Recently I read an Emerging Museum Professionals posting. The writer had invested time and money in a graduate degree in Museum Studies. Covid blocked her path. Then her thesis was rejected. In the meantime, she’d found museum work. She asked whether she should finish the thesis or abandon her degree. Her respondents were divided on the answer, but everyone seemed to agree that investing in a degree is a big deal, and a lot of time and money to leave on the table. This post isn’t really about the need for graduate degrees–that’s another discussion.
It is about that golden moment when you find a field where everything seems right. Charmed by what lies ahead, you imagine yourself doing work that seems important and interesting. Then, grad school ends, and you are thrust into the world. If, like the EMP writer, you’re lucky enough to be hired or already have a museum position, soon your narrative is subtly different. You are no longer a solo traveler; instead, you are part of a larger organization whose needs and values are paramount. How do you know if you’re hitching your wagon to an organization whose values are similar to your own? How much do your own values matter? After all, they’re paying you to be a registrar or an educator or a curator, not wax philosophical about ethics, right?
But what happens when that same organization, the one that chose you out of all those applicants, does something that feels wrong, implicitly or tacitly, sweeping you up in behavior you can’t condone? In that honeymoon moment when you’re courted for the position you’ve always wanted and everyone is on their best behavior, it’s often hard to read a museum’s values. We live in a fractious, divided society where everything from race to faith to medicine to climate change pushes friends and colleagues apart in a heartbeat. Did you ask the right questions? Were there red flags you missed?
If you’re involved in the museum world at any level, you’re likely aware of the Montpelier Controversy. In brief, Montpelier, President James Madison’s 2,600-acre Virginia estate, once home to an enslaved population of 300, spent most of its years with an all-white board. In 2021, Montpelier announced its board would share governance with representatives from Montpelier’s Descendants Committee. All seemed well until earlier this year when the overwhelmingly White board amended its bylaws, seemingly refusing to recognize or collaborate with the Descendants Committee. Subsequently the CEO and the Board fired five full-time staff who supported the merger. When I started this piece, 11,000 people had signed a petition asking Montpelier to seat new Descendants Committee board members immediately. More recently, after being openly chastised by the National Trust, the Board, Montpelier’s Board voted to approve a slate of candidates put forward by the Descendants Committee.
Montpelier is a dramatic example of a heritage organization off the ethical rails, and the Montpelier Five are undoubtedly the poster children for a values/museum workplace clash. After all, getting fired for your beliefs certainly takes the uncertainty of whether to stay at a job that seems to compromise your north star. But what if your experience is less dramatic, but challenging nonetheless? In a field where jobs are hard won, few are privileged enough to pack it in over a values clash. And yet….where do you draw the line between your personal values and the organization’s?
- Start by acknowledging that all of us have different values.
- If you haven’t already, consider your organization’s history. How did it get to be the place it is? Where are its values most evident? To do this, you may want to look at Aletheia Whitman’s Institutional Genealogy pdf.
- Is what you’re struggling with a value conflict or a personal conflict? Admittedly the two can overlap, but fixing them means untangling one from the other. Don’t go to leadership with a value conflict only to rant about how you’re being bullied. Being bullied is wrong, and creates a horrific work climate, but it’s not a value conflict.
- Take baby steps: Try and suss out how the the behavior that is bothering you came to be. Was this an on-the-fly decision or the product of weeks of discussion?
- Are you alone or one of many? There is a value in numbers if you plan to approach leadership about a values issue.
- Is it one issue or is it the organizational culture?
- Pause and consider what you believe and how far you’re willing to go. Ultimatums lead to ultimatums.
- Think deeply about where the line in the sand is for you. Are you willing to walk away?
- You can’t know ’til you know: Discuss your concerns with museum leadership.
- If leadership won’t or can’t hear you, does your workplace have employee support for whistle blower complaints or concerns?
Many museums and heritage organizations have emerged from the last three years better organizations. They’ve become partners rather than pontificators, empathetic rather than my-way-or-the highway, collaborators in understanding who we are in the today’s world. Change isn’t easy though even at the most woke organizations. Part of your due diligence during the hiring process is to try to suss out your organization’s ability to grow and change. Does it match your own? If you move at a different pace, are you willing to be an outlier, a Joan of Arc? Not all of us are willing or able to try and lead an organization out of a values morass. What are you willing to sacrifice?
Be well. See you in June.
There is a saying that we’re all dying, just maybe not today. Something similar might be said about the nonprofit/museum workplace, that we’re all looking for a new job, just maybe not today. Unless you see retirement’s taillights gleaming in the distance, I would hazard a guess that everyone else has their periscope up more than they’d like to admit. It’s a way of day dreaming, of trying on new professional identities. Is that museum really as pleasant as it looks in the photos? Is living there a lot more expensive? Could I do the job? Could I move? What about my partner, children, parents? Is it reasonable to think about a new job in the middle of a COVID spike?
But the fact that a lot of us look casually or seriously isn’t the point. It’s what drives the looking: curiosity, better pay, new goals, a change in a partner’s position are likely a few of the positives. People also seek new jobs because they’re miserable. Maybe they are harassed or bullied at work; maybe their work is monumentally boring or maybe they work for a control freak where their only creative choice is choosing lunch. In fact, if we believe Resume Builders recent report, 23-percent of currently employed individuals plan to find a new job in 2022. Another 9-percent already have new jobs, while an additional nine-percent will retire. That’s 41-percent of sturm und drang, which is a lot of workplace churn.
