Kudos, Questions, and Humility: A Week in Review

First Kudos: To Mike Murawski for his new book, Museums As Agents of Change, released this week and available through Routledge. A co-founder of Museums are not Neutral, Murawski is a change maker himself, which is just one of the reasons this book is important.

Second, a shout out to AAM. In February I wrote a post complaining about how AAM’s newly-released Trendswatch had sidestepped the ways the pandemic harmed working women globally, and specifically women in the museum world. This week while scrolling through an AAM newsletter, I came across a link to Supporting Women in the Workplace During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic. It takes a big-hearted organization to course-correct, so thank you to AAM for providing resources for 50.1-percent of the museum workforce. And if women’s issues within the museum world concern you, join Gender Equity in Museums or GEMM.

Third, a bravo to my friend Frank Vagnone: If museum directors had fans like boy bands, I would be lined up post-concert to see Frank, president and CEO of Old Salem, Inc. Thoughtful, smart, and someone known to push the envelope on occasion, Vagnone writes the blog Twisted Preservation. This week he posted about the need to see COVID for what it is–not an 18-month stop between normal and new normal–but an inflection point that will leave many organizations devastated and fundamentally changed. If you’re a museum or heritage organization leader, you should read his post, and maybe use it as a point of discussion with your board.

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And the deaccessioning debate continues: I am struck by the way this debate has become a binary choice. You’re either for it–a progressive–or against it or at least cautious about it–a traditionalist. And like all things in 2021, deacessioning is personalized, becoming a lens with a bifurcated view of the art museum world because, let’s face it, history and science museums aren’t making millions deaccessioning.

Lee Rosenbaum went so far as to metaphorically pit Christopher Bedford, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, opposite Phillipe de Montebello, former director of the Met, writing that Bedford is among “the new crop of museum directors and curators [who] have embraced social and political progressiveness as a primary part of their mission.” Rosenbaum suggests that “inclusivity and social relevance are laudable” but cautions “patience so museums don’t trash the time-honored achievements of past professionals.”

Where to start? Maybe with the idea that as I said a few weeks ago, deaccessioning is a tool in a tool box, a necessary one, but one that in order to wield successfully, needs a deep collection, a degree of wisdom and sophistication on the part of curators and museum leadership, and a strong community understanding. Second, that it’s possible for smart, thoughtful, forward-thinking organizations to hold two (or more) ideas in their heads at the same time–pruning and shaping the collection to help it better speak to the wider community–while also trying to create an equitable workspace that honors the values museums profess to support. Perhaps communities of color and museum staff are tired of waiting for museums who are afraid of trashing the time-honored path representing the way we’ve always done it?

When did putting community–whether that is your security guard’s hourly pay or your local community’s access to your collection– become a bad thing? Is it okay as long as it doesn’t privilege BIPOC artists over established white, male artists? Shouldn’t we all be modeling ofbyforall.org’s five steps for change? And how will change happen if our first act is to rush to the barricades defending what cannot change?

AAMD is like an exclusive gentleman’s club from the 1950’s. It costs money to belong, when you’re inside it seems powerful, but in reality its enforcement powers are limited. According to The New York Times, a recent vote on whether to codify the relaxed deaccessioning rules of COVID lost 91-88 with 48 members abstaining. Perhaps the 48 abstainers sided with MoMA’s Glenn Lowery who suggests this type of decision making shouldn’t happen in the middle of a crisis. And despite vaccines, and the falling number of COVID cases, we are still in a crisis.

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And a lesson in humility: One of the lessons of leadership is that we continue learning. Always. Every day. And the day you stop, you should pack it in, and head for your rocking chair and your memories.

I manage a small collection inside a small, intentional community or a boarding school. Like any lone ranger, I wear the title “curator,” but many other hats –educator, registrar, packer, exhibit designer–as well. Our campus is still officially closed, but last week we hung an exhibit of 22 portraits, part of a project for our 9th and 10th-grade studio art students. Each student will select a portrait, reckon with it, react to it, and create a new work in response. When complete, the student work, curated and selected by their classmates, will hang in dialog next to the collection work. So far so good.

