In 2017 Anne Ackerson and I published Women in the Museum. One of our final chapters is titled “Ground Hog Day,” after the eponymous film with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell. We needed a title like that because in the years of fighting the gender battle in the museum workplace its problems remain relentlessly unresolved, raising its head, year after year, just like a virus.
Fifty years ago women’s leadership was still a question. Women museum directors were rare, and women leaders were often found in the second spot, being logistical titans all while providing the emotional glue and the soft skills to keep the museum workplace turning over and moving forward.
Today, things are different. There are many more women leaders–and not just white women, but women of color. But the underbelly of workplace gender issues–sexual harassment–is alive and well. For those of you who were off social media last week, the director of the Erie Art Museum, Joshua Helmer, found himself without a job after an article in The New York Times reported that in his previous position at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, multiple women had accused him of making inappropriate advances. When Helmer moved to the Erie (PA) Museum of Art in 2018, he continued his predatory pattern. This time involving a museum intern. The incident resulted in a Change.org petition and several articles by New York Times Reporter Robin Pogrebin. Indeed, the week ended with Philadelphia’s mayor, Jim Kenney, an ex-officio member of the PMA’s board, calling for it to strengthen its harassment policies. This led PMA director, Timothy Rub, to say, ““The mayor is right and as we have indicated, our policies are undergoing close review,” all while 240 members of his staff signed a statement in support of their colleagues and the women at the Erie Art Museum.
Neither the Erie Art Museum nor the Philadelphia Art Museum are unsophisticated organizations, and yet Joshua Helmer somehow victimized women at first one institution and then another. No matter who you are in the museum world–trustee, volunteer, leader, curator, guard, housekeeper, intern, educator–this is your problem. Workplace sexual harassment destroys the social trust that exists back stage in the museum workplace. Museum workers, regardless of their titles, deserve to be safe, seen, and supported.
As we’ve seen, sexual harassment scandals plunge museums and heritage organizations into a world of bad press, not to mention legal complications. So if you are a….
Museum Trustee: If you don’t already know, ask what your organization’s policy is on sexual harassment. Where is it written, how is it available to staff, and who handles complaints? Boards are not immune to bad behavior. As a group, how do you police yourselves? If you don’t have an HR office, where do complaints go? If your organization has an HR office, when was the last time your board or its personnel committee heard from the HR director on this topic?
Museum Leader: Do not say this won’t happen here. It happens everywhere. Review your organizational policy for sexual harassment; check-in with Human Resources and your leadership team. Make sure everyone understands what happens when a complaint is made. If appropriate, role play. No victim should be made to feel what’s happened to her is her fault. Make sure victims are treated with compassion. And further, make sure you know and have thought through how complaints involving the board, significant donors, and/or consultants will be handled.
Museum Worker: Go to bat for your colleagues. Speak up and intervene. If you don’t, no matter how you frame it, you are complicit. Know your organization’s policy; know what to do in the event of an incident. Know what kind of support is available through EEOC, and how your state defines sexual harassment. And know who in your city or town offers pro-bono legal services. And for goodness sake, sign the GEMM pledge.
Sometimes we’re so besotted with our roles caring for artwork, objects and living things, and placing them in dialog with one another that we forget our staff and colleagues. If you’ve been sexually harassed or victimized, it’s difficult, if not impossible to function at work. As a museum leader no one is asking you to serve as staff psychologist, but if a staff member seems “off,” ask whether it’s something work-related. Create an atmosphere where staff feel safe, seen and supported, make sure your policies are clearly written, easily available, and that they provide a road map for anyone experiencing harassment. It’s 2020. Aren’t we done with excuses?
Image: From the infographic, “The Survey: Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace,” 2018, by Anne W. Ackerson and Joan H. Baldwin.
By Steven Miller, Guest Blogger
Barring loss of life, perhaps the most alarming tragedy museums fear is collection destruction. We recoil at the thought of objects disappearing from cherished public repositories of our shared culture. Diligent museums focus considerable attention on protecting the art, artifacts and scientific specimens in their possession.
