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. 🐾”
Everybody knows leaders need vision. Perhaps you’ve had the pleasure of working for someone with vision. If you have, treasure it because to understand what vision means, you have to experience not having it. You might not even realize its absence at first. After all, you’re caught up in your job–you’re designing, you’re putting clever images on Instagram, you’re unearthing things in the collection that haven’t seen the light of day in decades and getting them to talk to one another. And then suddenly you run into a wall. It could be your board, who gives you the old we-really-don’t-do-things-that-way run around. Or it could be your executive director, who looks at you like she has no earthly idea what you’re talking about, when she asks how science, work by an artist of color and rare books will mesh in the gallery. To paraphrase a line from Cool Hand Luke, a lack of vision is a failure to communicate.
Last fall while teaching in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies program, Anne Ackerson and I received comments from some of our students who felt we were too picky when it comes to the written word. Our response? You’re going into the museum field! So much will depend on how you communicate. If your institutional vision exists only in your head and only when you’re alone, that bodes trouble. Vision can’t be like singing in the shower. It’s got to be shared.
As a leader, you are the listener, the synthesizer. You’re the one who’s out in the community, taking a current need and linking it to your organizational narrative, to artistic process, to your mission. You’re the one making connections. But once you’ve done that, it’s your job to make folks understand where your brain went, why it matters, and how following that path might engage your community. Clearly. And concisely. Persuading people–whether trustees, staff, or volunteers–to understand the Venn diagram that’s in your head and why it matters is a key ingredient of leadership.
This week I was reminded how important vision is when I was asked for funding priorities for a potential donor. It’s always nice to think someone might give you money, but making sure your thoughts don’t sound like a scrambled word cloud is important. Here’s where the Venn diagram has to translate to someone outside your bubble. Does your shopping list of wants link to the larger organizational mission? If not, why not? Is that mission clear, concise and beautifully expressed? Would it make you intrigued even if you weren’t the executive director or a member of the leadership team? Or does saying it out loud make you weary because you know it’s going to involve explanations, counter explanations and side bars?
Vision doesn’t need a lot of flowery language. It needs clarity. Your listeners need to see what you’re saying. Then they’ll want to follow, participate, and give. And that’s the point isn’t it?
P.S. We rant on and on about how important it is for museum folk to read often and widely. Here are some things that floated across our screens this week:
- A Totally Inclusive Museum by Cecille Shellman
- The inimitable Colleen Dilenschneider on museums and trust
- A clear and well-thought out explanation of benevolent sexism from The Muse.
- For those of you who identify as female and are over 50 or who lead women over 50, and interesting discussion of invisibility vs. finding a new voice.
- Last and maybe most important especially for those who live in the northeast, a heat map of political prejudice by county.
It’s Thanksgiving here in the United States, and for those of us who work in education, that means time away from work, time to think a bit. Because it’s Thanksgiving, and because we think it’s important, here are a few things we are thankful for:
- Our readers: So far, in 2018 there are 49, 019 of you from from 144 countries. Writing a weekly blog has its lonely moments so it’s inspiring to look at the WordPress map and think we speak to you half way around the world if only weekly, and only through the magic of the Internet. It’s equally gratifying to attend a conference and meet people who read Leadership Matters. So thank you all.
- Our students, mentees, and others: Working with you is always a pleasure. We always learn–if not something new–then we deepen our understanding through your questions, your research, and your enthusiasm.
- Our museum colleagues and friends: You know who you are. Anne Ackerson calls them her posse. Other people refer to them as their kitchen cabinet. Whatever you call them, they know where true north is. They offer advice without being patronizing. They ask the hard questions. They empathize. They always answer when you ask a hard question.
- Last, we’re thankful for guest writers. If you yearn to write for something with a loyal following of readers; if you are wrestling with a leadership issue or think you’ve found the perfect solution; if issues around pay, gender, intersectionality or people getting promoted beyond their capabilities set your hair on fire, let us know. Send us an idea, a pitch, and a writing sample, and we’ll get back to you ASAP.
