By Steven Miller, Guest Blogger
On April 15, in an attempt to help member museums during the COVID-19 pandemic, 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.” Key wording in the announcement stated “… the AAMD will refrain from censuring or sanctioning any museum – or censuring, suspending or expelling any museum director – that decides to use restricted endowment funds, trusts, or donations for general operating expenses.” The information included how endowments are defined. It provided wording about ways they could be raided by museums. The resolutions also included new exemptions about how money gained from the sale of deaccessioned museum collections can be used for the “direct care of collections.” The statement went on to explain, “AAMD also recognizes that it is not within the Association’s purview to approve the redirection of restricted funds. However, it hopes that these resolutions will serve as an endorsement to donors or the relevant legal authorities, encouraging them to permit the temporary use of these funds for unrestricted needs.”
This blog post focuses on the endowment issue.
Museums are expensive places to run. Money primarily comes from three sources: earned income, endowments, and charitable donations. Earned income is customarily realized by such things as admission fees, retail sales, memberships, and space rentals. Endowments comprise funds gifted or otherwise allocated to sustain operations or designated programs. Charitable donations involve money freely given for general or specific uses.
Funding for American museums has been abruptly reduced as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. Most institutions are closed. This means attendance and retail profits are almost entirely lost. Downward valuations combined with large emergency withdrawals have reduced investment portfolio size and returns. Many museums find charitable giving reduced to a trickle as donors hold back.
Museum boards of trustees are going nuts trying to assure the survival of their organizations for which they are responsible. Their struggles are almost insurmountable. Practical solutions are almost entirely of a fiscal nature. What will it cost to survive, how is survival defined, and, where will the money come from, not to mention when?
The AAMD’s resolution announcement was 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.” In the abstract it’s a nice gesture. In reality, it has little weight. In fact, museum boards have always had the right to go to donors or their heirs to make restricted funds less restricted in order to survive a financial crisis.
Museum endowments range from huge to negligible and their purposes and structures range from specific to general. Usually they are invested in conservative monetary instruments, mostly stock and bond portfolios. These are managed either by professional money managers or designated members of a museum’s board of trustees. Responsible museums have investment policies. They spell out how funds are retained and used. As with other policies, the one regarding investments is agreed on by a board of trustees and kept in governing documents.
Anyone familiar with the American museum world knows boards of trustees do as they wish within sometimes broad legal parameters. For the most part their decisions are beneficial or at least not too damaging. Now, all face terrible choices regarding the very survival, much less longevity of museums, in this country. For the most part trustees are doing whatever they legally can with whatever resources they have, which include endowments.
Having directed a museum in 2008 when the Great Recession hit, I witnessed how one board of trustees dealt with endowments. Their example is unfolding again. The board analyzed the institution’s endowments. Unrestricted funds were spent down to cover operating costs. Trustees approached people who had established restricted endowments, or the donor’s heirs to request a release of the restrictions. Permissions were granted for all such endowments. Substantial cost-saving measures were instituted by me, starting with a voluntary 40% cut in my salary. Other compensation was reduced incrementally with the lowest paid employees suffering the smallest cuts. Furlough weeks were also instituted. We emerged from the mess having cut one position and that person was quickly rehired. A dozen years later, as COVID-19 unfolds, the lost endowment funds from 2008 have still not been replenished to their original levels.
My time dealing with the 2008 fiscal debacle was the most difficult leadership challenge I ever faced in my career. I am grateful to avoid the current boondoggle. But, as a member of two non-profit boards (an art conservation center and a college alumni/ae group) I am witnessing trustees struggling to make ends meet and how the AAMD’s resolutions have no meaning. Censuring or sanctioning member museums or directors will carry little weight. When push comes to shove, boards of trustees need to make difficult decisions based on a lot of unknowns. Unless the AAMD can pony up significant cash assistance, given the fiasco museums face now, they have sound arguments for contradicting their best intentions.
AAMD Board of Trustees Approves Resolution to Provide Additional Financial Flexibility to Art Museums During Pandemic Crisis (Press release, April 15, 2020)
If I were Randy Rainbow I’d begin this post with a clever song about my ongoing crush on the Philbrook Museum. But I’m not. My singing is cringe worthy, although my crush is real. How can you not love an organization that writes about post-pandemic life like this? “The museum we closed will not be the museum we open.”