To be sure, in spite of the best protective measures, losses happen. A few horrible examples include: The thirteen works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, in 1990; the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the Iraq War in 2003; the recent fire and destruction at the National Museum of Brazil. Fortunately, these museum catastrophes tend to be exceptional. Statistically, most of the things most museums own are relatively safe. Or so we thought.
In May the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) sold a large painting by the Jewish Russian émigré Mark Rothko (1903-1970). The action was legal and approved by the institution’s board of trustees. At auction the picture realized $43.75M ($50.1M with fees). Where’s the Rothko now? Auction houses, in this case, Sotheby’s, understandably do not reveal bidder information.
Whether by sale, gifts, or trashing, the disposal of museum collections is almost as old as museums. Today unrestricted selling on the open market is highly popular. Or, perhaps it simply enjoys the most notoriety. The SFMOMA incident is only a recent example. This subtraction choice raises a large question in my mind. What preservation responsibilities do museums have for pieces they deaccession? Once something is on the auction block, for example, chances are good it will leave the protected public realm forever, lost as a document held for years in public trust on behalf of past, present and future generations.
The sale of museum collections on the open market seems a civic tragedy. This arena of private commerce is not devoted to preserving things for public benefit. An argument can be made that anyone paying $50.1M for something has a vested interest in keeping it safe. But who knows? The secret world of art wheeling and dealing destroys scores of paintings with varnish and wax relining–no doubt to the horror of artists like Picasso and Braque–or through neglect or ignorance.
It is interesting the gusto with which deaccessioning is now embraced by museums who rarely (ever?) express concern for the physical well-being of what leaves the collection. How does this reflect what Steven Lubar writes in his excellent book: Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present, [Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, 2017, p. 137]. “When museums collect things, they take on ethical obligations not only to the communities those objects come from, or are meaningful to, but also to the objects themselves.” Does this suggest why deaccessioning still elicits loud criticism? Does it suggest why complaints always come from outside the museum world?
Controversies about museum deaccessioning inevitably focus on boards of trustees as they make final departure decisions for pieces deemed no longer a fit. Questions are asked: Why don’t the trustees pony up whatever money is needed in a particular circumstance? Is the museum in financial duress? Why not sell things to another museum, thus keeping the piece and its records altruistically preserved? What recourse do scholars have when seeking information about lost collections? How do donors respond to the loss of their gifts? Aside from a convenient tax deduction, who will donate to a place for which collections are money in the bank to be raided at will?
Years ago I wrote a piece called “Guilt-Free Deaccessioning” for the American Association of Museums’ magazine Museum News (now Museum) about the advantages of deaccessioning by inter-museum transfer. Today I would use a different title: Win, Win, Win, Win Deaccessioning. Why? Because the museum removing an item presumably wins with its departure, the museum getting the object wins by its acquisition, the object wins by surviving, and the public wins with continued access. Inter-museum transfer happens. I hope it becomes a first-choice option rather than an afterthought. It will certainly reduce the growing notion that all museum collections can be purchased.
A Bard College graduate, Steven Miller has been in the museum field for nearly five decades as a curator, director, trustee, writer, critic, and consultant. A curator with the Museum of the City of New York for sixteen years, he subsequently administered and directed five regional history museums. He also taught in several graduate museum studies programs including sixteen years with the Seton Hall University MA Program in Museum Professions. He received a Graduate Certificate in the Principles of Conservation Science, International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Rome, Italy. He is the author of The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text, Wiley, 2018; Deaccessioning Today: Theory and Practice, Rowman & Littlefield, 2018; and How to Get a Museum Job: An Inside Perspective, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. Deaccessioning is a subject that has long intrigued him.
Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960; 69 x 50 in.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, acquired through a gift of Peggy Guggenheim; © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel
To begin, if you’re looking for an interesting listen, try Museopunks. This week hosts Suse Anderson and Ed Rodley examine ICOM’s existential crisis over the definition of the word ‘museum’ by gathering voices from around the world. Each of the 11 participants (myself included) muses on the nature and importance of the definition. For those of us at work in museum land it’s an interesting chorus. Take a listen.
