By Steven Miller, Guest Blogger
Barring loss of life, perhaps the most alarming tragedy museums fear is collection destruction. We recoil at the thought of objects disappearing from cherished public repositories of our shared culture. Diligent museums focus considerable attention on protecting the art, artifacts and scientific specimens in their possession.
To be sure, in spite of the best protective measures, losses happen. A few horrible examples include: The thirteen works of art stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, in 1990; the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the Iraq War in 2003; the recent fire and destruction at the National Museum of Brazil. Fortunately, these museum catastrophes tend to be exceptional. Statistically, most of the things most museums own are relatively safe. Or so we thought.
In May the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) sold a large painting by the Jewish Russian émigré Mark Rothko (1903-1970). The action was legal and approved by the institution’s board of trustees. At auction the picture realized $43.75M ($50.1M with fees). Where’s the Rothko now? Auction houses, in this case, Sotheby’s, understandably do not reveal bidder information.
Whether by sale, gifts, or trashing, the disposal of museum collections is almost as old as museums. Today unrestricted selling on the open market is highly popular. Or, perhaps it simply enjoys the most notoriety. The SFMOMA incident is only a recent example. This subtraction choice raises a large question in my mind. What preservation responsibilities do museums have for pieces they deaccession? Once something is on the auction block, for example, chances are good it will leave the protected public realm forever, lost as a document held for years in public trust on behalf of past, present and future generations.
The sale of museum collections on the open market seems a civic tragedy. This arena of private commerce is not devoted to preserving things for public benefit. An argument can be made that anyone paying $50.1M for something has a vested interest in keeping it safe. But who knows? The secret world of art wheeling and dealing destroys scores of paintings with varnish and wax relining–no doubt to the horror of artists like Picasso and Braque–or through neglect or ignorance.
It is interesting the gusto with which deaccessioning is now embraced by museums who rarely (ever?) express concern for the physical well-being of what leaves the collection. How does this reflect what Steven Lubar writes in his excellent book: Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present, [Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, 2017, p. 137]. “When museums collect things, they take on ethical obligations not only to the communities those objects come from, or are meaningful to, but also to the objects themselves.” Does this suggest why deaccessioning still elicits loud criticism? Does it suggest why complaints always come from outside the museum world?
Controversies about museum deaccessioning inevitably focus on boards of trustees as they make final departure decisions for pieces deemed no longer a fit. Questions are asked: Why don’t the trustees pony up whatever money is needed in a particular circumstance? Is the museum in financial duress? Why not sell things to another museum, thus keeping the piece and its records altruistically preserved? What recourse do scholars have when seeking information about lost collections? How do donors respond to the loss of their gifts? Aside from a convenient tax deduction, who will donate to a place for which collections are money in the bank to be raided at will?
Years ago I wrote a piece called “Guilt-Free Deaccessioning” for the American Association of Museums’ magazine Museum News (now Museum) about the advantages of deaccessioning by inter-museum transfer. Today I would use a different title: Win, Win, Win, Win Deaccessioning. Why? Because the museum removing an item presumably wins with its departure, the museum getting the object wins by its acquisition, the object wins by surviving, and the public wins with continued access. Inter-museum transfer happens. I hope it becomes a first-choice option rather than an afterthought. It will certainly reduce the growing notion that all museum collections can be purchased.
A Bard College graduate, Steven Miller has been in the museum field for nearly five decades as a curator, director, trustee, writer, critic, and consultant. A curator with the Museum of the City of New York for sixteen years, he subsequently administered and directed five regional history museums. He also taught in several graduate museum studies programs including sixteen years with the Seton Hall University MA Program in Museum Professions. He received a Graduate Certificate in the Principles of Conservation Science, International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, Rome, Italy. He is the author of The Anatomy of a Museum: An Insider’s Text, Wiley, 2018; Deaccessioning Today: Theory and Practice, Rowman & Littlefield, 2018; and How to Get a Museum Job: An Inside Perspective, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019. Deaccessioning is a subject that has long intrigued him.
Image: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1960; 69 x 50 in.; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, acquired through a gift of Peggy Guggenheim; © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; photo: Katherine Du Tiel
Google the words “vision and leadership” and you will get 493,000,000 hits. The two words go together like ice cream and cone. We tend to think of vision as something a leader must not leave home without, and lack of vision as a bad thing, but like most things in life it’s a little more nuanced than that.