And then there is this: In addition to all the other ways it’s complicated the museum workplace, COVID has tightened budgets to the point where many people do their original job, plus bits and pieces from staff who resigned or retired, leaving current staff with a constant feeling of whiplash. There is a direct connection between the speed with which those additional tasks become permanent and a staff member’s ability to perform them well. Succeed and they are yours forever. Fail, and you’ll get additional tasks as leaders spitball work at the overtasked. Funny thing though, these random tasks are most often assigned to the so-called rising stars, the driven, the scarily competent.
Then why do the leadership–otherwise known as your organization’s deciders–always seem surprised when those same scarily competent people look elsewhere and leave? Do they really think having a job that’s like a daily game of Jenga is the way to entice talented employees to lean in? Have the deciders forgotten that overloading current staff–even if it’s only until COVID is over–means they may loose staff in whom they have an investment? How does it make sense to have a multitude of tasks that need filling, but say you’re in a hiring freeze, and yet it’s the addition of those same tasks that cause current staff to look for work elsewhere, putting the entire HR picture into a kind of death spiral? Where’s the logic in not being able to hire for work that needs to be done, but allowing that to put you in a position where you loose staff with training, institutional history, and talent precisely because you’ve overloaded them? And it’s not like hiring doesn’t cost. At a minimum, it’s a time suck. Even doing 75-percent of a search on Zoom, you still need to bring finalists to your heritage organization or museum, and that costs money. Sometimes a lot of money. And then there is the time current staff invest in searches, in mentoring, in training, and onboarding. Time taken away from their already overloaded to-do lists.
So what do I think the deciders should do? Well, in a perfect world, communicate up so trustees understand the organizational employment picture. Make sure they’re clear about the costs associated not just with hiring, but in keeping talented, engaged, creative, competent staff. Make sure they understand that not hiring brings its own costs, and further, that an individual who is depressed and dissatisfied because their job mutated because of a staff freeze isn’t a bad person. Wanting to do what you were hired to do isn’t a character flaw. I’m not saying one conversation or even a series of conversations is a panacea, but at least when you have those conversations you’ll have something to report when you communicate down or across to your colleagues and leadership team. And that’s key. You’re asking for sacrifice in a situation that’s gone on for two years and shows no sign of let up. Your colleagues need to understand that a) the shared sacrifice applies equitably (even to the leadership), and b)what the organization’s plans are for moving forward.
- If you have an HR person, consider involving them in discussions regarding future planning. Ditto your CFO. There is more to both of those jobs than the bottom line and benefits.
- Make sure your board and your CFO understands a hiring freeze can lead to loosing staff, and what a talent drain means in terms of both overall expenses and your brand. If you emerge from the COVID years, a pale imitation of your former self, unable to hire the talent you once had, will the hiring freeze be worth it?
- Emphasize or re-emphasize your organization’s core values. Does the combination of freezing some positions while overloading others fit your organizational value statement? If not, this might be the moment to talk about it openly and transparently.
- Is your hiring freeze global or does it apply only to new positions? Whatever decision you make, be transparent about it, and stand by it. If you suggest it only applies to new positions, and then refuse to back-fill an existing position, your ability to maintain trust can be sorely damaged. Why should staff believe you moving forward?
- Your staff and your colleagues aren’t stupid. Explain the why. If you’re an organization whose endowment grew during COVID, and yet you’re still tightening your belt, explain why. Again, trust your staff to listen and ask questions.
- Be authentic, truthful and honest. Offer a future check-in. If the bulk of your money comes in between May-September, set a meeting now for early October to update colleagues on staffing.
COVID continues to damage the workplace as it damages families and individuals. If there is any lesson to come out of this period, it’s that we need to be truthful with ourselves, those close to us, and our workplace colleagues about our capabilities both individual and organizational.
Be well, be kind, and do good work.
This coming week Leadership Matters celebrates its ninth birthday. That’s roughly 450 posts written since December 13, 2012. Phew. I started this blog to promote the first version of Leadership Matters, a book Anne Ackerson and I wrote in 2012, and then revised in 2019 as Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord. In addition to the blog’s birthday, it’s also the time of year when we look back at the year past. 2021 remains a strange and confounding time. In December last year, those of us who hadn’t been relieved of our positions, found ourselves working largely from home, visiting our collections and sites when allowed.
Without a vaccine, it was a lonely, isolating time. And yet, as I’ve written so many times on these pages, the pandemic lifted the rock off a lot of problems. It didn’t fix anything, but for the museum world, it spotlighted a host of workplace issues around race, gender, pay, leadership and on and on. And now, a year later those issues are still here, made more acute by a new forthrightness. Some–myself included– think we need a do-over or at the very least, a series of conversations about where the world of museum work took a wrong turn, leaving so many underpaid, under-appreciated and angry.
I suggested such a conversation last week, posing a mythical group of people I’d like to see around the table. Whether that can or will actually happen is another story, but in the meantime, I want to underscore that change isn’t something that can be solved only from the top down. “They,” whoever “they” are in your world, aren’t going to sweep in and make things magically better. If you make this a board problem or a director’s problem, you shift responsibility from “ours” to “theirs,” as if this were only an issue of leadership. It is a leadership problem, but it’s also a systemic problem, meaning we all own a piece of it. If you’re enraged even reading that sentence, you, who feels powerless in your hourly job where you’re over-educated, under-compensated, and have far more responsibility than authority, remember how systemic issues concern the whole rather than its parts, meaning you play a part as well. What can you do? Perhaps only small things, but small things are still important. Be the kind colleague. Stand up for your fellow workers. Join the union if your museum has one. Attend staff meetings. Know what your personnel policy says. Don’t have one? Lobby for one. Lobby with your fellow workers. Ask them to lobby for you. Don’t be neutral. Speak up. Remember that even at the most enlightened organizations, women, and especially women of color, are paid less so when you hear complaints about pay, don’t discredit them. There is a pay gap. And it is meaningful. In a very bad way.
