Every week when I sit down to write this blog I suffer a twinge of imposter syndrome. Yes, I’ve co-authored some books. I teach in the Johns Hopkins Museums Studies Program and I’ve given some lectures. I lead a staff; I care for a collection, trying to encourage a dialog between it and my school community. But, that doesn’t stop me from feeling as though I’ve said it all before or I really don’t know what I’m talking about, or if I do, I’m not saying it well enough.
In the northern hemisphere, this weekend is the Winter Solstice, the moment when the days are the shortest. Particularly this year, it’s the time when the calendar, seasons, and current events conspire, making us all ready for a little light and some hope. This is the last Leadership Matters post of 2020. I will be on hiatus from December 21 to January 3. Like me, you’re probably glad to see 2020 come to an end. Disruptive, downright dystopian, and disappointing it pushed us all in ways we never imagined.
With over over 52,000 views in 2020, Leadership Matters turned eight years old December 13. What started as a way to promote and enhance the first edition of Leadership Matters morphed into 416 posts, most by me, some by guest writers. The favorites this year were Looking for a New Leader: Putting Equity into Action, which garnered so many views I am still convinced WordPress made a mistake. It was followed by Leadership and Workplace Bullying and The Silent Treatment (and What to Do About It). That saddens me. Those posts were written in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and yet they are among the most read on this blog. What does it say about the museum workplace that discussions of bullying and non-speaking marathons draw so many readers?
And speaking of readers, you come from 159 countries around the globe. While most of you live here in the United States, there are many of you from Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and India. And you are joined by individual readers from the Isle of Man, Aruba, Haiti and St. Lucia, and many more. This year your numbers grew to 994, with more who find Leadership Matters on Facebook, Linkedin, and Twitter. Wherever you are, thank you. Thank you for reading and thank you for being part of the museum/non-profit world that cares about its workplace, and recognizes how leadership as a practice, as a way of being, changes individuals and ultimately the organization in which they work.
And speaking of work, many museum folk aren’t working. The pandemic stole their jobs, furloughing them or eliminating their positions altogether. For those of us who are working, whether from home, museums or heritage sites or some hybrid of the two, we are the lucky ones. However damaged the field is, and there is a lot of work to do, those of us still lucky enough to be employed, do work we love, which brings me to this: If you are working, and can afford a gift, make one. Here in the United States you can always give to the Museum Workers Relief Fund, supporting those who’ve lost their jobs. You can also give to your favorite museum or heritage organization or to a national, state or regional museum service agency.
Much as we all want to demonstrate our love by just showing up, and wandering unmasked through our favorite site, that’s not possible right now, so we need to figure out how to support organizations that mean a lot to us, by being present in different ways. You can shop from the comfort of your home at museum shops, take an online class, listen to a lecture or go on a virtual tour. So, if you have the means, give. If money is short right now, give in other ways. Support your colleagues and your friends. Put five museum pals together at 5 o’clock one evening on Zoom and gab. Support one another. Create a Get-A-Job team, and work together on polishing resumes and Linkedin pages. Or sign the Gender Equity in Museums Pledge and make a personal commitment to ending sexual harassment in the museum workplace.
Whatever you do, make sure it constitutes actual change, however small or personal, not the sort of global ranting social media invites. Here is my list for change in 2021:
- Be the point person for a director search that starts by recognizing implicit bias, conducts an equitable search, resulting in a diverse, creative candidate who challenges us in new ways.
- Continue to diversify our collections, art, photography and rare books, through acquisition and in cataloguing language.
- Continue to shift our organizational lens so white privilege isn’t always center stage.
- Grow empathy.
- Nurture creativity.
What’s on your list?
Make 2021, not the year for change, but the year you change.
Be well. Stay safe. See you in January.
You don’t need me to tell you this, but in 10 months the workplace has changed fundamentally. Human interaction is reduced. At my organization, spontaneous hallway conversations are rare, and many people are only seen via a screen. And, if you’re lucky to have a face-to-face conversation, the most interactive portions of your colleague’s faces are covered. Hurried writing via email or Google chat complicates communication, creating endless email chains where once a single face-to-face conversation sufficed. Add to that, some people don’t read because they’re busy or stressed, some comprehend poorly or put off reading ’til late in the day, and by then whatever mini-crisis has passed without their input.
