An Anniversary, But Also a Question: Can Each of Us Do Something to Make the Workplace Better?

Juliescribbles – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108765177 taken from https://www.scribbler.com/

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.

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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.

Joan Baldwin


Museum Leadership and DEI: A Process or an End Game?

Mark Strozier from Macon, GA, USA – WeekEnd, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=98548400

Last week’s post generated some buzz. It also prompted me to continue thinking about race and workplace equity, so here goes:

My grandmother was born at the end of the 19th-century. A generation later she might have been a professor or a politician, but as a young woman who finished college before WWI, her rebelliousness ended when she married. When I was little, she frequently spoke in quotes, most of which sailed past me. A frequent flyer was “Do as you would be done by, ” a sentence that seemed so riddled with verbs and prepositions that it was unintelligible. But decades later, it has more resonance.

Many of our organizations either have Diversity, Equity and Inclusion offices or aspire to have them. They are there to help us right centuries of wrong doing, to re-center our overwhelming White world views, and to provide staff safety and security in knowing everyone, not just the powerful and well compensated, is treated equitably. In retrospect, what strikes me about the Chicago Art Institute’s decision to dissolve its docent program in favor of paid, BIPOC, front-facing staff, is not the decision itself, but about the museum world’s reaction to it. Equity isn’t equity unless it applies to everyone, even the people whose political views, values, and personal choices you don’t share. In other words, to quote my grandmother, “Do as you would be done by.”

It strikes me that this is likely one of the most challenging parts of 21st-century leadership. As a leader, you need to be fair or equitable, always. Not just because it makes your organizational optics better, not just because you’re trying to appease a particular group or board member, and not just because in your heart you’re more allied with one point of view than another. To be truly equitable, your bag of biases must be kept off-stage otherwise you’re liable to privilege one individual or group over another. Why? Because they appear to share your values? Maybe outside of work they’re your friends? Maybe they remind you of a family member? Who knows? But when push comes to shove, they stir your sympathies, and cause you to lean in ways others do not, and unless you acknowledge that behavior and interrogate it, your decision making will be flawed, and you will likely make inequitable decisions.

One of the symptoms of post-Trump, post-COVID America is people seem free to speak their minds whether one-on-one, on social media or through protest. That can be healthy–like when staff collaborates for better salaries and benefits perhaps through union membership–or unhealthy–when a museum visitor berates a staff member. It also means when decisions are made, it’s likely there will be a reaction, which is all the more reason today’s museum leaders need to understand their own value systems, to align them with those of their organization, and to make sure the two mirror one another.

Last week some readers pointed out that we don’t really know how the Art Institute communicated with its docents, whether it chose to speak with them face-to-face or ended the volunteer program via email. Fair enough. But it’s easy to applaud the dissolution of one program without knowing anything about what will replace it. Would it help if we knew the Art Institute had also revamped its hiring practices so candidates are assessed with a minimum of bias? Would it help is we knew the Art Institute had prioritized BIPOC hiring, onboarding and mentoring?

Workplace equity is critical for everyone. And at the same time, we don’t leave our values, our beliefs, our friendships and our families behind when we enter the workplace each morning. That means museum leaders, whether at the top of the organizational food chain or department heads, need to be endlessly empathetic, and constantly engage in self-reflection, working to ensure individual success along with the collective whole. They need to make challenging the status quo the the beginning, not the end game. In short, systemic change means there are no quick solutions. And they need to understand White people’s antiracist work can leave Black colleagues exhausted. Why? Because somehow it becomes a White thing, necessitating congratulations, acknowledgement, and once again making White staff the focus of the narrative.

Change begins when an all-White volunteer program becomes BIPOC and paid, but it can’t end there. Is it enough that a predominantly White museum feels less bad because it changes the color of its front-facing staff without knowing whether they are safe, seen, and supported? Does a different staff who still bears the burden of a racist museum culture make for a different museum? In a perfect world, antiracist work is a process that hopefully deconstructs the ways White ideologies are prioritized in a museum, linking staff changes to larger internal organizational changes designed to create safe, equitable museum workplaces.