This week Fast Company surveyed 6,000 employees about the future of work. Fast Company is devoted to the business world, but it’s likely what their employees say they want has some crossover with the museum world. And what do they want? Flexibility. They’re happy working from home, and they don’t necessarily want to change. Apparently 78-percent of their respondents named flexibility as a top priority. Second on the list? Almost half (49%) want to share values with company leadership. I’ve written a lot about workplace values on these pages. Museum jobs are hard to come by, and precisely because the process is so fraught, I’m not sure applicants ask about organizational values, when they should. Fast Company also commented on how for some companies who hired during the pandemic, many employees have never worked on site, never had a hallway conversation, never been to a face-to-face meeting, and no surprise, it’s hard to hold a team together without human interaction. With many museums open again, staffers are back in the building, but the article underscores once again, the need for imaginative, humane onboarding.
This is also the time of year when I look back at the top posts for 2021. If popularity indicates readership, the most-read posts confirm the dark place we’re stuck in. For the third year running, Leadership and Workplace Bullying tops the most-read list, a sad testament to the climate and concerns in museum and heritage organization offices. In the second spot is last week’s post Can We Talk Together About Museum Work? Soon? followed by, Is the Chicago Firing So Different from the COVID Firings? and On Labor Day, Taking the Museum World’s Work Temperature.
Leadership Matters last post for 2021 will appear next week. Then I will be on hiatus until the week of January 10.
Be well, be kind, and do good work.
Last week I spoke with a young woman. She contacted me because she was dealing with a situation of sexual harassment at work, and she didn’t know what to do. What she recounted was an all-too familiar scenario of a female museum employee being harassed by an older, wealthy, white man. This man does not work for her museum, but his wealth makes him important. He has donated before, and her museum anticipates he may again, so her organization wants him treated with kid gloves. Her team leaders, her director, and even HR, asked her to look the other way, to essentially take one for the team. In the meantime, she is supposed to come to work, do her job, do it well, all while waiting for this individual to appear on Zoom as part of a public program, to send her notes at work, and otherwise insert himself in her life in a predatory, sleazy and unwelcome way.
I have no doubt that at some point this young woman will leave her job because her museum has made it clear this individual’s money and his giving potential are worth more than her well being. I hope she doesn’t leave the field, but I wouldn’t blame her if she did. Would you stay if your museum tacitly asked you to prostitute yourself in exchange for a gift? And not even an actual gift, for the potential of a gift. And most damning of all? The director of her museum, and her direct reports are women. There is a sense that the power of the sisterhood should prevail, but perhaps access to money and power trumps empathy and understanding. And please don’t say it’s not like that. It IS like that, and most importantly, that’s what it feels like to be her right now, and no employee in a museum or anywhere else should feel they need to compromise their values and their selfhood to do their job.
I wish this were the first time I had heard this story, but it’s not. When Anne Ackerson and I completed the manuscript for Women in the Museum, we began speaking about women’s issues in the museum workplace at national and regional meetings. In fairness, #MeToo and Ronan Farrow were still a year away. At the time, though, we heard stories of the proverbial board member who sat next to the young, female director at meetings so he could touch her, and none of his fellow board members interfered. We heard about a wealthy male donor who coupled his predatory attitude with racist remarks to a young BIPOC employee. When she looked to her direct reports for support, it was the same story. He was too important to chastise. And we heard about a young woman working in advancement who was told explicitly by her bosses to dress a certain way when she visited older, male donors. We heard about BIPOC staff asked to trade sex for a better position, and about a newly-professional employee cyber-stalked by trustees.
Many of you reading this are horrified, and rightly so. Some of you may say, well, that’s not my institution. Maybe, but do your employees know where to go and how to navigate claims of sexual harassment? Some of you may feel we’re past all that, suggesting the issues we are dealing with today are issues of systemic racism. True, but it’s systemic racism mixed with power and hierarchy, and the thing about many of these incidents is they aren’t about attraction between equals. They depend on one party using power and fear to coerce and intimidate the other. Two things to remember: gender harassment isn’t like a childhood disease society had once and got over. It’s always there. And second, for women of color, it’s another layer of insult. So where are you in all of this? What would you do if your museum had to decline a substantial gift because accepting it meant putting staff at risk?
Many of the museums that end up in the news because of racist or sexist behavior get there because at the center, at their very core, there’s no sense of what they believe in. I’m not talking about mission. If you’re going to ask for money, either public or private, you better be able to express what it is you do for the public and why, but funders don’t ask about organizational values. They don’t ask what happens if a young BIPOC staff on the front lines of a heritage organization is berated by a visitor. They don’t ask what happens if a young shop assistant is on the receiving end of inappropriate comments or if a curator is asked about her social life by a much older donor. They don’t ask about the behavior your museum won’t tolerate on its campus, and how you handle visitor, donor or staff behavior that collides with your organizational conscience. In short, they don’t ask about the way your museum moves in the world. Because twinned with your core mission is a sense of values–for some museums it’s written, for a few it’s made public–that makes it clear that on your site, within your buildings, your staff is safe, seen, and supported.
If you Google “museum values statement” mostly what you get is a few blogs–not this one, although I’ve written about this before–and examples of how museums are valuable to their communities. That’s fine, but museums and heritage organizations are communities of people working for the same goals. Shouldn’t they stand behind the same core of beliefs for 40+ hours a week? Will that stop a 60-something man who feels it’s his prerogative to sexually harass young staff members? No,but organizationally, will it give you something to stand behind when you tell them to stop.
For all museum employees who suffer because coming to work places you in the harassment crosshairs, take care of yourself first. Make sure you have support, from family, friends and a counselor to unpack what’s happening. Once again, if you are the victim of workplace sexual harassment, know the law:
- Federal law covers workplaces with more than 15 employees. For workplaces with fewer than 15 employees, state law applies.