This was also the week Anne Ackerson and I talked about gender and leadership with our Johns Hopkins graduate students. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned gender here, but given that we’re a century from the passage of the 19th amendment, it’s appropriate to remember (again) how far we’ve come, and how much work there is left to do. In addition to talking with our students, I also listened to NPR’s On Point where Meghna Chakrabarti and David Folkenflik spoke with three individuals about the fact that 2019 marks the moment when women become the majority in the college-educated workforce.
As a woman and a member of a generation who were trail blazers in the workplace even when we didn’t realize it, I need only speak with our graduate students to understand the breadth and depth of the distance we’ve travelled. The women are acutely aware of workplace gender issues, having suffered the slings and arrows of mansplaining, verbal head-patting, not to mention more pointed harassment. Unlike my generation, many are also woke to the wage gap. For the men, things are different. They are different, and quick to point out that they are not their father’s or grandfather’s generation. Some reference the strong women in their lives, suggesting the way they were raised means they behave differently. And therein lies an issue. They believe their values and behavior will change the museum workplace. I hope they’re right.
Their words were echoed by the On Point interviewees, one of whom suggested part of our problems stem from the Boomer generation. Although I’d like to be more optimistic, it’s hard to believe that once the last Boomer folds her tent and heads for retirement, that the workplace will be cleansed of gender bias. While anything is possible, as far as I know, Target’s toy section is still filled with gendered toys: girls’ toys are pink and sparkly and boys’ toys are camouflage-colored and make noise. Even searching for a toy is a gendered experience. I don’t mean to single out Target, only to point out that unless millennials were raised by unique parents, they are just as likely to suffer gender imprinting as earlier generations, and are as subject as the rest of us to the relentless barrage of gender norms. And woe betide the non-binary child for whom a neat parsing of pink and princess vs. red and soldier does not not fit.
The point is only–and we’ve said this countless times here–workplace equity isn’t about you and your politically correct feelings. Your upbringing and your beliefs are in fact, immaterial. What matters is how you act: How the bucket of impressions and experiences you carry with you takes meaning as it makes its way into the world. No matter how kind, empathetic and understanding you are, if somewhere in your lizard brain, you implicitly believe that men are natural leaders, that informs your decision making as leader and follower. Museum workplace gender bias is still a thing, and change only happens when staff is self-aware, understands their workplace culture, and when museums and heritage organizations actively support staff in all their glorious diversity.
While we’re waiting for perfection:
- Don’t ascribe bias to one generation while not looking to your own as well.
- If you have power, acknowledge it.
- Don’t ask for feedback if you aren’t ready for a response that may be at odds with yours.
- Try not to avoid conflict at the expense of honest communication that could clear the air.
- If you are in a leadership position, know yourself and how you present. Ditto for your museum or heritage organization.
- Remember, you make change through action, and your observation is your obligation.
- Be respectful of other’s experience. No matter how informed, intentional and empathetic you are, their narrative may be different, and it takes time to build trust.
Yours for an equitable workplace,
Image: Portland Art Museum
Decolonizing is the word of the moment. Symbolizing action, the old ways swept aside, as everyone left outside the museum narrative steps forward; it’s a powerful verb. For more than a year, we’ve witnessed decolonization at a multitude of levels from venerable European museums beginning the process of returning antiquities to countries once deemed too ‘backward’ to care for anything, much less their own patrimony, to American art museums mining collections for work by women and people of color long banished to storage or never purchased in the first place, and historic sites grappling–often for the first time–with the through-line of slavery. With that as back drop, it’s no surprise that the decolonization discussion finally turned toward money. Specifically, an argument’s been made that how money’s made, and where it comes from, impacts gifts to the museum, which impact the organization itself. And not in a good way.
