COVID-19 and antiracism have pulled the bandaid off so much in American life, exposing and highlighting inequity after inequity. So it’s no surprise, museum leadership is under fire as well. It’s an emperor-has-no-clothes moment as staffs call out directors, boards remove directors, and directors sometimes behave just horribly. As a result many have called for a new kind of leadership, less paternalistic, less hierarchical, more collaborative; you know, the kind of unimaginably perfect working environment we all think we want.
But what does less hierarchical really look like? What if there is no leader, just a leadership team? Sounds great, right? Everybody plays to their strengths and happily gets the work done. But what happens in a crisis when decisions must be made quickly? What if the team can’t come to consensus? Or what if other members of the staff quickly learn to play one member of the leadership team against another to ensure decisions go their way?
Another issue about team governance versus individual leadership is that the team needs to be highly disciplined and self-motivated. Otherwise one member–likely the compulsive one, who’s still answering emails at night– is sure to shoulder more work than the others. While this may work temporarily, in the long term it’s bound to fail as it requires too much of one individual without the requisite compensation. And speaking of compensation, there are many in the museum world who expect and occasionally demand a straight glide path to their “top spot.” In disrupting that pattern, a leadership team can produce a situation where members aren’t mentored properly, and consequently struggle to move out and up.
On the positive side, when problems don’t need to migrate to the top office, decision making can be swift. In addition, by removing the traditional high-paying director’s position in favor of the more egalitarian leadership team, boards eliminate the huge friction-causing problem of a museum president who makes many thousand times more than their lowest-paid full-time staff. And last, by its very nature a team may engender more risk taking, more creativity and entrepreneurship that a traditional director/president supported by department heads.
So where’s the hitch you ask? Why isn’t everyone doing this? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest two answers: First, the museum world is traditional, hierarchical and patriarchal. Based on AAM’s 2017 Board Source survey, 55-percent of the people who make leadership decisions for museums are white, male board members over the age of 50, and their knowledge base and comfort level is all about the hierarchy. Second, and probably most important, is in order for the leadership team model to work, everybody on it has to act like a leader. No surprise here, but in my humble opinion, leadership is often an absent ingredient in too many museums and heritage organizations. In many museums it’s proffered sometimes as a reward and sometimes as a career full-stop when in fact it is anything but. Leadership is a practice, a way of behaving within an organization. Being a museum director or president asks you to be the primary person who leads, but not the only person who acts like a leader.
Yes, there are museums and heritage organizations where people have big salaries, chic clothes, the right languages, the right degrees, and fancy perquisites, but in the end, a huge part of being a good leader means being a people person. It means being someone who understands it’s not about you or about the content that brought you to the field in the beginning, but instead about the team you lead, and the people and careers you nurture. The absence of leaders who actually care about staff creates institutions where bullying is rife, where hot-shot attorneys are hired to defeat unionization, where sexually harassed women are told to go work things out with their co-workers is a horrific and bothersome bi-product of this absence of leadership.
Museums are made up of people. Whether those skills coalesce in a team of five with no top spot or in a single, much-revered individual, they are still absolutely necessary in creating humane institutions where staff take risks, think creatively, and trust one another. Because guess what? Leadership matters.
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.
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.
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.
Liz Lawley from Rochester, NY – Rooster 3, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3769073
It’s been an emotional week. We can rail against social media’s pervasiveness all we want, but the video of George Floyd’s murder forced us to look and be present. Suddenly it’s no longer possible to believe things aren’t that bad. They are. So from our living rooms, online, in parks, highway overpasses, or courthouse squares, alone and together, we began the work of ending systemic racism. Floyd’s death is only the latest in a long line of crimes stretching back to Emmett Till and beyond. And for those of us who’ve been happily ensconced in our white, liberal bubbles, perhaps there is a connection between our complacency and the eight minutes and 45 seconds that ended Floyd’s life.
