Make Employee Performance Reviews Intentional Opportunities, Not Tests

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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?

Remember:

  • 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.

Joan Baldwin

 

 


If You Don’t Close the Museum Salary Gap, You Perpetuate It

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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.

Joan Baldwin

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.

Image: Artnet News, February 5, 2020


Of #MuseumMeToo, Whiteness, and Doing the Right Thing

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Twelve days into the new decade, and so much has happened. Last Monday the museum world reacted to President’s Trump’s threatened bombing of Iranian cultural sites with responses from AAM, AASLH, AAMD, and even social media from the circumspect Metropolitan Museum of Art. That was the week’s beginning. By week’s end, The Times had published an article on Joshua Helmer, once employed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and now director of the Erie Art Museum. In a #MuseumMeToo moment, Helmer is accused by both current and past colleagues of sexual harassment.

I had planned to write about white people trying to do the right thing, but before we go there, I need to say something. The Joshua Helmer scandal not only generated a social media storm, but a Change.org petition demanding Helmer’s firing. Meanwhile, Friday, the Erie Art Museum released the following statement,”The Erie Art Museum Board of Directors takes seriously all allegations of misconduct. Prior to offering Mr. Helmer the position at the Erie Art Museum, the Board, with the help of an employment consultant, conducted due diligence including background checks. No issues were identified during our due diligence.”

The subtext here is a board who says it did its research. If the complaints about Helmer are true, then it sounds as though the board is shifting blame to its recruitment firm or the Philadelphia Museum of Art for failing to divulge what they knew. But here’s what’s really bothering me: In 48 hours the Helmer firing petition garnered over 2,000 signatures. GEMM–Gender Equity in Museums Movement–has its own page on Change.org, a pledge to stop sexual harassment in museum workplaces. In six weeks it has yet to amass 500 signatures.

Why is it so easy to sign the Helmer petition, but not the GEMM pledge? Does encouraging Helmer’s firing make you feel like you’re doing something? Does it take the onus off you, and put it where it seems to belong? For centuries powerful people have used authority to coerce sexual favors and harm the less powerful. Yet sexual harassment remains an ongoing problem in the museum workplace. Imagine, for a minute, if the GEMM pledge had been around when Helmer left the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Could employees who signed it remain silent as a purported harasser left for a new position? It’s each of us who makes change. Not “them,” whoever “they” are. And we make change by changing our behavior. Sign the GEMM pledge. Don’t wait. Do it today.

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So what I really meant to write about is this: In my ongoing journey recognizing the limitations and boundaries of my own whiteness, sometimes I hear stories that speak to the way we as white humans think we’re doing the “right” thing, but it backfires majestically. Let’s imagine there’s a white development officer and a curator who’s a woman of color. The curator knows of an eminently successful young, black businessman who’s just sold his company for $30 million. She follows him on social media, knows he’s a collector, and has met him at a social event. She discusses this with the white advancement officer who’s aware of the businessman’s success. She asks the museum to approach him because her upcoming show will include several artists he collects. She’s hoping for additional underwriting for her exhibit and maybe an acquisition fund for artists of color. Instead, the development officer asks her to reach out first. In his world, it’s better if the businessman is approached by a) someone he sort-of knows, and b) by someone of color. He may also be scared–scared he’s not culturally astute enough–and he’ll say something wrong, and he doesn’t want to be wrong. The curator of color is angry because to her the optics look terrible. The collector isn’t a small business owner. He’s a gazillionaire who’s just sold to a multi-national corporation. Why shouldn’t he be treated like any other 1-percent entrepreneur?

What’s wrong here? Well, a lot, but definitely a failure to communicate. The white advancement officer is unable or unwilling to confess he feels ignorant, something he’d do in a heartbeat if the prospect were an international, and there were a language barrier. In addition, he’s comfortable letting the curator of color carry the burden of race. She, on the other hand, reads the situation from the black entrepreneur’s point of view and suspects he’ll be insulted if he isn’t treated like every other big giver the museum approaches.

So where does leadership come into all of this? Good leaders understand their own limitations and vulnerabilities. Humbling themselves in front of colleagues, admitting what they don’t know, and asking for help come naturally. When we’re all being our best selves–admittedly a daily struggle–we need to model great leader behavior: stop worrying about judgement, stop worrying about control, stop writing the script for others, and instead communicate and collaborate. What if the advancement officer admitted a gift from this young entrepreneur would be a first from a non-white donor, and he was scared of messing it up?  What if he asked for the curator’s help and collaboration instead of turning the ask back to her? What if she felt she could say, I am not the spokesperson for my entire race? And further, what if, as a woman of color, she  also didn’t need to worry about being characterized as brash and pushy?

There are a number of ways this story could have gone. I offer it only to point out how our narratives hem us in. Understanding our own parameters enough to know what we don’t know, and having the courage to be vulnerable are leadership practices we all need to develop.

Joan Baldwin

 


Destruction by Deaccessioning

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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


Inherited Staff? 6 Ways to Get to A Shared Vision

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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.

Joan Baldwin

*Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Make Change When Change is Hard.

 

 

 


Managing (and Succeeding at) Leadership Change

3d-glassesTo 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.

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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.

Joan Baldwin

Image: Gayle Lantz, Leadership Tip: Change Your Perspective

 


Trusteeship, Values, and Courage

Shaw Quote

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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Joan Baldwin