For those of us who live near Western Massachusetts, the Berkshires loom large. Long a cultural phenomenon, it’s an area beloved for its good food, good coffee, great music, theatre, and, of course, museums. This February, however, a new voice from the 413 area code appeared on Instagram. A cousin of @changethemuseum, @ChangeBerkshireCulture debuted on Valentine’s Day. Posting pastel hearts with messages like “I love you as much as museums love empty promises about prioritizing diversity,” it was clear from the get-go the writers were angry. There is now a collection of almost two dozen. Many posts are disturbing. Some name names–not people, but institutions–so it would be impossible for Berkshire museum leaders not to wince, but at a meta level, what’s most upsetting is these posts indicate a disregard for staff, and a deep vein of workplace discontent. But wait, you say, I don’t work in the Berkshires, and besides my staff isn’t like that. Are you sure? Do you check in regularly? And when you do, if you ask the questions, do you want to hear the answers?
Two things to think about, both for yourself and your team: The idea that there is work and there is everything else in your life, and the two are separate, is nonsense. It’s all your life, and some days are more messy and more complicated than others, but the notion that when you’ve reached some pinnacle of success you’ll have time for yourself–to swim, to walk, to meditate, to read–and until then you suffer, is also nonsense. The second thing to consider is that it’s not your job to make your staff or team members happy. You can’t. That’s their job.
So what’s the answer? Clearly, a half hour up the road from me is a group of distressed, angry current and former museum workers. Here are some things to think about. If you’re a longtime reader, you’ve likely heard some of them before, but here goes:
- Not surprisingly, a number of the @changeberkshireculture posts are COVID related, questioning how the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ rules have or have not been applied. As we’ve said a million times here, COVID exacerbates just about everything, so acknowledge it. Ignoring it, increases staff stress. For front-facing employees, it’s hard to be upbeat when you’re worried whether the group you are greeting is playing by the rules. For staff working at home and on site, work may feel as though it never ends and the stress build-up is very real. Does your organization have a COVID task force? Does it include staff from all levels? Do they update staff (and you) regularly? A staff who understands why a museum is doing what it’s doing may be less anxious, and less frightened of job loss if the museum is transparent from the beginning.
- Update your job descriptions. With COVID layoffs many staff took on additional jobs. Acknowledging the extra work is a much-needed measure of transparency. No, it doesn’t put food on the table, but coupled with a genuine thank you, it’s kind, and that’s something we can all use. Further, it confirms extra work took place, which could convert to a raise when things right themselves,.
- Update your disaster plan. Many of us have taken our organizations through fire and flood, but if COVID taught us anything, it taught us that disaster comes in unexpected forms. Does your disaster plan include a pandemic? Do those plans include how-to’s, not just for leaving collections untended, but for how staff will be down-sized if that’s necessary? The perception from some of the posts in @changeberskhireculture is that plans were entirely quixotic, reactive, and rarely equitable.
- And speaking of equitable, what about your workplace? You can’t make your staff happy, that’s their job, but you can create an equitable workplace from the top down. When employees perceive that others are privileged in ways they are not, it leads to anger and dissatisfaction. Conduct a workplace equity audit. Doing so will help your museum or heritage organization think about how you hire, how you mentor and promote, whether your current HR policies invite implicit bias, and how your museum is governed, and the culture it creates.
- Stop worrying about happiness. Maybe whether we’re happy at work isn’t the question. Happiness, after all, isn’t a virtue, and yet we treat it as such. How often has someone stopped and told you to smile as if that would fix everything? Perhaps what we should strive for is a staff who is content because content staff think deeply about their work, approach it with enthusiasm, and look for creative answers to questions.
- Last, remember Nina Simon’s words from last week that prioritizing the safety and welcome of people with less access to power, means you are working for equity and inclusion.
There is something shaming and hugely wrong in asking staff, many of whom need to be intensely positive for visitors, not to be negative or complain, when so much about their workplaces is murky, inauthentic, and inequitable. That’s what comes through in @changeberkshireculture. And that’s what needs fixing. @changethemuseum and @changeberkshireculture are enough to scare anyone away from the field. We’re in a challenging time, and because of these challenges, we need to be mindful about those who work for and with us, and to constantly ask who we are empowering and why.
Try making one decision for equity and kindness this week and see what happens.
Two news threads sparked the museum world’s collective consciousness last week: One, Charles Venable’s resignation from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the second, the Metropolitan Museum’s announcement that it will take AAMD up on its COVID loophole, allowing art museums to put deaccession funds towards collections care as opposed to acquisitions. Both represent a tangle of hubris, classism, and self-importance that are sadly emblematic of the museum world in 2021.
