This week I had “lunch” with my friend Franklin Vagnone, president of Winston Salem’s Old Salem Village in North Carolina. Frank had finished his first virtual (and emotionally draining) meeting at 8:00 am, so for him noon felt like late afternoon. As someone who was a museum leader in Philadelphia and then New York City through 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, he’s not unfamiliar with leading in crisis. But like many museum leaders in the age of COVID-19, his Thursday began with planning for temporary layoffs for hourly staff. The layoffs are necessary because they allow staff to collect unemployment until the country emerges from the pandemic and Old Salem rights itself. Vagnone isn’t alone. Last week layoffs were announced by the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh, Seattle’s Science Center, and Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, Science Center and Please Touch Museum, in addition to Colonial Williamsburg, San Francisco’s MOMA and undoubtedly many more. Sadly, the group most affected is the most vulnerable: part-time employees, many without benefits. As another friend put it, “Suddenly work is like trying to wash the dishes only the kitchen sink is missing and the water’s turned off.”
AAM’s President and CEO Laura Lott estimates that since the crisis began, museums collectively have lost $33 million a day. And whether planned or not, the museum world responded with 33,000 messages to Congress supporting AAM’s crisis request for $4 billion dollars, an amount which sent Fox and Friends into gales of laughter as if the arts weren’t a business, and a home-grown one at that. In the end, thanks to AAM’s tireless work, museums and arts organizations were included in the bill although not at levels that make them whole. You can find a full description here, including the full bill if you’re so inclined.
So what should you as a museum person, leader, or organization do?
As an individual:
- Take care of yourself and your loved ones.
- Maintain social distancing. Wash your hands. COVID-19 dislikes soap and water.
- If you’ve been laid off, don’t delay, apply for unemployment.
- If you’re working from home, there are many sites to support you, Here are a few good articles from last week: The Muse; Museum 2.0; The Atlantic.
- Stop looking at your screen. Take a walk. Do the reading you always meant to do, but put off.
- Plan for the future. Try to imagine, what things you want to keep and nurture, and what things you’ll change in a post-COVID-19 world.
As leader of a team or a department:
- Take care of your people. This will end, and re-hiring is costly. Protect staff in whatever way you can. If temporary layoffs while maintaining health insurance works for your museum, do it.
- Make sure everyone–board members, staff and volunteers–has the tools to communicate. Help them learn to stay in touch.
- Sort out communication methods that are most equitable. Offer tutorials to everyone, and encourage your team or department to talk with one another on a regular basis.
- Treasure your IT and social media team and build bridges between them and your program.
- Talk to your community, whether through email, Instagram or Facebook let them know you’re there.
As a Museum Leader:
- Thank your Congressional representatives.
- If you’re not an AAM member, join now. Its COVID-19 information is worth the individual membership if you can’t afford more. Ditto your regional museum service organization.
- Take care of your people. This will end, and re-hiring is costly. Protect staff in whatever way you can. If temporary layoffs, while maintaining health insurance works for your museum, do it. Don’t let HR make decisions because that’s the way it’s always done. We moved out of the world we knew about two weeks ago.
- Think about your organization’s virtual life. If you can create “A Minute with the Curator” or “A Walk with the Farm Horse” videos they may generate an audience that will outlive the virus. We’ve all watched Tim, the head of security at the National Cowboy Museum. Perhaps you have someone on your staff who’s equally charming and authentic, but never heard from.
- If you have under 500 employees, you’re eligible for a small business loan to make payroll or pay health insurance.
- Remember in the midst of the bleakness to have hope. I’ll close where I began with Frank’s video to his community.
“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.” President Barak Obama, Iowa Caucus Speech, 2008.
Stay in touch with each other and stay safe.
