Museums and Investing in Social Responsibility

Not Neutral

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A notable example of a museum taking a stand took place last winter when the Trump administration banned travel and rescinded visas from seven majority-Muslim nations.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

 

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