Upending Our Ideas About Leadership in Museums

Written by Mike Murawski

Since the beginning of this pandemic crisis and throughout the ongoing protests demanding racial justice, we have seen evidence of a wide range of leadership qualities on the public stage—watching national political leaders on TV and through social media, seeing governors and mayors respond to these crises in their own states and cities, and feeling the effects of how those leading our museums and nonprofits have decided to respond.  The behaviors of those in traditionally-defined leadership positions have varied from being fairly brave, vulnerable, and serving the greater good, to acting in ways that are extremely harmful, self-serving, violent, and reprehensible. For museums, we’ve certainly seen this full range of leadership behavior—yet, unfortunately, far too much of the self-serving, harmful kind.

Leadership at institutions including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, MoMA, Detroit Institute of Arts, SFMoMA, the Getty, New Orleans Museum of Art, Newfields (formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art), and countless other museums have been called out for their inequitable and opaque decisions to cut and furlough staff, for actions taken to prevent staff from organizing and forming unions, for their role in creating and perpetuating toxic and racist work environments, for sexual harassment and abusive behavior toward staff, for censoring staff and community voices, and for unethical behaviors regarding collections practices, hiring practices, and artwork loan practices. In a few cases so far, demands for accountability from staff, former staff, artists, and community members have led to action—the Executive Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland resigned amid the museum’s problematic handling of an exhibition of drawings by artist Shaun Leonardo, and the Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit has been fired by the board after charges of mismanagement and racial harassment. In Canada, the President and CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was forced to step down due to accusations of censorship, racism, and sexual harassment. And the Detroit Institute of Arts Staff Action group is calling for the resignation of the DIA’s Executive Director amidst a whistler blower complaint filed with the state of Michigan and the IRS and claims of a hostile and chaotic work environment at that institution under his leadership.

Rather than these being isolated examples, these behaviors are indicative of a field-wide crisis in leadership—a crisis that has existed for too long, and has been exposed through constant and ongoing efforts to organize and take collective action, increase transparency, and hold institutions and those in positions of power accountable.  As curator, writer, and activist Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell calls out in a recent open letter for Museum as Site for Social Action (MASS Action):

“For far too long our field has been led exclusively by white, cisgenered, male, privileged, overly educated, wealthy, elite, upperclass, heteronormative, ableist, colonist gatekeepers.”

The prevailing notion of leadership has been defined through existing white, patriarchal norms of power, authority, and control as well as the systems of oppression and domination that are so entrenched in museums (for more on white supremacy & white dominant culture in museums, see my previous post here and a really good Incluseum post here). When we use the words ‘leader’ and ‘leadership,’ we are too often only thinking of the single person at the top, the ‘boss,’ an individual who simply holds a job title with words like ‘Director,’ ‘Chief,’ ‘Head,’ ‘President,’ ‘Executive,’ or ‘Chair.’ In a 2017 article for Nonprofit Quarterly, the co-founder of the Nonprofit Democracy Network, Simon Mont, writes, “We have built our organizations around an idea that our leadership should come from either a single individual or a small group,” pointing out the urgent need for this outdated individual-centered understanding of leadership to be replaced. In addition to this narrow idea of top-down decision making, many museums and nonprofits are also replete with poor communication, lack of transparency, overly hierarchical structures, and a distinct unwillingness to change. This all results in the further marginalization of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Deaf, Disabled, and LGBTQIA staff, volunteers, and audiences. “The dominant organizational structure of nonprofits,” Mont declares, “is unsustainable.”

In her post, Bryant-Greenwell contends that “our museums reflect our leadership.” If, indeed, our museums reflect these behaviors and this broken model of leadership, then museums are certainly in a heightened moment of crisis and concern—which only feels more urgent when paired with the sweeping impact of the pandemic on these institutions and their staff.

Yet with each and every crisis comes a possibility for change.

In the Center for Cultural Power’s recent guide on cultural activism during the pandemic, co-founder and president Favianna Rodriguez reflects that “in moments of disillusion and fractures, there is also an opportunity to sow ideas for a different kind of future.”

Now, more than ever, is the time for us to upend our conventional ideas about leadership and what it means to be a leader; to rethink what it means to bring people together for a collective purpose and shared vision; and to redefine what values and skills are truly necessary to navigate our current crises and shape the future of museums. It is up to all of us to choose to embrace a “different kind of future.”

Reflecting on Leadership

Since the pandemic began closing museums in March, I have spent quite a bit of time taking a step back to reflect on this idea of ‘leadership’ and what it means for museums specifically. Over the these past few months, I have participated in a reading group on ‘leadership in times of crisis’ facilitated by the Radical Support Collective, I have read through piles of articles and several key books on leadership and organizational structures, and I have spoken with many people who currently hold leadership positions within organizations or whom I would define as leaders in the field of museums (even though their institutions have not recognized them as such).

Leadership is something I have consistently thought about in each and every institution I have worked for, experiencing a wide array of leadership styles while also working to shape my own practice of leadership. I have seen and experienced instances of both courageous and paltry leadership, and I have no doubt been the purveyor of such experiences to those reporting to me over the years. Through all of this, I have regularly asked myself: What does leadership look like? What should leadership look like? External pressures and expectations be damned, what does being a leader mean for me?