For those who missed the Indianapolis debacle, it took place on the 100-plus acre museum campus known as Newfields. A year ago the Museum posted a position with the Oppenheim search firm, which included the line that the museum sought a director who would “maintain its core white audience.” The job announcement has been public for 10 months, but somehow only surfaced last week. That five word phrase may be the tip of an iceberg though. In July 2020, Keli Morgan, an associate curator who is Black, resigned barely two years into her tenure, citing the Museum’s toxic and discriminatory culture. Morgan’a resignation coupled with the horrendous job announcement makes you wonder. Couple that with Venable’s own strangely-worded response in an interview in The New York Times where he stops short of an apology, pointing to the use of “core white audience,” as intentional, meaning he wanted the white art museum audience to know the Museum wouldn’t abandon them. How do we unpack a situation where a 21st-century museum director felt the need to reassure its wealthy, privileged white audience? And in a job announcement whose primary audience isn’t the local community, donors or longtime audience, but presumably museum professionals most of whom are alert to the huge sea-change taking place in the field. The only good news was the Museum Board’s letter. In contrast to Venable’s waffling, the Board was contrite and direct, spelling out the changes it will take going forward. So what are the “tells” and take-aways in yet another blunder in pandemic museum leadership?
- While anecdotally at least more and more BIPOC staff are being hired for directorships and senior leadership, stories like this one demonstrate how deeply ingrained the culture of racism, hierarchy and patriarchy is in museum culture, particularly art museum culture.
- Clearly the Board knew where to turn to craft a statement that was authentic and apologetic, but where were they as their museum culture devolved? How many boards really understand their roles, not only the Byzantine non-profit rule variations from state to state, but what governance actually looks like? How many actually read AAM’s Core Documents?
- To quote President Truman, as a leader the buck stops with you. That said, you aren’t alone. The more eyes on decision making the better, including search firms you hire to speak for your museum. They represent your organization in the world so they must know you well, starting with your organizational values.
- The Internet is like a nuclear wasteland. Information may move around, but it never dies, and pretty much everything you’ve ever made public is available. Think about it.
- DEI isn’t only about hiring Black or Brown employees. It’s actually about white folks, seeped in privilege, doing the work, and that work is ongoing, not something you learn in a weekend workshop or by leaving White Fragility on your desk.
- Maybe this calls for a bold statement? Maybe the Indianapolis Museum of Art should take a page from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland and hire LaTanya Autry to help them re-center, bridge build, and create a new face for the museum? Now is the time for Indianapolis to prove it isn’t neutral.
The Metropolitan Museum made the news when it announced its $150 million deficit stemming from the pandemic. Many museums closed all or part of the last 12 months are in the red, but everything about the Met is huge and so is its debt. What was different about its announcement was the indication that it is in conversations with auction houses, and considering using the AAMD’s COVID window to utilize deaccessioning profits for direct care of collections. The announcement set social media tongues wagging. Why? Are people really worried the Met will deaccession something famous, well-known and much loved? Or is it because museums with gigantic endowments aren’t supposed to run a deficit? To quote Erin Richardson of Frank & Glory: “We can’t treat museums like we do Americans seeking public assistance – in that they must have liquidated all assets before receiving SNAP or welfare. Boards are fiduciaries not banks. Their role is to govern the organization on behalf of the public trust. Sometimes the trust beneficiaries (us) don’t like the trustees decisions.”
Deaccessioning is largely an art museum problem, meaning the majority of US museums, even if they felt it was a way to raise money, don’t have collections that would net enough on the auction block, nor do many have collections with the depth, that were they to weed, would allow them to raise significant money. But for some reason the Met’s announcement pulled the recently-healed scab off the deaccessioning discussion once again. So what are the “tells” and takeaways here?
- Deaccessioning is a tool many museums use, but disastrous scenarios like the Berkshire Museum’s $53.5 deaccessioning in 2018 left everyone with PTSD. Not all deaccessioning is alike or to put it another way, every deaccessioning decision is different.
- There is a theory that as the Met goes so goes the field. The Met is the largest American art museum, but art museums represent only 4.5-percent of all museums. Is the Met an influencer? Maybe, but perhaps not here. Somehow the Brooklyn deaccessioned $31 million worth of art last fall without causing a ripple.
- Deaccessioning is complex, but if you’re involved in museums, it’s worth understanding. Once again, AAM delivers with its Direct Care of Collections pdf.