I finished the week with the show hung, but not the labels. I was tired, a lame excuse in retrospect, but nonetheless true, so I reasoned the labels could wait until Monday. Here is one of the portraits, a dual image of Mary Birch Coffing of Salisbury, Connecticut with Jane Winslow also of Salisbury.

Mary Birch Coffing, 1782-1865 with Jane Winslow, a free Black woman, 1825-1872, by Edwin White, American, 1817-1877, oil on canvas, on loan from the Salisbury Association, Salisbury, CT.

In leaving the labels for another day, I forgot about my audience. I forgot they needed context, and most of all, in believing they could wait, I disrespected them. So when they reacted Friday evening about the portrait above via email and social media, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. They were concerned. They wanted information. By Saturday morning I’d reckoned with my own blindness and all the labels were up. Further, we’d reached out to students and offered to talk about the show as a whole, and the Coffing/Winslow portrait in particular.

The lesson for me was not just how a lone ranger needs to push through and finish what was started. It was about the obligation to empathize, to put oneself in the position of one’s audience, and try to imagine what tools are necessary to make their own judgements, to have their own dialog, their own reckoning. That’s all art asks of us: to be there; to be fully present for more than the 20-seconds most of us devote to standing in front of a painting. If that’s what we want from our viewers, then we have to give them a place to start that’s truthful but not opinionated, that leads to dialog not misunderstanding, and most of all that is respectful.

The good news is I know I’m still learning. I hope you are too.

Joan Baldwin


Moving Forward: Complicity vs. Action in a Post-George Floyd World

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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.

Joan Baldwin


Why is a Museum Definition so Important?

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The International Council of Museums may seem like it has about as much to do with your work as New York’s fashion week does with your sartorial choices. In other words, not much. ICOM is literally some far-away group deciding things that have nothing to do with you, a museum leader with a new strategic plan underway, an underpaid and overworked staff, and insufficient funding for just about everything. But wait, maybe it does. Just as Fashion Week has a trickle-down effect on day-to-day wear for the average human, so too does ICOM’s decision making. So while it may seem like a lot of talk about a lot of nothing, ICOM’s proposed new museum definition, and its failure to pass, is actually kind of important.

For those of you for whom ICOM is a new acronym, the International Council of Museums was born in 1946, another child of the post-war baby boom. It’s opening meeting took place in Paris where its first-elected president was Chauncey J. Hamlin, politician, public figure, philanthropist, and president of the board of both the Buffalo Museum of Science and the American Museum Association (now the American Alliance of Museums.) In 2007, 61 years from its founding, ICOM adopted a “new” definition for museums:

“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

This year, when ICOM members gathered in Kyoto, Japan the plan was to vote on another definition of museums, one that is far more aspirational then previous versions. Spoiler alert: the new definition wasn’t adopted. But for those of you who missed it, here it is:

Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.

So why should you care? Well, maybe you can’t. Maybe this week or next you just don’t have the bandwidth to think about the museum field at a global level. But if you do, here are some thoughts about why it might matter to you, toiling away in museum land around the globe.

  • First, ICOM’s argument is your argument. You may not have hashed it out on a global stage, but how many of you have discussed Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry’s “Museums are not neutral” campaign with board or staff? And P.S. if you haven’t, you might want to. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to talk.
  • Second, since 2007, ICOM has seen museums as “permanent institutions in service of society.” Before we even think about its proposed new definition, that’s an interesting line to parse. How many of you (and your boards) think of your institutions in service to society? And what about your definition of society? Is it inclusive?
  • How many of you feel that too many museums, particularly, but not exclusively,  American heritage institutions are blissfully disconnected from their communities? If your answer is yes, then the new definition might speak directly to you. It asks you to guarantee equal rights and equal access to collections, and to aim to contribute to human dignity and social justice. What does that mean for curators at fancy robber-baron houses? What does it mean for art museums where by some counts 87-percent of the work is by men, most of them white? What does it mean for your typical early 19th-century kitchen where for years the dangers and drudgery of housework is somehow subsumed in the nifty qualities of flat irons and wash boards?