The best-known example of this is Warren Kanders’ resignation from the Whitney’s board in July 2019. Kanders, who served as the Whitney’s board co-chair, joined the board in 2006, donating more than $10 million in his 13-year tenure. But Kanders is not alone. The Sackler family of Purdue Pharma is also persona non grata. Although their name is tied to spaces at the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan, Harvard’s Sackler Museum, and the Guggenheim’s Education Wing, museums–including the Tate, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan and the Museum of Natural History have all decided they will no longer accept gifts from the Sacklers.
With all of this as background, in its summer issue of Museum Magazine, AAM published an article titled “Decolonizing Development,” by Chong-Anna Confora. In it Confora writes, “Decolonization is social justice, anti-racist work. In order to decolonize fund development, we must ask ourselves: What organizational practices can we dismantle that center whiteness and reinforce white supremacy through fund development?”
There is a lot here to grapple with. On the one hand a part of you–maybe not your noblest part–wishes you had an endowment big enough to turn down a gift like the ones the Kanders and Sacklers gave. On the other hand, taking money made by companies whose values you abhor may make you cringe. What should you do? Are there board members in your own organization who are consistently generous, but whose money comes from unsavory or conflict-ridden endeavors? And since we’ve opened that door, where is your organization’s endowment invested? Are those investments conflict-ridden as well?
If you are like many museum leaders, you may serve an organization built on the generosity of people whose values and opinions might distress you were you to meet them today. And yet there you are, darkening the same door that symbolizes white supremacy as Confora calls it. You may literally owe your livelihood to a group of white men’s careful investing. Your organization may have been the beneficiary of charity, which Confora underscores as different from justice. Charity, she says, quoting the Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Hayes, is often hierarchical, where the giver has all the power and the receiver very little. Justice, she writes, “is an ongoing process of rebalance, of achieving the equality that everyone is entitled to.”
Are you confused yet? Flailing between what feels like moral bankruptcy and the fear of plain old garden variety bankruptcy? Well you should be. And I don’t have any answers, only some thoughts. Here they are:
- First, if you haven’t read the inimitable Darren Walker on the politics of donors and museums, do so.
- Next, as we’ve said so often here, remember we’re all human, and change is difficult. Simply decreeing that something ought to be, won’t make it happen, even in the face of a pyrrhic victory like seeing Kanders resign. (Under other circumstances, the Whitney’s board would hardly be the poster child for narrow-minded, white, Waspy privilege.)
- Grapple with the fact that your values and belief systems may not be your board’s. Does that make any of you bad people? Is it your job as a museum leader to bring the board ’round to your point of view? Or is your job to serve your organization? If the latter, in slowly re-centering your organization, might its values change? Understand then, there is a difference between individual values and collective ones. As Darren Walker writes, “It’s relatively easy to talk about destroying a system. It’s harder to build and sustain one. While I appreciate protests, those of us who are focused on solutions can’t be distracted by extreme perspectives.”
- If you are going to set your flag on the moral high ground with big money as the enemy, make sure you know what you don’t know. Shaming one board member as a climate change villain while running a less than green museum campus might be a bridge too far. Not to mention that without major gifts you will need five times as many small ones, and will you investigate their sources as well?
Despite the fact that people like me blather weekly about museum leadership, museums and heritage sites are run by boards, who raise new money, supervise the investment of old money, and set the organizational tone and culture. If you want to make change, make friends and allies on your board. Board Source’s latest report reveals that in 2016 84-percent of boards were white and yet only 24-percent said that demographics is important in recruitment despite the fact that 79-percent of executive directors said that a diverse board advances mission.
So….in a nutshell:
- Help your board to change. Help them understand the need for diversity, and the role implicit bias plays in the non-profit workplace, including the board.
- Make sure your board understands the racial wealth gap and the gender pay gap, and that they understand that money is not the only way board members build organizations.
- Work on patience. Real change develops from human-to-human interaction in service of a common goal–your museum.
