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?
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?
This week I had a staff member resign. Although they had been offered feedback, support, and encouragement, ultimately they decided to leave. Which is fine. Staff need to choose what is best for them. But organizationally, two narratives circulate. One, outlined by the staff person, and given to close friends and colleagues, and another by the leadership that is a version of the classic “this staff member chooses to seek new challenges.” Neither is very satisfying, and neither is honest.
Personnel issues are poor examples of leadership’s failures to be honest or transparent because ethically and legally most of the time organizations need to keep their mouths shut. But they also point out one of the issues with transparency. We have the facts: A staff person resigned, but the facts don’t tell us why, and it’s the why humans want.
Here is where transparency and honesty collide. Transparent is defined as “easy to perceive or detect” and also “having thoughts, feelings, or motives that are easily perceived,” and yet time and again it’s directed at leadership implying they were not being honest, which means “free of deceit and untruthfulness; sincere.” But how much can you tell? How honest are you willing to be? And if you focus more on “the what” than “the why,” will you create a kind of “gotcha culture” within your museum or heritage organization?
When someone we know receives a big promotion, my husband often quips they are the same person today they were yesterday, adding that the promotion, the increased salary, and the perquisites don’t make anyone any smarter. We might hope that in the wake of the trust a museum places in a director that leadership comes with a huge dose of humility, but too often it doesn’t. So we have my-way-or-the-highway leaders certain they know it all, and they don’t. And their nervousness at not knowing everything makes them protective of what they do know. Meanwhile, staff, particularly those who’ve worked through an almost seven-month pandemic, don’t want surprises. They don’t want to guess when the next wave of terribleness will hit them. They are weary. They want honesty and a degree of control over a world that seems frighteningly turbulent. They want leaders who will share what they know, and more importantly share a plan of action based on what they know.
So maybe it’s not just transparency we’re after? Maybe we want more than the facts. Maybe we want honesty delivered with a side of humility. Because when staff ask for honesty they also ask for trust. And when leaders trust staff with information, whether in person, via Zoom or in emails, they signal their belief in staff. But that information–whatever it’s about–must come coupled with honesty. Leaders need to say here is what I know about this particular issue, but here is what we need to think about. Honesty banishes the proverbial elephants from the room, and nurtures relationships.
As we weather this crisis, here are some things to consider about honesty and transparency for individuals practicing leadership throughout museums and heritage organizations:
- When you need to deliver information, sort out the facts from the “whys” and make sure you deliver both. When you don’t know, say so.
- Transparency and honesty are aspects of communication. Leaders take blame for being poor communicators, but sometimes staff can’t communicate either. They are fearful of disagreeing with one another because they have to work together. Practice being a good communicator no matter where you are in your organization. And if you find good communication happening in a particular program or department, ask why. Then listen and learn.
- Share what you know when you know it. And listen to what staff say in response.
- Make yourself available. Be there for your staff virtually or actually.
- When you make a mistake, be honest. Apologize. Move forward. If you don’t, no one else will either.
Be well and stay safe.
I don’t usually comment negatively on other writing, but Lee Rosenbaum’s column about the Metropolitan Museum’s 96 retirees was, in my opinion, a little too glib. Mostly, it blithely overlooks the idea that two things can be true at the same time. Collectively, the employees she names have been at the Met a total of almost 300 years. Leaving aside their considerable contributions, they are unusual for their long stays at the museum, an average of 36.5 years each.
But none of that makes Rosenbaum’s comment that “they [the retirees] go down as a soothing palate cleanser after the vitriol from current and former staffers who (perhaps with some hyperbole) have accused the Met and other NYC cultural institutions of “consistent exploitation and unfair treatment of Black/Brown people” and “blatant disrespect and egregious acts of white violence toward Black/Brown employees.” The fact that both these ideas–that the retirees can praise the Metropolitan while current or recently furloughed staff accuse the Met of racism– are true, pretty much sums up the museum world’s current state of mind. In brief, not everyone’s experience is the same, there is no “right” career path in the museum world, and it’s wrong and disrespectful to assume otherwise. The Metropolitan offered this group of privileged white men and women a career home. They worked long and hard and made massive contributions in the world of art history, but their experience isn’t everyone’s, and it is disingenuous to the succeeding generations of employees to suggest it is. To be BIPOC in any storied, patriarchal, gilt-edged culture is a challenge. It’s exhausting, frequently frustrating, and requires a level of daily vigilance, probably unknown to Rosenbaum’s group of retirees.