Imagine that into all of this steps an interim leader. I became one in July, but as staffs shrink across the museum world, there are many taking on new positions in addition to their old ones. So what’s an interim’s role? Is it simply as place holder, making sure the program, department, museum or library doesn’t burn down before the real director arrives? As an interim are you expected to lead or simply to supervise? Should you have a point of view?
I’ll be honest, organizational vision was not at the top of my list this summer when I stepped into a leadership role. COVID pushed pretty much everything off the table as we worked to figure out how to open a library, archives and special collections while also keeping our community and ourselves safe. But we figured it out, and while COVID continues to escalate, we are blessedly free of illness. Most importantly we have an operational template that seems to work; however, our search for a new director is stalled again so is it time for some vision?
As I’ve probably shared, we are working through a series of workshops led by an experiential education leader to help us communicate better with one another. The team has worked without me until now, outlining communication issues and strategies it wants to address. Currently they’re utilizing Henry Cloud’s The Power of the Other. Cloud describes four “corners of connection,” places we go, and modes of behavior we adopt that range from isolationist to a permanent feeling of imposter syndrome, to folks who need to be bathed in adoration more or less permanently. Corner four is the place we all want to be, with people who connect from an authentic but vulnerable place.
So is there room for interim organizational vision in a workplace operating in the midst of a global pandemic and beset with some typical workplace communication issues? Sometimes an organization hires an interim precisely so it can institute change without having it affect the permanent leader. And sometimes it hires an interim to hold the fort until a permanent replacement is found. If the choice is binary, we fall more into the latter category than the former. So…the vision thing? Should someone who’s holding the fort have a vision? I’m going to say yes, particularly since our organizational sense of self wasn’t rock solid to begin with. And what’s my vision? To begin with, that we should take joy in the good work we do together, and through the work to create a culture built on kindness, empathy and learning agility. Second, to stop seeing ourselves as victims. We don’t need a new director to fix some imaginary set of faults, but instead to challenge us and help us become better at what we do. To prepare for that, we need a leader who puts connection first; who models it, who looks for it, who delights in it. We also need a leader who thinks in two time frames, strategies for the moment, and frameworks for the future. I hope for the short term I can be that person. And as a team we need to think that way because we’re not treading water. Everything we do lays foundations for future building.
So if you find yourself suddenly a temporary leader, even if it’s only to cover a maternity/paternity leave, here’s my two cents:
- Diagnose what’s happening now, and look for ways to improve.
- Be prepared to ask tough questions, challenge assumptions, and have uncomfortable conversations.
- Know your program, department or museum’s DNA. Understand how “now” connects to the future.
- Take care of your team. Help them self-reflect so they grow.
Sounds kind of like real leadership doesn’t it? It is. Interim leadership isn’t and shouldn’t be the poor stepchild of leadership. Unlike, permanent leadership, it has a beginning, middle and an end, but whether it’s two months or two years, it’s leadership. And once again, especially now, especially in museums everywhere, leadership matters.
P.S. I want to give a shout out to my colleague Anne Ackerson’s new project. In collaboration with her partners, the wise and talented Dina Bailey and Gail Anderson, she has created The Resilience Playbook, an opportunity to work with all three to figure out where your organization should go next. Built around goals, plays, and self-assessment, it seems like the perfect tool to create change and leave the COVID swamp behind. Sadly, it’s available only for organizations. Maybe the version for individuals will show up in 2021?
After Thanksgiving, I’ve often found inspiration for these pages in the best aspects of the holiday: kindness, collaboration, trust. This year, finding goodness in the waning months of 2020 seems a Herculean task. Many museum workers are no longer employed. One in three museums nationwide may never reopen. Those that have opened, did so under strange and constricting conditions, only to find themselves closed again as the pandemic sky rockets. And the museum field continues to make headlines, not for its great exhibitions or good works, but for poor leadership, lack of concern for its workers, and monetizing collections, aka deaccessioning.
