Tag Archives: crisis

Leading Means Being More Human

Written by Mike Murawski

In an April conversation with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman about leadership in times of crisis, business expert Dov Seidman stressed the need for business leaders to put people ahead of profits and heed the call to pivot in ways that are anchored in “deep human values.” Seidman ends the exchange by saying, “Leaders who in this pause hear that call … will be the ones that will earn our most enduring respect and support.” I found it worth noting that as the initial economic impact of the pandemic hit, Seidman was tapping into something that most museum directors and boards were not: the importance of people—and, I would add, the deeply human values that lead us to care for each other first before we panic and obsess about the bottom line.

As the grim picture of revenue loss and budget shortfalls have become apparent for many museums during the COVID pandemic—especially for larger institutions—we have repeatedly seen people in leadership positions deciding to prioritize balanced spreadsheets and protecting endowments over connecting with and supporting the people that make up their organizations. I see this as indicative of the problems with leadership that I outlined in my previous post, a model of leadership in which the decisions of one person (or a small few) are based in a desire to preserve power and authority.

Counter to this, I have spoken with a few directors at institutions faced with the same financial problems that have nonetheless refused to lay off staff. The reason for this, one director said, was because “it didn’t feel like the human thing to do.” They were willing to be more human at a time when those following the traditions of leadership were protecting themselves, hoarding power, and hiding behind hollow public relations statements. They were refusing to perpetuate harm at a time when trauma was all around us.

During the Radical Support Collective’s four-week reading group on ‘leadership in times of crisis’ that I was a part of back in April, we read Who Do We Choose To Be? (2017) by Margaret Wheatley, a teacher and leadership consultant best known for her classic 1992 text Leadership and the New Science. While I still have many questions about Wheatley’s thoughts on leadership, one quote early in her book resonated with me in this particular moment. Her words have helped me understand the vital importance of transforming leadership, specifically, as part of the work to change museums. She writes:

“I know it is possible for leaders to use their power and influence, their insight and compassion, to lead people back to an understanding of who we are as human beings, to create the conditions for our basic human qualities of generosity, contribution, community, and love to be evoked no matter what.” (8)

Better Humans Make Better Leaders

Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to elevate care, relationship building, and collective well-being as integral elements to our institutions’ values and culture. It is about putting all human beings (not just visitors or audiences) at the center of our organizational thinking rather than collections, big donors, endowments, curatorial silos, or shiny capital projects. For those in leadership positions, I think this means setting aside ego, stepping back, learning to listen in radical ways, and making decisions based in care and deeply-held human values—and doing this all while it runs counter to conventional thinking, entrenched legacies of leadership, and the expectations of funders.

In his 2019 book Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, leadership development expert and executive coach Jerry Colonna writes about how the habits and behavioral patterns of CEOs have been detrimental to their own well-being and the well-being of others. On page one, he states:

“I believe that better humans make better leaders. I further believe that the process of learning to lead well can help us become better humans.” (1)

In my copy of Colonna’s book, these two sentences are heavily underlined. I remember reading this for the very first time, and just sitting with it. I was in the middle of a particularly challenging decision, and I was looking for guidance on how to move forward. Much of Colonna’s book and practice is focused on radical self-inquiry and finding ways to listen deeply to our own hearts. I thought about how white dominant culture and traditional gender norms teach us to resist this vulnerability and instead put up a façade of confidence and decisiveness. Make the decision, stand by it, get back to work, and move on.

Being a more human-centered leader—and leading from a place of deeper human values—requires us to resist this pressure to perform the rigid expectations of ‘leadership’ that are harmful. It requires us to slow down and ask ourselves a series of meaningful questions:

  • What is my work to become a better human?
  • What is my own power and privilege within society and within the structures of this institution?
  • In what ways have I been making decisions based on the norms and expectations of a toxic workplace culture?
  • How am I complicit in creating or reinforcing the conditions of a toxic work culture?
  • How can I break free from existing and traditional expectations, and lead from my heart and from a place of humanness—despite the risks or consequences?

After all, as Colonna writes, “Power in the hands of one afraid or unwilling to look into the mirror perpetuates an often silent, always seething violence in the workplace” (181).