Yesterday I heard an NPR interview with a Boston doctor. He explained ER visits are down because many people will endure pain rather than expose themselves to the virus. He suggested ERs have to learn to do two things at once: Be familiar, caring places we’re not afraid to go for stitches or a broken limb, but also be the entry point for Coronavirus patients. It occurred to me that may also be true for museums. Museums need to do two things at once as well: the familiar in-person experience and a whole other multi-leveled virtual one.
More than 20 years ago the Internet dissolved library walls. Suddenly physical space didn’t matter. Walls were porous because information was everywhere, from the books you checked out, to whatever you found on the library’s computers and databases, to ultimately, your laptop and cell phone. As devices became increasingly sophisticated, so did librarians, not because they no longer believed in the power of books (they do, passionately), but because they knew we needed guides through the wild world of the digital universe. To an outsider, the library pivot felt pretty seamless, shifting from a place where access only happened in the traditional reading room to an all-enveloping library where the focus is on you and your access to information. How did museums miss that boat? Where were they when the shift to the digital universe happened?
Clearly, some folks got on board, which brings us back to the Philbrook. Under normal pre-COVID circumstances, a resident of Connecticut (me), would not likely know much about a museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But I discovered the Philbrook on Instagram several years ago where it already possessed a lively social media universe rooted in its site and collections. In a piece written for AAM, Philbrook President Scott Stulen describes the museum’s closing: “On March 13th, a cross-departmental group assembled. We had just cancelled the opening to our new exhibition that evening and met to actively respond to the expected (and unexpected) challenges ahead. This group quickly mobilized the entire staff, guided by the priorities to ensure the safety of staff and the public while stabilizing the museum financially. There was also a realization that our mission to connect the community to art and gardens was not on pause, it was just moving to new platforms.”
The Philbrook, along with many other museums and heritage organizations, understands museum collections have a power beyond the sanctity of space. It wants you to visit, but equally important, the Philbrook seems to want you to know them, virtually and actually, their values, their beliefs, even the museum cats. And they don’t see their virtual collections and exhibits as some sort of junior varsity version of themselves. Rachel Cohen wrote “What We Miss Without Museums” for last week’s New Yorker. Cohen talks about her life pre-children, visiting the Metropolitan weekly. She is a master of slow looking. Yet after she became a parent and regular museum visits were more difficult, she started to take pictures, creating her own virtual exhibits. She writes, “Every day, I use a few of my photos of artwork to write an entry for an online notebook. I’ve been keeping the notebook on and off for years, but now I do it urgently, sending messages in bottles to friends and strangers, trying to offer what I’ve stored, what I miss.”
I wonder two things about museums in the post-COVID universe: Will the ones who survive be the ones who saw themselves as more than repositories? And will the ones who survive successfully be those who recognize the collections’ energy to serve audiences in a multitude of ways, not because we’re in a pandemic, but because it’s the smart thing to do? And in doing it well, will they acknowledge museums too have no walls? Nothing can replace standing in front of your favorite painting, seeing a living creature or sharing space with an object of historic significance, but is it a binary choice? Is an actual visit the only choice? Or is there another that’s different, but equally important?
This week Wilkening Consulting posted an infographic about virtual museum content and the public. Among the things it points out is that most adults don’t look to museums as a virtual source. Can that change? Wilkening reports her respondents are still looking for hope, for escape, to understand the pandemic experience, and to make connections while maintaining social distance. Raise your hand if you don’t at least have something hopeful you can offer.
As states loosen pandemic restrictions, medical experts warn it may be a year or more before we return to something like our old lives. So as museum leaders and followers how will we ride out the next 12-18 months?
- In times of crisis it’s easy to fall into the trap of the hero/shero, but is any of us capable of having all the answers? Don’t we need one another? Be the leader who values interdependence.
- Work with your staff to build a collaborative model where your museum is more than the keeper of the rare and the special.
- Understand your organization’s DNA. Know your organization well enough to make gentle fun of it.