One quick thought that came up in this week’s Johns Hopkins Museum Studies Class: the idea of urgency and leadership. Students discussed the necessity for leaders to identify what on an organization’s plate is really urgent as opposed to daily life. Often leaders cluster at either end of the spectrum: Those for whom everything is drama–from the paper towel selection in the restrooms to the number of exhibitions annually–and those for whom there is never urgency, the ones for whom life just happens.
Perhaps you have worked for leaders in one of these camps. Both are wearying. The all-drama, all-the-time folks must wonder why their staff never seems energized, but it’s likely because they can’t tell the difference between real urgency and nitpicking. For those whose leaders never define urgency, there is a massive sense of disconnection. Deadlines don’t matter and nothing is connected to anything else.
In some sense all leaders must be visionaries. It’s their job to see into the future, to sort the excruciatingly important from the negligible, and communicate that information to staff. It’s also their job to check-in, to make sure what’s important gets done, and done in a way that everyone is proud of. Those of you who work for leaders or boards who can strategize the future, sort the important from the not-so-important, know there’s a grace about the way your work happens; energy isn’t expended where it’s not needed. And for that, there’s a lot to be thankful for.
To all of you in the United States, a Happy Thanksgiving, and for those of you elsewhere, our best wishes. Be in touch especially if you’d like a guest writing spot.
True confessions: This week I participated in a meeting where midway through a participant asked why our discussion mattered. The meeting’s over-arching topic was communication so the good news is this staff member felt relaxed and fearless enough to ask that kind of question. The bad news is that if even one person was confused enough to ask, the heart of the matter was lost.
So this is a note to all of you in museum leadership positions. You may have a bundle of good ideas rattling around in your head, but that isn’t vision. If you can’t say it, we can’t see it. In 2014 when we wrote Leadership Matters, Anne Ackerson interviewed Van Romans, President of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Romans talked about drawing his vision (if you’re struggling with this, know that Romans once worked for Disney). His approach wasn’t that different from the Heath brothers “destination postcards”. (Hint: If you haven’t read Switch, put it on your list now.)
If you think about it, a postcard is a great metaphor. You’re on a trip. You send the card that says “Wish you were here.” As museum leaders, that’s what you need to do:
- Tell a story that’s compelling enough that staff can visualize the landscape once change is complete.
- Make sure your story’s achievable.
- Be clear about the journey you’ll take, and who needs to be on the bus.
Back to the meeting: we received an explanation, but it was mushy and unsatisfactory, as if our leader sent the image of a beach at sunset, but left the back blank. Don’t forget vision provides focus. It’s hard for staff to nest in the weeds when you’re constantly moving forward.
Your vision should have some meat on its bones; it needs to provide the “why” for your program, department or museum. Telling staff things will be better if they do X, Y, Z isn’t enough. They’re adults. Let them in on your thinking. Trust them. And last, and perhaps, most importantly, be prepared for push-back. Change is hard, harder for some than for others. Test your ideas out, do your research, experiment alone and with staff. If you aren’t convinced, why should anyone else be?
Today more than ever museum leadership needs to pull itself out of lame mediocrity. Invent. Experiment. Fail. But for goodness sake have a vision that matters.
We’ve just returned from Austin, Texas and AASLH’s annual meeting that brings history museum folks together every year in a new spot. The skies were blue, and the location in the center of the University of Texas campus beautiful. What’s not to like about sitting with coffee and colleagues in a beautifully-planted courtyard between sessions? But one of the best moments was hearing Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.
This amiable, relaxed, yet powerful conversation was a tone-setter and a metaphor for the way the field has changed over the last decade. There was no lecture, no powerpoint, no white guy behind the podium. Instead Walker chatted with Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, and an interviewee in our Leadership Matters book. Walker is a slight man, warm and funny, but someone who knows where true north is. His view of history is nuanced, and his approach to the human race generous. “We all romanticize and mythologize our narrative,” he said, “because we need to do that. How do we talk about the journey without demonizing the choices that were made?”