This process of self-inquiry is ongoing, and we need to practice holding space for qualities such as care, compassion, healing, deep listening, emotional maturity, and a sense of interconnectedness with other human beings and with our planet. It is a practice that we can cultivate and grow through journaling, meditation, mindfulness, dialogue with others, building a community of support with those who truly value these qualities, and learning from work being done outside the field of museums in social justice, restorative justice, community organizing, nonviolent communication, climate activism, and healing practice. These are not ‘soft’ skills, as they have frequently been referred to as a way to write off and devalue them. These are essential skills. At a time when our society is in urgent need of care & healing, being a more human-centered leader means making a commitment to create the conditions for these qualities—and the individuals who uphold these qualities—to thrive.

Breaking Through the Resistance

Some of you might be having trouble processing how any of this relates to leadership (or, at least, the ideas of leadership you’ve held dear for so long). Or you might be thinking that, while this all sounds nice, it is just not practical within the ‘reality’ of an organization. You might even be thinking to yourself: I get all of this, but will my employees and team respect me if I am more vulnerable and more human?

You are not alone. The entire construction of ‘effective leadership’ in our minds has been built up by the systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and corporate capitalism (for more on white supremacy & white dominant culture in museums, see my earlier post here and a really good Incluseum post here). So it makes some sense that you are feeling resistance to any suggestion that you uproot these entrenched ideas. But trust me, we need to let our reticence and resistance go, and open ourselves to new ways of doing things. Not only are these outdated norms of leadership holding our organizations back, they are harmful to us, those we work with, and the communities we are aiming to build connections with. Ask yourself why unfixing and rethinking your ideas about leadership makes you uncomfortable or defensive? What might be causing you to be fearful of change, in both a personal sense and an organizational sense? What is the worst thing that will happen if you make a commitment right now to being a more human and empathetic leader?

Being More Human Together

The work of transforming museums and nonprofits into more human-centered organizations is certainly collective work—no one person, no matter how much self-inquiry they do, is going to bring about transformative change alone. And changing our ideas about leadership is also a collective and collaborative endeavor.

The rise of initiatives, organizations, and groups such as Museum as Site for Social Action (MASS Action), the Empathetic Museum, Museum Workers Speak, Museums Respond to Ferguson, Museums and Race, Museum Hue, Decolonize This Place, Art + Museum Transparency, Museums Are Not Neutral, and others have all elevated care, justice, transparency, equity, relationships, human connection, and empathetic-centered action as transforming forces for museums and cultural organizations. These campaigns and movements, along with many others, are filled with leaders willing to make a difference, stand up for what’s right, and take care of our communities and each other. We’re seeing that happen right now in so many ways, including the powerful mutual aid fund created by Museum Workers Speak in response to the massive lay-offs across the museum sector. Through the leadership of so many individuals, these groups have developed resources, toolkits, rubrics, and roadmaps that offer support, thorough research, and assessments aimed at dismantling oppressive structures and practices. So for anyone feeling isolated or struggling to make change happen within your organization and its leadership, there is a growing movement here to support you.

More to Come…

This is the second post in a series called “Leading Towards a Different Future” that takes a deeper dive into ideas about leadership and some 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.

Upcoming 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.

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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.

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.

Making the Case for Museum Education in the Midst of a Crisis

Written by Jason Porter

All of us have been watching closely as museums across the country layoff their educators and interpretive staff. I understand why these decisions were made: staff costs for a non-profit are expensive, right now unemployment benefits are generous and long-lasting, and decision-making metrics that take into account experience, seniority, and “essential” status often disproportionately count against the people who work directly with visitors (and those in security, visitor services, and operations). So in some senses laying off educators makes sense. Part of me also has to acknowledge that there are also more shadowy reasons for these layoffs at play: board members and executive directors have very little interaction with these workers, so they appear more expendable than senior staff; interpretation and education are not seen as “core functions” because it is possible to keep the lights on and keep the collections safe & secure without educators; as well as the fact that education and interpretation staff are often lower-wage workers (or working on contracts) and therefore viewed as less skilled or more easy to replace than curators, fundraisers, or marketing staff. 