If sexual harassment is an ongoing problem at your museum or heritage organization, join Gender Equity in Museums Movement and the 620 folks who’ve signed the pledge. Think how differently the story that begins this post might be if the young woman’s colleagues had signed the pledge. Sexual harassment is intersectional. Working to eliminate it from your museum or heritage organization stops power from being used as a weapon or to quote LaTanya Autry “Normal is broken; normal is oppressive; normal hurts.”
Stay well and stay safe,
MB-one – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76476300
Museums have reached a crisis point. Directors continue to lose their positions. Many front line staff are gone, perhaps forever. Staff have been underpaid, threatened, harassed, and bullied. As a result, some have unionized. ‘Midst it all is a growing movement calling for dismantling museums as we know them. No more directors, new types of funding models, and most importantly an end to museum boards. So this week Leadership Matters writes to board members to say it’s time to step up, lean in and get busy.
Dear Museum Board Members,
It’s wrong to generalize and group board members from the United States’ 35,144 museums together, but truthfully, whether you govern a gigantic museum like the Metropolitan or a tiny historical society, you do the same thing. While there are differences in scale between being a New York City museum board member and serving on a board in a rural town, you are likely the important, wealthy folk in your particular community. But service is probably the operative word here. Just like the director and the staff, board members serve the institution, and this week, this month, is the moment for you to raise your voices. Museums need you. Your museum needs you.
You may have joined the board because a friend asked or because you have an interest in the museum or heritage organization’s subject, but once you’re a member, your obligation is to its health and safety. You may see the board as primarily responsible for protecting the museum’s assets, but it’s bigger than that. Collectively you understand the museum’s DNA, its values and its culture. You set its tone, hire its director, and know the community it serves.
So what have you done while the museum world rocks and rolls its way across such a choppy sea? How has the COVID belt-tightening affected your bottom line? Has your museum laid off staff? Has that affected staff diversity? Has it affected programming? And what has your museum done for its community during the pandemic? Do you have a community garden? A homework help program? Offer space for the food bank? Since George Floyd’s death has your board met to talk about racism and bias in your museum? Is that something that is important to your museum and to your community? Statistics tell us that 84-percent of American board members are white, male and over 55. That doesn’t make you bad people, but it might make discussing racism challenging. Can you find someone to help your board talk about that?
Perhaps you know all this? Perhaps you’ve been absurdly busy since March 15. But if not, here are five things to ponder as you steer your museum into the future:
- Lead a Value-Driven Organization: Hardly a week goes by without a museum being called out for bad behavior. Directors behave like dictators, curators harass staff, institutions have non-existent HR departments or personnel policies, and board members express surprise when people retaliate. Staff join unions because they are weary of inequitable pay. They sue because they’re tired of going to work–work they love–to be bullied and harassed. If none of these things have happened on your watch, congratulations, but that doesn’t mean you’re immune. Ask yourself what you’ve done this week, this month, this year to create a value-driven organization. Does your museum have a values statement? Does it have a personnel policy? Does your staff feel safe, seen, and supported? Even if you don’t believe that’s your job, surely it is your job to protect the organization’s reputation and its assets by keeping it out of the press and the courts? Governance that’s value driven will never take you down the wrong path.
- Take Responsibility and Apologize if Necessary: AAM tells us people trust museums, that the public considers them more reliable than books, teachers or family narratives. And yet, organizations are only people, and sometimes people mess up. Whether you deaccessioned in a clumsy way and insulted your community, whether you’ve bumbled along in a genteelly racist way insulting members of your community, whether you failed to listen to whistle blowers and permitted inappropriate or illegal behavior, sometimes the board, speaking for the museum, must apologize. It’s what adults do. So when and if you need to apologize, don’t hide. Say you’re sorry and for the love of God, change the behavior that led to the incident in the first place.
- Know Your Museum’s Staff: You may have joined the board because of your love of the museum’s subject matter, your interest in history, science or anthropology, and that’s important. But make no mistake, it’s your museum’s staff that is the organization’s life-blood. Without them, all of them, the museum is a giant warehouse. When was the last time you spoke to your museum staff? Not the fancy curators who care for your favorite collections, but the front-facing staff. Years ago, at my organization we had a trustee who always chatted with us. He was a person with a famous name, and a distinguished career, who spoke multiple languages, but he engaged. Often a week or more after the board was on site, those of us who talked to him would receive a postcard telling us how much he’d enjoyed the conversation. Speaking for myself, it made me feel seen, and acknowledged for the work I do. As we weather this storm of a pandemic, recession and social and political upheaval, it is imperative that you realize your decision making affects people, not just the rise and fall of the endowment.
- Take BIPOC and Gender Issues Seriously: If you’re a white man or woman of privilege, you may think a lot of what you hear about race and gender is more whining than reality. Before you dismiss it, talk to your museum staff. Talk to the guards. Talk to the folks who clean your restrooms or transport art work or greet visitors and ask about their experiences. Listen to what they say. Women, women who are Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and BIPOC museum folk in general, aren’t delusional. Their lives really are different than those of us who are white and privileged, because they are hallmarked by a level of racist and sexist behavior that would astound you. Does your organization protect its female-identifying and BIPOC staff? Do you know? If you don’t, you need to find out. If they have no way to report racist or sexist behavior, your organization is heading for a cliff.