Sunday morning I woke to discover Tony Hsieh, entreprenuer and Zappos founder had died. One of my leadership heroes, the 46-year old Hsieh made headlines in the late 1990’s when he bought a shoe company called ShoeSite.com that ultimately became the Internet giant Zappos. Hsieh believed trust and friendliness were what create return customers online or in person. His decision-making-at-the-point-of-transaction philosophy, where call center staff were encouraged and trusted to make the best decisions they could in the moment, transformed Zappos. Later he embraced Holacracy, a method of decentralized management and organizational governance, changing and challenging Zappos still further.
What does any of this have to do with museums? Maybe nothing, but Hsieh’s ideas of empowering staff and creating an organization where a call center employee has an equal voice in creating change echo a lot of what many museum thought leaders have written and spoken about since the start of the pandemic. And yet, when the National Gallery of Art (NGA), along with museums of art in Boston, Houston and London’s Tate cancelled their joint Philip Guston exhibit, social media was swamped with opinions and feelings about how wrong they were.1 Midst all the noise, NGA director Kaywin Feldman suggested that, among other reasons for pressing pause on the show, were the security guards. She described them as “experts in the general public, and they know much more about our public, about public reactions and understanding, than I do sitting in my office up here.” When was the last time you heard an art museum director reference their security guards’ opinions in a public interview and how Hsieh-like was that? Feldman also makes the point that her thoughts are about NGA only, and that the other partner museums have their own approach, community, staff, and reasons for wanting to press pause.
If the Guston exhibit is a microcosm of the kind complex problem museums will continue to confront post-pandemic, shouldn’t we as bystanders be equally nuanced in our response to their choices? The debate has aligned itself in two buckets: whether museums are about people (staff and community take precedence) or about things (collections are preeminently important). When collections take precedence, the museum’s role is to protect, preserve and exhibit. On the human side of the argument, staff are seen as key to making collections speak, hopefully telling an object’s full story truthfully and without bias, overlaying the knowledgable expert with diverse and authentic narratives.
When we think about how the museum world might move forward, it’s worth remembering there are some 35,000 museums in the U.S. Yet art museums comprise only 4.5-percent of the total, even though they’ve garnered 100-percent of the of the news recently. So it’s helpful to remember that art museum problems are not always a reflection of the museum world as a whole. In addition, there is social media, an ever- hungry animal, encouraging us to respond quickly, to “like” something or to comment. As a result we find ourselves commenting not always on facts but sometimes on opinions perpetuating a narrative that isn’t fact-based, but amplifying a museum chronicle where staff is mistreated, DEI issues are rife, boards are groups of uncaring, entitled, privileged white folks. Some or all of that may be true for some institutions, but let’s be clear that not all 35,000 museums suffer these symptoms in concert.
So where do I find hope? This month, I saw it in our Johns Hopkins graduate students, in NEMA conference participants, in Gender Equity in Museums Facebook members, and in my friends and colleagues throughout the field. They are committed, smart and intentional. They don’t expect some faceless power to make change for them, but, instead, are eager to make change for themselves, their colleagues and the field as a whole.
Some days it’s hard to know what matters and what doesn’t. If nothing matters, there’s no point. If everything matters, there’s no purpose. It’s up to this next generation of museum workers to find the bridge between the two.
As you look toward a post-pandemic museum world, where do you see hope?
- Smee, Sebastian. “In Postponing Guston Exhibition, the National Gallery and Three Other Museums have made a Terrible Mistake: The Cancellation of “Philip Guston Now” is Patronizing and Outrageous.” WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post.
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.
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.
The rocking and rolling of the museum world continued this week. At least three museum directors left their positions, and multiple organizations, including Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Peabody Essex and the Georgia O’Keefe museums, announced they would undergo staff reductions. Museums are often the trailing indicator in economic crisis and now it’s clear even for those able to open how many visitors won’t come, and how bad the balance sheets will be.