Appropriately, the outcry from educators has been full of rage. Some have suggested boycotts and protests while others have defiantly declared that they won’t return to the field because of the ways they have been undervalued and cast off by museum leadership at this desperate moment. And predictably, leaders from museums that have undertaken these large-scale layoffs have frequently bungled the communication around their reasons for these actions. 

And yet here we are at the precipice of a new reality. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, managers and directors of interpretation or education and programming have been left with fewer staff members (or dwindling numbers), holding out hope that soon we will return to normal in time to execute the programs we planned for the fall, and facing a future in which digital engagement — long the “extra” component of our interpretive work —  is now the primary way in which we’ll connect with our visitors and communities. 

MoPOP PopCon
MoPOP PopCon

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last month-and-a-half canceling our offerings, postponing others, checking in with community partners to see how we can help each other stay afloat, and keeping long-term projects going in the hope that social distancing won’t last too much longer. But mainly I’ve been supporting staff, doing a lot of listening and encouraging, a lot of expectation-setting around what may happen with our jobs, and struggling to interpret the ever-changing messaging coming from leadership about how we plan to sustain ourselves as an organization. I find myself talking a lot about mindfulness, about staying in the present and focusing only on what each of us can control. Especially with emerging professionals, I think this has been helpful in dealing with the demons of dread and disillusionment that hover around us and drift in as we devour too many podcasts and calamitous news alerts.  

But in the few weeks, I’ve embarked on a new way of thinking. It came to me after I was asked by my boss to come up with a staff reduction plan that evaluated people based on their job descriptions, the number of projects they had to work on, and whether they were performing well. I am the type of person that needs a lot of reflection time, “sleeping on” ideas, and the space to (most often) write down my thoughts to work through how I feel about something as consequential as this. So I took a few days and attempted to write out my thoughts. By way of context setting, the week before, my department had started a weekly “watch-a-long” film series and we’d launched a bunch of social media initiatives that pushed out all sorts of content — blogs, videos, book clubs, playlists, etc — and all of it was proving to restart a bit of the creative thinking that had been a bit of a side-effect of COVID-19 since we’d shuttered the museum. In addition, I’d been taking in some news and the dire predictions of the length of the pandemic, and I started to think that the work that we had started to do was liable to be with us for quite some time. 

I didn’t really have time to go through the stages of grief. My staff plan was due in just a day or two, so I decided not to grieve at all. Instead, I shifted my thinking from mourning what we won’t be able to do anymore — the huge, crowded opening events, the groups of 150 school children coming through the door at once, the film screenings, the live concerts, the 1000-visitor days at the museum — to making the conscious choice to embrace the change and apply the kind of thinking that always motivated my work: reinvention

It was at this point that I decided not to submit this staffing plan as assigned. Instead, I wrote a “vision” for the next year for Education and Public Programs, the department I oversee. When I tried a first pass at the assignment from my boss, I had followed the rules: I created a plan where the hourly folks had their time scaled back, the folks who coordinated programs or did admin work would be laid off, and only the managers and content producers would remain. But once I started to think about the future and what it might be like (instead of assuming we will just return to “normal” after the quarantine period ends), it seemed like minimizing staff wasn’t a good idea at all, even in the short-term. I thought about the ways in which visits to the museum will be different, how if we will engage visitors mostly through on-line experiences, if we have to go to schools to reach students and teachers, if our large-scale gatherings will have to be re-imagined with safety and social distancing in mind, then we’re going to need creative, skilled people to do it. In fact, scaling staff back either in preparation for this new paradigm or once we are able to open again will leave us at a great disadvantage to function as a community-based, educational organization that provides support to schools or convenes groups of curious visitors. In my most radical thinking, I considered that we might actually need more people — folks who really understand digital learning, people who are expert in using technology such as VR, digitized collections, app-based programs, etc. to create and facilitate programs that will remind people how essential museums are for content, community, and connection. 