- Leadership Matters: We have said this so many times on these pages, but it really matters who leads your organization. Hiring a director isn’t a task to be handed off to a search firm. It’s not a task to rush through. It’s a learning experience for you and your fellow board members. So much depends on the person you hire. They are the bridge from you to the staff and from the organization to the wider world. Their values have to match yours. Collectively you must respect them, and they you. Just like the board, they must also be a value-driven individual who believes in people, listens with empathy, who has vision, courage and discipline. And that’s on a good day without a pandemic and recession. And remember, a good fit is a good fit. Experience isn’t a panacea. Plenty of people have been in the museum field a long time, and yet they’re terrible leaders. If you find the qualities you need in someone young, don’t let that deter you. Talk about how you might invest in that person through training, mentoring, and leadership development, and hire them.
Museums matter. Your service to museums matters. You can’t be the best board member if you don’t recognize, acknowledge and plan for the myriad changes happening in the museum world. Being part of a small organization doesn’t give you permission to do a mediocre job. Do your best. Support your staff. Make your museum a humane institution. Make it known in your community as a compassionate, creative player.
Kudos and a round of applause go to organizers June Ahn, Rose Cannon, Emma Turner-Trujillo. As someone who’s been an observer and a participant in the museum workplace for a long time, this conference was one of the most thought-provoking I’ve attended. Twenty four hours later, while on my morning walk, I was still ruminating on many of the conversations from the day before. And isn’t that what a good conference should do?
The day opened with a talk by Dr. Porchia Moore. She defined this moment as a point of crisis, a moment of shared trauma, especially for BIPOC museum staff, and she pointed out that the constant harping on “when we can return to normal,” is yet another slap in the face to so many, since “normal” for museums meant a racist, patriarchal, poorly paid, gendered workplace.
As an older, cisgendered white woman, I can’t disagree. There’s no doubt we’ve failed. It’s as if we’ve taken each object, each historic site, each painting, and told half its story. That silk wedding dress, worn by the wealthy landowner’s bride had a story before the wedding itself. Who tended the silk worms, who sacrificed to make the fabric, who shipped the fabric, who made each tiny stitch, who made sure it was spotless, not wrinkled or stained? And who was threatened and harmed if it was? For every object there is a dominant narrative and an untold narrative. If you’re white it’s too easy to revert to the dominant. It’s what we’ve always done, while making some audiences comfortable and disenfranchising others. Clearly to give our collections their full due, we must showcase their interwoven context, giving many narratives an equal chance to be heard.
I am less sure how Death to Museums or perhaps its aftermath, applies to museum leadership. Not because I don’t believe museum leadership needs an overhaul. It does. When Anne Ackerson and I wrote Leadership Matters in 2012 and its revision in 2019, we saw museum leadership clinging to mediocrity as a place of safety. No where is that more evident than in the thousands of mission statements telling the world museums preserve and protect collections. Cryogenic preservation facilities do the same thing, and they don’t pretend to be half as important as museums.
And there is no doubt museum leadership has made a world of bad choices regarding its workforce. Many of those choices–poor pay, anti-union, the gender pay gap, sexual harassment, no HR departments, workplace bullying and other forms of inhumane behavior–have made the news recently, and many are documented and discussed in blog posts here.
But let’s imagine, it’s a new day. Gone are today’s museum boards, peopled with wealthy white men over 55, intermingled with the occasional, acceptable BIPOC. Their annual gifts are gone too as are their connections to wealth managers. So where will the money come from? Will museums follow a European model and be mostly government funded? What does that look like? Are our current federal museum workers happy at work? Is there racism, genteel or otherwise, at the Smithsonian or in the National Park Service? What does it mean to take the King’s shilling? Would museums be subject to the four or eight year cycle of political change that comes with elections? And on a more local level, how will museums run without boards or without a single leader whose role is, at some level, to be the decider?
Maybe I’m naive, but after a lifetime of working with and for, a variety of humans, it matters less to me what an organization’s structure is and much more what kind of people are in charge. Working in a museum ,where decisions are made by a group as opposed to an individual, is no guarantee of a humane, equitable workplace. In other words, to me it’s not the structure as much as it is the people in power.
Good leaders are good leaders whether they govern in groups or alone. I believe at the heart of good leadership is a strong sense of personal values, and an equitable, empathetic understanding and respect for staff, from the ones furthest from the seat of power to the ones closest to it. Any organization without that is an organization headed for peril.
Some museums–albeit not many–used the pandemic to reformulate. Yes, they had to let workers go, but they used the pause to reorganize, bringing workers back to more equitable wages, clear job descriptions and better-written HR policies. Anne Ackerson and I concluded each volume of Leadership Matters with a Leadership Revolution Agenda. Here’s my amended and abbreviated agenda for 2021 and beyond:
Leadership Revolution Agenda
- Accept this year’s uncertainty as the grounding for change. If you’re white, recognize your own whiteness and the walls it builds around you and your organization. Pledge to knock those walls down.
- Know what you don’t know. Pledge to recognize and fight against your own biases.
- Develop your own leadership practice.
- Figure out if you are an active listener. If not, learn.
- Practice self-care.
- Assist with or take responsibility for leadership training and development activities for your team, your department, your volunteers, or if you’re the lone professional, for yourself.
- Stand up for your colleagues when they become targets. Be a voice for the voiceless. Be an ally and an accomplice.
- Speak up for the counter-narrative whenever it’s absent.
- Accept this year’s uncertainty as the grounding for change. Recognize your own whiteness and the walls it builds around you and your organization. Pledge to knock those walls down. Apologize and own your organization’s past behavior.
- Acknowledge the importance of all your staff. Pledge to make yours a human-centered museum.
- Build something new. Complete an equity wage review. Pledge to resolve issues of wage imbalance based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.
- Give staff a voice. Create space, virtual or otherwise, where staff can bring issues of inequity to the fore without fear of punishment. Pledge to listen and make change.
- Insist upon institutional support of the emerging leader and lone professional, and the diversification of governing boards.
- Don’t maintain the status quo; instead make a difference.