The International Council of Museums may seem like it has about as much to do with your work as New York’s fashion week does with your sartorial choices. In other words, not much. ICOM is literally some far-away group deciding things that have nothing to do with you, a museum leader with a new strategic plan underway, an underpaid and overworked staff, and insufficient funding for just about everything. But wait, maybe it does. Just as Fashion Week has a trickle-down effect on day-to-day wear for the average human, so too does ICOM’s decision making. So while it may seem like a lot of talk about a lot of nothing, ICOM’s proposed new museum definition, and its failure to pass, is actually kind of important.
For those of you for whom ICOM is a new acronym, the International Council of Museums was born in 1946, another child of the post-war baby boom. It’s opening meeting took place in Paris where its first-elected president was Chauncey J. Hamlin, politician, public figure, philanthropist, and president of the board of both the Buffalo Museum of Science and the American Museum Association (now the American Alliance of Museums.) In 2007, 61 years from its founding, ICOM adopted a “new” definition for museums:
“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”
This year, when ICOM members gathered in Kyoto, Japan the plan was to vote on another definition of museums, one that is far more aspirational then previous versions. Spoiler alert: the new definition wasn’t adopted. But for those of you who missed it, here it is:
Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.
Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.
So why should you care? Well, maybe you can’t. Maybe this week or next you just don’t have the bandwidth to think about the museum field at a global level. But if you do, here are some thoughts about why it might matter to you, toiling away in museum land around the globe.
- First, ICOM’s argument is your argument. You may not have hashed it out on a global stage, but how many of you have discussed Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry’s “Museums are not neutral” campaign with board or staff? And P.S. if you haven’t, you might want to. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to talk.
- Second, since 2007, ICOM has seen museums as “permanent institutions in service of society.” Before we even think about its proposed new definition, that’s an interesting line to parse. How many of you (and your boards) think of your institutions in service to society? And what about your definition of society? Is it inclusive?
- How many of you feel that too many museums, particularly, but not exclusively, American heritage institutions are blissfully disconnected from their communities? If your answer is yes, then the new definition might speak directly to you. It asks you to guarantee equal rights and equal access to collections, and to aim to contribute to human dignity and social justice. What does that mean for curators at fancy robber-baron houses? What does it mean for art museums where by some counts 87-percent of the work is by men, most of them white? What does it mean for your typical early 19th-century kitchen where for years the dangers and drudgery of housework is somehow subsumed in the nifty qualities of flat irons and wash boards?
It seems to me, far from the center of ICOM discussions, that the proposed definition asks two things of us all, one of which is far easier than the other. First, it asks us to stop pussyfooting around and tell our collections’ stories in a transparent, authentic way that connects past with present, telling the whole story even the parts we can’t show because we don’t own the stuff. Second, and this is trickier, it asks us to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Contributing is a loaded word. Is simply doing all the regular museum things–exhibitions, programs, fund raising but better—enough? Or do we need to actually take a stand? And does taking a stand affect development efforts, collecting, programming, and exhibitions? Does it blur the line between individual values and organizational ones? Does it mean we support our staff members who openly protest? And what would it look like? Would it mean that as the local historical museum we stand with our local human rights organization when a member of our community is about to be deported?
You don’t need me to tell you that museum land in the age of Google is different. Is it possible that whether ICOM makes a decision about a new museum definition or not, that all of us need to change? That if we can’t change, the public, who has the entire world in words and images on the their phones, will go somewhere else for information, for history, for tranquility, for a civics lesson, for connection? So regardless of what ICOM does, it’s up to you. Listen. Know what you don’t know. Know what your collection means, not just in a textbook sense, but to your community. Find and make meaningful connections, person to person, object to person, collections to community. Make museums matter.
P.S. In the spirit of bringing everyone to the table the wonderful Maria Vlachou directs us to a Padlet created by Anna Marras with voices from around the world commenting on what museums could and should do prompted by ICOM’s recent meeting.