Through it all tributes and solidarity for Black Lives Matter crowd social media. They are well intentioned, but I’m reminded of that writing adage, “Show, don’t tell,” and I wish I knew what museums are actually doing to change the unredeemed, genteel racism that pervades so many of our institutions. Because the real work, the work that matters to staff of color, and ultimately to visitors of color, happens far from social media. So here are some thoughts:
- The Gender Pay Gap: I first wrote about the gender pay gap on this blog in 2014. Since then I’ve written 10 columns about it. If museum leaders were to do one thing to demonstrate they really believe Black Lives Matter, it would be closing the pay gap. Black women are paid 61-percent of what non-Hispanic white men are paid. That means they need to work 19 months to equal every year of white male employment. That is inexcusable. And, according to the Economic Policy Institute, 55-percent of working black women are mothers, many primary wage earners. That means their wealth gap has a significant impact, not just for them, but on their families. If your museum hasn’t already graphed your staff salaries by race and gender, perhaps that should be on your to-do list. With that information in hand, you can work to level the playing field. Anything less supports the genteel racism the museum field has tolerated for more than a century.
- Collections: We know from last year’s Williams College study that art collections in US museums are 85.4-percent white and 87.4-percent by male artists. We know that gender and race equity in science research is an ongoing problem and likely influences how science is presented to the public. And we know the inclusion of additional narratives, whether race, gender or both, are frequently a problem for traditional heritage sites dominated by white, male narratives. And then there is decolonization, a particular problem for collections that once saw themselves as encyclopedic, accepting and exhibiting objects from indigenous cultures while eliminating their voices and stories. Not every museum can follow the Baltimore Museum of Art’s lead, selling work by men, to grow the percentage of women artists, and women artists of color, in their collections. Changes like that take money, yes, but also extensive planning. Do the planning now, and re-write the narrative. Why? Because Black Lives Matter.
- The DEI Position: If you’re museum is lucky enough to have a Diversity position in this age of recession and furloughs, there’s still work to do. White museum leadership, boards, staff, and volunteers still need to grapple with their own roles and their own behaviors. And if you don’t have a DEI position, for the love of God, don’t burden a staff person, who also happens to be black, with that role. They’re navigating their own path as part of the 11-percent of black museum staff nationally. They don’t need to be a spokesperson for racial identity without compensation.
- The Other Pay Gap: The Bureau of Labor Statistics, who tabulates who’s working in the museum field and what they make, tells us our median compensation is $49,850 or roughly $24 an hour. In other words, we’re not a high-paying field. One of the by-products of the COVID-19 layoffs and furloughs is worker protests. In New York City, Minneapolis and elsewhere we’ve seen museum workers using an organization’s 990 forms to publish executive compensation numbers in contrast to hourly, front-facing staff pay. Many of those staff have graduate degrees and yet their take-home pay is perilously close to Federal poverty lines. If a museum director makes $750,000 with benefits, but her front-facing staff makes $12/hour with no benefits, is her pay too high or is their pay too low? Isn’t it time museums as a group talked about this and grappled with a recommended ratio? Boards aren’t usually fans of unions, and yet the reason staff join unions is because they need and want a living wage and benefits.
Talk is cheap. For organizations and individuals what you do is in many ways more important than what you say. If your organization believes Black Lives Matter, than show your staff and your community the steps you plan to take. Be the organization you say you are.
It’s three weeks since George Floyd’s murder, and public protests continue. In some states the virus escalates, while in others museums and heritage organizations begin a slow reawakening after the pandemic shut down. Last week, many museum writers and thought leaders posted reading lists, suggestions and commentary, asking those of us who are white (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that was 83-percent of museum workers in 2019.) to stop being so complacent. To make change. To understand not being overtly racist isn’t enough. Despite the overwhelming amount of information coming at us, it’s critical we engage. Trying to understand the ever-changing rules for opening after the virus is one thing, but now we’re battling two foes, COVID-19 and systemic racism.
As we set up the bowling pins again, but differently, I would like to throw something else in the mix. You’re likely familiar with “Museums are not neutral.” Created by Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry in 2017, it raced across social media as the catch phrase for individuals, museums and heritage organizations who understand their role as active, not passive, engaged not isolationist. So here’s my question: Does clinging to museum neutrality come from the same place as white people who declare they’re not racist? Don’t both ideas–the idea that a museum isn’t apolitical and the idea that without doing anything illegal or overt you can still engender and support racism–challenge our comfortable complacency, and our desire to stay motionless and opinion-less?