Use this moment and make change.
I want to conclude by honoring and thanking again this weekend’s speakers. They are the future and as complex as it’s clearly going to be, they are a courageous and awe-inspiring group.
The rocking and rolling of the museum world continued this week. At least three museum directors left their positions, and multiple organizations, including Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Peabody Essex and the Georgia O’Keefe museums, announced they would undergo staff reductions. Museums are often the trailing indicator in economic crisis and now it’s clear even for those able to open how many visitors won’t come, and how bad the balance sheets will be.
Through it all tributes and solidarity for Black Lives Matter crowd social media. They are well intentioned, but I’m reminded of that writing adage, “Show, don’t tell,” and I wish I knew what museums are actually doing to change the unredeemed, genteel racism that pervades so many of our institutions. Because the real work, the work that matters to staff of color, and ultimately to visitors of color, happens far from social media. So here are some thoughts:
- The Gender Pay Gap: I first wrote about the gender pay gap on this blog in 2014. Since then I’ve written 10 columns about it. If museum leaders were to do one thing to demonstrate they really believe Black Lives Matter, it would be closing the pay gap. Black women are paid 61-percent of what non-Hispanic white men are paid. That means they need to work 19 months to equal every year of white male employment. That is inexcusable. And, according to the Economic Policy Institute, 55-percent of working black women are mothers, many primary wage earners. That means their wealth gap has a significant impact, not just for them, but on their families. If your museum hasn’t already graphed your staff salaries by race and gender, perhaps that should be on your to-do list. With that information in hand, you can work to level the playing field. Anything less supports the genteel racism the museum field has tolerated for more than a century.
- Collections: We know from last year’s Williams College study that art collections in US museums are 85.4-percent white and 87.4-percent by male artists. We know that gender and race equity in science research is an ongoing problem and likely influences how science is presented to the public. And we know the inclusion of additional narratives, whether race, gender or both, are frequently a problem for traditional heritage sites dominated by white, male narratives. And then there is decolonization, a particular problem for collections that once saw themselves as encyclopedic, accepting and exhibiting objects from indigenous cultures while eliminating their voices and stories. Not every museum can follow the Baltimore Museum of Art’s lead, selling work by men, to grow the percentage of women artists, and women artists of color, in their collections. Changes like that take money, yes, but also extensive planning. Do the planning now, and re-write the narrative. Why? Because Black Lives Matter.
- The DEI Position: If you’re museum is lucky enough to have a Diversity position in this age of recession and furloughs, there’s still work to do. White museum leadership, boards, staff, and volunteers still need to grapple with their own roles and their own behaviors. And if you don’t have a DEI position, for the love of God, don’t burden a staff person, who also happens to be black, with that role. They’re navigating their own path as part of the 11-percent of black museum staff nationally. They don’t need to be a spokesperson for racial identity without compensation.
- The Other Pay Gap: The Bureau of Labor Statistics, who tabulates who’s working in the museum field and what they make, tells us our median compensation is $49,850 or roughly $24 an hour. In other words, we’re not a high-paying field. One of the by-products of the COVID-19 layoffs and furloughs is worker protests. In New York City, Minneapolis and elsewhere we’ve seen museum workers using an organization’s 990 forms to publish executive compensation numbers in contrast to hourly, front-facing staff pay. Many of those staff have graduate degrees and yet their take-home pay is perilously close to Federal poverty lines. If a museum director makes $750,000 with benefits, but her front-facing staff makes $12/hour with no benefits, is her pay too high or is their pay too low? Isn’t it time museums as a group talked about this and grappled with a recommended ratio? Boards aren’t usually fans of unions, and yet the reason staff join unions is because they need and want a living wage and benefits.
Talk is cheap. For organizations and individuals what you do is in many ways more important than what you say. If your organization believes Black Lives Matter, than show your staff and your community the steps you plan to take. Be the organization you say you are.
By Steven Miller, Guest Blogger
On April 15, in an attempt to help member museums during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) issued a press release announcing it had “…passed a series of resolutions addressing how art museums may use the restricted funds held by some institutions.” Key wording in the announcement stated “… the AAMD will refrain from censuring or sanctioning any museum – or censuring, suspending or expelling any museum director – that decides to use restricted endowment funds, trusts, or donations for general operating expenses.” The information included how endowments are defined. It provided wording about ways they could be raided by museums. The resolutions also included new exemptions about how money gained from the sale of deaccessioned museum collections can be used for the “direct care of collections.” The statement went on to explain, “AAMD also recognizes that it is not within the Association’s purview to approve the redirection of restricted funds. However, it hopes that these resolutions will serve as an endorsement to donors or the relevant legal authorities, encouraging them to permit the temporary use of these funds for unrestricted needs.”
This blog post focuses on the endowment issue.
Museums are expensive places to run. Money primarily comes from three sources: earned income, endowments, and charitable donations. Earned income is customarily realized by such things as admission fees, retail sales, memberships, and space rentals. Endowments comprise funds gifted or otherwise allocated to sustain operations or designated programs. Charitable donations involve money freely given for general or specific uses.
Funding for American museums has been abruptly reduced as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. Most institutions are closed. This means attendance and retail profits are almost entirely lost. Downward valuations combined with large emergency withdrawals have reduced investment portfolio size and returns. Many museums find charitable giving reduced to a trickle as donors hold back.
Museum boards of trustees are going nuts trying to assure the survival of their organizations for which they are responsible. Their struggles are almost insurmountable. Practical solutions are almost entirely of a fiscal nature. What will it cost to survive, how is survival defined, and, where will the money come from, not to mention when?