So where are museums in all of this? Some are entirely present and forces for good in their communities, but some seem to believe hashtags function as a value statements. They don’t. I live in the northeast within an easy drive of many museums and heritage sites. In an admittedly anecdotal survey I scrolled the websites of a dozen art, history and general museums within 50 miles of me. What was I looking for? First to see if any of last week’s events had made it to their webpages. Second, to see if any had a values statement. Why does that matter? Maybe the public wants something more right now? Maybe the world cares as much about how a museum acts as it does about its role as collections steward. A mission statement tells the public what you do; a vision statement spells out who you want to be, but a values statement tells your staff, your trustees, your volunteers and your community how your organization behaves. And it affirms the behavior your organization expects at your site.
So, what did I discover? Only one organization had a values statement front and center on its webpages. Five of the 12 had new statements regarding George Floyd’s murder, systemic racism, and their beliefs. The remaining sites were unchanged. I understand that altering an organizational webpage isn’t as easy as changing your socks, and that many organizations utilize Twitter and Instagram for instant communication, but I don’t understand the absence of values statements. In a world where people are unkind, domineering, rude, and sometimes unlawful in our workplaces and sites, how does it hurt to say up front, “This is who we are. This is how we behave, and this is how we expect and hope you will behave too.”
Is a values statement a panacea in connecting a white, privileged museum or heritage organization to its wider community? No. Would it help? Maybe. Crafting a values statement asks your organization to focus not only on mission, but on engagement. Maybe mission statements aren’t enough any more? Perhaps museums need to be good citizens as well as good stewards.
A lot of wiser folks than I have written about the ease and superficiality of responding to a national crisis with a hashtag. If you haven’t already, you should read Mike Murawski’s post from this week. In it, he quotes Madison Rose whose response to #BlackoutTuesday was clear, concise and powerful. The questions she poses would make excellent fodder for discussions surrounding the creation of values statements. You may also want to read Vu Le’s brilliant “Have nonprofit and philanthropy become the white moderate that Dr. King warned us about?” In his piece, Vu suggests too many nonprofits are governed by white moderates whose emotional, financial and civic investment in the middle of the road prevents action. (That moderate sensibility did not, I might add, prevent them from furloughing hundreds of women and staff of color during the opening weeks of the virus. The point being, when they want to act decisively, they can.)
If a collective values statement seems a better choice than the social media equivalent of “thoughts and prayers,” talk with your staff. If your organization sees itself as apolitical, what does that look like in action, and most importantly, what does it look like for someone in your community? Does being neutral mean in times of community crisis a museum or heritage organization’s role is essentially unchanged? Or is there a civic role for your museum? And if yes, what might that look like? If your organization already has an active community role, can it be enhanced? And how can museums gently and explicitly let visitors know their sites are places hallmarked by kindness?
If George Floyd’s death stands for anything, perhaps it should mark the moment we re-centered, demonstrating that black lives matter, and creating more humane, value-driven organizations and museum workplaces.
People can cry much easier than they can change. James Baldwin
At the best of times leadership is a journey over peaks and valleys. Now is not the best of times. As of May 20 each of the 50 states began the slow march, from closed to open, towards some sort of post-COVID normalcy. As a result, museums and heritage organizations are also opening their doors. And museum leaders, like leaders everywhere, begin the summer with a boatload of new problems as worries over social distancing, appropriate cleaning, reliable testing, and devastating financial loss overlay the normal organizational problems of visitation, capital improvements, programs, and staffing.
And into all of this, there’s the question of personal fear. On a given day, leaders and staff may struggle with their own issues surrounding failure, criticism or discrimination, but COVID-19 adds something new. After months of self-isolation, Zoom meetings, and the comfort of your home cocoon, returning to work may be scary. Yet as a leader, whether of a tiny heritage site or a large science or art museum, need to work through these new fears and move organizations forward because COVID-19 has a legitimacy our own personal demons lack. Having killed 100,000 plus, it’s a diabolical enemy, deadlier than our personal angst about clowns, airplanes, or speaking in public. So how do you move forward while keeping your anxieties in check?