It’s always easier to say it’s not me, believing someone else will do the heavy lifting. You have a team to lead, a museum to run, an exhibit to design. Yet every single choice we make in service to the public is charged. From who sits around the board table, what the staff looks like, to our exhibit subjects, the ticket price, and how front-facing staff is trained, we choose. And those choices include and exclude, people, ideas, and possibilities. Isn’t choosing not to be a neutral museum a little like choosing to no longer be complacent in a racist society? Both choices ask us to understand how we got here. And both ask us to act.
So as you open the museum you closed three months ago, think about talking, listening, and learning.
LEARN: Know what you don’t know. Read, and then read some more. If you haven’t read James Baldwin since college, it’s time. And read what black women have to say. This week I read Dr. Porchia Moore’s post for Incluseum. It’s about mapmaking and we fragile white folk who can’t see the forest for the trees. I also read Rea McNamara’s “Why Your Museum’s BLM Statement Isn’t Enough,” and my colleague Carita Gardner’s piece on ways out of complicity. You’ll likely find pieces that speak to you, but don’t just read for a week or two. Make reading outside your bubble a practice.
LISTEN: Listening, as opposed to waiting to talk, means hearing what staff and colleagues say. Try to understand your staff’s experience with the museum field and with your organization may be different than yours. If your organization is located in a white, suburban neighborhood, your colleagues of color may pass through a series of gauntlets unknown to you just getting to work every day or going out on a lunchtime errand. You need to hear and understand those experiences around race precisely because they’re not yours.
TALK: Provide space and time for staff and colleagues to talk together. No, you’re not a therapist, but your staff needs to process what’s happened and be a party to opening a museum that’s different from the one you closed. A month ago that might have meant becoming an organization with a more robust virtual presence. Now we mean a museum that knows its own values, ready to be an active citizen. We mean a museum where staff of color feel free to challenge content because it’s inequitable, unfair or a narrative is missing. All of this means talking.
Change is hard, but this is long overdue. Social media is the low-hanging fruit of change. Systemic racism requires systemic change, and it’s individual change that creates organizational transformation. We’ve put this off for too long, and the 11-percent of Black museum colleagues are weary, angry, and beyond frustrated waiting for us to catch up. Let’s act now to create a museum world that’s more diverse, no longer has a gender pay gap (which adversely affects women of color), and where artists, scientists, and historians of color are equitably celebrated.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about gender and the museum world, and as we enter week nine of the COVID-19 pandemic, here are a few things I’ve been thinking about:
First, if you think sexual harassment in the museum world is over, because everyone’s working from home or furloughed, it isn’t.
We’re undoubtedly looking towards a post-COVID future where job competition will be furious. Anxiety never brings out the best in people, and stringent budgets combined with a tight job market does not lend itself toward a humane workplace. Just last week Art News reported on sexism and racism allegations at the Akron Museum of Art. The article, which suggests the museum’s Executive Director Mark Masuoka and another senior administrator, Jennifer Shipman, were responsible for allowing an atmosphere of discrimination to flourish. And remember the news at the Erie Museum of Art when the board realized who it had hired? That was only four months ago. The good news is that in both cases it was the boards, not museum leadership, who seem to appreciate the dire consequences of a troubled workplace. For Akron, there are allegations that management used the pandemic to eliminate whistleblower employees who had previously complained about sexual harassment. People who are threatened will deflect any way they can, using the it’s–not–me–it’s–the–pandemic excuse. But workplaces that were humane before COVID-19 will remain humane. Those that weren’t are likely to be challenging places to work especially if you’re a woman. Side note: Without wading into the politics of Tara Reid’s complaint against presidential candidate Joe Biden, there is a lesson in her narrative for all women in today’s workplace. If you are sexually harassed at work or even if something unsettling happens to you, write it down. In pen, on paper, with dates for each and every incident, the old fashioned way. You may not be ready to talk, you may not have processed what’s happened to you, but get your thoughts down in the moment, and put them in a safe place.
Second, there is no doubt this pandemic hit women harder than men.