The AAMD’s resolution announcement was made “…in recognition of the extensive negative effects of the current crises on the operations and balance sheets of many art museums – and the uncertain timing for a museum’s operations, fundraising, and revenue streams to return to normal.” In the abstract it’s a nice gesture. In reality, it has little weight. In fact, museum boards have always had the right to go to donors or their heirs to make restricted funds less restricted in order to survive a financial crisis.
Museum endowments range from huge to negligible and their purposes and structures range from specific to general. Usually they are invested in conservative monetary instruments, mostly stock and bond portfolios. These are managed either by professional money managers or designated members of a museum’s board of trustees. Responsible museums have investment policies. They spell out how funds are retained and used. As with other policies, the one regarding investments is agreed on by a board of trustees and kept in governing documents.
Anyone familiar with the American museum world knows boards of trustees do as they wish within sometimes broad legal parameters. For the most part their decisions are beneficial or at least not too damaging. Now, all face terrible choices regarding the very survival, much less longevity of museums, in this country. For the most part trustees are doing whatever they legally can with whatever resources they have, which include endowments.
Having directed a museum in 2008 when the Great Recession hit, I witnessed how one board of trustees dealt with endowments. Their example is unfolding again. The board analyzed the institution’s endowments. Unrestricted funds were spent down to cover operating costs. Trustees approached people who had established restricted endowments, or the donor’s heirs to request a release of the restrictions. Permissions were granted for all such endowments. Substantial cost-saving measures were instituted by me, starting with a voluntary 40% cut in my salary. Other compensation was reduced incrementally with the lowest paid employees suffering the smallest cuts. Furlough weeks were also instituted. We emerged from the mess having cut one position and that person was quickly rehired. A dozen years later, as COVID-19 unfolds, the lost endowment funds from 2008 have still not been replenished to their original levels.
My time dealing with the 2008 fiscal debacle was the most difficult leadership challenge I ever faced in my career. I am grateful to avoid the current boondoggle. But, as a member of two non-profit boards (an art conservation center and a college alumni/ae group) I am witnessing trustees struggling to make ends meet and how the AAMD’s resolutions have no meaning. Censuring or sanctioning member museums or directors will carry little weight. When push comes to shove, boards of trustees need to make difficult decisions based on a lot of unknowns. Unless the AAMD can pony up significant cash assistance, given the fiasco museums face now, they have sound arguments for contradicting their best intentions.
AAMD Board of Trustees Approves Resolution to Provide Additional Financial Flexibility to Art Museums During Pandemic Crisis (Press release, April 15, 2020)
If I were Randy Rainbow I’d begin this post with a clever song about my ongoing crush on the Philbrook Museum. But I’m not. My singing is cringe worthy, although my crush is real. How can you not love an organization that writes about post-pandemic life like this? “The museum we closed will not be the museum we open.”
Yesterday I heard an NPR interview with a Boston doctor. He explained ER visits are down because many people will endure pain rather than expose themselves to the virus. He suggested ERs have to learn to do two things at once: Be familiar, caring places we’re not afraid to go for stitches or a broken limb, but also be the entry point for Coronavirus patients. It occurred to me that may also be true for museums. Museums need to do two things at once as well: the familiar in-person experience and a whole other multi-leveled virtual one.
More than 20 years ago the Internet dissolved library walls. Suddenly physical space didn’t matter. Walls were porous because information was everywhere, from the books you checked out, to whatever you found on the library’s computers and databases, to ultimately, your laptop and cell phone. As devices became increasingly sophisticated, so did librarians, not because they no longer believed in the power of books (they do, passionately), but because they knew we needed guides through the wild world of the digital universe. To an outsider, the library pivot felt pretty seamless, shifting from a place where access only happened in the traditional reading room to an all-enveloping library where the focus is on you and your access to information. How did museums miss that boat? Where were they when the shift to the digital universe happened?
Clearly, some folks got on board, which brings us back to the Philbrook. Under normal pre-COVID circumstances, a resident of Connecticut (me), would not likely know much about a museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But I discovered the Philbrook on Instagram several years ago where it already possessed a lively social media universe rooted in its site and collections. In a piece written for AAM, Philbrook President Scott Stulen describes the museum’s closing: “On March 13th, a cross-departmental group assembled. We had just cancelled the opening to our new exhibition that evening and met to actively respond to the expected (and unexpected) challenges ahead. This group quickly mobilized the entire staff, guided by the priorities to ensure the safety of staff and the public while stabilizing the museum financially. There was also a realization that our mission to connect the community to art and gardens was not on pause, it was just moving to new platforms.”
The Philbrook, along with many other museums and heritage organizations, understands museum collections have a power beyond the sanctity of space. It wants you to visit, but equally important, the Philbrook seems to want you to know them, virtually and actually, their values, their beliefs, even the museum cats. And they don’t see their virtual collections and exhibits as some sort of junior varsity version of themselves. Rachel Cohen wrote “What We Miss Without Museums” for last week’s New Yorker. Cohen talks about her life pre-children, visiting the Metropolitan weekly. She is a master of slow looking. Yet after she became a parent and regular museum visits were more difficult, she started to take pictures, creating her own virtual exhibits. She writes, “Every day, I use a few of my photos of artwork to write an entry for an online notebook. I’ve been keeping the notebook on and off for years, but now I do it urgently, sending messages in bottles to friends and strangers, trying to offer what I’ve stored, what I miss.”
I wonder two things about museums in the post-COVID universe: Will the ones who survive be the ones who saw themselves as more than repositories? And will the ones who survive successfully be those who recognize the collections’ energy to serve audiences in a multitude of ways, not because we’re in a pandemic, but because it’s the smart thing to do? And in doing it well, will they acknowledge museums too have no walls? Nothing can replace standing in front of your favorite painting, seeing a living creature or sharing space with an object of historic significance, but is it a binary choice? Is an actual visit the only choice? Or is there another that’s different, but equally important?