It seems to me, far from the center of ICOM discussions, that the proposed definition asks two things of us all, one of which is far easier than the other. First, it asks us to stop pussyfooting around and tell our collections’ stories in a transparent, authentic way that connects past with present, telling the whole story even the parts we can’t show because we don’t own the stuff. Second, and this is trickier, it asks us to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Contributing is a loaded word. Is simply doing all the regular museum things–exhibitions, programs, fund raising but better—enough? Or do we need to actually take a stand? And does taking a stand affect development efforts, collecting, programming, and exhibitions? Does it blur the line between individual values and organizational ones? Does it mean we support our staff members who openly protest? And what would it look like? Would it mean that as the local historical museum we stand with our local human rights organization when a member of our community is about to be deported?

You don’t need me to tell you that museum land in the age of Google is different. Is it possible that whether ICOM makes a decision about a new museum definition or not, that all of us need to change? That if we can’t change, the public, who has the entire world in words and images on the their phones, will go somewhere else for information, for history, for tranquility, for a civics lesson, for connection? So regardless of what ICOM does, it’s up to you. Listen. Know what you don’t know. Know what your collection means, not just in a textbook sense, but to your community. Find and make meaningful connections, person to person, object to person, collections to community. Make museums matter.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. In the spirit of bringing everyone to the table the wonderful Maria Vlachou directs us to a Padlet created by Anna Marras with voices from around the world commenting on what museums could and should do prompted by ICOM’s recent meeting.


When Audience Members Violate Your Organization’s Core Values

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First, a thank you to everyone who responded to last week’s post. Leadership Matters doesn’t receive a ton of comments so last week was a happy surprise. Many of you–especially Millennials and Gen-Xers– thought your point of view was missing, and sent examples. Clearly there’s more to say on generational collaboration and conflict in the workplace. We’re working on it, but if you’re drawn to this subject, and you’d like to write a guest post, let us know. Our email is leadershipmatters1213@gmail.com.

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While questions of intergenerational workplace collaboration continue to simmer, we’d like to talk about a different sort of leadership challenge. This came to our attention through Laurie Norton Moffat, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. (Parenthetically, we should add something: Over the years we’ve ranted about how museum leaders need to read (and listen) widely–absorbing poetry, podcasts, science, philosophy, long-form journalism, novels, you name it—because it makes you more empathetic, broadens your perspective and helps you connect the dots in many unexpected ways. Moffat is that person. If what she posts on social media is a taste of what’s on her bedside table, screen and other devices, she’s an example to us all.)

This week Moffat posted an op-ed piece by Pamela Tatge, director of Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA. For those unfamiliar with “The Pillow” as it’s known locally, it is home to America’s longest running dance festival. Tatge’s piece details the interaction of a woman of color and members of the Pillow’s opening gala audience. Needless to say, it wasn’t good. The interactions were demeaning, objectifying, and horrifying. In fact, as Tatge reports, it’s a wonder the patron stayed for the whole event. What’s interesting here is Tatge’s reaction. First, let me say that everything I know about this incident is in her piece. There is nothing on the Pillow’s website, and only two dismaying follow-up letters in the Berkshire Eagle.

If a member of your audience insulted another visitor, how many of you would bare your organizational soul in the newspaper? The Pillow’s experience brings to mind the incident at Boston’s MFA in May where middle school students were subjected to racist comments by security guards and other visitors. In that case, reading between the lines, one of the most horrifying things was the sense that the museum might not have acknowledged what happened had the teacher not come forward on Facebook. In the end, the MFA revoked the visitors’ membership and banned them from the museum. In addition, it says it plans to provide additional training for guards in how they engage with visitors inside and outside the Museum.

One of the places organizations turn in crisis is their value statement. And while Jacob’s Pillow is curiously silent about Tatge’s piece on its own web site, it’s clear her actions were rooted in the Pillow’s Value Statement, which includes the following:

INCLUSION
We encourage a broadly diverse group of individuals to participate in our programs and join our Board and Staff, and insist on being inclusive of all peoples regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-economic background, physical or mental ability.