There are plenty of museum leaders with vision who are dreadful at what they do. They need to be the center of the stage; their leadership philosophy is “my way or the highway,”and they have all the empathy of a box of Kleenex. That said, in the vision department, you know what they want, and where they’re going. Their vision may be self-centered, but it’s clear. They may raise buckets of money in some weird form of self-aggrandizement, but money gets raised. They like programs and exhibits because it’s a chance for them to shine at the expense of long suffering staff. Having worked for more than one of these folks, in my experience, there’s a counter-intuitive kind of peace that comes when it’s never your job to have an original thought. But maybe that’s just me.
Despite the digression, it’s not leaders with vision I actually want to talk about. It’s leaders who have no vision. Poor communicators, who are attracted to every shiny object, and can wander in the weeds for hours, these folks employ familiar leadership language, but nothing happens. They blather about starting this new program or that new initiative or tell you they’re revising the strategic plan, but to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there.” This is bad enough when you’re living it, but the cost when they leave is lasting. Here’s why: Working for someone who doesn’t know where they’re going creates anarchy. It permits everyone to put up their own guard rails and create their own reality. The curators may see the museum as one thing, while education may believe it’s something subtly different, and external affairs may be selling a third version to funders. Oh, and then there’s the board, and who knows what they think.
In theory a new director’s arrival might close these individual paths, funneling everyone behind the new leader, but old habits are hard to break. You may find staff who don’t meet deadlines well or who never finish projects. Why? Well, working for a vision-less leader means there isn’t a lot of decision making going on. Things happen, but not because the director acted as though they mattered. You may find staff who don’t get along well. Why? While there are myriad reasons for staff dysfunction, but a vision-less leader forces staff to chart their own paths, and if there are six staff, there may be six subtly different paths–a sort of individual mission drift.
A leader who succeeds a vision-less ED must be a great communicator. She needs to be explicit about her vision, while at the same time embodying it. If you inherit staff used to charting their own way, here are six suggestions to make life better quicker:
- Pay attention at meetings. Meetings are organizations in miniature: Be clear what you want to accomplish. Create agendas–as normal as that sounds, your colleagues may not have experienced regular agendas. Assign a note taker. Assign tasks. Follow up at the next meeting.
- When staff talks about previous projects, programs or exhibits, ask how they were tracked. Through data, anecdote, both, neither?
- Be transparent, authentic and clear. Listen.
- Use the Heath Brothers’ concept of mining the bright spots*. Look at staff successes and parse how and why they worked. Understand. Repeat.
- Check in with staff often. Does their work have meaning?
- Recalibrate when possible, pointing out how differences in approach mean differences in result.
*Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Make Change When Change is Hard.
To start, if you didn’t read Darren Walker’s opinion piece in The New York Times this week, stop everything and read it. Walker is the president of the Ford Foundation and speaks frequently about philanthropy and the arts. Not surprisingly, he zeros in on the museum board, writing “everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board.” He is clear that building a diverse board isn’t about tokenism, and that building community–and representing and responding to it–is as important a strength as endowment. It’s a short piece, succinct and beautifully constructed, perfect for your board. If you’re a leader, how many of you begin a board meeting with discussion about ideas rather than projects, fiscal issues or capital improvements? Try it. The results might surprise you.
My husband is fond of saying there’s always a bigger fish, a phrase that encapsulates the worst of organizational culture in some Darwinian metaphor. This week I’ve been thinking about leadership from the follower’s point of view as my small program goes through its third big leadership change in a decade. Any of you who’ve experienced a change in leadership from the staff side know it spotlights an organization’s strengths and weaknesses.
On the negative side, leadership change is disruptive. If you’re a relatively new hire, the person who hired you, presumably believed in you, the person you trusted, has left. If you’ve been around for a while, change may still be upsetting, but in a the-devil-you-know-is-better than-the-one-you-don’t kind of way. Change is not only personally disturbing, it affects organizational culture and performance as well. Change creates vacuums where old alliances crumble and new ones form.
Leadership change also creates fear. Established work patterns are blown to bits. Job descriptions change. New and different skills are honed. Colleagues may find themselves at odds when one places herself in line for a new position while another chooses to stay where she is. Middle management may also find themselves resisting change. Why? To protect their team, program or department.
