As the Berkshire Museum‘s (Pittsfield, MA) drama roils on, the museum world is thinking a lot about deaccessioning. And it should. The New England Museum Association even added a last-minute session to its annual meeting roster to talk about it. But here at Leadership Matters, the Berkshire Museum’s problems have made us think a lot about boards, board behavior, and organizational culture.
Remember Bill Clinton’s famous tag line, “It’s the economy, stupid”? How about a variation on that for the museum world: “It’s the board, stupid.”? How many of a museum or heritage organization’s problems, both financial and cultural, trace back to the board? Yes, yes, mission and vision are really important, but assuming they’re beautifully crafted in the beginning, they don’t have power on their own. They’re just words. The folks empowered to carry them forward into the world, to interpret them, to make the magic happen, are first and foremost, board members, and in a recent Stanford survey of non-profit boards 27-percent of board members lack a the depth of knowledge, and the engagement required to help their organizations succeed. Pretty shocking.
At larger museums, boards are often referred to with the pronoun “they,” as in “I wonder if they will give us a raise this year?” They are rarely seen except when they meet on site several times a year. Then, the most jaded staff make jokes about which board members will be able to find the meeting room. They have all the cookies, and yet it’s so easy for them to lose their way, literally and figuratively.
And who can tell them anything? They are the board. They hire the museum leadership that we write about each week on these very pages. This is not to say all museum and heritage organization board members are jerks. They are not. Many are exemplary human beings, but just as being promoted from assistant director to director doesn’t make you any smarter, neither does board membership. And yet so much depends on board members’ good work. So if you’re a board member, if you work with museum boards or if you’re a museum director who wields some influence, here are some things we hope you’ve tackled:
- Does your board understand its legal responsibilities? Is that information available in their board handbook? Does your organization have regular check-ins about those responsibilities vis a vis the organization?
- What kind of orientation does your board offer new members? If information is passed orally from member to member, you may want to re-think that. There is plenty of support for how to design a board orientation plan. We are particular fans of Joan Garry because of her clear, simple approach. You could do way worse than to take her advice.
- Does your board have a strong nominating or governance committee? Do they understand your organization deeply and completely enough to know that being wealthy and well-connected might not be all your organization needs?
- Is your board among the 52–percent of non-profit boards nationally whose work is done by a board within a board? If the answer is yes, do you understand when and how that happened, and whether it is still working?
- Does your board have a respectful, collegial relationship with your executive director? Does it have succession plans for board and staff leadership?
- Does your board understand that its primary responsibility is fiduciary? According to the Stanford survey only 42-percent of all non-profits have a “give or get” policy where members are required to donate or raise a particular amount each year. That might not work for your board, but even a modest required donation levels the playing field, and reminds all board members why they are there.
There is no nirvana of boards where everyone internalizes the museum’s mission, gets along with the executive director, contributes time and money and gets others to do the same, but if board members universally understood their trusteeship as work, based in a museum’s mission, perhaps there would be less disruption, less mediocrity, and more organizational success, and raising operations endowments by selling the collection would never ever be considered.
For the last month I’ve worked with a small local history organization. It is big enough to employ a part-time staff member, own a building and a sizable collection, but small enough to suffer from too few resources and a certain amount of instability. Although it’s located in a little community, where many people with an interest in history and historic preservation know one another, its current board is largely new to the organization. They are each passionate about their slice of the pie whether it is black history, archaeology, women’s fashion, or early technology.
For years their mission was the classic “preserves, promotes and presents the history of” statement. Its blandness was used to respond to questions on grant applications and little more. Everyone believed they knew what it meant. Individually, their ideas about the same vague sentence sustained the organization in a half-hearted way. Collectively though–to quote Gertrude Stein–there was no there there.
The board has talked a lot recently about its hopes and dreams for this organization. They’ve talked about being a task-oriented board, and about living in a community where the demographic skews older not younger. They’ve argued–mildly–about whether history is a story or whether history is some immutable truth or both. They understand how wishy washy their current mission statement is, and they’ve gamely brain-stormed verbs to create a stronger statement that embodies their collective hope going forward.