- Take care of your staff. They are your museum and they can help move it forward from the COVID-19 pause.
- Know your community. Ask it how you can help?
- Don’t stop connecting.
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. 🐾”
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
Remember your pre-COVID-19 life when you wished you could just stay home and work? How peaceful it would be, how much work you’d get done if only you weren’t at work distracted by meetings, angsty colleagues, or workplace deadlines. Well, be careful what you wish for. Now we’re caught in a devilishly dystopian movie with no end in sight, a little workplace angst seems like heaven.
Many of us have completed our first week of either government or self-imposed isolation. For those of us lucky enough to collect a salary while working from home, it has its moments. Everyone uses Zoom like a pro, bouncing from meeting to meeting as we struggle to stay on point, while small children and dogs step into the picture. But there’s no doubt there’s a price to pay, and social isolation is the least of it.
So after five days, what do you as museum leaders know? There’s the obvious: that collections managers and curators’ work transfers home a lot easier than that of your front line staff. But how about protecting as many of your workers as you can, and while acknowledging layoffs are horrible? Then there’s social media: those of you who have a robust platform may no longer feel as though it’s the icing on the cake, but the main course. And of course, there’s the money: If you didn’t understand your museum’s endowment portfolio two weeks ago, you may be getting a crash course–no pun intended–in stock market physics; that some of this country’s leading philanthropies are already banding together to help support museums and heritage organizations. And the advocacy piece: We owe Laura Lott, Elizabeth Merritt, and the AAM staff thanks for leading the museum world’s advocacy effort on Capitol Hill. Fingers crossed, it pays off.
For many museums the Metropolitan is a kind of a bellwether the same way New York’s fashion world influences dress months later in the heartland. So when the Met announced that even if it were to open again in June, it will face a $100 million loss, it was enough to scare the crap out of many smaller museums and heritage organizations. Even the Met, with its $3.6 billion endowment, has only guaranteed salaries through early April while it studies how to navigate the coming months. Its plan, though, is interesting: Short term, it’s paying salaries and those who can work from home are; beginning in April it will use furloughs, layoffs and retirements in addition to shifting spending from funds associated with programming, acquisition, and travel to keep the museum operational. The hope is it will re-open some six months after the virus began in the U.S. with reductions across the board. (Not shared is whether Max Hollein or Daniel Weiss will take pay cuts for the duration of the crisis. #sharethewealth) So the model is short term, pay those who can work; figure out what you can jettison; shift funds you won’t need, and plan on opening a trimmed down version of yourself in two to four months. The more egalitarian among you may choose to take pay cuts, but that’s for you and your board to work out. There is by the way already a place to aggregate staff layoffs in the wake of the virus. Cold comfort, I know, but as more information amasses, you will have a sense of what other organizations are doing.
For those of you who are now thoroughly depressed, we hope you read Colleen Dilenschneider’s piece on COVID-19 and intended as opposed to actual visitation. As always with Dilenschneider, it is a clear and weirdly hopeful piece. She writes that as of March 13 the public was staying away because they were self-isolating or museums were closed or closing, but long-term, their intent is to return. Could a lack of discretionary income affect that? Yes. But do people need the beauty, the knowledge, the third space museums provide? Yes.
As my friend Franklin Vagnone, President of Old Salem Village writes,
“As museum leaders we must be thinking ahead of this to April 2021. What do you want to be? Who do you want to serve? How will you use your resources to achieve that goal? It’s not the time to be nostalgic for what we lost, we must embrace the butterfly that will grow out of this imposed cocoon.”
In closing, we want to thank history museums and archives who are already starting to collect reminiscences about the pandemic for future generations. We want to thank museum IT and social media folk who keep us entertained and in touch through Instagram, short videos and virtual visits. We want to thank conservators everywhere who donated equipment to first responders, and funders who recognize that museums (and all non-profits) are businesses too and need support as well. We want to acknowledge living history sites who are turning their history gardens over to raise food for community food banks.
And last, we want to send thoughts of encouragement and strength to our colleagues around the world affected by COVID-19, and especially all the museum people in Italy who are in the midst of such a desperate struggle.