LEADERSHIP
We listen carefully, take the time to reflect on our successes and challenges, admit when we do not know something, and are accountable for our actions; recognizing that a crucial part of our role is to mentor the next generation of artists, arts administrators, and production staff.

Of the many issues on your 2019 leadership plate does audience behavior keep you up at night? What can and should a museum leader do to forestall racist behavior or hate speech in its galleries or heritage site? Is Tatge’s transparency the way to go?

Not that we haven’t written about this before, but here are some things to think about when your audience attacks its own:

  • Use your value statement. Presumably you all–board, staff, volunteers–played a part in its creation, and live it day-to-day. Where else can your patrons read the values statement besides the web site? How often do board and staff talk about it? Is it clear to your visitors that your museum has a code of conduct?
  • Silence is death. Don’t fetishize silence. Not saying anything will land you in a world of trouble. It will also make a mockery of your carefully crafted values statement. If you believe in something, stand by it, but have a plan.
  • Think ahead. What steps should you take to ensure the right messaging in the event of controversy or crisis related to your organization and its values? Role play possible controversies to make sure your organization reacts as a team.
  • Show some humility. Even if you aren’t the cause of the hurt, the hate speech or the racist comments, you are the venue in which they happened. Own what’s yours. If you hosted a cocktail party at home and one of the guests insulted another, you’d apologize wouldn’t you?
  • Talk about these issues with your board. It’s easy to say what a museum or heritage site should do, but how (and when) does a board choose to discipline its audience, the very audience that is its lifeblood?
  • Does your museum have a clear and easy way for visitors to let staff know when something bad happens? Once you say what you stand for (see the first bullet point), you have to provide the opportunity to express how the experience measured up. Help your staff learn to listen and respond accordingly.

A decade ago the glittery object among museum thought leaders was the idea of museums as a third space. As a concept–the museum as neutral ground where people gather and interact–is laudable if slightly utopian. But if the last 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that saying you’re the third space won’t work with a community clamoring for you to take a stand, to believe in something, and when appropriate, to say something. Hopefully museum staff, boards and volunteers agree on their common values, but your audience? It’s the wild card, the known-unknown you must court, charm, and cultivate. And what happens when the audience values don’t align with institutional values? If a visitor related an experience like the one Pamela Tatge heard, what would you do?

Joan Baldwin

Image: The National Liberty Museum


Do Your Organization’s Mission, Values and Actions Align?

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This is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for story. How many of you did your due diligence, meeting with your constituencies and creating or revising mission statements for your museum or heritage organization? And when written, and everyone–trustees, staff, community, and volunteers– participated, did you feel a frisson of happiness that you’d done the right thing? That momentary sense of getting your organization where it should be?

Now, how many of you read the story about the Wayfair protests this week? Maybe, like me, you only know Wayfair as a business that clogs your email, one that apparently  presumes you buy “home goods” as often as you buy groceries. But this week it made the news, and those of you who are leaders would do well to pay attention. In brief, Wayfair sold approximately $200,000-worth of beds to BCFS, a nonprofit, that supplies the Department of Health and Human Services’ border facilities for unaccompanied minors.

When Wayfair employees learned about the sale, they contacted management. Subsequently more than 500 employees signed a letter asking Wayfair to cease selling to BCFS and any other nonprofit doing business with border facilities. Wayfair leadership declined to stop the sale. In turn, hundreds of employees protested outside its Boston headquarters, garnering national news coverage. What was most interesting was hearing protesters repeat Wayfair’s mission statement, saying Wayfair should live up to the company promise that “everyone should live in a home they love.” One of the protesters added,“We don’t want to profit off of being complicit in human rights violations.”

If you’re eye-rolling here, think how this might translate to the sometimes staid world of museums and heritage organizations. Think it couldn’t happen to you? Remember last spring’s demonstrations at the Guggenheim, protesting donations from the Sackler family? Or the protest when MoMA honored a Bank of America CEO whose company funds private prisons, and the Decolonize This Place protests at the Whitney? You may say, well that’s New York where there is more money and more activism than in your community. Maybe true. But for all the head-down, thumb-tapping, addictive qualities of the Internet, it’s also hugely democratizing. Protests, disagreements and opinions ignite quickly. In an hour your organization can move from every-day complacency to under siege. To add to that, a recent study tells us that staff just aren’t as cowed as they used to be. Employees, particularly Millennials are 48-percent more likely to be workplace activists than either Gen-Xers or Boomers. They have opinions and they aren’t afraid to share them.