Asked what quality is needed for today’s leadership, Walker had a one-word answer: courage, adding that there are a host of disincentives to leading with courage, but because the risk now is greater than ever, now is the time to speak up, speak out, and be bold. He suggested that even 20 years ago the American narrative was more straightforward, less complex, but less honest. He sees today’s national narrative as more oppositional, making leadership difficult. “Great leadership is about bridge building,” Walker said, adding, “It’s much harder to build a bridge than a wall.”
He urged the audience to speak up and speak out. “Progress won’t be made unless we get uncomfortable. Our boards can be very comfortable with privilege and prestige.” He believes what we need from boards today is people comfortable with justice, equity, fairness, and opposition.
When Bailey asked him if museums should be neutral, Walker responded with a story, remembering when a Ford Foundation board member asked him why the Foundation supported artists making political art. Walker’s response was that art has always been political to some degree or another, and it’s naive and dishonest to believe otherwise. “Privileged people and institutions don’t like change,” he quipped, adding that privilege becomes a collective around the board table.
Walker talked about the fact that it’s possible to succeed without humility or curiosity because success insulates people from the hard reality of truth telling. He cautioned the audience that sometimes it’s necessary to engage with board members in a way that helps them realize they are speaking from privilege. “Trustees want to do right,” Walker said, “but we all bring our own bias and limitations.” He urged the audience to meet people where they are, and for museum leaders to remind their boards that they are there not just to preserve but to innovate.
One sobering note before we close. As part of the AASLH Conference we presented a panel discussion with four interviewees from our book, Women in the Museum, and just as we did at AAM, we asked the audience for a show of hands indicating who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Almost the entire audience raised their hands. Nationally, one in three women experience workplace sexual harassment, and over 71-percent don’t report it. Isn’t it time the museum field took Darren Walker’s advice and stepped up, spoke out, and showed some courage in protecting and supporting its female employees?
Photo by Wyona Lynch-McWhite
This seems to be the season for strategic planning. Everyone wants a strategic plan. Or they want to revise the one they’ve already got. Maybe it’s because I live in Connecticut, which, if the legislature has its way, may soon be the only left-leaning state with no support for the arts and humanities. As a result, Connecticut arts and heritage organizations are scrambling to utilize dollars on the table, and many are turning to strategic planning. And that’s not a bad thing. Anything to keep the wolf from the door.
All organizations should plan, and more importantly, they should be comfortable with the planning process. Planning should be one of those things that just happens like bill paying, snow removal, or checking the temperature in collections storage. You just do it. Here’s what’s worrisome though. So much of strategic planning starts with the big-picture questions–the organizational equivalent of where do you see yourself in five years? And frequently those questions devolve into discussions about what an organization does or could do. In the end, that results in actions defining character and even mission, not the other way around.
What if museum leaders, and the legions of consultants who assist with the strategic planning process, asked why first? Why do we do what we do? And, perhaps more importantly, what does your organization stand for? Imagine you’re waiting outside your state senator’s office. His aide tells you his appointment with the local food bank is running over. Can you wait? Of course you can, but what are you going to say about work in a heritage or arts organization that matters as much as feeding the poor? Few of us would choose knowing why our communities are the way they are over three square meals a day. Yet understanding how our communities develop informs every decision we make today. A broad and nuanced view makes us better citizens. Isn’t that important?
If you’re asked who would miss your organization if it closed its doors 60 days from now, what would your answer be? Would it be families who come to the children’s after-school program your art museum runs, or residents who access the oral history project led by your historical society or would your answer be WHY you do those things? You run the after-school program because you believe all children need to see and make art. You run the oral history program because new residents, and those who’ve been in a community for decades, need to share and understand the choice they made in moving to your city or neighborhood. Asking the why question helps align beliefs.
So here is a short list of things to keep in mind if your spring to-do list includes the proverbial strategic plan:
- Does your organization have a shared values statement? If not, make one. A values statement is a governor on organizational action in the same way a collections policy limits what you collect.
- If you are a board member, ask yourself if you’re still passionate about the heritage or arts organization you serve. Are you a board member out of duty, habit or love?
- If you are a staff person, do you understand and believe in your organization’s values? Can you articulate how your program or department upholds those values?