What is apparent though is how fragile this formula is: A group of interested, committed people + mission = action. If we asked every history organization to bake a cake, they would all be different. And don’t get us wrong those differences are wonderful and important. But the fact that some hire a caterer, some bake one from scratch, and others buy gigantic sheet cakes at the grocery store affects the resulting party. And just as in cake baking there are outside forces working for or against the baking aka organizational stability.
Today, the museum field puts more resources into career training than ever before, but boards need guidance too. We understand that even gathering boards together is like herding kittens, but there is no question they need training, support, and encouragement. And yes, the StEPs program works to enable better board leadership, but boards change, sometimes quickly, and StEPs knowledge isn’t always passed on. The bottom line? The field needs to make the same sort of investment it’s making in staff, in boards because better boards mean stronger, better-enabled leadership and staffs, and more meaningful missions. We’re all for that.
In the wake of the ongoing dismay surrounding the Berkshire Museum’s decision to renovate its building, change its focus, and shore up a plundered endowment, and Lee Rosenbaum’s cautionary post about the National Academy of Design — another organization that hoped to cure its ills with cash — we’ve been thinking a lot about boards, board culture, board building, and board behavior.
We’ve written about museum leadership since 2013. Our focus has been the women and men leading museums and heritage organizations. Any of you who’ve read our posts know we believe passionately that the museum field needs to invest more in its leaders and staff than its infrastructure.
Lately museums have made news for a host of reasons including poor decision making and inattention. Each incident sends the press scurrying to find similar situations so the public is reminded of the field’s misdeeds. The field needs to make our job sector a place with better salaries, better benefits, HR offices, personnel policies, and gender equity training. That’s a cultural shift that isn’t going to happen overnight, and a lot of the heavy lifting needs to be done by museum boards. We don’t have a magic wand, but if we did, here are our five wishes for board behavior:
- Boards who understand why they’ve chosen to serve, who know that service is about the institution, whether it is tiny and all-volunteer or a community’s anchor store.
- Boards who believe in the museum field, who understand it’s a place with its own culture, rules, and most importantly, ethics and standards. Those standards weren’t invented a century ago because the folks at the newly-formed American Association of Museums (now American Alliance of Museums) had nothing else to do. On good days these ethics and standards actually inform what the field does.
- Boards who invest in museum leadership within their own ranks as well as staff ranks find that it can be a key to making change, not just an opportunity to shift the responsibility of leadership off their own backs.
- Boards who have a deep understanding of why their organizations matter know it is an understanding that informs and eases the ongoing task of raising money.
- Boards who know that museums hold the public trust, and realize that being a non-profit isn’t a ticket to practices and behaviors they wouldn’t sanction in their own businesses.
This sounds like we think all boards are badly behaved, and we don’t. Many, many are exemplary. But for the sake of collections, communities, and museum staffs, we’d like to see boards move the needle away from downright poor decision making and mediocrity. And the sooner the better.
As we predicted last week’s post generated some lively thoughts. Since not all our comments are posted on the blog itself, in the spirit of change coming from the bottom up, we thought we should share a comment with you. With the writer’s permission, here it is:
“I am in the process of writing a grant, or as we say, I am playing the hunger games. The request is for a FT staff position and the salary I am requesting is $33,000 plus health and life insurance, total compensation package approximately 40,000. I am requiring one year of experience (internships count), but I am not requiring an MA because I believe doing so has made our field less diverse and less equitable over the past 25 years. When I showed the job description and salary package to a colleague, her reaction was “Wow! That’s a lot of money.” When I explained that it was just over the soon to be minimum wage of $15 hr, she just said, “Oh.” We all need to stop thinking that an MA is required to work in a museum (or a library). We need to invest in the next generation, believe and act on the belief that less than minimum wage is unacceptable, for anyone.”
What would happen to the museum field if more people did this? No, one individual’s act won’t change the salary crisis, nor will it deal with the gender pay gap, but if even a quarter of museums opened their doors to newly minted college graduates, let them test the water, mentored them, advised them, would the field be worse off? Might it be more diverse as the writer suggests? Might emerging professionals be better off understanding the field a little bit before investing in graduate school?