Be strong and stay in touch with each other. Email your professional friends and colleagues and set up a Zoom call today. Don’t wait. Talk.
Image: The Mercury News
What a week it has been. A pandemic, a stock market dive, a national state of emergency, and oh yes, a presidential primary. As we look ahead, many of us find our normal work world contracting. Conferences have been cancelled. Face-to-face meetings postponed. We’re trading office hours for work from home, conducting meetings via Zoom, and keeping our distance when out and about in the world.
As grim and scary as the news has been, in many ways, this situation is what leadership is all about. A crisis forces you to examine your organization from 37,000 feet. Like a chess player, you realize moving one way makes this happen, moving another initiates a different set of circumstances. And you make choices. With your team, you figure out how to proceed while being the best museum or heritage site you can. No one wants a national emergency, but if you ever needed to understand why leadership is a daily practice, not a goal, this is it. And if you’re prepared, your organization will echo your behavior.
One of the things that comes to the fore in a crisis, is how your team thinks. You’re probably aware who among your colleagues is a big-picture thinker and who quickly wallows in details. Use those skills. Everyone likes to succeed, and if you play to people’s strengths, you’ll get better, faster results.
Through it all, remember your staff. Your whole staff, not just the leadership team. As far as I know collections can’t catch COVID-19. People can. This is the moment to be the leader who acted humanely, the person who advocated for paid time off for hourly staff who may not have any, the person willing to adjust HR’s policy on telecommuting rather than assuming it just leads to colleagues watching Netflix in their bathrobes. This is the time to re-write the rules particularly if it protects the very staff who serve the organization. So protect your people by putting their health first.
About a month ago, before the world turned upside down, Caroline Baumann, then director of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum abruptly resigned. Baumann’s resignation was sudden, arriving with absolutely no information. A week later, there was more context. She was outed ostensibly by a whistleblower and charged with conflict of interest around the circumstances of her 2018 wedding. First, the Smithsonian suggested Baumann’s dress, from designer Samantha Sleeper, which retailed for $3,000 cost Baumann $750. Getting a special occasion dress at a bargain price isn’t an ethical breach, but the Smithsonian and the whistleblower accused Baumann of providing Sleeper with a free ticket to a Cooper Hewitt event. In addition, it was suggested that the location of Baumann’s wedding ceremony (not the reception) was also a quid pro quo as she received it for free from a Long Island non-profit and then subsequently offered them meeting space for their board meeting.
There are a few leadership lessons here. The first is if you’re a director it isn’t just conflict you need to be mindful of, but also the appearance of conflict. Second, as important as it is to have whistleblowers, they too can be flawed individuals, and looking for conflict is easier if you’re already angry at your museum. I’m not suggesting this particular whistleblower was disgruntled, but it’s one more thing leaders need to bear in mind, and if there is no appearance of conflict, there’s no way a whistleblower can misuse the process. Next is the lesson that no matter what role you play as museum director–whether it’s a city the size of Manhattan or a small town–there needs to be a firewall between your personal life and your work life. Baumann claims the Cooper Hewitt’s PR consultant encouraged her to “shed light on her personal life.” This resulted in the Cooper Hewitt highlighting Baumann’s wedding.
The last, and for me the most interesting, is the glaze of gender politics over Baumann’s resignation. The Cooper Hewitt lost six trustees who resigned in anger, a boatload of money from each of them, and a 19-year employee who had risen to be director, and who outwardly had done an exemplary job. The failed novelist in me has tried again and again to imagine this scenario happening to a man. It’s not impossible, but it is unlikely.
Is it possible that while the Smithsonian followed its necessary protocols, its investigation wasn’t without bias? Was there implicit bias on the part of the investigators and the inspector general leading to a less than nuanced outcome? It’s likely we’ll never know. What we do know is women leaders walk a different path than their male counterparts. As Kaywin Feldman concluded in her 2016 AAM keynote: “Our society will not benefit from the leadership of female museum directors, across all types of museums, of all sizes, until museum boards are more cognizant of their internal biases, and tendency to dismiss female leadership styles.”