- Trust your team: If ever there was a moment to learn leadership is about collaboration, this is it. Yes, you’re the leader, whether of the program, team or museum, but trust those working under you. Grant them the autonomy and authority to make decisions without running every bit of minutiae up the organizational ladder. Utilize the diversity and skill of your leadership group by having them create or expand teams to address major organizational problems in the post-COVID landscape.
- Protect your staff: They know your collection, care for and love your site, and hold its institutional history. Yet some may have coped with separation, illness, and death or huge financial loss. Acknowledge what they’ve gone through. Create a leadership group whose charge includes protecting staff as well as visitors, recognizing that some staff deal with the public daily while others not so much. Side note: If you ever wondered about creating an organizational values statement, now might be the moment to write one. Being transparent about organizational beliefs will support both staff and your wider community.
- Be as transparent as possible: Fear of the unknown is a real thing. If you name it, whether it’s the monster under the bed or the fear of cleaning public restrooms, it lessens its power. Communicate clearly. Let staff and visitors know what you don’t know, and also what you’re trying to do to ameliorate problems.
- Frame the questions: By asking big questions with the most elastic borders, you’ll get the most information. When team discussion drifts into the weeds, delegate someone to identify the minutiae and find the answers. Don’t waste the group’s time theorizing about things better left to those who do them every day.
- Reflect, and reflect again: Panic and fear makes us want to act quickly. While it’s hard to learn new organizational patterns in the midst of crisis, ask your museum leadership team for data as opposed to anecdotes. Then, reflect on what’s worked so far, and more importantly what didn’t. Hold each new piece of knowledge against the particularities of your museum or your site. Make decisive, but measured decisions.
Last, you’re probably as weary as I am of hearing that “we’re all in this together.” But like it or not, we are. And we’re all scared and anxious together too. And it’s not just the virus. Museums and heritage organizations will reopen not just in a post-virus world, but also on the eve of a national election in a country newly scarred by racist behavior. We must be empathetic individually and collectively, building community by offering space for reflection, discussion and understanding as we move forward. And last, but not least, if your team is onto a good thing, whether about fear or another COVID-19 issue, share it this week through the brilliant and virtual #museumsurvivalkit.
In Part II of a duo of guest blog posts (See May 11 for Part I) guest blogger Steven Miller examines the fate of museum collections in the Post-COVID age.
On April 15th 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.” One part of the announcement stated “…an institution may use the proceeds from deaccessioned works of art – regardless of whether the works were deaccessioned before or after the date of these resolutions – to support the direct care of the museum’s collections.”
Museums are unique in their self-declared reliance on objects to justify their existence. Collections act as evidence of the subject a museum exists to explain. Acquisitions provide meaning about human history, creativity, and the sciences. Over the years the idea evolved that museum collections are held for the long term, a notion entirely generated by museums themselves as they devote considerable resources to save collections from theft, natural disaster, civil destruction, physical deterioration, etc. Though phrased in a way that suggests caring for collections is of importance to the AAMD, museums can interpret “direct care” as they wish. Collection sale profits can cover utility bills, capital expenses, debt payments, employee compensation, you name it. No one is checking.
If anyone ever doubted that museums are expensive organizations to run, COVID-19 proved them wrong. With many museums closed or trying to figure out how to open after 11 weeks of closure, admission and programming income is gone, and boards and their leadership are left to figure out the way forward. The AAMD’s April 15th announcement seems to provide an income option as it suggests collections are expendable financial assets.
In the early 1970s selling museum collections became highly controversial. Reacting to intense public debate, the museum field structured guidelines for the practice. Selling was condoned only if proceeds were allocated for future collection purchases, and/or the direct care of collections. Though these recommendations are accepted by most museums, unless restrictions apply to certain objects, museums can do with them as they wish. (Restrictions, legal or social, might apply to endangered species, stolen objects, materials of importance to indigenous peoples, or, things given or sold to museums with ownership caveats prohibiting future removal.) The majority of museum deaccession policies omit concerns for preserving what is being disposed of. The AAMD mirrors that practice.