Over the past several years, ideas of care, healing, and collective well-being have become core to my own personal practice of being an educator, team member, advocate, change agent, and leader.  In so many ways, these values have been shaped by and with others that I have worked alongside, whether in the same department, across different areas of the same institution, or as part of the amazing groups and individuals around the US and world advocating for workers’ rights, demanding equity, and pushing forward a more community-centered and people-centered vision for museums. So as the pandemic hit and I found myself among the thousands of museum workers being laid off from their institutions, these core values have been like my bedrock, my guiding light, my North Star.

Which is why I was really struck by an article written back in April by Kathleen Osta, Managing Director of the National Equity Project. In her piece entitled “Leading through the Portal to Claim Our Humanity,” she frames the current moment of heightened anxiety and uncertainty as a “once in a lifetime opportunity to increase our global empathy—to practice radical compassion—and to pay attention to our collective well-being.” That has resonated with me in such a strong way, especially in my thinking about how we can use this moment to shift our vision of leadership. Osta writes:

“How might we use this global crisis to re-order our priorities and lives in ways that increase our collective well-being?… How might we organize our lives at the interpersonal level and lead change at the institutional and structural level with the awareness that we belong to each other—that every human being is worthy of our attention and care? What might be possible for ourselves and for future generations if we decide to live and lead with this value?”

Rethinking Leadership

I propose that we utilize this incredibly unique and unprecedented moment to seriously rethink what leadership means, and replace worn out conventional ideas with new possibilities.  For me, among the vast and deep thinking out there about leadership, there are four key principles I would like to explore here:

  1. Leadership is human-centered.
  2. Leadership means standing apart.
  3. Leadership is a collaborative, collective, and shared endeavor.
  4. Leadership is everywhere around us.

While I don’t pretend that any of these ideas are new, I certainly wish I had come across them much earlier in my own career; and I think working for ‘leaders’ who more closely embodied these principles would have significantly changed my work within museums, my ongoing relationship to these institutions, and their overall response to the crises of COVID and racial injustice. I see the powerful role that white supremacy and patriarchy have played in developing the accepted traditions and destructive politics of leadership, and what kinds of leadership traits we have been taught to value and which traits we have been taught to actively devalue. Yet it is past time that we unsettle and challenge these norms, demand change from those who hold positions of power and authority, and build a future that celebrates and centers care, collaboration, belonging, and well-being.

More to Come…

This is the first post in my “Leading Towards a Different Future” series that takes a deeper dive into these ideas about leadership and steps for taking action. I am, of course, open to questions, conversation, and bringing together more ideas that can help us move toward changing museums.

The next post in this series, “Leading Means Being More Human,” examines the importance of human-centered leadership and the process of radical self-inquiry. Subsequent posts in this series will explore what it means to stand apart and lead from the heart, how and why to adopt collective and non-hierarchical models of leadership, the need to develop and recognize leadership everywhere in our organizations, and what action steps can be taken to build a different kind of leadership for museums.

*     *     *

About the Author

MIKE MURAWSKI: Independent consultant, change leader, author, and educator living with his family in Portland, Oregon.  Mike is passionate about transforming museums and non-profits to become more equitable and community-centered. After more than 20 years of work in education and museums, he brings his personal core values of deep listening, collective care, and healing practice into the work that he leads within organizations and communities. Since 2011, he has served as Founding Editor of ArtMuseumTeaching. Mike is also currently the co-producer along with La Tanya S. Autry of Museums Are Not Neutral, a global advocacy campaign aimed at exposing the myth of museum neutrality and calling for equity-based transformation across museums. In 2016, he co-founded Super Nature Adventures LLC, a creative design and education project based in the Pacific Northwest that partners with parks, businesses, and non-profits to design content, illustrated maps, and interpretive resources aimed at expanding access and learning in the outdoors and public spaces. When he’s not writing, drawing, or thinking about museums, you can find Mike on long trail runs in the forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

5 thoughts on “Upending Our Ideas About Leadership in Museums”

  1. I congrat to the author of this pertinent article. But, I contribute a specific reflection, perhaps a “semi-warning”. I am the first to expand and update these things, and I did it while I had to be a leader-boss-supervisor, and I found myself in many cases with terrible dishonesties, egos, vanity and unscrupulousness of some who it was my responsibility to supervise-lead:

    “Collective” leadership must have aspects of selectivity, such as training, preparation, capacity, morality and honesty, without egos or vanities, to exercise it. You cannot make someone a “leader” just because of their skin color or because they have been “excluded” before, without breaking the real terms of that “exclusion”.

    Fernando Almarza Rísquez

    1. Fernando, thank you for sharing these insights! I agree that there is a lot of complexity involved when it comes to making changes to the way one leads, and in making shifts toward more collective leadership approaches. And a huge YES to the transformations needed within an organization that can make space for new voices and new individuals to lead. Later this week, I hope to share more from conversations I’ve had with the co-directors at the Five Oaks Museum here in Portland, Oregon. They are doing some incredible thinking, and making change happen in refreshingly radical ways. I can’t wait to share more.

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