There are so many things that go into being happy at work. The top four might include: Loving what you do; having a talent for it; being mentored and challenged; and receiving a fair and equitable salary and professional development opportunities. But then there are the hidden qualities: Is your workplace a value-driven culture? Is it a place where equity is a hallmark of work life whether you clean restrooms, arrange flowers or write scholarly catalogues about the world’s most famous paintings? Is it a place that’s kind and supportive regardless of who you are? And last, there are the personal issues. Some of us are optimistic and more resilient than others. And life today–even leaving aside the monster of COVID–is perhaps a teensy more complex than in the early 1980’s when many of the Metropolitan’s retirees started working there. Overlay all of that with an age so uncertain and fractured, and is it any wonder young, BIPOC employees are weary? How can they be sure why they were hired? Was it talent, ambition and creativity or some chemistry of guilt, DEI necessity, and brand development on the part of museums who believe they’re doing the right thing, but truly haven’t a clue, leaving new BIPOC staff to navigate their way through a world of — we want you — but now you’re here, figure it out on your own? Perhaps that’s more complicated than any of us older white folks know?
One last parenthetical note: The Metropolitan won’t be the the first or the last to have waves of Boomers retire as part of COVID retrenchment. Leave aside what they know about content, those retirees carry with them huge institutional history. So if you are a Generation Xer or a Millennial, who’s waited for this moment for what seems a lifetime, remember two things: Some day, in the not too far-off future you will be the ones a younger generation is waiting to move off stage. So help it happen with some grace. Listen for the knowledge and context they’ve accumulated, and work to understand the mistakes they made. It will make your organization a better place. And second, if the older generation wasn’t as kind, equitable or supportive as you needed, it’s your turn now. Be the leaders you wanted.
Last week Robin Pogrebin wrote another museum article, this time on Museum Boss Salaries for The New York Times. It’s a question that’s been in the wind recently as critics decry the layoffs taking place at large urban museums. Many of those are low-paid, BIPOC, front-facing workers. For example, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, according to Pogrebin, 43-percent of the workforce is nonwhite, of the 400 staff members cut since March almost half were people of color.
It should be noted, however, that of the 10 New York City museum directors, Pogrebin covered almost all reportedly took pay cuts to ease budget constraints as a result of COVID-19 closures. Nonetheless, the numbers are depressing: museum presidents making $1 million and up, while some staff are supposed to live within commuting distance of their Manhattan jobs on $35,000 a year.
But this story is layered. I don’t quote my mother often, but she was fond of saying you can never understand anyone else’s marriage or their checkbook. (She came from an age when checkbooks were still a thing.) You could extrapolate from there to the challenge of understanding an organization’s financial decisions, particularly in a crisis, because so much isn’t public, but the first question might be should museum directors take a salary cut during a financial crisis to ease layoffs and job cuts for remaining staff? Based on Pogrebin’s list, we know a group of museums, their boards and directors, felt that was an important step. What we don’t know is what difference it made. Where did The Metropolitan’s Daniel Weiss 20-percent salary cut go? And how long do their salary cuts last? It was reported that Lisa Phillips, director the New Museum took a 30-percent cut for three months. The New Museum saw its staff unionize in 2019. Ms. Phillips pay cut wasn’t enough to save Dana Kopel’s job. A senior editor and publications coordinator, Kopel was laid off in June just as Ms. Phillips’ pay cut expired.
These issues are complex, nuanced, and emotionally charged. It’s not simply a matter of directors making too much. Nor is it a question of staff making too little. It is a complicated chemistry of the economics of each individual museum, its location, endowment, annual budget pre- and post- COVID, its number of staff, the director’s compensation package, and the living wage in the community where its located. A second question might be how much is too much for a museum director’s salary? With a follow-up question of should boards examine the ratio of a director’s salary versus lowest paid FT staff member?