So how should you prepare and/or respond? Where are the chinks in the armor of your mission statement versus your organizational actions versus your board’s actions or your investment portfolio? Hint: the answer is not assuming it won’t happen. It might. And if you’re a leader, you need to prepare for praise and protest. Ask yourself:

  • What’s your mission and does everyone understand it? 
  • Does your staff keep abreast with news in your community? If you haven’t already, for goodness sake follow Colleen Dilenschneider and Susie Wilkening. Use their data and wisdom to help understand your community.
  • Do you know your supporters and what they believe in?
  • Think ahead. What steps might you take to ensure you have the right messaging in the event of controversy or crisis related to your organization and its mission? Role play possible controversies to make sure your organization will react as a team.
  • Has your board ever discussed whether there’s a line in the sand that would make it take a public stand?
  • How would your board react to your staff participating in a protest? Of their own? With another organization?
  • Is your organization able to react quickly?  There’s little time to gather your peeps to strategize. If a board member’s caught in a personal or corporate scandal, if a staff member has a DUI or your organization accepts a gift from someone whose politics are at either end of a political spectrum, are you ready? Who’s your point person?

Last, know your organization, and make sure everyone else from trustees to volunteers does too. Know why it matters. If the community loves you, understand why because the more you’re loved, the higher a community’s expectations, and the more you have to lose.

Joan Baldwin

Image: Members of Decolonize This Place and its supporters rally in the lobby of the Whitney Museum, Courtesy of Artsy.


“Fetishizing Silence” No More

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A confession: I don’t like Twitter. In fact, I find it visually distressing. I know that’s not the point, but as a result, I don’t tweet, and only check Twitter haphazardly. All that’s preamble to saying that this week I found the link for LaTanya Autry’s Social Justice & Museums Resource List on Twitter.  Yes, it’s been around and growing since 2015, so I guess that’s a lesson I should visit Twitter more often.

Now I’ve found it, a huge thank you to Autry who likely has a gazillion other things she could be doing rather than putting this list together. But there it is, a labor of love, and ours to read, absorb, use, amend, edit and add to. And by being open and editable by anyone, the list is a model for the change we all hope is on its way in museums and in the museum workplace.

Another and perhaps more important thought about Autry’s list is this: If you’re having a particularly bleak week or month–it is February after all–think about what this list means for the museum field. Try and imagine Autry, or anyone else for that matter, creating it a decade ago. I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened, but it didn’t. There wasn’t any appetite for it, and the field–except at the margins– was content being its benign, patriarchal, misogynist, racist self.  Even the list’s vocabulary highlights change. Take the verb “decolonize,” which by the way, wasn’t added to the Oxford English Dictionary‘s new word list until 2018. The earliest pieces on the list using “decolonize” date to 2016. And yet, today the word is everywhere.

None of that means there wasn’t good work being done 10 years ago or that there weren’t folks saying that the emperor had no clothes, but museums and heritage organizations weren’t the most woke job sector. Are we there yet? Good Lord, no. But have things changed? You betcha.

If Autry’s 47-page list isn’t enough, she’s also one of nine new interviewees for the revised edition of Leadership Matters due out this fall. That group of nine is a powerful band of humans with a lot to say. While we utilized the same criteria looking for new interviewees as we did for our original book in 2012–equity and variety in race, gender, geography–six years made a huge difference both in the what people were saying, the work they do, their willingness to merge personal and organizational values, and their belief that the days of a single, preeminent, white, binary narrative superseding all others is OVER.