Be well and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Hindsight: Recognizing When You’re Stuck on the White Channel

If you read this blog often you know it’s not autobiographical. In fact, most weeks I try to keep my private life off stage, but today I’m changing things up. To begin, I’m involved in a working group on my campus called “Doing the Work.” It’s an off-shoot of six-month study to help members of our community understand and combat racism wherever we see it. Last year, it was structured on readings, video, and discussion. This year, it’s focused around personal projects on campus in the hopes that we can each influence the spheres in which we work, whether it’s Special Collections (me), the Library, the classroom, residential life, you name it. All that is to say, that I am currently hyper-conscious of my behavior, my words and my choices, trying to re-center a privileged, white outlook toward something more empathetic and wholistic. Most importantly, I’m conscious of what’s missing, since so often here in the genteel northeast, what’s left out is as telling as what’s included.

So that’s the back story, but not the main event/ There are a lot of creepy, wrong things about Facebook, but it’s not entirely without merit since it allows us to hear from colleagues we might only see annually at a meeting. In my world one of those people is Omar Eaton-Martinez, the Assistant Division Chief for Historic Resources in Prince George’s County, Maryland. If Omar and I have met once, it’s a lot, but I grew up in Maryland, and started my career about a billion years ago working for the Maryland SHPO’s office so reading his Facebook posts pulls at my heartstrings. I know the region. I know some of the places although most not well, until last week. Last week Omar posted a video from the Maryland Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recent hearing in Allegany County, Maryland. Why is that important? Well, I moved from Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland, the county seat for Allegany County, in sixth grade. It’s where I went to middle school, and where I returned after graduate school, and where I had my first full-time job as director of the Allegany County Historical Society.

The Maryland Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearing, sadly the first of many, tells the searingly sad story of the October 6, 1907 lynching of Robert Hughes, an 18-year old Black man, arrested for an altercation in a local bar resulting in the death of a White police officer. Awaiting trial in the County jail in Cumberland, Hughes was abducted from the jail, beaten and shot while local officials stood by and allowed it to happen. Needless to say many of the town’s residents came out to watch as if seeing a man killed in front of the courthouse is akin to seeing the circus come to town. Like many of this country’s lynchings, the murderers were never charged, Hughes’ family never received an apology, nor did the town provide funds for Burns’ sister to take his body to Pittsburgh for burial.

Apart from the obvious pain of the story, the sadness in the voices of Burns’ descendants speaking about their family history, here’s what struck me: As the historical society director, why wasn’t I thinking about race in Cumberland, Maryland? And to add insult to injury, all of this took place less than two blocks from where I lived and the Historical Society headquarters. No, it wasn’t the digital age, when I could have Googled a ton of information from my home laptop, but it was there. Where was my head? And here’s what’s even weirder. I didn’t have an easy time in that position. I was fresh out of graduate school, and almost messianic in my zeal to make change. But questions of race, weren’t the questions I was asking. Why? Perhaps I thought I knew the narrative although clearly I didn’t. In the end, I think everyone engaged in re-centering ourselves needs to ask these questions. Not everyone will be brought up short as I was, but everyone needs to look to their pasts and acknowledge what was left undone, unsaid, and unexplored. You can think of yourself as the kindest most empathetic human in the world, but if your world view is stuck on the White channel, you’ll never ask the necessary questions. Maybe you don’t even know what questions you should ask, but start by “doing the work.” Acknowledge the work left undone, the questions left unanswered. If you work for a heritage organization look for the stories left out of the narrative. Who’s not present? Who in today’s BIPOC community can help reconstruct stories that are missing or covered over because while it’s your obligation to make sure the story is told, it’s not always yours to tell.

So, it’s decades late, but kudos to Maryland for creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and for the hard work of historians and genealogists in Allegany County in uncovering this story. And a big thank you to Omar Eaton-Martinez for posting the video.

Be well, be kind, and do good work.