The Take Aways
- Make sure your policies and guidelines are up to date. Know what they say. If you haven’t read them in a while, it might be good to take a look, just in case someone thinks the way to financial salvation is monetizing the collection.
- Knowledge is power. Read Steven Miller’s book Deaccessioning Today or find his guest blog post here, and share with your board.
- Collecting is a process, an expensive one. Every single piece or living thing in your collection represents a percentage of the care and attention of one or more people, not to mention the people who publicize and raise money for it. Collections aren’t just things. They represent people too. Think about it.
Museums have a world of problems these days. Many haven’t seen their audience except through Zoom in almost a year. Many face huge deficits. Underlying it all, social media beckons, inviting us all to rant, pontificate, and rave. Museum staff–those who are employed–work hard, often for inequitable salaries. Sometimes they are overworked, bullied and harassed, and find themselves in situations where they have no recourse, and yet they are the folks who help make the thousands of objects, paintings, and living things speak. Without them, museums are big warehouses with expensive climate control. I’ll close with a quote from the inimitable Nina Simon, which, as far as I’m concerned says it all: “When you prioritize the safety and welcome of people, who have lower access to power, you are working for equity and inclusion. When you prioritize the comfort and preferences of people with higher access to power, you are working against it.” Hold that thought when you make leadership decisions, when you write on social media, and when you place objects before people.
The inauguration is over. For many, the new presidency lessens the feeling of daily doom, and we turn back to work that needs to be done. So here are three topics I’ve been thinking about in the world of leadership:
Reading Nina Simon in Connecticut in the Age of COVID
Ages ago–although time is mutable in a pandemic–our library purchased Nina Simon’s book The Art of Relevance. It arrived, and then it sat in my office for months while we coped with COVID. This week, I read it.
Many of us have been Nina fans for years, beginning with her Museum 2.0 blog and her book The Participatory Museum. The writing in The Art of Relevance is clear, lean, and often funny, as Simon builds her arguments like elegant equations. You can probably complete your first reading in a weekend, although I suspect you will want to go back and read it again.
In no particular order, here are a few of my favorite Ninaisms.
- “It’s not about you. It’s not about what you think people need, want or deserve.” That’s followed by a dozen paragraphs discussing dogs, babies, elucidating the difference between want and need, ending with this: “Talking about what people need is like talking about going to the dentist. It sounds like a painful utility. I don’t want to offer a service people would rather avoid. I want to offer the most desirable experience possible. I want our work to be wanted.”
- “When we invite in outsiders of any kind, we have to do it on their terms not ours. It’s their key. It’s their door. “
- “The greatest gift insiders can give outsiders is to help them build new doors. To say, I want you here, not on my terms, but on yours.”
Responding to a Comment
Last week I received a comment, which is a rare enough occurrence. The writer, who might live outside the United States, wrote to ask why so much of this blog questions the role of leaders, rather than followers. They wondered why the colleague I mentioned, who worked on her divorce rather than her workload, wasn’t chastised, and they pointed out trust is, in fact, a two way street. Yes, followers must trust leaders, but leaders also trust followers, and mistrust happens for both. The most obvious example might be working at home because of the pandemic. For some, like my colleague, that could mean five hours of Netflix, online fitness, and divorce planning versus three hours of actual work.
My response? First, thank you. Blogging is often a one-sided dialog so it’s nice to hear from readers. This comment pointed out something I’m not sure I was actually aware of. Maybe moving from follower to leader six months ago subtly changed my point of view? I do know that whether you are leader or follower, accountability is key. Without a metric that defines who you are in relation to organizational goals, your worklife is liable to be aimless, arbitrary, and ill-defined. Little is expected of you–at least that’s the way it feels–and your connection to your museum or department takes on a Cinderella cast of of menial tasks in endless repetition.
That brings me to my last topic for this week…..
The Idea that Museums are Populated by Perfectionist Control Freaks
First, I wish museums’ problems could be boiled down to one thing. That having a little fun at work, taking ourselves a little less seriously, talking about life backstage or experimenting with some sarcastic label writing might help. Those are some of the suggestions from Isabel Singer in a piece subtitled How We Might Get Museums to Loosen Up? Again, I wish it were that easy.