Deaccession by unrestricted sale essentially amounts to the destruction of objects a museum once owned and cared for. Why does the AAMD like this? For me, the answer is money. As a membership organization the AAMD’s unspoken priority is to attract and keep customers – e.g., members, and because museums sell collections, AAMD condones the activity.
In the United States it is the duty of museum trustees to sustain institutions for which they are responsible. As noted, the effect of an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic makes their work incredibly difficult. The challenges are mind-boggling. Ultimately, practical solutions for museums are almost entirely of a fiscal nature. What will it cost to survive, how will survival be defined, and, where will the money come from, not to mention when?
The AAMD’s resolutions were 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.” Although a devastating idea, the gesture is probably of little consequence. Anyone familiar with the American museum world knows boards of trustees do whatever they feel like. Now as they face terrible choices to be responsible museum stewards, they will do whatever they legally can with whatever resources they have at hand. In the case of collection sales, the action touches on an argument voiced loudly in some museum circles: What is more important: collections, institutions, or museum employees?
Unless there are ownership restrictions prohibiting the selling of collections, nothing is exempt from this option. What was once acquired by people, for people, conserved, studied, and exhibited by and for people is lost. Remaining documentation is irrelevant, and public sale of art, historic artifacts, and scientific specimens invariably results in their disappearance forever.
Philosophically, if museums are about anything, they are about longevity. Most will survive the current plague and get back to the work. But that will take a year or two. Staff will be lost, capital projects stalled, cash on hand spent, and funding sources eviscerated. Regardless, encouraging the sale of collections is foolish for several reasons. In addition to violating the preservation trust museums espouse, it says all museum collections can be bought, just name your price. Moreover, it will reduce future meaningful collection donations. The vast majority of what is in art and history museums has been given not purchased. Who wants to make a charitable donation to an entity that is just looking for retail inventory? Finally, when the best and most important content of a museum is sold, why visit it?
“Human Resources” comic strip by Matt Rasmussen, The Space Toast Page.
This week’s guest blogger is using a pseudonym, which will become evident when you read her story.
THE HR PROBLEM IN SMALL MUSEUMS: A PERSONNEL PROBLEM
By Kay Smith
The Museum Director repeatedly pressured me to visit a donor’s home, with the full knowledge that every time I went the donor would paw at me while saying how much he “liked pretty girls.” The Director’s behavior was the tip of an iceberg that frequently cleaved racist and sexist comments, grant fraud, and the use of work time to carry on extramarital affairs. The Director even admitted to hiring me over a more qualified candidate because the candidate was gay. I tried to go to the Board of Directors, but they always cut me off, telling me what a blessing the Director was to the museum. With no human resources department to turn to, I left.
In the following months, I spoke with friends and family who work in museums and found that my experience was not the least bit unique. It opened my eyes to the human resources problem faced by many small museums. Simply put, small museums often do not have HR departments because they cannot afford one. The Executive Director oversees all the responsibilities typically handled by trained HR professionals in larger institutions, leaving little recourse for staff should a workplace conflict arise between them and the Director. Museum Board members can play a role in creating a healthy workplace, but often lack professional human resources training. While I do not have all the answers for fixing this problem, I do have some suggestions.
First and foremost, museum professionals without access to HR departments should make sure that their institution has a written personnel policy and that it is updated regularly. Insist that the policy contains clearly-defined procedures for addressing workplace conflicts, and includes a point of contact separate from the Executive Director. Board members who lack HR experience do not have to go through this process alone, which leads me to my second suggestion.
Numerous human resources firms exist across the United States that provide training, consultation, and HR services to small organizations that have no human resources department. Offerings vary from firm to firm, but often include customized Board training and workshops, help crafting personnel policies and handbooks, ongoing HR guidance for handling workplace conflicts, and the option to offer employee benefits through group plans (but the lack of benefits in small museums is a blog post by itself).