To start, if you didn’t read Darren Walker’s opinion piece in The New York Times this week, stop everything and read it. Walker is the president of the Ford Foundation and speaks frequently about philanthropy and the arts. Not surprisingly, he zeros in on the museum board, writing “everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board.” He is clear that building a diverse board isn’t about tokenism, and that building community–and representing and responding to it–is as important a strength as endowment. It’s a short piece, succinct and beautifully constructed, perfect for your board. If you’re a leader, how many of you begin a board meeting with discussion about ideas rather than projects, fiscal issues or capital improvements? Try it. The results might surprise you.
My husband is fond of saying there’s always a bigger fish, a phrase that encapsulates the worst of organizational culture in some Darwinian metaphor. This week I’ve been thinking about leadership from the follower’s point of view as my small program goes through its third big leadership change in a decade. Any of you who’ve experienced a change in leadership from the staff side know it spotlights an organization’s strengths and weaknesses.
On the negative side, leadership change is disruptive. If you’re a relatively new hire, the person who hired you, presumably believed in you, the person you trusted, has left. If you’ve been around for a while, change may still be upsetting, but in a the-devil-you-know-is-better than-the-one-you-don’t kind of way. Change is not only personally disturbing, it affects organizational culture and performance as well. Change creates vacuums where old alliances crumble and new ones form.
Leadership change also creates fear. Established work patterns are blown to bits. Job descriptions change. New and different skills are honed. Colleagues may find themselves at odds when one places herself in line for a new position while another chooses to stay where she is. Middle management may also find themselves resisting change. Why? To protect their team, program or department.
On the positive side: disruption isn’t always a bad thing. And new leadership, whether it arrives in a week or six months, doesn’t mean you’re about to enter some dystopian museum workspace. In fact, it might mean adventure, excitement, challenge and stretch assignments. Besides, change is a muscle we all need to exercise. Change could represent a better-defined mission, a more goal-driven environment, and more equitable support for staff.
So what should you do if you’re a leader and your organization is searching for someone to fill a key position?
- Communicate. Listen. Whatever verb you want to use, your work life will be better if you talk about what’s happening. And the more talk that happens ahead of change, the better.
- If these discussions are for the leadership, make sure to include staff. Knowing what is going to happen, helps lessen fear.
- Make sure everyone’s on the same page. (See bullet point one.) This is the moment to quash rumors and provide some meaning for remaining staff in the wake of leadership change.
- Be respectful about how change affects employees. Some are by nature more easy going than others. Some may have had negative experiences with change in the past. Be open and kind about these differences.
- Watch out for stress. Leadership change creates holes. Be careful staff aren’t left filling in for missing positions without the authority and blessing of museum leadership. In other words, be careful not to put staff in positions where they have responsibility above their pay grade, but no authority.
- When it’s all over, remember to say thank you to those who stepped up and stretched their regular assignments to accommodate the museum, heritage organization, program or department.
Make change. Stay cool. Be kind.
Image: Gayle Lantz, Leadership Tip: Change Your Perspective
Since we wrote about museum salaries and the populist spreadsheet created to empower employees, we should also mention there’s a second spreadsheet for interns. Together, they offer museum workers at all stages of their careers badly needed information.
As of this weekend, the intern spreadsheet had over 200 entries. Sadly, the column where you’re supposed to post salary or stipends is peppered with zeros. If you are an undergraduate, graduate student or a professor in one of the many museum or public history graduate programs, either add to this list yourself or encourage students to do so. And if you’re an employer, particularly if you are a museum director, you may want to share both lists with your HR department and/or with your board. For emerging professionals there are enough roadblocks to a museum career without committing three months of your life to work for free. Let’s end the myth that museum employees come to work every day satisfied with their salaries or their internships. Not all do. Museum directors and boards need to understand that smart, creative, hard working staff need more than a living wage. And we know many don’t even get that, but that’s a different post OR if you’re coming to AASLH’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, join us Friday @ 4 pm for Advocating for Equity: How to Talk About Salaries in Your Museum.