On the positive side: disruption isn’t always a bad thing. And new leadership, whether it arrives in a week or six months, doesn’t mean you’re about to enter some dystopian museum workspace. In fact, it might mean adventure, excitement, challenge and stretch assignments. Besides, change is a muscle we all need to exercise. Change could represent a better-defined mission, a more goal-driven environment, and more equitable support for staff.
So what should you do if you’re a leader and your organization is searching for someone to fill a key position?
- Communicate. Listen. Whatever verb you want to use, your work life will be better if you talk about what’s happening. And the more talk that happens ahead of change, the better.
- If these discussions are for the leadership, make sure to include staff. Knowing what is going to happen, helps lessen fear.
- Make sure everyone’s on the same page. (See bullet point one.) This is the moment to quash rumors and provide some meaning for remaining staff in the wake of leadership change.
- Be respectful about how change affects employees. Some are by nature more easy going than others. Some may have had negative experiences with change in the past. Be open and kind about these differences.
- Watch out for stress. Leadership change creates holes. Be careful staff aren’t left filling in for missing positions without the authority and blessing of museum leadership. In other words, be careful not to put staff in positions where they have responsibility above their pay grade, but no authority.
- When it’s all over, remember to say thank you to those who stepped up and stretched their regular assignments to accommodate the museum, heritage organization, program or department.
Make change. Stay cool. Be kind.
Image: Gayle Lantz, Leadership Tip: Change Your Perspective
Since we wrote about museum salaries and the populist spreadsheet created to empower employees, we should also mention there’s a second spreadsheet for interns. Together, they offer museum workers at all stages of their careers badly needed information.
As of this weekend, the intern spreadsheet had over 200 entries. Sadly, the column where you’re supposed to post salary or stipends is peppered with zeros. If you are an undergraduate, graduate student or a professor in one of the many museum or public history graduate programs, either add to this list yourself or encourage students to do so. And if you’re an employer, particularly if you are a museum director, you may want to share both lists with your HR department and/or with your board. For emerging professionals there are enough roadblocks to a museum career without committing three months of your life to work for free. Let’s end the myth that museum employees come to work every day satisfied with their salaries or their internships. Not all do. Museum directors and boards need to understand that smart, creative, hard working staff need more than a living wage. And we know many don’t even get that, but that’s a different post OR if you’re coming to AASLH’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, join us Friday @ 4 pm for Advocating for Equity: How to Talk About Salaries in Your Museum.
Speaking of museum boards, last week we wrote about an audience member violating organizational values. This week we want to extend that discussion by asking how values play out on boards of trustees, and what happens when an individual’s moral compass moves in a different direction than the organization they serve. For those of you who missed it, this was the week Adhaf Soueif, an Egyptian writer and U.K. resident, spoke about her resignation from the British Museum’s board. In a piece on the London Review of Books blog, she wrote: “My resignation was not in protest at a single issue; it was a cumulative response to the museum’s immovability on issues of critical concern to the people who should be its core constituency: the young and the less privileged.” Holy smokes! Have you ever yearned for a trustee like Soueif?
If you said yes, be honest: Who is easier? The trustee who never misses a meeting, who Skypes in, shows up, and gives consistently? Or the trustee with feelings and opinions, the one who deftly unmasks pretense, the one whose giving capacity is great if quixotic? In terms of the group, who is more valuable? Is it a struggle to keep the trustee with feelings engaged, and what do you lose when, like Soueif, she leaves?
In an article written almost 30 years ago, Miriam Wood describes board behavior as cyclical. After the “Founding Period,” boards move through three distinct phases, Supermanaging, Corporate and Ratifying before the whole cycle begins again. Obviously we can’t know much about which phase the British Museum’s board is in, but if I had to guess, I’d say Ratifying. Julia Classen writing for NonProfit Quarterly described that phase like this: Unlike the previous phases, the board in a Ratifying Phase may not be as cohesive a group, and members may not know each other very well. They are less likely to be spending much time thinking about the organization beyond the 30 minutes preceding each meeting. In sum, the board is functional but largely disengaged from the organization.
We know from the Web site that the Museum has 25 board members. Happily, they post their minutes online although since they only meet four times a year, the most recent minutes are from December 2018. Only five of their members are appointed by the board itself, the other 20 positions are the purview of the Prime Minister or nominations from the presidents of other British arts and cultural organizations. They are leading artists, economists, historians, and captains of industry. The board includes seven women (eight before Soueif’s resignation) including three women of color.