Across the field, the definition of a museum has become a hotly debated issue, and while I was thinking about the vision plan I was writing, I thought a lot about what role a museum will play in our new reality. Of course, to a dyed-in-the-wool educator like myself, the main function of the museum will always be to connect with visitors — to be part of learning ecosystems through storytelling, to provide outlets for people’s interests and creativity, and to satisfy our very human need to come together (in whatever form that takes). Stewardship of collections will still be important, regardless of whether visitors feel able to congregate in public spaces, as will research and scholarship. But few cultural organizations have the capacity to keep connected to their communities and audiences solely through posting collections online; to me, the museum of the future will need interpretation, accessible programs, creative approaches to sharing ideas, extensive outreach via social media as well as our more traditional in-person platforms if people are going to continue to see museums as trusted, essential resources. The museum experience will always be a human-centered one, based on exchanges between and among people, but these interactions will likely have to occur in vastly different formats than we’re used to.

There is no denying that what’s happened in the museum field is catastrophic and that for far too many of us, there doesn’t seem like there is much we can do to influence the decision-makers in the choices they’re making to try and sustain their organizations. But as educators, I’d urge all of us to not just accept these decisions without at least making a counter-argument, one which focuses on who will be best positioned to adapt to the new environment during and after COVID-19. We must make a compelling case for ourselves and our indispensability, for holding on to the essential value of engagement. 

After I submitted my plan to my ED and explained my thinking, I worried that it wouldn’t have an impact. She has been spending most of her time running through various financial scenarios to sustain the organization and working with our board’s finance committee. I was almost certain that she would tell me to revise my thinking and begin the layoff process. But after hearing nothing for a few days, at our leadership team meeting, I listened as she spoke to the group about the importance of the work my department is doing, how this pivot to re-imagining our programs as virtual experiences and the emphasis on keeping visitors engaged was one of our highest priorities. Now, I can’t claim that my conversation with her and the vision plan I submitted were solely responsible for the fact that we have not laid off staff, but I don’t think it hurt; in fact I think it did influence her decision-making, and thus far (knocking on wood here in my kitchen), we have held onto everyone on my team.   

All around in the museum field, we’re witnessing the kind of leadership decisions that reflect hastily considered responses and panic instead of vision and progressive thinking, leaders following the prevailing winds instead of charting new courses. I believe that educators and interpreters will be key to the survival of our institutions (and current and future sources of revenue). Of course, I also acknowledge that my institution has found a way to afford to respond in this way and that not every organization is privileged to have the option of retaining all staff members. But if you have the forum (and the time) to make a compelling case for why educators, teaching artists, interpreters, and evaluators will be essential to your work whether visitors can walk into your galleries or only have access to you through Zoom and Youtube, I say you should do it. It may help to show your leadership the way forward.

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About the Author

JASON PORTER is the Director of Education + Programs at MoPOP (the Museum of Pop Culture) in Seattle. His work focuses on experiential education and public programs that serve community, school, family, and teacher audiences and on using the arts as a vehicle for personal and social change. Prior to his work in the museum world, he was a public school teacher. His dissertation examined charter schools meeting the needs of special education students. He was a board member of EdCom (at AAM) from 2014 through 2016, a jurist with the Excellence in Exhibitions competition in 2017 and 2018, and has been a peer reviewer for the Journal of Museum Education since 2016. When he’s not working, he’s reading, writing, cooking, cycling around town, or (yes, nerd that he is) visiting museums.

Photo credit: Museum of Pop Culture, photography by Jim Bennett.

Code Red for the Museum Education Profession

Written by Brian Hogarth

Originally posted on LinkedIn on April 20, 2020; revised with edits and updated figures, April 30, 2020.

The museum education profession is, for the second time in a decade, taking a serious blow that could have a devastating impact on the future of the profession.

For both educators and museum management, this is a critical moment. Decisions made now will have repercussions beyond the immediate fiscal crisis. I know. I have been in decision making positions and impacted positions before — in 1990, in 2001, in 2009-10, and now this crisis, which dwarfs all the previous situations.

The immediate situation is daunting. Revenues have plummeted. With buildings closed, most education programs cannot take place. There is not enough cash on hand to meet payroll, so a variety of layoffs, furloughs and/or salary reductions are taking place.