Image: Franklin Vagnone, President of Old Salem Village, from his message about #WeGotThis
It’s been six years since we published Leadership Matters. When we wrote the original version, Anne Ackerson and I were concerned about the lack of attention paid to leadership in the museum field, particularly in history and cultural heritage organizations. There was a notion that through some office magic or, simply, inertia, individuals became leaders, and if they didn’t, mediocrity was fine; in fact, mediocrity was better than change. Little, if any, investment was made in human capital. You became a director and the rest was up to you. The motto was sink or swim, and not everybody looked graceful in the pool. What we learned, however, was leadership wasn’t some in-born trait, miraculously recognized by search committees. Instead, it was a commitment to self-awareness, authenticity, courage and vision, with an ongoing undercurrent of reflection and experimentation.
Now it’s 2019 and we’ve just published a new edition of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord. It’s curious, exciting, and remarkable how much things have changed in such a short time. In 2013, our concerns were internal: a field that was at best negligent about training and developing its leaders, failing to acknowledge that a content-driven education did not necessarily prepare an individual for coping with the foibles of a board and a staff or the public. Today, those concerns remain, but there are huge external pressures as well: rapid-fire communication, communities — from staff to stakeholders — who require a voice, especially those traditionally underserved or ignored, and need to see themselves somewhere inside a museum. Otherwise the work doesn’t matter because without community connection museums are just warehouses of things.
Today’s leaders still possess the four characteristics we identified in 2013: self-awareness, authenticity, courage and vision. That hasn’t changed, but the world has, and our nine new interviewees, LaTanya Autry, Cheryl Blackman, Karen Carter, Sean Kelly, Lisa Lee, Azuka MuMin, Franklin Vagnone, Hallie Winter, and Jorge Zamanillo, all approach their jobs from a different space. Gone are the days of sage-on-a-stage leadership. These leaders are collaborators, relationship builders, empathizers.
Both versions of Leadership Matters end with “10 Simple Truths,” common sense practices from all 36 interviewees about leadership:
- Get invested: As interviewee Christy Coleman wrote, “Museums are not neutral space. We may not be activists, but we’re not neutral. If your community is in crisis and you’re an institution that has the resources to add to that conversation to bring it out of crisis, you are failing if you’re not actively involved in the needs of your community.”
- Be a trust builder: Museums succeed on the relationships they build in their communities, on their staffs, on their boards. It’s that simple. Relationships matter. So do words. And deeds.
- Embrace the greater good: Leaders are the moral compass for their institutions. Don’t check your values at the door, bring them to work. Every day.
- Create a candid culture: Honesty underpins trust.
- Up your frequency: Listen, listen, listen, and remember to get out of your office and know who you serve. As interviewee Azuka MuMin puts it: “Leadership has taught me who I am as a person, vulnerable and exposed, and the better I know myself, the better I am able to lead.”
- Learn and grow together: Leadership is a process. It’s learning. Invest in your people whether they are board members, volunteers or staff, leaders or followers.
- Get integrated: Read widely, think across spectrums. Who or what adds to your institutional narrative?
- Tap your entire network: It’s not all about you. Growing a museum is about being open to possibility.
- Commit to leadership: Leadership matters. Invest in your staff, give them the tools to become leaders. Good leaders are problem solvers and collaborators. They’re also good followers.
- Be accountable: Take the heat. Move forward. Don’t play the blame game. You’re a leader for a reason.
For those of you who will be at the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) annual meeting this week in Philadelphia, we will see you there. And if you’d like a copy of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord, we’d be happy to sign it for you, Thursday, August 29, from 3:00-4:00 pm at the Rowman & Littlefield booth in the Exhibit Hall. In the meantime, lead well, with courage, empathy, and vision. And if you see any of our interviewees in Philadelphia this week, be sure to stop and thank them.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
Thinking about leadership is something even adept leaders don’t do often enough. As we work on the revision of Leadership Matters (2019), Anne and I are pondering how museum leadership has changed in five years. Just for fun I scrolled back to the beginning of this blog (2013). There we talk a lot about the need for the museum world, particularly the history museum world, to make leadership a priority.