Image: Anchorage Daily News
Museum leaders and unions are an oil and water combination. Unions and museum boards even more so. When the Guggenheim staff began its negotiations with the International Union of Operating Engineers in 2019 its director, Richard Armstrong, reportedly wrote, “I do not want to work with a third party who has very limited experience in the museum field, and whose membership is largely in the heating and air-conditioning and construction industries.” An unfortunate sentence, encapsulating snobbery, the wealth gap, and the rarified view from the museum bubble in just 32 words.
According to Bloomberg Law, there were 40 museums with union staff in 2019. Many union members work at urban organizations where a ridiculously high cost of living and ridiculously low hourly wage create a perfect storm of dissatisfaction. If you combine the museum world’s insistence that the job sector’s ticket for admission is a costly master’s degree with the field’s emphasis on a more diverse workforce, it’s clear what a house of cards we’ve built. In the ongoing union/not-union debate we all owe Art +Museum Transparency thanks for saying the emperor has no clothes. They brought you the Arts + All Museums Salary Transparency 2019 spread sheet (that, BTW, sparked other nonprofit industries to follow suit and was prompted by Kimberly Drew’s talk 2019 AAM talk ), and can be counted on to use their social media platform to decry poor pay and poor treatment of museum workers.
If you’re a museum leader, what scares you about unions? Is it the thought of actually having to discuss hourly compensation with a union negotiator, someone who talks salaries and benefits for a living? Is there a secret part of you, like the Guggenheim’s Armstrong, who believes union reps can’t possibly understand museum culture? Are you afraid to stand up for frontline staff with your board? Or do you believe you don’t need to pay your frontline workers because somehow there will always be a ready supply of retiree volunteers and desperate interns, willing to move through your galleries being knowledgable for the price of a few volunteer events or a great recommendation?
If you lead a museum, and the thought of unionization makes you anxious, consider what it’s like to earn a master’s degree and make $15 an hour. Please do not say we all have to start somewhere. We do, but in some of America’s biggest cities, cost of living long ago outstripped minimum wage. And does your museum or heritage site have a gender — or a racial — wage gap? If yes, what have you done to help close it? Unionization isn’t Nirvana, but according to the AFL-CIO its women members have a smaller gap than non-members, and the union itself is campaigning for #Paycheck Fairness Act. We are still waiting for the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for 2019, but last year the field was 49.5-percent women. Isn’t this the moment to take the pay equity seriously?
As a museum leader, how often do you meet with your hourly staff? And how transparent are you and your board about their wages and benefits? If you don’t want to bargain with a union, work toward creating a humane workplace with the understanding that an organizational culture predicated on secrecy around such corporate keystones as compensation ultimately affects wage growth and morale. Put together a compensation committee where exempt and non-exempt staff from across your museum or heritage organization meet with board members on a regular basis. Help everyone know what they don’t know. Help staff and board members understand what equity means, what your organization can afford, and what might happen elsewhere in the budget if the wage gap were fixed. And know by doing so, you’ll face hard conversations, as Susan Dominus writes in her New York Times article, “Breaking the Salary Sharing Taboo”:
Open discussions of pay lay bare some of the basic contradictions that govern so many workplaces, which claim to embrace their workers like family while insisting, all the while, on professionalism and discretion. They are communities whose members care about one another and yet also know that their respective right to belong is based on their utility, perceived or actual. To ask a co-worker her salary — especially one who has worked at an institution for years — opens up deeper, unsettling questions. How valued are you in this community? Are you more valued than I am, or beyond what I perceive as your worth? Or have you undervalued yourself, been timid, clueless, exploited?
Here’s a place to start: Employee Compensation: 2020 Best Practices for Nonprofits
Unions are appealing because staff want a voice, want to be taken seriously, and compensated fairly. How often do historians and pundits comb through the past and point to the seeds of what happens decades later, saying see, “It was already here.” Museums who arrive in the mid-21st century with an old hierarchical model, and a huge wage gap between director and public-facing staff, may find themselves sitting down with union reps more often than they’d like. Why? Because museum staff has found its voice.
How many times has this blog ended with a plea for clear, transparent communication?The answer is too many to count. If you want staff support, if you want to lead the best museum your town or city’s ever experienced, you need everybody’s buy-in. From the fanciest board member to the housekeeping staff, they serve your organization. Give them the opportunity to talk about why, and compensate them accordingly.