Joan Baldwin


Diversity without Intersectionality is a Cart without a Horse

 DeFacto – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49503980

I admit it: It’s taken me a long time to wrap my head around intersectionality. When Anne Ackerson and I started writing Women in the Museum five years ago, I would have told you all women experience sexism in the workplace. It’s what unites us. Well, maybe, but in retrospect so is the fact that we all walk upright and most of us have two eyes and two ears.

Even though I was taken to task more than a few times by women of color during the writing of Women in the Museum, I don’t think I really understood intersectionality until this summer. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder I heard a Black parent interviewed on NPR. They were talking about giving their children “the talk.” Anyone who has raised children knows parenting provides a wealth of things to worry about. All those worries escalate when children become teenagers, independent beings capable of making spectacularly bad choices. But listening to those parents, I realized my worries while raising two children were minor compared to theirs. So although we are united in parenthood, our experiences are vastly different. Of all the many things I worried about, car accidents, alcohol, bullying, drugs, you name it, I never worried about whether my children would be called out for simply being themselves. They are white, and therefore protected.

The term intersectionality belongs to Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a lawyer and civil rights advocate. She introduced it in a 1989 paper presented in Chicago, although she acknowledged it came from generations of Black women writing that, “In every generation and in every intellectual sphere and in every political moment, there have been African American women who have articulated the need to think and talk about race through a lens that looks at gender, or think and talk about feminism through a lens that looks at race. So this is in continuity with that.”¹ Later, she used the metaphor of a traffic intersection, with cars coming from several directions, to describe intersectionality, opining that when an accident occurs, it’s difficult to pinpoint who or what caused it. Just as when a Black woman is talked over, demeaned or harassed at work is it because she’s a woman or because she’s black? Or is it because she’s not in power and someone who’s male is or someone who’s white and male?

There are a lot of museums and heritage organizations hiring Black leaders at the moment, and that’s a good thing, but questions remain: Do organizations do the kind of soul searching they need to do during the hiring process so BIPOC leaders aren’t tokenized or hired to check a box? Here’s what I mean. If a board hires a person of color because it thinks it should, but never addresses its own biases and issues, what happens? The first months may be fine, maybe even the first year, but what happens when implicit bias burbles to the surface? What happens when it’s clear the board’s perception of its first Black director is riddled with preconceptions. The Board may have trouble articulating those feelings because board meetings are not generally the place for feelings. Yet without unpacking what’s happened, both leader and Board begin an alliance based on misunderstanding.

And what if the leader is a woman of color? What if the Board also has issues with gender, issues it’s never copped to? What if, in their heart of hearts, they perceive women as less competent, prone to emotions, possibly more devoted to family than being a director, and maybe not leadership material? That’s a dire picture, but it’s the “and also” of intersectionality. Women sometimes face an uphill battle when it comes to leadership, but women of color must also combat the additional lens of race, that’s often masked in the urbane, left-leaning world of museums. And women’s workplace experiences vary drastically, so boards, HR departments and museum leadership need to do more than congratulate themselves for stepping outside the box and hiring a candidate of color.

One of our Johns Hopkins Museum Studies students remarked this week how important it is to be able to come to work as your whole self. Too true. Some museum staffers have always had that luxury. And that’s the inflection point between diversity and intersectionality. Knowing your staff reflects your community and the world as we know it is important. That’s the cart. But the horse is offering the respect and support for each of those individuals to bring their whole being to work, and to feel supported in what they do. That’s the horse.

As we work to right the wrongs of more than a century of overpowering patriarchal whiteness and classism in museums and heritage organizations, we need to be mindful of not only creating a diverse workplace, but an equitable and supportive one as well. Inviting someone to the table isn’t enough. Sometimes the rules are mysterious, opaque, and strange. We owe it to every creative, diverse soul who works with us to offer them the support and the path, the cart and the horse, to navigate the museum world.

Stay safe.