Do I sound too Pollyanna-like? Maybe, particularly when you compare this post to last week’s. But if I do, it’s because I’m old enough to remember a time when discussion of any of these issues often resulted in a conversation that went something like, “You might want to think about what you just said. This is a small field and you don’t want to damage your chances of moving ahead.” Sean Kelly from Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), and another of our nine interviewees, used the phrase “fetishizing silence” in a radio interview recently. He was talking about the way ESP administrators used an unholy quiet to inspire penitence, but that phrase could just as easily apply to the way the museum world approached workplace grievances, racists remarks, and sexual harassment. If you deny it’s happening and fail to provide appropriate avenues to file grievances, you can almost pretend all is right with the world.

Scanning the articles on this list, it feels like we are in the middle of a sea change. Maybe not everywhere, but enough so there is a new normal. And for anyone suffering from “otherness,” anyone who needs support, ammunition, a sisterly voice, a shoulder at the barricade, it offers aid, examples, history and context. Use it, add to it, keep change happening.

Joan Baldwin

Image: Changing Tides by Ellis O’Connor


Museums and Investing in Social Responsibility

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Thursday I spent the day at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Although I wore my “Museums are not neutral” T-shirt,  I’m not sure anyone noticed. The topic of museum neutrality, however, is one that interests us here at Leadership Matters because it intersects directly with how museum directors lead, and the role museums and history organizations play in their communities.

Museum neutrality has been in the wind for a while now. For some it means, museums should openly take a stand on issues of community or national interest. For others, it means museums should use their scholarship to refute false narratives in an age of post-truthiness.

A notable example of a museum taking a stand took place last winter when the Trump administration banned travel and rescinded visas from seven majority-Muslim nations. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), usually a-political, responded by removing work by Picasso and Matisse and hanging paintings by living artists from the banned countries. And just in case MoMA’s selfie-taking audience missed what was going on, it labeled each newly-displayed painting with the following lines, making it crystal clear where it stood on the travel/immigration debate.

This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.

Given MoMA’s size, wealth, and presence in the art world, it’s likely that Glenn Lowry and his senior staff took more than a few minutes to decide how to respond to the travel ban. And given what we heard from Shankar Vedantam, National Public Radio’s Social Science correspondent this week, that’s a good idea.  Vedantam reported on the risks CEO’s take when they invest in social responsibility. And based on the researchers he interviewed, doing good with corporate profits can be bad.  Here’s why: In the corporate world everything points towards making money. No surprise there. And community aid, activism, diversity initiatives, and support for education don’t get the product out the door. Nonetheless, they do generate a lot of good will, and that should be good for the corporation, yes? Not necessarily.

Vedantam interviewed Timothy Hubbard who teaches at Notre Dame University. He and two colleagues studied what these types of community investments mean for CEOs’ careers. In a nutshell, here’s what Hubbard said, “We see this double-edged sword where if the firm is doing well, investments in corporate social responsibility can buffer a CEO from dismissal. But on the other hand, if there’s negative financial performance, it can really set the CEO up for a situation where they could likely be terminated.”

We aren’t aware of any work on whether acts of social responsibility by museum leadership shortens an executive director’s tenure, but since many museum board members come from the corporate world, it’s worth bearing in mind. Nonetheless, there is a difference between taking a stand, and taking a stand relating to facts, collections and the truth. Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellman, a CEO of the Gates Foundation, was also interviewed on NPR this week.  Desmond-Hellman makes the point that,”Scientists can’t be ivory tower,” adding that “What we’re really hearing from people is I no longer trust authority.”

She suggests that scientists (and we would argue curators, conservators, museum educators, and directors) need to be part of the public dialog. She asks her fellow researchers when was the last time they attended a PTA meeting, Cub Scouts, your church, synagogue or mosque, adding “If we’re not part of that dialog, soon science won’t matter.” (And maybe history or culture?) She points out that in an age when the public relies more on emotion and personal belief than scientific evidence, then there’s a problem.

We believe first and foremost that museums have to understand their communities, and their entire community, not just the largely white, heterosexual, wealthy community who wanders their galleries and attends openings. But how do museums decide when and how to take a stand? Is what’s relevant to the director important to the community? And how about the board? As a director, if you take a stand will it matter to the people you’re trying to support? Does not being neutral mean being a good citizen, and how should an organization be a good citizen? How do museums engage their communities while being transparent?

Tell us what you think.

Joan Baldwin