P.S. I recognize the 2020 conference season for museum people is well underway, and that barring disruption by COVID-19, hundreds of us will gather to meet and talk in the coming months. That said, isn’t it time we made 2021 the year of the museum worker because isn’t it time we spoke face-to-face about compensation, benefits, unions, workplace harassment, and the gender pay gap?
Image: The Globe and Mail
How many of you are museum leaders? Are you lonely? If you’re nodding, you’re not the only one. By some estimates, 42-percent of for-profit leaders confess to feeling lonely all or part of the time. Leadership is isolating. You’re happy in your job; it’s challenging, but there are things that can’t be shared. Some days are stressful. You know things you can’t un-know, and the decisions you make often feel like they’re yours alone.
There are ways to make the top spot less isolating. You can allow yourself to be vulnerable with your leadership team. By learning to express feelings–as opposed to parsing problems–you model vulnerability and build trust. You can create a peer group or ‘kitchen cabinet’ that you meet with regularly to share frustrations, ideas, and to problem solve. You may also have close friends, unconnected with your museum, who listen well or a few well-placed mentors. Those outlets are yours and yours alone. And they don’t put you in the position of treating any of your staff or leadership team differently.
There are families, governments, and workplaces where power masquerades as friendship, love or connection. It is, to quote a Latin phrase we’ve all heard too much recently, a quid pro quo. Grandparents pay for college tuition, but only if they select the school. A town official looks the other way when a local non-profit needs a variance, but then asks the non-profit to support something else in exchange. A museum leader wants her staff to like her so she adjusts their schedules to accommodate their personal circumstances. These are all ways to create connection and make an individual feel liked. The only problem is they aren’t sustainable because they’re based not in authenticity and equity, but on transaction.
These days when we say the words workplace equity, what comes to mind is race, gender, access, and the way we treat one another in the museum workplace. But far from values statements and HR policies there’s day-to-day life where equity happens, and the ongoing question of who gets what. Who gets noticed? Who is hourly and who is salaried? Who gets to work on plum assignments? Who gets to travel on the museum’s dime? Who never met a deadline that wasn’t moveable? Who leaves early for soccer practice? Who is chronically late, but excused? Who is plucked from the group to meet with a trustees? Whose work is nominated for a prize? We could go on, but you get the picture.
Part of leadership’s isolation is leaders can’t have favorites. As a leader, you need to understand and tame your own biases, and you can’t use your power to grant favors for those you like. Creating an equitable workplace means….
- Starting with your employee handbook: Looking at the language. Might it affect one demographic differently than another? Can you fix it?
- Does your museum have a values statement? If so, how do you use it to guide daily practice? If not, why not?
- Do your rules about personal leave apply to everyone equitably? For example, are family leave — human leave — available equitably, because life comes at us all fast? And do you permit personal time that recognizes not all of us celebrate the same holidays at the same time? A small thing, but a nod that your organization embraces and supports difference.
- Are rules about promotion and professional development transparent?
- How are new ideas heard? How hard is it for an idea to make its way from the hourly staff to the salaried staff? If it’s challenging does that reinforce the idea that salaried staff are the idea makers? Where is the inequity in that?
Museum workplaces are microcosms of the wider world. As a leader you and your board have the opportunity to create and shape an organizational culture that is human-centered and fair. In many ways the workplace you create has a profound impact on the way your organization appears in the world. (If you need an example of what an organization looks like that neglects values and does not keep its staff safe, seen and supported, look no further than the Philadelphia Museum of Art, fast becoming the poster child for an unethical work environment.)
You can’t control each and every staff person’s behavior, but you can create a place where staff feel respected and nurtured. So build human-centered policies, and don’t let them languish. Apply them and watch your staff flourish.