Outsourcing human resources comes with myriad benefits for small museums. Many firms provide flexibility in their offerings so that organizations can get the support they need within their budget. Partnering with an HR firm sends a message to staff that the organization cares about providing a safe and equitable work environment, which can help attract and retain higher caliber employees. Additionally, firms provide services that help directors streamline human resources tasks, leaving them more time for the museum’s mission. Ultimately, outsourcing human resources costs much less than employing a full time HR professional, and costs significantly less than a lawsuit arising from issues such as a hostile work environment or a labor dispute.
Finally, steps must be taken to improve the culture of the museum industry. With a surplus of emerging museum professional saturating the field, there are not enough jobs to satisfy demand. This results in employers and employees alike conflating getting a job in the industry with job satisfaction. Organizations need to understand that caring for their employees goes beyond the job offer, just as staff need to cease their willingness to sacrifice their financial, physical, and mental well-being just for the honor of working in a museum.
A collaborative team of small museums and HR professionals can work together to create guidelines that address human resources needs and provide reporting structures for workplace conflicts. Organizations like the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) can help by including and disseminating these guidelines through their excellence programs, such as the Museum Assessment Program (MAP), the Standards and Excellence Program (StEPs), and AAM Accreditation. As an industry it is up to all of us to influence our own culture, and an important first step is deciding that people matter just as much as the objects in our care.
Change is a constant for today’s museum or heritage organization leader. It happens on a multitude of levels. One of our Leadership Matters interviewees summed it up when she quipped, “If you’re the kind of person that needs a structured environment to survive, I don’t think you can be a successful director.” Anyone who’s had their board president announce her resignation on the same day the pipes froze, which was also the same day an elderly volunteer slipped on the front walk and the NEH grant was due, knows that life in museum leadership can come at you fast.
There’s a personal element to accepting life as it comes that’s important. Our interviewee was right. There ought to be a sign hanging over the door to master’s programs in museum studies that says, “The Rigid Need Not Apply,” or better yet, “All Ye Who Are Nimble, Welcome Here.”
Today’s museum leaders know museums need to change to compete. The world moves too quickly for them not to respond. What does that mean? Just like individuals, organizations need to be present, authentic members of their communities. Too many museums and heritage organizations confuse being open with being engaged. Opening the doors on weary exhibits or roped off period rooms barely captivates anyone on a first visit, much less a second or third. Healthy organizations adapt in order to move forward. Like creative individuals they experiment, reflect, and try again in a constant effort to connect. If you wrote it as an equation, it might look like this: objects (or substitute paintings, plants, etc.) + context +communication = connection.
Here is Leadership Matters’ Top-Ten Change Check List. Use it to think about change in your organization, department or program.
- Remember if you are the executive director, you’re not the only change agent.
- Know how change–from small tweaks to capital improvements– happens in your museum. Make sure the change process is equitable.
- Big changes need to happen with staff not to them. Make sure everybody’s involved in change and everybody has a voice. Innovation and engagement should happen museum-wide.
- Once the organization commits to change, as a leader you do too. Save sarcasm or negative feelings for friends or run it off at the gym.
- Don’t try to do everything yourself. Change, especially big change, requires an all-hands-on-deck attitude. However inviting, it’s not the time to retreat to your office and close the door. Collaborate.
- You don’t know it all. Change is a learning opportunity. Listen. Listen. Listen.
- Get out of the weeds. If you’re leading change, you have a responsibility to the big picture. If you get that right, the details will follow.
- Change–especially big change–may require some uncomfortable conversations. Be prepared to confront, collaborate, and persuade the naysayers.
- Stagnation is bad and boring, but change for its own sake is like a nervous tick. Make sure you understand why change is happening before your board, staff and volunteers become change weary.
- Just like any big project–term paper, cleaning the garage, packing to move–change needs to be broken into smaller projects. Don’t micromanage. Let others lead and celebrate their success.
How does your organization make change?