- Many of us enter the museum world because things intrigue us— photographs or film, textiles or 18th-century high chests, landscape design or stained glass. As our careers move forward we find ourselves distanced from things, managing people and programs instead. Ask yourself why the museum field matters to you now. Why should it matter to your state legislator?
- Last, find the why in your work. Join your colleagues in making it matter. Life will be better and your planning process will go smoothly.
Tell us how you differentiate the how from the why at your museum or heritage organization.
This week I thought I would write a little bit about “process.” By process I mean the way we as individuals and groups work our way through something, whether it’s a project, a press release, a benefit, an exhibition. As leaders you’ve all been there. Not only do you have to bring whatever it is to fruition, you have to bring your staff along with you. Hopefully, along the way, you play to their strengths, engage them, light creative fires, and make something that is better than any one of you would have made alone.
But before we talk about process, a story. I spent my vacation in Maine in a tiny coastal town that is about as far from the state’s moniker of “the way life should be” as possible. It’s a town that never quite pulled itself out of the mess of 2008. There is too little work and there are too many houses for sale. In the center of the village, though, is the library, which shares space with the historical society. They are both housed in a handsome mid-nineteenth century house and have a huge group of volunteers who keep the place running. They are also in the middle of a $100,000 fund raising drive. Last week as part of that campaign, they held a pie sale. Here are the particulars: Volunteers bake pies and quiches. They deliver them to the library before 9 a.m. the morning of the sale and people like me spend $12 to $15 per pie. I have to assume that purchases are a bit of a gamble because all the bakers can’t be as good as the person who made the three-berry pie I bought. In any case, at the end of six hours they made almost $1,000.
I spent a lot of time at the Library around the pie sale, and it made me ponder the question of process. I learned that the volunteers scour tag sales throughout the year for pie dishes and that when you buy a pie the dish is included. I learned they buy personal size pizza boxes to put each pie in. I learned that the pie sale spawned a silent auction and an art sale.
All of this made me think about process, about the way, we as leaders and department heads, volunteers and board chairman, make something happen. Because I think too often what we forget, and we do it for the best possible reasons, is to begin with a vision statement. Why are we selling pies? And to make sure everyone has the same answer, which might be: To make a lot of money for our fund raising campaign. What needs to happen next, but often doesn’t is an outline to keep people moving from A to D and so on without wandering into the weeds of art sales and silent auctions. It might also help staff or volunteers save time. Maybe it isn’t necessary to scour tag sales for 11 months. Maybe there’s another way to get pie pans.
I don’t mean to cast aspersions at our Library, but merely to ask if part of your leadership mantra is clarity. Before you head into a meeting, do you rehearse what you’re going to say? Do you deliver your vision clearly? Have you learned to pull staff back when in their enthusiasm they want to add the art sale to the pie sale? Can you curb their enthusiasm kindly while channeling it into pies? Is your staff used to tossing ideas in the air and batting them around? Are they kind when someone offers up an idea that seems a bit loony and out-of-the-box? To the best of your abilities, does everyone leave the room ready to take on their part of the project?
If you answered yes to most of those questions, you and your staff are in a good place. And, I suspect, will sell a ton of pies. If not, think about the places where you stumble and go into the weeds. Is it during the delivery of the idea? Perhaps you think your ideas are clear as a bell, but they’re not. Are you someone who’d rather not direct the meeting too much and as a result it zigs and zags, before becoming a contest with pies as prizes? Or are you the leader who has trouble pulling staff back on track. It’s rough sometimes, but know you’re not the only one who is suffering. Colleagues all around the table are waiting for you to pull the group out of the ditch. You will not only get the project back on track, your staff will applaud in their heads, and as long as you are kind, the person who’s off-track will get over it.
Leaders don’t get a lot of rest. At least not at work. And as a leader, meetings are your time to shine. So next time you deliver the news about a project, event, exhibition, make sure you’re on track so your staff can follow. Remember, an unclouded vision spawns creativity, which leads to a great “to-do list,” which leads to a meaningful event or program or project. Good luck. And share your “pie stories” with us here at Leadership Matters.