Given our location near that hotbed of artistic happenings known as the Berkshires, we would be remiss if we failed to comment on the fracas generated by the venerable Berkshire Museum’s announcement last week. If you’ve been on vacation and cut off from news, the Museum disclosed plans to sell 40 paintings to increase endowment and make capital improvements. Needless to say, the news release sent shock waves through the museum world. While the Berkshire Museum isn’t alone–the Delaware Museum of Art did something similar in 2015 when it sold four paintings–monetizing the collection isn’t usually a board’s first or even second choice when it’s desperate for money. To date, the Museum received a letter from the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association of Art Museum Directors. Their joint statement included this line, “One of the most fundamental and longstanding principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset.” The Museum’s director responded in The New York Times by stating, “The fact is, we’re facing an existential threat, and the board chose the interests of this institution over the interests of these national professional organizations.”
What puzzles Leadership Matters is the same question we asked about Tom Campbell’s exit from the Metropolitan Museum: What was the board thinking? In that instance we were curious whether the board had given Campbell free rein, and then woken up to see the museum tipping toward financial disaster. Did something similar happen in Pittsfield, MA? What is the board thinking?
But more importantly the Berkshire Museum is not any nonprofit organization. It’s a museum. When current board members agreed to serve–and serve is an operative word– did no one tell them that a position on the Board, meant they were joining not only the Berkshire Museum, but the larger world of museums through AAM and AAMD? How did they get the idea that ignoring standards of accepted professional and ethical practice wouldn’t matter?
This situation is eerily reminiscent of Walter Schaub Jr.’s resignation from the Office of Government Ethics. At the time Schaub told National Public Radio, “Even when we’re not talking strictly about violations, we’re talking about abandoning the norms and ethical traditions of the executive branch that have made our ethics program the gold standard in the world until now.” Remind you of anything? How about we replace the words “executive branch” with the “America Alliance of Museums”? In other words, the Museum hasn’t done anything illegal, but its board chose to disregard the field’s ethical boundaries.
While we can hope some gazillionaire raises his hand at Sotheby’s, buys a painting or two and donates them to another museum, the Berkshire Museum’s pending sale seems like a train that’s not going to stop. But before you get too smug that this sorry state of affairs would never happen at your institution, we suggest there’s always work to be done. This is probably a teachable moment. When was the last time your board familiarized itself with terms like “fiduciary” and “duty of care”? Did they receive or are they reminded of AAM’s Pledge of Excellence or AAMD’s Code of Ethics regularly? Is it worth discussing that museums and heritage organizations don’t operate in vacuums, but collectively agree to abide by the field’s ethical boundaries? That is an obligation, not a choice. Like so many other things–political office, for example–you can’t only follow the rules when they suit you. The museum field is the wonderful, complex place it is today because we collectively agree to serve our public. So let’s do the best we can to protect the objects, living things, buildings, and sites entrusted to us.
Recently the Metropolitan Museum announced a change in its leadership structure. You’ll recall that former tapestry curator Thomas Campbell, the Met’s director since January 2009, resigned under pressure in February. Since then, the art museum world has been awash in speculation about who might succeed Mr. Campbell. The answer (sort of) is Daniel Weiss who is currently the Met’s president and CEO. Weiss’s new title will be president and chief executive. Most importantly, the museum’s new director–a position that’s still open– will report to Weiss.
Not surprisingly, this change set museum tongues wagging. For some, making Weiss top dog means the Metropolitan’s board is putting business (and money) ahead of content and mission; however, both Weiss and the as yet unnamed director will serve on the museum board and collaborate on its priorities. For others, there’s also the implication that the Met’s problems are all of Tom Campbell’s making. While Campbell may not have been the most able leader, it seems too easy to blame everything on him. Clearly he wasn’t prepared to move from leading the tapestry department to leading the whole museum, and his choices regarding relationships with women on the Met’s staff seem unprofessional at best. But the idea that Tom Campbell alone led the museum into its financial morass seems too facile. Where was the Metropolitan’s board in all of this? Were they so bewitched they forgot their fiduciary responsibilities, allowing Campbell to spend willy nilly?