Economists quipped that the 2008 Recession was a Mancession because some 70-percent of job losses happened to men. This time, the COVID-19 pandemic hit women hard. In fact, women haven’t experienced a double-digit unemployment rate since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began reporting job loss by gender in the 1940s. April’s rates for women were 16.2-percent. We can’t say what the job loss is for museum women because curiously of all the folks reporting, from AAM to the regional service agencies, no one seems to be collecting data based on gender. What does that tell you?
We do know two things, however: First, much as we’d like to think the museum workplace is different from regular offices filled with cubicles and Steve Carell-like characters, it’s not. So if the national data tells us women working in the hospitality and recreation industries are the worst hit, it’s likely museum women are too. In addition, we know that 40-percent of households earning less than $40,000 experienced at least one job loss in March. The BLS tells us museum employees have a median salary of $48,000, so how do you think museum women fared? In addition, it’s women who shoulder the brunt of child or elder care, home schooling and many home chores. According to a recent survey by Syndio, 14-percent of women thought about quitting their jobs in the last two months simply to relieve the pressure of being teacher, day care coordinator, working person, and household manager.
Last, what did the pandemic teach us, and what could we possibly change as we try to ready museums and heritage organizations to open in a socially-distanced world with a vicious virus lurking in the background?
First, we know that pre-COVID-19, women made up 50.1-percent of all museum workers. We also know that in the museum world’s highly pink-collar employment, men and women cluster on gendered lines, with women filling education departments, while men are more often grouped in exhibit design, leadership, and plant operations. And we know the same problems that plague the national employment market, bedevil the museum world: There is a gender pay gap; health insurance–if it’s offered–is tied to employment; childcare is ridiculously expensive; many employees do not receive paid sick leave; and many women (and some men) would benefit by more flexible hours to accommodate family responsibilities.
So, as you restart your organizational engines, here are some things to remember about women returning to your workplace:
- Working from home doesn’t have to be confined to pandemics. Within your organizational culture, how can virtual work be structured so employees working from home still feel connected to your organization? How about flextime? Often women are responsible for getting a family–children or elders–ready to begin the day. Breakfasts, lunch to go, dressing and commuting to school, daycare or appointments take time. Would it help women (or primary parents) in your organization to begin and end the work day at times that support their schedule while still providing the organization with the agreed upon time?
- Women are paid less. You don’t have to believe me. Read AAUW and the Center for American Progress. Isn’t it time your organization did an equity pay audit, and raised women’s salaries?
- How many organizations let frontline staff go during the virus because within the organizational culture they have one skill set? Can you change your museum culture so that all hourly staff are cross trained? How would things look if hourly staff had a primary task, say, elementary school tours, coupled with a secondary task working elsewhere, not just in emergencies, but always?
- Daycare is frighteningly expensive. According to the Center for American Progress, the average cost of infant daycare in the United States averages $1,230/month, and for a preschool child, $800/month. What are the demographics of your staff? Are many of them parents? When you hear griping about salaries remember some of them may shoulder childcare costs equal to a mortgage. In an ideal world, large museums would have their own daycares. Failing that, would your museum consider a partnership with a local day care? Your education department provides an agreed upon amount of programming, and your staff get a discount.
- One thing the pandemic has taught us: viruses spread and sick people should stay home. Staff without paid time off are either forced to take unpaid leave or to come to work sick. Even before COVID-19, illnesses at work affect large numbers of staff. According to Kaiser Health News, “The lower likelihood of paid sick leave for part-time workers has a disproportionate impact on women, who are more likely than men to hold part-time jobs…… Nine in ten (91%) workers in financial activities have paid sick leave, compared to less than half of workers in leisure and hospitality (48%) and accommodation and food services (45%).” The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires employers with less than 500 staff to provide two weeks paid leave for sick employees, and two-thirds regular pay for those caring for someone who’s sick. If you don’t already offer paid time off, is that something you can institute?
Environmentalist Bill McKibben says the dumbest thing we can do post-COVID is to set up the bowling pins in exactly the same way. How will you make change in your workforce, and how will it support 50.1-percent of your staff?
Stay well and stay safe,
 Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employed persons by detailed industry, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. 2019. bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm. Accessed May 18, 2020.