If you read Soueif’s piece, it’s clear she loves and admires the British Museum. Somehow though the other 24 board members were waltzing while Soueif was committed to interpretive dance. A bad metaphor perhaps, but you get the gist. She clearly states that public institutions have moral responsibilities in relation to the world’s ethical and political problems. And she recounts how three years ago she tried to get the board to discuss its relationship to the oil giant BP, questioning how its underwriting of exhibits flies in the face of environmental concerns. In the end, she said she realized that the museum deemed money (and therefore BP) more important than the concerns and interests of an as yet largely untapped audience of Millennials and children.
Perhaps many of you have wrestled with biting the hands that feed you. In fact, that came up in last week’s post when audience members who’d paid to attend a gala benefit behaved horrifically to a woman of color. But how do you (and presumably your board chair) deal with a board member who’s out of step? Some thoughts:
- Boards are people not monoliths. No matter how tired or overwhelmed you are, address problems–disengagement, anger, frustration– when you see them. If it’s not your place, then take what you’ve observed to the board chair.
- Meet with the board member in question. Listen. Is she right? Perhaps she needs someone else to make her case? Are there reasons to accommodate her or is the board in the wrong phase of growth to make the shift she wants?
- Make sure your board is unified when it comes to organizational values. In an age when any museum can be called out in an instant over social media, it’s more than a good idea to make sure the board circles ’round to the organizational value statement on a regular basis. The leadership blogger Jesse Lyn Stoner provides a handy test to see whether board, staff and volunteers are on the same page.
- Be careful not to banish the one person who will say the emperor has no clothes. She may be the only board member willing to voice dysfunctional behavior. Think hard before letting her go.
- Boards, like staff, should exemplify diversity, not for the photo op, but for their ideas, and directors and board chairs should encourage healthy debate. If your board member’s frustration results in scapegoating, and the group turns on its own, the bigger more important issues won’t go away. Identify them, and talk.
We’re entering the dog days of summer. Stay cool and stay in touch.
This is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for story. How many of you did your due diligence, meeting with your constituencies and creating or revising mission statements for your museum or heritage organization? And when written, and everyone–trustees, staff, community, and volunteers– participated, did you feel a frisson of happiness that you’d done the right thing? That momentary sense of getting your organization where it should be?
Now, how many of you read the story about the Wayfair protests this week? Maybe, like me, you only know Wayfair as a business that clogs your email, one that apparently presumes you buy “home goods” as often as you buy groceries. But this week it made the news, and those of you who are leaders would do well to pay attention. In brief, Wayfair sold approximately $200,000-worth of beds to BCFS, a nonprofit, that supplies the Department of Health and Human Services’ border facilities for unaccompanied minors.
When Wayfair employees learned about the sale, they contacted management. Subsequently more than 500 employees signed a letter asking Wayfair to cease selling to BCFS and any other nonprofit doing business with border facilities. Wayfair leadership declined to stop the sale. In turn, hundreds of employees protested outside its Boston headquarters, garnering national news coverage. What was most interesting was hearing protesters repeat Wayfair’s mission statement, saying Wayfair should live up to the company promise that “everyone should live in a home they love.” One of the protesters added,“We don’t want to profit off of being complicit in human rights violations.”
If you’re eye-rolling here, think how this might translate to the sometimes staid world of museums and heritage organizations. Think it couldn’t happen to you? Remember last spring’s demonstrations at the Guggenheim, protesting donations from the Sackler family? Or the protest when MoMA honored a Bank of America CEO whose company funds private prisons, and the Decolonize This Place protests at the Whitney? You may say, well that’s New York where there is more money and more activism than in your community. Maybe true. But for all the head-down, thumb-tapping, addictive qualities of the Internet, it’s also hugely democratizing. Protests, disagreements and opinions ignite quickly. In an hour your organization can move from every-day complacency to under siege. To add to that, a recent study tells us that staff just aren’t as cowed as they used to be. Employees, particularly Millennials are 48-percent more likely to be workplace activists than either Gen-Xers or Boomers. They have opinions and they aren’t afraid to share them.