The Met is the size of many small towns. In that, it’s unlike the vast majority of American museums. At least one museum blogger suggested that the Met’s new division of leadership runs counter to the American Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) guidelines which state, “The board should appoint the director—to whom it delegates responsibility for day-to-day operations—to be the chief executive officer of the museum.” AAMD’s guidelines may be the right path for most art museums. But the lesson here is that while guidelines are important, leadership for individuals and organizations is specific, and in many ways, personal. Museum boards need to choose the best possible leadership path for their organizations, and who’s to say that in this new, lightning-fast world, where ambiguity and change wait at every corner, that bigger museums wouldn’t benefit from a made-to-order leadership plan? The Met’s bi-partisan model is found more often in academia than museums, yet it makes its own kind of sense. The beauty of the Met’s solution is that in Daniel Weiss it found a person with a PhD in art history and an MBA from Yale, someone who has reportedly earned the trust of the Met’s chief curators, and someone who walks the walk.
How do leadership decisions like this flourish? They happen where boards aren’t wedded to old hierarchical models, where boards are interested in the challenge of change and cooperation. They happen when boards are willing to try and understand organizational culture. And, last but not least, leadership changes when boards invest time in actually finding the best solutions for their organization, rather than hiring someone so they can revert to doing what they’ve always done.
At the director/CEO level, leaders who truly embrace change need to be collegial and collaborative; they need to be as interested in serving as leading. The Met’s solution may not be the model for your organization, but the point is that the lone director, reporting to a board of trustees, is not the only model.
The world has changed. It’s global. It’s fast. Museums need alert, responsive leadership. That happens when boards and museum leaders collaborate, creating leadership models tailored to their organizations. That takes courage.
- Know your organization. Really know it.
- Use that knowledge to create a leadership model that works for the organization, not one that makes life easy for the board.
- Be bold. As trustees you want to do more than hand over a mediocre museum to your successors. Your community, museum staff, donors, and volunteers deserve the best. Figure out what that is.
This fall Anne Ackerson and I will teach a course called “The Museum Leadership Challenge” for Johns Hopkins University’s Museum Studies master’s degree program. As a result, we’ve talked a lot about what we really think the key components of museum leadership are. It’s an ongoing conversation, but the thought of being in a classroom, even a virtual one, puts a different spin on things. I won’t lie: Participating in a program that annually launches newly-minted graduates on the museum world, makes us acutely aware of the museum ecosystem, particularly the job market. The job race is a daunting prospect, asking applicants to create (or shed) versions of themselves via social media, to send hundreds of resumes zooming around the Internet, all while trying to work or volunteer in this field they’ve committed time and money to. It’s a big, complicated deal. And the elephant in many rooms.
Even though a director’s position is sometimes the way out of the hideously low salaries plaguing the museum field, it’s often viewed as a painfully pressured role, so many emerging museum folk avoid the leadership challenge. At small museums and heritage organizations it’s the job that sends 26-year olds to board meetings with people old enough to be their grandparents. Instead, you aim for positions as curator, chief curator, collections manager or educator, director of engagement or social media guru. But here’s what we say: all those positions lead. And more importantly you need to be the leader of yourself. That sounds dopey, but think about it. Your career, in which you’ve invested a bundle of money, isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you make happen.
When you get your first job and start moving up the museum ladder, you will spend hours in planning meetings. You’ll plan exhibitions, events, and programs. You’ll think about branding, messaging, and mission statements. This will be the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell talks about. Hopefully, you will have good mentors, leaders and guides. Hopefully you won’t zone out with your iPhone under the table. And, hopefully, you will think strategically. Why do we care? Because we want you to think strategically about your own life and career. We want you to make things happen. So, if you’re a new museum person, here are five questions to think about:
- What makes you happiest at work?
- How do you manage a challenge and can you embrace and learn from failure?
- Who are your mentors and advisors?
- Have you made a list of your leadership qualities?
- If you’re already working in the field, do your plans and values align with your museum or heritage organization?
If you are a board member, director or department head, directly or indirectly responsible for hiring, know that the culture of your organization affects not only longtime employees and new hires, but the field as a whole. You are change agents. Here are five questions for you.
- Does your organization have a values statement? Have you read it recently?
- Does your organization have a HR policy and/or an HR department?
- What has your museum or heritage organization done to keep bias out of the interview room?
- What is the most important quality you (or your organization) looks for in new employees?
- When was the last time your board talked about staff salaries?
Strategic planning isn’t just for organizations. It’s for individuals, too. No, it’s not a panacea, but in an overcrowded field knowing what you want will help you move ahead of the pack.