Leadership Matters opens with “10 Simple Myths,” where we outline the myths that frame the museum world’s professional narrative. Sadly, many still ring true, like “We don’t have to make money, we’re a nonprofit,” or “Building collections takes precedence over building talent,” or a favorite on these pages, “Compensation is secondary because the work is its own reward.”
There is one myth, however, that suddenly feels like it might be at the end of its shelf life: “We are the source of our own best ideas.” In describing why this sage-on-the-stage mentality isn’t such a great idea Anne wrote, “Their [museums] implacable deference to hierarchical decision making insulates them from ideas and solutions flowing between and among sectors.”
We could be wrong, but it feels as though in the last five years engagement, both intellectual and actual has mutated from something only the education department thought about to something more all-encompassing. Organizations are actually reaching out, and not in the give-me-your-stuff way, more like in the work-with-us-to-tell-your-story way. Not everyone and not all the time, but it feels like a sea change. Finally, history museums and heritage organizations realize that trying to force feed communities the life stories of American furniture and tools isn’t compelling. In fact, a quick scan of leadership positions on AASLH’s and AAM’s job boards yields the following phrases:
- .….Fosters connections with local community and history in relevant and sustained ways by building beneficial partnerships, raising the level of civic dialogues …..
- The director is responsible for developing positive community relations and partnerships with national, state, local organizations and for developing strategic initiatives in areas of community outreach, educational programming, exhibits, public history and tourism.
- The Museum’s new leader should embrace its deeply held values, especially the active practice of diversity, inclusion, engagement and the critical representation of our multiple communities, their histories and current issues.
But….apart from engagement, many of our 10 myths are still alive, healthy, and posing as the truth. And, it’s 2018 not 2013, and there are new conundrums and problems for museum leaders. Here are five that we think need some work:
- That understanding community is more than an anecdotal exercise. It is data-driven. Read Susie Wilkening and Colleen Dilenschneider to see what we mean.
- The digital world is here to stay. Museums–even tiny ones–need to get a grip.
- Museums are community partners. They build, they renovate, they employ, they use utilities, they sell things. Non-profit doesn’t mean money doesn’t matter. Just because you’re not paying shareholders, doesn’t mean you can’t be a downtown anchor.
- Maybe, just maybe, there’s a recognition that an all-white, all-privileged field is not such a great thing and creating a more diverse field means making it a better paid field.
- That leadership can be learned, and organizations can invest in it just like they invest in anything else; building talent is as important as constructing a new wing.
So what do you think? What leadership sectors do you think the museum world needs to work on?
Image: Burke Museum, Seattle, WA
Not everyone comes to the museum field eager for leadership. Sometimes we’re moved forward. Sometimes we realize we’re ready for it and we move ourselves forward, but all too often leadership is an unintentional consequence. Like when you become the education director and find out that you’re supervising a staff of 50 volunteers, but only until the organization hires a volunteer coordinator. In the next fiscal year. Suddenly you’re a boss of a lot of people some of whom are old enough to be your parents or your grandparents.
On the other hand, if you aspire to museum leadership, but aren’t there yet, you may have heard or read the phrase, “you can lead from anywhere in the room.” We used it more than a few times in Leadership Matters. And we believe it, but to the uninitiated, it may be hard to figure out how to look like a leader when you’re in row three at an all-staff meeting, and potentially the youngest or newest person in the organization. So here–in no particular order– are some strategies for figuring out leadership before you get the job.
- Learn how to say you’re sorry. All leaders make mistakes. And if you can’t humble yourself in front of your team, there won’t be much trust there. The next time you mess up, get out in front of the error quickly. Apologize to your boss and your colleagues and offer strategies, either personal or organizational, for moving forward.
- Separate the parts of your job over which you have authority from those where you’re the one responsible. In many museums there are the worker bees who take on more and more work. Why? Because they’re great time managers, they have a sense of duty, and their bosses know a good thing when they see it. But multiple responsibilities don’t add up to authority. They add up to a huge to-do list over which you have little control in the end. The result? You are angry or sad or possibly both. Make a list. Separate your job into areas over which you have real authority, and the areas where you’re responsible. Be strategic. At your next job review, advocate for increased authority.
