned in a clumsy way and insulted your community, whether you’ve bumbled along in a genteelly racist way insulting members of your community, whether you failed to listen to whistle blowers and permitted inappropriate or illegal behavior, sometimes the board, speaking for the museum, must apologize. It’s what adults do. So when and if you need to apologize, don’t hide. Say you’re sorry and for the love of God, change the behavior that led to the incident in the first place.
- Know Your Museum’s Staff: You may have joined the board because of your love of the museum’s subject matter, your interest in history, science or anthropology, and that’s important. But make no mistake, it’s your museum’s staff that is the organization’s life-blood. Without them, all of them, the museum is a giant warehouse. When was the last time you spoke to your museum staff? Not the fancy curators who care for your favorite collections, but the front-facing staff. Years ago, at my organization we had a trustee who always chatted with us. He was a person with a famous name, and a distinguished career, who spoke multiple languages, but he engaged. Often a week or more after the board was on site, those of us who talked to him would receive a postcard telling us how much he’d enjoyed the conversation. Speaking for myself, it made me feel seen, and acknowledged for the work I do. As we weather this storm of a pandemic, recession and social and political upheaval, it is imperative that you realize your decision making affects people, not just the rise and fall of the endowment.
- Take BIPOC and Gender Issues Seriously: If you’re a white man or woman of privilege, you may think a lot of what you hear about race and gender is more whining than reality. Before you dismiss it, talk to your museum staff. Talk to the guards. Talk to the folks who clean your restrooms or transport art work or greet visitors and ask about their experiences. Listen to what they say. Women, women who are Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and BIPOC museum folk in general, aren’t delusional. Their lives really are different than those of us who are white and privileged, because they are hallmarked by a level of racist and sexist behavior that would astound you. Does your organization protect its female-identifying and BIPOC staff? Do you know? If you don’t, you need to find out. If they have no way to report racist or sexist behavior, your organization is heading for a cliff.
- Leadership Matters: We have said this so many times on these pages, but it really matters who leads your organization. Hiring a director isn’t a task to be handed off to a search firm. It’s not a task to rush through. It’s a learning experience for you and your fellow board members. So much depends on the person you hire. They are the bridge from you to the staff and from the organization to the wider world. Their values have to match yours. Collectively you must respect them, and they you. Just like the board, they must also be a value-driven individual who believes in people, listens with empathy, who has vision, courage and discipline. And that’s on a good day without a pandemic and recession. And remember, a good fit is a good fit. Experience isn’t a panacea. Plenty of people have been in the museum field a long time, and yet they’re terrible leaders. If you find the qualities you need in someone young, don’t let that deter you. Talk about how you might invest in that person through training, mentoring, and leadership development, and hire them.
Museums matter. Your service to museums matters. You can’t be the best board member if you don’t recognize, acknowledge and plan for the myriad changes happening in the museum world. Being part of a small organization doesn’t give you permission to do a mediocre job. Do your best. Support your staff. Make your museum a humane institution. Make it known in your community as a compassionate, creative player.
Congressman John Lewis died of pancreatic cancer Friday. There aren’t many Congresspeople whose impact on the museum world is measurable. Lewis is one. He was a tireless advocate for the creation of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture [NMAACH], working closely with Lonnie Bunch III, now Secretary of the Smithsonian, who writes “He was involved spiritually and strategically in almost all aspects of the museum.”
NMAAHC makes all of us proud to be in this field. It highlights the gaps and biases in the way American history is taught, told and understood, asking those of us who are white to open our hearts and minds to what we’ve failed to learn and understand, and it celebrates a culture and history long neglected. But apart from all of that is Lewis’ courage. Whether you were his constituent or not, whether you knew who he was or not, he stood up for justice and equality, advocating for the voiceless. There are those who are a steady force, advocating when the rest of us don’t have the courage, speaking out when most don’t think it’s their business. John Lewis was one of those people.
It’s way above my pay grade to think about who AASLH or AAM might honor in the coming year, but if ever there were an individual who deserved a national museum award in his name, it’s John Lewis. Not just for his work with NMAAHC, but because of his courage to speak up. Until recently, there wasn’t a lot of speaking up in the museum field at all. Ever. In fact, 25 or 30 years ago, the young were counseled to let things go, to look the other way so as not to “ruin their careers.” (I was one of those young people.) Their job wasn’t to ruffle feathers. Their job, wherever they were on the museum food chain, was to accept what powerful and monied board members wanted, and make it happen. These days, it feels as though that long period of acceptance, obeisance, and failure to act might be coming to a close. So what better time to honor courage in our field, then to name an award after the person who said, “When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something, to do something.”?