Let’s face it, some folks are funnier than others, some more detail oriented, some rule players, some not. But Singer seems to suggest the museum world has an over abundance of perfectionists whose control freak attitudes hold museums back. True? I struggle with blaming the entire workforce for our collective psychological makeup. I wonder instead, whether a constant scramble for money makes museums cautious. Risk and experimentation come with the possibility of failure, and failure costs money and time, which is also money. Caution isn’t always a psychological flaw; sometimes it’s just treading carefully. When you have a moment, talk with your museum leader about what they might do if money were no option.The answers may surprise you.
And while it’s important to have fun, to enjoy work, and feed our souls, to return to Nina Simon’s wise counsel, it’s first about the people we serve, and our ongoing search for the keys that make us relevant to them and their lives. As Simon reminds us, relevance is a process of constant reaffirmation and reconnection. In other words, what you think is funny or sarcastic or risk taking only works if it connects with the audience you’re trying to reach.
A generation of us were raised around museums and heritage organizations whose missions were all some variation of collect, preserve and interpret as if we were all-knowing hoarders trying hard to guard and elevate our great treasures. In doing so, Simon writes, we imbue collections with power, and after a while we’re more involved with the rituals of protection than the objects themselves, much less the world outside our doors. Instead, she asks us for a little empathy and the imagination to connect the treasures we’ve spent decades protecting with individuals in our communities. Your key to understanding those treasures won’t be mine, nor mine yours, but Simon suggests it’s our duty as museum folk to open the doors and let the light in.
“The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”, January 20, 2021.
It’s been six months since the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA announced its New Vision , and then dropped the other shoe, telling the public that the cost of the new vision would be underwritten by selling 40 paintings from its collection. And for more than 182 days, the museum world has been in an uproar. If you played a word association game, and the words were Berkshire Museum, way too many of us would respond with “deaccessioning.”
We wrote about the controversy months ago when it seemed the sale was imminent. Since last summer, deaccessioning’s become a new word, something parsed by journalists and art critics alike who tried to explain that even though the use of proceeds from deaccessioned items is not a law (except for New York State Education Department-chartered museums and historical societies) or even a rule, it’s a professional standard museums are expected to live by and with. And while Nina Simon may be correct, that use of proceeds from deaccessioning is an inflexible and antiquated standard, for those museums that are collecting institutions, it functions like the nuclear deterrent, holding big and small institutions in check, a necessary yet Faustian gamble that collecting institutions buy into. And here’s the logic behind that antiquated standard: Museums are non-profit organizations because they hold property (often collections) in the public trust. If those same collections can be monetized at the drop of a hat, where’s the trust?
As a museum, your non-profit status is, in part, secured by your organization’s willingness to stand behind your mission, and in doing so, make objects, art and the like available to all of us. So like Nina Simon, we believe the Berkshire Museum controversy is not an issue solely about deaccessioning. It’s about leadership. Why? Because the Museum’s deaccessioning is a by-product of a series of decisions made by the board and director. It’s the story of a local, regional and national community who responded negatively, not only to the proposed sale, but also to the move toward a museum far more committed to science and technology than to art and the gentle “Window on the World” concept of its founder.
Granted, we only know what the Berkshire Museum has shared on its website, but when organizations anticipate change they examine the future like master chess players, thinking through as best as they are able, all the consequences of their actions. How did the the Museum’s 21-member board and its director get this so wrong, producing such a firestorm of antipathy?
If you read the Berkshire Museum’s timeline for its Master Planning Process, you discover that together with Hancock Shaker Village, it hired TDC, a Boston-based firm specializing in non-profit management three years ago. It was TDC’s 2015 report that stipulated “significant need for capitalization in order to provide sufficient endowment for the Berkshire Museum to support its operations.” (Side note: Among the eight principals on TDC’s website, not one has an arts background, much less a museum background.) And it was TDC who hired Experience Design out of Providence, RI, “to help identify scenarios for the Museum’s future and produce an interpretive plan for the scenario ultimately selected.” Again, we don’t know the real story, only what the Museum chooses to write, but based on its website, there is an odd distance between the Museum and its community. And neither the New Vision nor the Planning Process Timeline express much joy or love for the elegant Renaissance Revival building or its contents.
So what lessons can we learn from this as yet unfinished drama? Here are five thoughts for board members and directors to consider. We don’t know whether they apply in this situation, but we offer them nonetheless.
Being a board member–and some would argue being a museum director–is about service, collective work to safeguard, interpret, collections, ideas and living things for and with the public. Lesson 1: Know your institution. If the only places you know how to find at your museum are the board room and the restroom, you don’t know enough. Learn the campus. Find the furnace room. See collections storage. Know whether exhibit design is done on site or somewhere else. Know the staff by name. Know the important pieces, places, and their stories.