Speaking of museum boards, last week we wrote about an audience member violating organizational values. This week we want to extend that discussion by asking how values play out on boards of trustees, and what happens when an individual’s moral compass moves in a different direction than the organization they serve. For those of you who missed it, this was the week Adhaf Soueif, an Egyptian writer and U.K. resident, spoke about her resignation from the British Museum’s board. In a piece on the London Review of Books blog, she wrote: “My resignation was not in protest at a single issue; it was a cumulative response to the museum’s immovability on issues of critical concern to the people who should be its core constituency: the young and the less privileged.” Holy smokes! Have you ever yearned for a trustee like Soueif?
If you said yes, be honest: Who is easier? The trustee who never misses a meeting, who Skypes in, shows up, and gives consistently? Or the trustee with feelings and opinions, the one who deftly unmasks pretense, the one whose giving capacity is great if quixotic? In terms of the group, who is more valuable? Is it a struggle to keep the trustee with feelings engaged, and what do you lose when, like Soueif, she leaves?
In an article written almost 30 years ago, Miriam Wood describes board behavior as cyclical. After the “Founding Period,” boards move through three distinct phases, Supermanaging, Corporate and Ratifying before the whole cycle begins again. Obviously we can’t know much about which phase the British Museum’s board is in, but if I had to guess, I’d say Ratifying. Julia Classen writing for NonProfit Quarterly described that phase like this: Unlike the previous phases, the board in a Ratifying Phase may not be as cohesive a group, and members may not know each other very well. They are less likely to be spending much time thinking about the organization beyond the 30 minutes preceding each meeting. In sum, the board is functional but largely disengaged from the organization.
We know from the Web site that the Museum has 25 board members. Happily, they post their minutes online although since they only meet four times a year, the most recent minutes are from December 2018. Only five of their members are appointed by the board itself, the other 20 positions are the purview of the Prime Minister or nominations from the presidents of other British arts and cultural organizations. They are leading artists, economists, historians, and captains of industry. The board includes seven women (eight before Soueif’s resignation) including three women of color.
If you read Soueif’s piece, it’s clear she loves and admires the British Museum. Somehow though the other 24 board members were waltzing while Soueif was committed to interpretive dance. A bad metaphor perhaps, but you get the gist. She clearly states that public institutions have moral responsibilities in relation to the world’s ethical and political problems. And she recounts how three years ago she tried to get the board to discuss its relationship to the oil giant BP, questioning how its underwriting of exhibits flies in the face of environmental concerns. In the end, she said she realized that the museum deemed money (and therefore BP) more important than the concerns and interests of an as yet largely untapped audience of Millennials and children.
Perhaps many of you have wrestled with biting the hands that feed you. In fact, that came up in last week’s post when audience members who’d paid to attend a gala benefit behaved horrifically to a woman of color. But how do you (and presumably your board chair) deal with a board member who’s out of step? Some thoughts:
- Boards are people not monoliths. No matter how tired or overwhelmed you are, address problems–disengagement, anger, frustration– when you see them. If it’s not your place, then take what you’ve observed to the board chair.
- Meet with the board member in question. Listen. Is she right? Perhaps she needs someone else to make her case? Are there reasons to accommodate her or is the board in the wrong phase of growth to make the shift she wants?
- Make sure your board is unified when it comes to organizational values. In an age when any museum can be called out in an instant over social media, it’s more than a good idea to make sure the board circles ’round to the organizational value statement on a regular basis. The leadership blogger Jesse Lyn Stoner provides a handy test to see whether board, staff and volunteers are on the same page.
- Be careful not to banish the one person who will say the emperor has no clothes. She may be the only board member willing to voice dysfunctional behavior. Think hard before letting her go.
- Boards, like staff, should exemplify diversity, not for the photo op, but for their ideas, and directors and board chairs should encourage healthy debate. If your board member’s frustration results in scapegoating, and the group turns on its own, the bigger more important issues won’t go away. Identify them, and talk.
We’re entering the dog days of summer. Stay cool and stay in touch.