I’ve written about this issue before, but it is critical that boards, who set the director’s compensation, understand that even though we live in a global world, and now, thanks to COVID, we may work remotely, we go home to one place in one city, town or region. Using the MIT Living Wage Calculator, I looked up the hourly living wage in five cities for one adult, no children. Here are the answers: St. Louis, $11.59; San Francisco, $20.82; Phoenix, $12.29; Cedar Rapids, IA, $10.83; Washington, D.C., $16.81. You don’t need a PhD in economics to understand if you’re moving to San Francisco, your living expenses will be vastly different than if you live in Iowa. But what if you lead an incredibly value-driven organization in San Francisco? What if your compensation agreement actually caps the director’s salary in relation to the lowest paid FTE? And conversely, what if you lead a small, but very well-endowed organization in Iowa that rewards its leader very, very well and would never ask you to take a post-COVID pay cut?
Clearly, it’s not an apples to apples comparison, but here are five things museum leaders and boards might think about:
- Remember that staff hired before your tenure may be prisoners of starting salaries based less on their competency and more on gender, race or both. Consider doing an equity audit of all staff salaries in order to eliminate gaps and inequities.
- Don’t use the annual review as an arbitrary discipline tool, make sure annual reviews happen yearly, not when people get around to it, and that they include salary discussions.
- Do your homework. Know the living wage for your locale. Know comparable salaries. Everyone would like to make more money, but do you know whether your staff, particularly your hourly and new-to-the-field staff, is managing? Are they living with their parents because they want to or because they have to? Do they need second jobs?
- If you believe your staff is paid equitably, consider whether the ratio between the director’s compensation and the lowest-paid FT staff member is something you want to tackle.
- If you raise the lowest salaries in an effort to close the gap between the bottom FTE and the director, consider codifying the decision making. That way, if the board hires someone in the future at a much-inflated salary, it will do so knowing other salaries have to move forward as well.
- And last, if you haven’t already, think about whether you want to make an ED salary reduction part of any disaster planning.
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.
Remember your pre-COVID-19 life when you wished you could just stay home and work? How peaceful it would be, how much work you’d get done if only you weren’t at work distracted by meetings, angsty colleagues, or workplace deadlines. Well, be careful what you wish for. Now we’re caught in a devilishly dystopian movie with no end in sight, a little workplace angst seems like heaven.
Many of us have completed our first week of either government or self-imposed isolation. For those of us lucky enough to collect a salary while working from home, it has its moments. Everyone uses Zoom like a pro, bouncing from meeting to meeting as we struggle to stay on point, while small children and dogs step into the picture. But there’s no doubt there’s a price to pay, and social isolation is the least of it.
So after five days, what do you as museum leaders know? There’s the obvious: that collections managers and curators’ work transfers home a lot easier than that of your front line staff. But how about protecting as many of your workers as you can, and while acknowledging layoffs are horrible? Then there’s social media: those of you who have a robust platform may no longer feel as though it’s the icing on the cake, but the main course. And of course, there’s the money: If you didn’t understand your museum’s endowment portfolio two weeks ago, you may be getting a crash course–no pun intended–in stock market physics; that some of this country’s leading philanthropies are already banding together to help support museums and heritage organizations. And the advocacy piece: We owe Laura Lott, Elizabeth Merritt, and the AAM staff thanks for leading the museum world’s advocacy effort on Capitol Hill. Fingers crossed, it pays off.
For many museums the Metropolitan is a kind of a bellwether the same way New York’s fashion world influences dress months later in the heartland. So when the Met announced that even if it were to open again in June, it will face a $100 million loss, it was enough to scare the crap out of many smaller museums and heritage organizations. Even the Met, with its $3.6 billion endowment, has only guaranteed salaries through early April while it studies how to navigate the coming months. Its plan, though, is interesting: Short term, it’s paying salaries and those who can work from home are; beginning in April it will use furloughs, layoffs and retirements in addition to shifting spending from funds associated with programming, acquisition, and travel to keep the museum operational. The hope is it will re-open some six months after the virus began in the U.S. with reductions across the board. (Not shared is whether Max Hollein or Daniel Weiss will take pay cuts for the duration of the crisis. #sharethewealth) So the model is short term, pay those who can work; figure out what you can jettison; shift funds you won’t need, and plan on opening a trimmed down version of yourself in two to four months. The more egalitarian among you may choose to take pay cuts, but that’s for you and your board to work out. There is by the way already a place to aggregate staff layoffs in the wake of the virus. Cold comfort, I know, but as more information amasses, you will have a sense of what other organizations are doing.