Joan Baldwin

¹New Statesman. Retrieved 10.11.20. https://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could


Retirements Don’t Negate Racism or Two Things Can Be True @ the Same Time

CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=297185

I don’t usually comment negatively on other writing, but Lee Rosenbaum’s column about the Metropolitan Museum’s 96 retirees was, in my opinion, a little too glib. Mostly, it blithely overlooks the idea that two things can be true at the same time. Collectively, the employees she names have been at the Met a total of almost 300 years. Leaving aside their considerable contributions, they are unusual for their long stays at the museum, an average of 36.5 years each.

But none of that makes Rosenbaum’s comment that “they [the retirees] go down as a soothing palate cleanser after the vitriol from current and former staffers who (perhaps with some hyperbole) have accused the Met and other NYC cultural institutions of “consistent exploitation and unfair treatment of Black/Brown people” and “blatant disrespect and egregious acts of white violence toward Black/Brown employees.” The fact that both these ideas–that the retirees can praise the Metropolitan while current or recently furloughed staff accuse the Met of racism– are true, pretty much sums up the museum world’s current state of mind. In brief, not everyone’s experience is the same, there is no “right” career path in the museum world, and it’s wrong and disrespectful to assume otherwise. The Metropolitan offered this group of privileged white men and women a career home. They worked long and hard and made massive contributions in the world of art history, but their experience isn’t everyone’s, and it is disingenuous to the succeeding generations of employees to suggest it is. To be BIPOC in any storied, patriarchal, gilt-edged culture is a challenge. It’s exhausting, frequently frustrating, and requires a level of daily vigilance, probably unknown to Rosenbaum’s group of retirees.

There are so many things that go into being happy at work. The top four might include: Loving what you do; having a talent for it; being mentored and challenged; and receiving a fair and equitable salary and professional development opportunities. But then there are the hidden qualities: Is your workplace a value-driven culture? Is it a place where equity is a hallmark of work life whether you clean restrooms, arrange flowers or write scholarly catalogues about the world’s most famous paintings? Is it a place that’s kind and supportive regardless of who you are? And last, there are the personal issues. Some of us are optimistic and more resilient than others. And life today–even leaving aside the monster of COVID–is perhaps a teensy more complex than in the early 1980’s when many of the Metropolitan’s retirees started working there. Overlay all of that with an age so uncertain and fractured, and is it any wonder young, BIPOC employees are weary? How can they be sure why they were hired? Was it talent, ambition and creativity or some chemistry of guilt, DEI necessity, and brand development on the part of museums who believe they’re doing the right thing, but truly haven’t a clue, leaving new BIPOC staff to navigate their way through a world of — we want you — but now you’re here, figure it out on your own? Perhaps that’s more complicated than any of us older white folks know?

One last parenthetical note: The Metropolitan won’t be the the first or the last to have waves of Boomers retire as part of COVID retrenchment. Leave aside what they know about content, those retirees carry with them huge institutional history. So if you are a Generation Xer or a Millennial, who’s waited for this moment for what seems a lifetime, remember two things: Some day, in the not too far-off future you will be the ones a younger generation is waiting to move off stage. So help it happen with some grace. Listen for the knowledge and context they’ve accumulated, and work to understand the mistakes they made. It will make your organization a better place. And second, if the older generation wasn’t as kind, equitable or supportive as you needed, it’s your turn now. Be the leaders you wanted.

Joan Baldwin


Is Calling for Their Death the Path to Fixing Museums?: A Leadership Agenda 2021

960px-Gravestone_(World’s_Best_Music,_1900)

By Johnson, Helen Kendrik (Ed.) (?) – Johnson, Helen Kendrik (Ed.): “World’s Best Music”’ (1900)[1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=706443

Museums aren’t in a good place. From furloughs and layoffs, to discussions about unionization to organizations failing to grapple with systemic racism, it’s a bleak picture. It’s almost as if the global pandemic unleashed the genteel restraints governing so many museum workplaces. Or maybe, with so many individuals out of work, there’s no need to stay quiet. Whatever it is, the genie is out of the bottle, and nowhere was it more evident than at the Unconference, August 1 and 2nd, titled Death to Museums.