There is so much that’s not right in our field at the moment. A workforce that’s overwhelmingly white, without recognizing it perpetuates not just the symbolism, but the hierarchy of a job sector mired in the previous century; board members who haven’t sorted out that board membership isn’t about privilege but service; a field crippled by poor pay coupled with a monstrous gender pay gap; and leaders who mistake their office as an opportunity to lead badly, while bullying, harassing and failing to act in the face of ethics breaches.
Museums do a lot of good in the world. They are trusted. They are places people want to be. But they can no longer be the beautiful place with the important stuff sitting on the sidelines. They can’t be neutral, and neither can their staffs. What better way to acknowledge this change than by honoring Congressman John Lewis, and those in our field working for the voiceless, whether in their communities or in their own workplaces? Who knows whether an award like this would ever happen. Like I said, it’s way above my pay grade, but in the meantime, we should all be our own John Lewis, speaking up, and standing up, so when our children ask what did you do and what did you say, we’ll have an answer.
Author photo, taken at Meow Wolf, Santa Fe, N.M., artist unknown
There is a whole lot of blame going on in the museum world with plenty directed at museum trustees. Where are their voices as the pandemic and the racism awakening unleash a Pandora’s box of anger? Anger at the irony of museum leadership releasing statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter while watching staffs decimated by COVID-19 furloughs and layoffs? Of museums sitting silent, serene and closed while women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA staff reveal that life inside isn’t so perfect?
Those of you who regularly read Leadership Matters know my antipathy to Twitter. But, though I rarely tweet, I do read, and recently there have been a a lot of comments about the need for a new sort of museum governance. (Can I pause here and say, how much I appreciate @MuseumsandRace’s series of questions on complicity. If you haven’t read them, you should. And if you need to spark staff or board discussion, use them.) But back to a new governance model. Many questions were raised by @TylerGreenBooks. He points directly at art museum trustees, suggesting art museums act like corporations not charities (his word), and that their boards are made up of folks whose major qualification for board membership besides money is “that they shop for art.” In fact, nonprofits, including museums, are corporations, just of a different type.
Tyler Green also suggests art museum boards are “bereft of experts with knowledge and experience related to the charity’s mission” while adding that “wealthy trustees give the minimum institutionally required board dues, and go along to get along.” Is that true? I have no way of knowing. And given the huge variety, even among American art museums, it seems a massive generalization. However, AAM’s 2017 Museum Board Leadership Report tells us that 2/3 of museum directors say their boards have a positive impact on job satisfaction. Should we believe them? Or have they crossed some economic divide, setting them far from the world of their hourly staff? The Report also tells us the vast majority of museum boards don’t assess their own performance, a concerning fact given that it’s likely boards presume there’s a world of assessment going on inside the museums they govern. And it also offers this nugget: “Board members believe board diversity and inclusion are important to advance their missions, but they fail to prioritize action steps to advance these priorities.” That was three years ago. Has that trend continued? If yes, maybe @TylerGreenBooks is correct, but for an entirely different set of reasons.
A year ago, AAM launched its Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity & Inclusion initiative, bringing 51 museums and $4 million dollars together national initiative to diversify museum boards and leadership. That was the same time the Ford Foundation’s President, Darren Walker wrote, “everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board.” (The Ford Foundation is one of the initiative’s three supporters.) Walker says museums have veered too far in appointing trustees whose only defining characteristic is unimaginable wealth. He suggests that board diversity can’t be seen as a compliance issue, but instead must be a key transformative step. Is the answer museums without boards? How would that work, in a country where the vast majority of museum funding comes from private donation? Or is the answer better boards? And who watches the watch dogs?
This week Darren Walker wrote another opinion piece for The Times titled, “Are You Willing to Give Up Your Privilege?” It is directed at the world of the one-percent Walker now inhabits. He suggests, “The old playbook — giving back through philanthropy as a way of ameliorating the effects of inequality — cannot heal what ails our nation. It cannot address the root causes of this inequality — what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.’” He asks what those with power and privilege are willing to give up?
It seems to me this is a crucible moment for museum boards of trustees, a moment that demands action, because the righteous anger and discontent aren’t going away. And as Maxwell Anderson put it so succinctly in his recent essay for Apollo, “The privileging of endowment balances before the pandemic seems to many a short-sighted goal, resulting, as it did, in knee-jerk layoffs,” and a sense that once again in museum land, it’s money before people.
Museum boards have particular power; they fund, guide and determine an organization’s DNA. But the old ways aren’t working any more. Systemic, and in many a museum’s case, genteel racism, aren’t problems you can throw money at and hope they go away. Boards need to pause and figure out how to respond, acknowledging their responses affect not just their community–however that’s defined–but the staffs who are the lifeblood of America’s 35,000-plus museums. And before we’re all too smug, maybe this question–What are willing to give up?– is one all of us white museum folk need to answer. Our responses may be different than a board member’s, but all of us need to reflect on how we have been complicit and most importantly, how we will change.
Because making #BlackLivesMatter can’t happen without change. And change needs to come from the top.