By Steven Miller, Guest Blogger
On April 15, in an attempt to help member museums during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issued a press release announcing it had “…passed a series of resolutions addressing how art museums may use the restricted funds held by some institutions.” Key wording in the announcement stated “… the AAMD will refrain from censuring or sanctioning any museum – or censuring, suspending or expelling any museum director – that decides to use restricted endowment funds, trusts, or donations for general operating expenses.” The information included how endowments are defined. It provided wording about ways they could be raided by museums. The resolutions also included new exemptions about how money gained from the sale of deaccessioned museum collections can be used for the “direct care of collections.” The statement went on to explain, “AAMD also recognizes that it is not within the Association’s purview to approve the redirection of restricted funds. However, it hopes that these resolutions will serve as an endorsement to donors or the relevant legal authorities, encouraging them to permit the temporary use of these funds for unrestricted needs.”
This blog post focuses on the endowment issue.
Museums are expensive places to run. Money primarily comes from three sources: earned income, endowments, and charitable donations. Earned income is customarily realized by such things as admission fees, retail sales, memberships, and space rentals. Endowments comprise funds gifted or otherwise allocated to sustain operations or designated programs. Charitable donations involve money freely given for general or specific uses.
Funding for American museums has been abruptly reduced as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. Most institutions are closed. This means attendance and retail profits are almost entirely lost. Downward valuations combined with large emergency withdrawals have reduced investment portfolio size and returns. Many museums find charitable giving reduced to a trickle as donors hold back.
Museum boards of trustees are going nuts trying to assure the survival of their organizations for which they are responsible. Their struggles are almost insurmountable. Practical solutions are almost entirely of a fiscal nature. What will it cost to survive, how is survival defined, and, where will the money come from, not to mention when?
The AAMD’s resolution announcement was made “…in recognition of the extensive negative effects of the current crises on the operations and balance sheets of many art museums – and the uncertain timing for a museum’s operations, fundraising, and revenue streams to return to normal.” In the abstract it’s a nice gesture. In reality, it has little weight. In fact, museum boards have always had the right to go to donors or their heirs to make restricted funds less restricted in order to survive a financial crisis.
Museum endowments range from huge to negligible and their purposes and structures range from specific to general. Usually they are invested in conservative monetary instruments, mostly stock and bond portfolios. These are managed either by professional money managers or designated members of a museum’s board of trustees. Responsible museums have investment policies. They spell out how funds are retained and used. As with other policies, the one regarding investments is agreed on by a board of trustees and kept in governing documents.
Anyone familiar with the American museum world knows boards of trustees do as they wish within sometimes broad legal parameters. For the most part their decisions are beneficial or at least not too damaging. Now, all face terrible choices regarding the very survival, much less longevity of museums, in this country. For the most part trustees are doing whatever they legally can with whatever resources they have, which include endowments.
Having directed a museum in 2008 when the Great Recession hit, I witnessed how one board of trustees dealt with endowments. Their example is unfolding again. The board analyzed the institution’s endowments. Unrestricted funds were spent down to cover operating costs. Trustees approached people who had established restricted endowments, or the donor’s heirs to request a release of the restrictions. Permissions were granted for all such endowments. Substantial cost-saving measures were instituted by me, starting with a voluntary 40% cut in my salary. Other compensation was reduced incrementally with the lowest paid employees suffering the smallest cuts. Furlough weeks were also instituted. We emerged from the mess having cut one position and that person was quickly rehired. A dozen years later, as COVID-19 unfolds, the lost endowment funds from 2008 have still not been replenished to their original levels.
My time dealing with the 2008 fiscal debacle was the most difficult leadership challenge I ever faced in my career. I am grateful to avoid the current boondoggle. But, as a member of two non-profit boards (an art conservation center and a college alumni/ae group) I am witnessing trustees struggling to make ends meet and how the AAMD’s resolutions have no meaning. Censuring or sanctioning member museums or directors will carry little weight. When push comes to shove, boards of trustees need to make difficult decisions based on a lot of unknowns. Unless the AAMD can pony up significant cash assistance, given the fiasco museums face now, they have sound arguments for contradicting their best intentions.
AAMD Board of Trustees Approves Resolution to Provide Additional Financial Flexibility to Art Museums During Pandemic Crisis (Press release, April 15, 2020)