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

For Individuals:

  • 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.

For Organizations:

  • 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.

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 


Blame, Boards & Change

 

IMG_20180621_112418

Author photo, taken at Meow Wolf, Santa Fe, N.M., artist unknown

There is a whole lot of blame going on in the museum world with plenty directed at museum trustees. Where are their voices as the pandemic and the racism awakening unleash a Pandora’s box of anger?  Anger at the irony of museum leadership releasing statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter while watching staffs decimated by COVID-19 furloughs and layoffs? Of museums sitting silent, serene and closed while women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA staff reveal that life inside isn’t so perfect?

Those of you who regularly read Leadership Matters  know my antipathy to Twitter. But, though I rarely tweet, I do read, and recently there have been a a lot of comments about the need for a new sort of museum governance. (Can I pause here and say, how much I appreciate @MuseumsandRace’s series of questions on complicity. If you haven’t read them, you should. And if you need to spark staff or board discussion, use them.) But back to a new governance model. Many questions were raised by @TylerGreenBooks. He points directly at art museum trustees, suggesting art museums act like corporations not charities (his word), and that their boards are made up of folks whose major qualification for board membership besides money is “that they shop for art.” In fact, nonprofits, including museums, are corporations, just of a different type.

Tyler Green also suggests art museum boards are “bereft of experts with knowledge and experience related to the charity’s mission” while adding that “wealthy trustees give the minimum institutionally required board dues, and go along to get along.” Is that true? I have no way of knowing. And given the huge variety, even among American art museums, it seems a massive generalization. However, AAM’s 2017 Museum Board Leadership Report tells us that 2/3 of museum directors say their boards have a positive impact on job satisfaction. Should we believe them? Or have they crossed some economic divide, setting them far from the world of their hourly staff? The Report also tells us the vast majority of museum boards don’t assess their own performance, a concerning fact given that it’s likely boards presume there’s a world of assessment going on inside the museums they govern. And it also offers this nugget: “Board members believe board diversity and inclusion are important to advance their missions, but they fail to prioritize action steps to advance these priorities.” That was three years ago. Has that trend continued? If yes, maybe @TylerGreenBooks is correct, but for an entirely different set of reasons.

A year ago, AAM launched its Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity & Inclusion initiative, bringing 51 museums and $4 million dollars together national initiative to diversify museum boards and leadership. That was the same time the Ford Foundation’s President, Darren Walker wrote, “everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board.” (The Ford Foundation is one of the initiative’s three supporters.) Walker says museums have veered too far in appointing trustees whose only defining characteristic is unimaginable wealth. He suggests that board diversity can’t be seen as a compliance issue, but instead must be a key transformative step. Is the answer museums without boards? How would that work, in a country where the vast majority of museum funding comes from private donation? Or is the answer better boards? And who watches the watch dogs?

This week Darren Walker wrote another opinion piece for The Times titled, “Are You Willing to Give Up Your Privilege?” It is directed at the world of the one-percent Walker now inhabits. He suggests, “The old playbook — giving back through philanthropy as a way of ameliorating the effects of inequality — cannot heal what ails our nation. It cannot address the root causes of this inequality — what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.’” He asks what those with power and privilege are willing to give up?

It seems to me this is a crucible moment for museum boards of trustees, a moment that demands action, because the righteous anger and discontent aren’t going away. And as Maxwell Anderson put it so succinctly in his recent essay for Apollo, “The privileging of endowment balances before the pandemic seems to many a short-sighted goal, resulting, as it did, in knee-jerk layoffs,” and a sense that once again in museum land, it’s money before people.  

Museum boards have particular power; they fund, guide and determine an organization’s DNA. But the old ways aren’t working any more. Systemic, and in many a museum’s case, genteel racism, aren’t problems you can throw money at and hope they go away. Boards need to pause and figure out how to respond, acknowledging their responses affect not just their community–however that’s defined–but the staffs who are the lifeblood of America’s 35,000-plus museums.  And before we’re all too smug, maybe this  question–What are willing to give up?– is one all of us white museum folk need to answer. Our responses may be different than a board member’s, but all of us need to reflect on how we have been complicit and most importantly, how we will change.