This week Wilkening Consulting posted an infographic about virtual museum content and the public. Among the things it points out is that most adults don’t look to museums as a virtual source. Can that change? Wilkening reports her respondents are still looking for hope, for escape, to understand the pandemic experience, and to make connections while maintaining social distance. Raise your hand if you don’t at least have something hopeful you can offer.
As states loosen pandemic restrictions, medical experts warn it may be a year or more before we return to something like our old lives. So as museum leaders and followers how will we ride out the next 12-18 months?
- In times of crisis it’s easy to fall into the trap of the hero/shero, but is any of us capable of having all the answers? Don’t we need one another? Be the leader who values interdependence.
- Work with your staff to build a collaborative model where your museum is more than the keeper of the rare and the special.
- Understand your organization’s DNA. Know your organization well enough to make gentle fun of it.
- Take care of your staff. They are your museum and they can help move it forward from the COVID-19 pause.
- Know your community. Ask it how you can help?
- Don’t stop connecting.
Nothing changed this week, and yet everything did. Pandemic numbers continued to climb, all while public health officials predict the worst is still to come. Lines for food banks grew as the number of unemployed multiplied. Museums and heritage organizations made headlines with massive layoffs of front line staff. Midst it all, those of us lucky enough to work from home, found our worlds simultaneously shrink to the size of our houses or apartments and expand to the farthest reaches of the world as we spend more and more time online.
This week I’ve been thinking about separation. As museum folk, our livelihood depends on our interaction with things — paintings, documents, buildings, living things or objects. Suddenly, we’re apart. Apart from the stuff we care for, caring that comes in many forms, through leadership, advancement, scholarship, education, conservation or transportation. Whatever our role, we’re separated. And in this case we’re separated not just from the heartbeat of our museums or heritage sites, we’re separated from colleagues, our human communities, volunteers, tiny children, bigger children, budding artists and scientists, families, and elders.
Is there such thing as a good separation? How do you manage disconnection yet stay attached? How many novels, plays and movies take shape when one character announces they must leave, but they’ll be back? How do relationships deepen between absent friends? Does absence may the heart grow fonder?
And what sustains us through a separation? It used to be letter writing. Now, not so much. Are separations also defined by how we choose to fill the absence?
This week I read a wonderful piece by John Stromberg, director of Dartmouth’s Hood Museum to his community. Stromberg talks about the Hood’s commitment to art “by all, for all.” But more exciting to me is his open acknowledgement that however empathetic and caring the Hood’s exhibitions were, now the museum is closed, he acknowledges his staff must pivot. He writes:
As the Hood Museum staff continues to transition to our new digital work format, we are challenged to revitalize and update a key tenet of what we do: putting individuals in direct contact with original works of art and each other. How do we move forward without the physical proximity that has been critical to our practice? Can digital means replicate the intimacy of face-to-face dialogue about today’s most pressing issues?
So must separation incorporate a willingness to change and grow?
Then there is the Philbrook Museum of Art whose relationship with its community, both virtual and actual is a marvel, thanks in part to the leadership of Scott Stulen, a multi-talented artist who admits his directorship is about putting community building into “overdrive.” Who doesn’t want to know a place that in a matter of days changed its tagline to “Chillbrook Museum of Staying Home, Stay Home, Stay Social” as if this were just another day in the life. The Philbrook’s website makes you believe all your emotional and intellectual needs are in hand. Whether it’s listening to podcasts, hearing a tiny concert or participating in a children’s art class, it’s clear that separated or not, the museum percolates along, even for those of us who’ve never been to Tulsa, OK. This week the Philbrook put its money where its mouth is, announcing it is expanding its edible garden in order to support the food bank. How could anyone forget a place that offers so much for so many, and who manages to be winsome, and serious, musical and witty, all at the same time? Maybe a good separation is about enhancing what’s already there, making it richer in the absence of human contact?
Although Old Salem Museum and Gardens closed ahead of some North Carolina museums and heritage sites, the door was barely shut before it launched #wegotthis, a series of online events that included the History Nerd Alert and the Old Salem Exploratorium. About a week ago, it began transforming its historic gardens into Victory gardens to support the city’s Second Harvest Food Bank. That prompted another online series called Two Guys and a Garden. In addition Old Salem has put its head pastry chef back to work producing 50 loaves of bread a day for the food bank, while its head gardener offers videos on seed starting. Does giving back make an organization more memorable? Is it easier to ask, once you’ve given?
Last, but not least, Raynham Hall Museum, The Frick (What’s not to like about Friday cocktails with a curator?) and the Tang Teaching Museum: All used Instagram before the pandemic, but since COVID-19, they’ve ratcheted things up, speaking directly to their audience, making connections between collections and past epidemics, illness, inspiration, art and spring. And there are many more museums and historic sites you know who, despite separation, are enriching connections, building bridges, and creating new audiences.
So what makes a difficult thing like separation doable? Ah…wait for it….because maybe it’s similar to museum life back when things were normal: How about honest, authentic communication that builds outward from mission and collections to connect with community? Opportunities abound for learning the “how-to’s” of social media, but knowing your own site, and your own community, and translating your organizational DNA to images, video, tweets and Instagram, that’s on you. Because when the separation is over–and it will be–how will your organization be remembered? As the site that closed its doors and then 10 weeks later woke up like Rip Van Winkle? Or as the online friend who made people laugh, taught them some stuff, and helped out the community?
 Scott Stulen, “When an Artist Becomes a Director,” American Alliance of Museums, May 17, 2018. Accessed April 13, 2020.
Image: Chillbrook (Philbrook) Museum Instagram post, “Our cats are lonely and would love to hear from you. Write them a letter and they’ll write back. 🐾”