- Enthusiasm isn’t everything. Be strategic when talking about your work. Let your director (or direct report) know why you like something. Hearing general enthusiasm for working with collections isn’t the same as hearing your enthusiasm about finally moving the Excel files to the new open-access collections management program.
- Don’t hang out with the office gossip. Every office has one and museum workplaces are offices. That person has defined power as knowing as much as she or he can about everyone. Back-stabbing and talking behind people’s back is not the path to leadership.
- Embrace change. Every office also has the person who can’t cope with change. They mournfully explain why new ideas won’t work, describing in painful detail how some variation of what’s just been proposed didn’t work 15 years ago. Or was it seven years ago? Don’t be that person. In fact, be the person who gently shuts them down and suggests experimenting.
- Support your colleagues. They don’t have to be your friends, and you never have to see them three sheets to the wind at the office holiday event, but you need one another to make stuff happen. That’s why you come to work. To make stuff happen. So don’t judge. Just assume everybody’s trying their best.
- Advocate for your program, project, exhibit or idea. If you don’t care about what you’re doing enough to talk about it, why should anyone else?
And let us know how you lead when you’re not the person with the title.
Last week our post on bullying brought comments about how bullies and staff in general are hired. Several of the commenters offered potential interview techniques to weed out the mean, the lazy, and the pompous. If you also read Christy Coleman’s blog post “Are History Museums Stuck on Stupid?” you can’t help but wonder if, as Coleman says, “too many [museums] are stuck in pedagogical or operating models that simply don’t work well anymore.” And, if you didn’t read it, you should.
Coleman chastises the field for wringing its collective hands as visitation declines; for meeting locally, regionally and nationally to hear about whatever the next big thing is when there is no one-size-fits-all cure; and for believing data is the magic elixir that will send visitation soaring. She concludes by offering an example of visitor engagement from The American Civil War Museum where she is the CEO. No surprise, its visitation has grown slowly and steadily over the last five years as Coleman and her staff engage their community in its own story. (We profile Coleman in our book, Leadership Matters, BTW.)
One of the smartest things Coleman says is “Museums want to be taken seriously, but often the biggest mistake is framing exhibits and programs for other colleagues.” In other words, don’t preach to the choir. What she doesn’t mention–at least overtly–is museums may be stuck on stupid (or mediocre) because their staff (and boards) need a shake up. We know there’s no shortage of eager, optimistic museum graduate students trying desperately to break into the field. Why then, especially in the world of history museums and heritage organizations, are so many museums trapped doing what they’ve always done: the roped off room; the docent-led tour; the exhibit of like objects with brief, yet grave, labels? What would happen if these same museums broke with tradition and hired an English major, an art major, or a psychology minor? Would our careful world implode if we looked at things differently? What if the English major’s charge was to figure out a house museum’s narrative and the places where it intersects with today’s world. Today the word revolutionary can have a slightly nasty tinge, but what about when it’s applied to 18th-century Boston? How are those revolutionaries different?
To ask these kind of questions you have to have a staff who is creative, non-judgmental, and whose primary concern is making their narrative resonate in their community. And to be clear, their community is the place where their historic house, heritage organization or museum is located. It’s not where the board lives or where the staff lives. If this is the staff you want, then your interview techniques not only have to suss out whether job applicants are vain and lazy, but whether they think in original ways, what books are on their bedside table, what was the last movie they saw, and when was the last time they took a risk, and whether it paid off. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that rule- or tradition-bound cultures drive creative people away. Here’s Lolly Daskel on why they leave: 10 Dumb Rules That Make Your Best People Want to Quit.
To break out you have to want to break out. I’m fond of quoting David Young, Director of Cliveden in Philadelphia (and another Leadership Matters interviewee), who said organizations have to “allow leadership.” I would alter that and say organizations have to want change, and that begins with who you hire.
How is your museum breaking out of the loop?