Image: Museum of Happiness
It’s February. In the academic world, where I work, spring break looms in the distance like Oz. But before it arrives, there are annual performance reviews. Like much in life, performance reviews deliver more when you invest more. Sadly, though, in the imperfect world of the museum workplace the whole experience has all the appeal of a root canal. An overburdened leader with too little time on her hands needs to press pause long enough to meet with her staff or team individually, while cramming their jobs and personalities into a form designed in HR for one-size-fits-all. That’s the leader’s side. From the staff point of view, it may be a once-a-year conversation with a boss they don’t know very well that’s eerily reminiscent of their job interview, except there’s always the hint that the whole conversation is like a principal’s office visit, and whatever happens is GOING IN YOUR PERMANENT RECORD. The result is an experience, visited on us annually like a virus, potentially fraught with tension and the desire to have it over, where the highlight is often checking the box.
Apologies if that sounds hugely negative. Maybe you work in a museum or heritage site where annual performance reviews are one in a series of ongoing conversations with your director or team leader. Maybe they’re full of laughter, encouragement, and questions like, “What was your best moment at work this year?” Sadly, that has not been my experience. For seven years I had an increasingly toxic relationship with my then-leader. He failed to treat me equitably in a 36-month period of bullying by a colleague, leaving me at best cautious and at worst mistrusting. Over time, we whittled the required annual review down to the briefest exchange. It was totally pro-forma and completely unhelpful.
That said, I remain hopeful. I still believe performance reviews are opportunities not tests, and, like much in leadership, they should be intentional acts. But maybe you lead an organization that doesn’t have performance reviews. Maybe after decades of not meeting with staff on an annual basis you’re not sure what the fuss is about. You get along fine. And you may. It’s likely, though, even without the review’s structure and forms, you must make decisions regarding promotions, title changes, and pay. An annual performance review process, when done well, takes the sting of subjectivity and randomness out of the process by asking for employee participation.
Successful reviews start by touching base with mission and clarifying goals with your departments, teams or, in the case of a small organization, the whole staff. Measure team performance overall. Were their 2019 goals met? If not, why not? Once group reviews are complete, individual reviews make more sense. If you’re the overall leader, ask your leadership team about their departments. Who were the standouts? What does good, better, best look like on their teams?
From your leadership meetings, you can move on to individual reviews. You are neither a psychologist nor a wizard, so focus on the work. Ask them to describe a great day at your museum. Ask them if they could have a do-over, what experience comes to mind? Ask what they’d like to do more of? Less of? Ask how often they collaborate and with whom? Ask whether they feel safe, seen and supported, and if not, why not? Point the conversation back toward mission. How can their good work and great skills, continue to push the museum forward?
Ideally, were we not all overworked and struggling with too little time in the day, performance reviews wouldn’t be a one-time meeting akin to our annual physical. They would, instead, be a capstone to a series of ongoing conversations. I can feel the eye rolling here. Who has time for that? Likely you could, though, and if it improves communication, builds trust, and creates a better more transparent museum workplace, what’s not to like?
- Annual reviews are not productive if they are used to catalogue an employee’s failings. Start positive and move forward.
- Our memories are fallible and subjective. If you supervise a leadership team, ask them to keep a journal with a few key performance episodes for team members.
- Make sure each staff understand their connection to the overall museum operation and mission.
- Ask questions that get at the heart of what they’re doing. What works well? What doesn’t?
- Check your bias–both implicit or explicit–at the door. Imagine how you’d feel if you started your museum day cleaning the restrooms or dealing with toddlers from the local pre-school. Be respectful because your entire staff is important.
Performance reviews are something that seem to matter more in the for-profit world where achievement results in bonuses, raises and advancement. In the museum/heritage organization world, where jobs are tight and pay often abysmal, reviews sometimes feel as though they don’t have a larger purpose either for employee or employer. Yet we blather on about the importance of mentoring, of networking, of having a career plan, of speaking at conferences. And yet what are performance reviews but the 2.0 of mentoring? They are the opportunity to support staff, to point them in the direction of colleagues and opportunities, to invest in them. And, as we’ve said so many times in this space, your staff is the heart of your organization. Pay it forward. Hopefully, your gifts will come back tenfold.