Remember in serving and protecting the institution, you serve your community which may be local, regional, national or international. Lesson 2: Know your community. If you have questions about who participates at your museum, ask them. Remember, you need to know three things: Who your community is as a whole; who comes to your museum and most importantly who doesn’t. If you are considering a change, will it serve those who love your organization and make those who are indifferent into friends? If not, why not?
Don’t believe that an absence of affirmation means your community doesn’t care. To quote Joni Mitchel sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Lesson 3: Be a good communicator. Individually, but most importantly collectively, boards need to communicate clearly and well. If you’re on the board, and you don’t understand something, how will the public understand? Just because a board operates as a collective body doesn’t mean it can’t (and shouldn’t) engage in vigorous discussion around change.
Trust is something that’s earned. Lesson 4: Trust your community. To trust them, you have to know them. (See Lesson 2). That means if you hire consultants on a planning project, you have to provide them with every bit of knowledge you have, and let the chips fall where they may. It means if your hope to change your institution depends on the sale of much loved pieces, you need to say that.
And the last lesson? If you’re asked to serve on a board, believe in the institution that’s asking. Anything else is like buying a house you intend to tear down.
Tell us how your board faces the big decisions.
When you work in a highly competitive high school like I do, you have to think about perfectionism because daily you deal with students who truly can’t stop. They get too little sleep, and work compulsively. Even their concept of recreation is sometimes a resume builder clad in another costume. And it’s peculiar how this culture of “never enough” seeps into the lives of adults in the community as well. As usual, that made me think about a) museums and b) the perfect being the enemy of the good.
In the for-profit world there are about a million books for people struggling with needing to be too perfect at work. But what about the museum world? Do we have issues with perfectionism? I suspect so. Does the fact that so many museums are under-resourced leave staff and leadership reaching for perfection in attempt to save money? Is that because in a world where money is tight, there’s no room for the less than perfect? As a leader, have you figured out how to differentiate between mediocre big-concept ideas delivered in a tightly controlled way and looser more creative concepts that prompt more audience response?
To begin, let’s acknowledge that, irony of ironies, perfection is unattainable, and then remind ourselves that it’s not necessarily a good thing. And yet some days we don’t want it any less. How many of you grapple with experimenting versus completion? Do you put the brakes on new ideas because somehow it seems more important just to get the exhibit/program/event/fund raiser (you pick one) finished rather than try something new? Does that stifle staff creativity? If you said yes, know that you’re not alone. It’s hard to be flexible enough for idea-making and yet driven enough to complete the punch list.
One of the problems some perfectionist people and cultures experience is that they or the organization becomes overwhelmed by details. The weeds are never too high to keep them from wandering in and thrashing about. In a perfectionist culture this means that in a heart beat meetings go off track as staff try to solve problems that aren’t the main point. It’s like cooking a four-course meal before going to the grocery store, and as leaders, we have to be aware of what’s happening and gently steer the ship back on course. In addition, in a perfectionist culture it is difficult to prioritize. When everything has to be done perfectly, it’s hard to put a value on one task versus another.
Perfectionists also have problems delegating. They place the bar so high, that it’s unlikely anyone can fulfill even the most menial of tasks. Sometimes this leads to a “gotcha” backlash where in the spirit of no-amount-of-effort-is-enough, staff pick apart each other’s work, another moment where the watchful leader will gently counsel respect and understanding.
New research also shows that it is possible to be a perfectionist and not be neurotic, nor drive your colleagues crazy. According to this article from New York Magazine, healthy perfectionists are the folks who are likely to be happy with the results of their hard work versus their neurotic workmates who are never satisfied. If you’re interested in plotting your own levels of perfectionism, you can take this quiz included with the article.
There are many moments where we as leaders need to counterbalance perfectionism with the idea that it’s okay to let go and experiment. Success–even small victories–from experimentation rather than rigid adherence to rules breeds confidence and confidence breeds more success. To read more about this try Nina Simon’s blog, particularly this post. Or Creativity in Museum Practice by Linda Norris & Rainey Tisdale.
And as always, share your stories of success (and failure–that’s a different blog post!) with us here.
First we want to thank all of you interested in women’s issues for helping us break a record at the end of March. Four hundred and fifty people read our March 25 post. So for all of you interested in women and work, here are two links that may prove significant:
Amanda Hess’ article “Maybe It’s Time for Employers to Stop Being So Sexist When Women Ask for Raises” (Slate.com, March 28, 2014)