For those of you who are now thoroughly depressed, we hope you read Colleen Dilenschneider’s piece on COVID-19 and intended as opposed to actual visitation. As always with Dilenschneider, it is a clear and weirdly hopeful piece. She writes that as of March 13 the public was staying away because they were self-isolating or museums were closed or closing, but long-term, their intent is to return. Could a lack of discretionary income affect that? Yes. But do people need the beauty, the knowledge, the third space museums provide? Yes.
As my friend Franklin Vagnone, President of Old Salem Village writes,
“As museum leaders we must be thinking ahead of this to April 2021. What do you want to be? Who do you want to serve? How will you use your resources to achieve that goal? It’s not the time to be nostalgic for what we lost, we must embrace the butterfly that will grow out of this imposed cocoon.”
In closing, we want to thank history museums and archives who are already starting to collect reminiscences about the pandemic for future generations. We want to thank museum IT and social media folk who keep us entertained and in touch through Instagram, short videos and virtual visits. We want to thank conservators everywhere who donated equipment to first responders, and funders who recognize that museums (and all non-profits) are businesses too and need support as well. We want to acknowledge living history sites who are turning their history gardens over to raise food for community food banks.
And last, we want to send thoughts of encouragement and strength to our colleagues around the world affected by COVID-19, and especially all the museum people in Italy who are in the midst of such a desperate struggle.
Be strong and stay in touch with each other. Email your professional friends and colleagues and set up a Zoom call today. Don’t wait. Talk.
Image: The Mercury News
What a week it has been. A pandemic, a stock market dive, a national state of emergency, and oh yes, a presidential primary. As we look ahead, many of us find our normal work world contracting. Conferences have been cancelled. Face-to-face meetings postponed. We’re trading office hours for work from home, conducting meetings via Zoom, and keeping our distance when out and about in the world.
As grim and scary as the news has been, in many ways, this situation is what leadership is all about. A crisis forces you to examine your organization from 37,000 feet. Like a chess player, you realize moving one way makes this happen, moving another initiates a different set of circumstances. And you make choices. With your team, you figure out how to proceed while being the best museum or heritage site you can. No one wants a national emergency, but if you ever needed to understand why leadership is a daily practice, not a goal, this is it. And if you’re prepared, your organization will echo your behavior.
One of the things that comes to the fore in a crisis, is how your team thinks. You’re probably aware who among your colleagues is a big-picture thinker and who quickly wallows in details. Use those skills. Everyone likes to succeed, and if you play to people’s strengths, you’ll get better, faster results.
Through it all, remember your staff. Your whole staff, not just the leadership team. As far as I know collections can’t catch COVID-19. People can. This is the moment to be the leader who acted humanely, the person who advocated for paid time off for hourly staff who may not have any, the person willing to adjust HR’s policy on telecommuting rather than assuming it just leads to colleagues watching Netflix in their bathrobes. This is the time to re-write the rules particularly if it protects the very staff who serve the organization. So protect your people by putting their health first.
About a month ago, before the world turned upside down, Caroline Baumann, then director of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum abruptly resigned. Baumann’s resignation was sudden, arriving with absolutely no information. A week later, there was more context. She was outed ostensibly by a whistleblower and charged with conflict of interest around the circumstances of her 2018 wedding. First, the Smithsonian suggested Baumann’s dress, from designer Samantha Sleeper, which retailed for $3,000 cost Baumann $750. Getting a special occasion dress at a bargain price isn’t an ethical breach, but the Smithsonian and the whistleblower accused Baumann of providing Sleeper with a free ticket to a Cooper Hewitt event. In addition, it was suggested that the location of Baumann’s wedding ceremony (not the reception) was also a quid pro quo as she received it for free from a Long Island non-profit and then subsequently offered them meeting space for their board meeting.
There are a few leadership lessons here. The first is if you’re a director it isn’t just conflict you need to be mindful of, but also the appearance of conflict. Second, as important as it is to have whistleblowers, they too can be flawed individuals, and looking for conflict is easier if you’re already angry at your museum. I’m not suggesting this particular whistleblower was disgruntled, but it’s one more thing leaders need to bear in mind, and if there is no appearance of conflict, there’s no way a whistleblower can misuse the process. Next is the lesson that no matter what role you play as museum director–whether it’s a city the size of Manhattan or a small town–there needs to be a firewall between your personal life and your work life. Baumann claims the Cooper Hewitt’s PR consultant encouraged her to “shed light on her personal life.” This resulted in the Cooper Hewitt highlighting Baumann’s wedding.