On February 6th, Kaywin Feldman, Director of the National Gallery of Art, was called out on Twitter when she said, “So I’m concerned about getting more men in our field.” Charlotte Burns (@charlieburns) couldn’t understand why one of the only women in the art museum world’s top ten leadership positions would suggest hiring men as a solution to the field’s salary issues. The answer is pink collar jobs, meaning those dominated by women, are those jobs where salaries do, in fact, escalate when men enter them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 49.5-percent of museum employees are women. And while Feldman’s remark seems counterintuitive, she’s correct. In fact, to bastardize Jane Austen, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a single man entering a job sector dominated by females will be paid more and promoted faster than his female colleagues.
Why does this matter? First, a huge thank you to Feldman and her colleagues, Nathalie Bondil from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and Anne Pasternak from the Brooklyn Museum, who spent February 4th in a sold-out discussion at the Brooklyn Museum titled “Women Leaders in the Arts.” There’s precious little time devoted to museum leadership as it is–and female leadership is rarely talked about except when it’s absent– so kudos to the Brooklyn Museum for hosting the event. But back to Feldman’s remark and working in a pink collar field. The museum field is trending toward pink collar. As a result, many of us have terrible salaries. That said, hiring men is the most common recipe for increasing pay.
What was missing from Feldman’s remarks was the fact that a small percentage of men in a pink collar field, don’t change anything. It takes decades and many more men before salaries go up overall. And guess what? Even then, there’s a gender pay gap because introducing men into a predominantly female ecosystem only accelerates the existing pay gap, something that’s been with us since the 1940s when women began to enter the museum field in significant numbers for the first time. Museum work, like many of the soft-skilled caring professions, paid less than manufacturing, business and science, but many women were new to the workforce, and frankly, just happy to be there. Unfortunately, starting behind keeps you behind and women never, ever caught up.
Women are also penalized because many take a career break for pregnancy, childcare, and/or care of a family member. According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) working mothers make about 71¢ to a working father’s dollar, resulting in a loss of about $16,000 in earnings every year. (That’s white mothers though, the parenting pay gap is greater for women of color.) This parent gap exists in every state, and sadly, it doesn’t disappear when the kids leave, it stays with women until retirement, just like the gender pay gap we will hear about March 31, 2020, when white women’s pay reaches parity with white men’s. Women of color won’t reach parity until August 13th, Native women, October 1st, and Latina women November 2nd. How’s that for shocking and infuriating?
So kudos to all of you who have the salary question on your board’s agenda for 2020, but remember, no matter how generous your raises, if you don’t close the gap, you perpetuate it. So, instead….
If you’re a museum service organization or funder: Ask members sharing salary data to report on their pay gap, and be willing and ready to share pay data, including the gap, with prospective employees moving to your area.
If you’re a museum or heritage organization leader: If you currently ban employees from talking about wages, consider lifting it so staff can know what they don’t know. Think about a wage audit, disclosing the results to staff, and working to rectify them over a period of time. Work to eliminate bias in hiring and in promotion. Men, for example, are often rewarded monetarily when they become parents; men are also promoted on who they might become rather than on current performance.
If you’re a woman employee: Know what the field, particularly the museum and heritage field in your region, pays. Do your homework. Know what amount seems like pay Nirvana, and what amount is worth saying “Thank you, no.” Educate yourself on how much it will cost to live where you’re interviewing. (There are a number of Living Wage Calculators to help with this.) Always negotiate, and don’t let being over 50, when women’s wages really tank, or being under 30 when the wage gap is smallest, stop you. Need tips? Try AAUW’s Career & Workplace and Salary Negotiation workshop page or Gender Equity in Museums 5 Things You Need to Know.
Pay fairness is a moral issue. In the 1980s and 90s when women entered the job market in large numbers, it was possible to say, “She doesn’t have the experience, she’s not as educated, she’s not supporting a family,” or any number of out-dated and outmoded ideas. But that’s over. Fifty years ago, 58-percent of college students were men; today 56-percent are women. One in four women are raising children on their own; and 12-percent of working adults are also caring for another adult.
Your staff is the lifeblood of your organization. And a staff that’s equitably paid is a happy staff, and happy staffs deliver. They’re creative, empathetic, fun to work with, and great community ambassadors. Invest in them, and do it fairly.
P.S. This was also the week that London’s Tate advertised for a head barista at a salary higher than the average curator. Cold comfort to know that we’re paid badly on both sides of the pond.