So how should you prepare and/or respond? Where are the chinks in the armor of your mission statement versus your organizational actions versus your board’s actions or your investment portfolio? Hint: the answer is not assuming it won’t happen. It might. And if you’re a leader, you need to prepare for praise and protest. Ask yourself:
- What’s your mission and does everyone understand it?
- Does your staff keep abreast with news in your community? If you haven’t already, for goodness sake follow Colleen Dilenschneider and Susie Wilkening. Use their data and wisdom to help understand your community.
- Do you know your supporters and what they believe in?
- Think ahead. What steps might you take to ensure you have the right messaging in the event of controversy or crisis related to your organization and its mission? Role play possible controversies to make sure your organization will react as a team.
- Has your board ever discussed whether there’s a line in the sand that would make it take a public stand?
- How would your board react to your staff participating in a protest? Of their own? With another organization?
- Is your organization able to react quickly? There’s little time to gather your peeps to strategize. If a board member’s caught in a personal or corporate scandal, if a staff member has a DUI or your organization accepts a gift from someone whose politics are at either end of a political spectrum, are you ready? Who’s your point person?
Last, know your organization, and make sure everyone else from trustees to volunteers does too. Know why it matters. If the community loves you, understand why because the more you’re loved, the higher a community’s expectations, and the more you have to lose.
Image: Members of Decolonize This Place and its supporters rally in the lobby of the Whitney Museum, Courtesy of Artsy.
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.
A confession: I don’t like Twitter. In fact, I find it visually distressing. I know that’s not the point, but as a result, I don’t tweet, and only check Twitter haphazardly. All that’s preamble to saying that this week I found the link for LaTanya Autry’s Social Justice & Museums Resource List on Twitter. Yes, it’s been around and growing since 2015, so I guess that’s a lesson I should visit Twitter more often.
Now I’ve found it, a huge thank you to Autry who likely has a gazillion other things she could be doing rather than putting this list together. But there it is, a labor of love, and ours to read, absorb, use, amend, edit and add to. And by being open and editable by anyone, the list is a model for the change we all hope is on its way in museums and in the museum workplace.
Another and perhaps more important thought about Autry’s list is this: If you’re having a particularly bleak week or month–it is February after all–think about what this list means for the museum field. Try and imagine Autry, or anyone else for that matter, creating it a decade ago. I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened, but it didn’t. There wasn’t any appetite for it, and the field–except at the margins– was content being its benign, patriarchal, misogynist, racist self. Even the list’s vocabulary highlights change. Take the verb “decolonize,” which by the way, wasn’t added to the Oxford English Dictionary‘s new word list until 2018. The earliest pieces on the list using “decolonize” date to 2016. And yet, today the word is everywhere.
None of that means there wasn’t good work being done 10 years ago or that there weren’t folks saying that the emperor had no clothes, but museums and heritage organizations weren’t the most woke job sector. Are we there yet? Good Lord, no. But have things changed? You betcha.
If Autry’s 47-page list isn’t enough, she’s also one of nine new interviewees for the revised edition of Leadership Matters due out this fall. That group of nine is a powerful band of humans with a lot to say. While we utilized the same criteria looking for new interviewees as we did for our original book in 2012–equity and variety in race, gender, geography–six years made a huge difference both in the what people were saying, the work they do, their willingness to merge personal and organizational values, and their belief that the days of a single, preeminent, white, binary narrative superseding all others is OVER.
Do I sound too Pollyanna-like? Maybe, particularly when you compare this post to last week’s. But if I do, it’s because I’m old enough to remember a time when discussion of any of these issues often resulted in a conversation that went something like, “You might want to think about what you just said. This is a small field and you don’t want to damage your chances of moving ahead.” Sean Kelly from Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), and another of our nine interviewees, used the phrase “fetishizing silence” in a radio interview recently. He was talking about the way ESP administrators used an unholy quiet to inspire penitence, but that phrase could just as easily apply to the way the museum world approached workplace grievances, racists remarks, and sexual harassment. If you deny it’s happening and fail to provide appropriate avenues to file grievances, you can almost pretend all is right with the world.
Scanning the articles on this list, it feels like we are in the middle of a sea change. Maybe not everywhere, but enough so there is a new normal. And for anyone suffering from “otherness,” anyone who needs support, ammunition, a sisterly voice, a shoulder at the barricade, it offers aid, examples, history and context. Use it, add to it, keep change happening.
Image: Changing Tides by Ellis O’Connor