The last, and for me the most interesting, is the glaze of gender politics over Baumann’s resignation. The Cooper Hewitt lost six trustees who resigned in anger, a boatload of money from each of them, and a 19-year employee who had risen to be director, and who outwardly had done an exemplary job. The failed novelist in me has tried again and again to imagine this scenario happening to a man. It’s not impossible, but it is unlikely.
Is it possible that while the Smithsonian followed its necessary protocols, its investigation wasn’t without bias? Was there implicit bias on the part of the investigators and the inspector general leading to a less than nuanced outcome? It’s likely we’ll never know. What we do know is women leaders walk a different path than their male counterparts. As Kaywin Feldman concluded in her 2016 AAM keynote: “Our society will not benefit from the leadership of female museum directors, across all types of museums, of all sizes, until museum boards are more cognizant of their internal biases, and tendency to dismiss female leadership styles.”
Image: Anchorage Daily News
How many of you are museum leaders? Are you lonely? If you’re nodding, you’re not the only one. By some estimates, 42-percent of for-profit leaders confess to feeling lonely all or part of the time. Leadership is isolating. You’re happy in your job; it’s challenging, but there are things that can’t be shared. Some days are stressful. You know things you can’t un-know, and the decisions you make often feel like they’re yours alone.
There are ways to make the top spot less isolating. You can allow yourself to be vulnerable with your leadership team. By learning to express feelings–as opposed to parsing problems–you model vulnerability and build trust. You can create a peer group or ‘kitchen cabinet’ that you meet with regularly to share frustrations, ideas, and to problem solve. You may also have close friends, unconnected with your museum, who listen well or a few well-placed mentors. Those outlets are yours and yours alone. And they don’t put you in the position of treating any of your staff or leadership team differently.
There are families, governments, and workplaces where power masquerades as friendship, love or connection. It is, to quote a Latin phrase we’ve all heard too much recently, a quid pro quo. Grandparents pay for college tuition, but only if they select the school. A town official looks the other way when a local non-profit needs a variance, but then asks the non-profit to support something else in exchange. A museum leader wants her staff to like her so she adjusts their schedules to accommodate their personal circumstances. These are all ways to create connection and make an individual feel liked. The only problem is they aren’t sustainable because they’re based not in authenticity and equity, but on transaction.
These days when we say the words workplace equity, what comes to mind is race, gender, access, and the way we treat one another in the museum workplace. But far from values statements and HR policies there’s day-to-day life where equity happens, and the ongoing question of who gets what. Who gets noticed? Who is hourly and who is salaried? Who gets to work on plum assignments? Who gets to travel on the museum’s dime? Who never met a deadline that wasn’t moveable? Who leaves early for soccer practice? Who is chronically late, but excused? Who is plucked from the group to meet with a trustees? Whose work is nominated for a prize? We could go on, but you get the picture.
Part of leadership’s isolation is leaders can’t have favorites. As a leader, you need to understand and tame your own biases, and you can’t use your power to grant favors for those you like. Creating an equitable workplace means….
- Starting with your employee handbook: Looking at the language. Might it affect one demographic differently than another? Can you fix it?
- Does your museum have a values statement? If so, how do you use it to guide daily practice? If not, why not?
- Do your rules about personal leave apply to everyone equitably? For example, are family leave — human leave — available equitably, because life comes at us all fast? And do you permit personal time that recognizes not all of us celebrate the same holidays at the same time? A small thing, but a nod that your organization embraces and supports difference.
- Are rules about promotion and professional development transparent?
- How are new ideas heard? How hard is it for an idea to make its way from the hourly staff to the salaried staff? If it’s challenging does that reinforce the idea that salaried staff are the idea makers? Where is the inequity in that?
Museum workplaces are microcosms of the wider world. As a leader you and your board have the opportunity to create and shape an organizational culture that is human-centered and fair. In many ways the workplace you create has a profound impact on the way your organization appears in the world. (If you need an example of what an organization looks like that neglects values and does not keep its staff safe, seen and supported, look no further than the Philadelphia Museum of Art, fast becoming the poster child for an unethical work environment.)
You can’t control each and every staff person’s behavior, but you can create a place where staff feel respected and nurtured. So build human-centered policies, and don’t let them languish. Apply them and watch your staff flourish.
Image: Museum of Happiness