Because making #BlackLivesMatter can’t happen without change. And change needs to come from the top.

Joan Baldwin

 


Don’t Set Up the Same Old Bowling Pins

By fir0002flagstaffotos [at] gmail.comCanon 20D + Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=873831

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Joan Baldwin


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

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It’s three weeks since George Floyd’s murder, and public protests continue. In some states the virus escalates, while in others museums and heritage organizations begin a slow reawakening after the pandemic shut down. Last week, many museum writers and thought leaders posted reading lists, suggestions and commentary, asking those of us who are white (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that was 83-percent of museum workers in 2019.) to stop being so complacent. To make change. To understand not being overtly racist isn’t enough. Despite the overwhelming amount of information coming at us, it’s critical we engage. Trying to understand the ever-changing rules for opening after the virus is one thing, but now we’re battling two foes, COVID-19 and systemic racism.

As we set up the bowling pins again, but differently, I would like to throw something else in the mix. You’re likely familiar with “Museums are not neutral.” Created by Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry in 2017, it raced across social media as the catch phrase for individuals, museums and heritage organizations who understand their role as active, not passive, engaged not isolationist. So here’s my question: Does clinging to museum neutrality come from the same place as white people who declare they’re not racist?  Don’t both ideas–the idea that a museum isn’t apolitical and the idea that without doing anything illegal or overt you can still engender and support racism–challenge our comfortable complacency, and our desire to stay motionless and opinion-less?

It’s always easier to say it’s not me, believing someone else will do the heavy lifting. You have a team to lead, a museum to run, an exhibit to design. Yet every single choice we make in service to the public is charged. From who sits around the board table, what the  staff looks like, to our exhibit subjects, the ticket price, and how front-facing staff is trained, we choose. And those choices include and exclude, people, ideas, and possibilities. Isn’t choosing not to be a neutral museum a little like choosing to no longer be complacent in a racist society? Both choices ask us to understand how we got here. And both ask us to act.

So as you open the museum you closed three months ago, think about talking, listening, and learning.

LEARN: Know what you don’t know. Read, and then read some more. If you haven’t read James Baldwin since college, it’s time. And read what black women have to say. This week I read Dr. Porchia Moore’s post for Incluseum. It’s about mapmaking and we fragile white folk who can’t see the forest for the trees. I also read Rea McNamara’s “Why Your Museum’s BLM Statement Isn’t Enough,” and my colleague Carita Gardner’s piece on ways out of complicity. You’ll likely find pieces that speak to you, but don’t just read for a week or two. Make reading outside your bubble a practice.

LISTEN: Listening, as opposed to waiting to talk, means hearing what staff and colleagues say. Try to understand your staff’s experience with the museum field and with your organization may be different than yours. If your organization is located in a white, suburban neighborhood, your colleagues of color may pass through a series of gauntlets unknown to you just getting to work every day or going out on a lunchtime errand. You need to hear and understand those experiences around race precisely because they’re not yours.

TALK: Provide space and time for staff and colleagues to talk together. No, you’re not a therapist, but your staff needs to process what’s happened and be a party to opening a museum that’s different from the one you closed. A month ago that might have meant becoming an organization with a more robust virtual presence. Now we mean a museum that knows its own values, ready to be an active citizen. We mean a museum where staff of color feel free to challenge content because it’s inequitable, unfair or a narrative is missing. All of this means talking.

Change is hard, but this is long overdue. Social media is the low-hanging fruit of change. Systemic racism requires systemic change, and it’s individual change that creates organizational transformation. We’ve put this off for too long, and the 11-percent of Black museum colleagues are weary, angry, and beyond frustrated waiting for us to catch up. Let’s act now to create a museum world that’s more diverse, no longer has a gender pay gap (which adversely affects women of color), and where artists, scientists, and historians of color are equitably celebrated.

Joan Baldwin