An anonymous excel spreadsheet has been circulating that shows numbers of positions affected. There are approximately 3,400 layoffs and 8,500 furloughed positions listed at several hundred institutions across the country as of April 30, 2020. The numbers might be small in comparison to the almost 30 million workers that have applied for unemployment in the overall economy. But what’s notable is how many of these affected positions are educators and other front-line positions. Moreover, this is “the first phase” with more layoffs possible when the current fiscal year ends in a couple of months. And more institutions still have to report in.

The critical question for me, as with prior recessions, is why education staff is, yet again, bearing the brunt of these layoffs? What impact is the loss of many positions going to have on the long-term viability of the profession and the public value of museums?

Even before the virus/lock down situation arose, many young professionals were voicing concern over the lack of paid internships and low starting pay for positions in museum education, relative to the higher costs of living in large cities where many museums are concentrated. Many have noted the increasing numbers of contracted, part-time, or seasonal positions (the gig economy at work). In some of the major institutions in New York City, large numbers of gallery educators are now as-needed employees. Cancellations of programs means the almost immediate cancellation of these work opportunities. Granted, some institutions have agreed to pay workers for scheduled work for the next month or so and there have been pay reductions for full-time staff.

Museums had been making serious efforts to diversify the field and make it more equitable and inclusive. But at the same time, there has been an inflation of degree requirements and required experience levels, even for entry level and junior positions. In addition, as a “caring” profession, like nursing and teaching, the museum education field is largely made up of women. Cuts to these jobs will exacerbate the feeling that what is perceived to be women’s work is undervalued and underpaid, especially in the nonprofit/cultural sector.

The net effect is not encouraging for the health of the profession. Right now, it looks unsteady and volatile. People who work on museum programs along with other front-line staff are seeing that their jobs are expendable. The few that remain in positions will feel guilty and will be under added pressure to retain near normal amounts of programming. This will put added stress on their plates and some will leave when alternative opportunities come up.

This was a small profession to begin with. An even tighter job market for museum educators will be filled by people with additional resources at their disposal, those in positions with higher salaries, or who have partners with more secure jobs that can cover gaps or drops in income.

Museums that mainly hire people with the means to work in the profession will have difficulty engaging more diverse publics. These publics will prefer to support organizations that are more reflective of their needs, interests, backgrounds, and perspectives.

Statements from museums to the press often refer to the need for endowments and collections to be preserved for the future viability of the organization. If fiscal matters are all that matters, then museums begin to resemble banks, who’s job is to preserve the assets of the bank for the benefit of investors. But museums exist to serve the public. They commit themselves to being mission- driven, and those mission statements usually say something about education and public value. Museums should be asking — how are we preserving our educational mission? What critical and essential work can we continue to provide for the public, even while our buildings are closed? Museum education would seem to be even more critical at times like these. Scientists warn that further pandemics will arise, on top of the potentially devastating effects of climate change. Now is a good time to rethink public services and to prepare for the next crisis.

The big question for museums is– is this a time for retrenchment, pulling up the drawbridge and retreating behind the walls? Or is it time to fulfill the promise of museums as outward-facing, publicly-spirited organizations? How about forming new partnerships, with libraries, with other disciplines like the performing arts, to provide real benefits to the health and welfare of our communities? What about offering more distance learning and online courses in partnership with colleges and universities? What about rethinking the role of education, beyond the constant production of events on site, and instead, getting out into the community and other sectors of society, to conduct more research and evaluation, to redesign services around what people really need and want rather than what we as experts, assume the public wants to consume? Now is a good time to articulate and roll out new public benefits and to continue the good work around diversity and inclusion. It’s time to redefine education work as essential, as core to the mission and its fulfillment. Let’s not emphasize self-preservation above all else. Preservation and access are not one before the other, but both/and. Like yin and yang, they are interdependent. Educational work is not a matter of convenience, when times are good. It is unfinished work that continues with each generation. It helps to preserve the institution by building social value across life spans, which translates into support.

About a decade ago, before the last big round of layoffs, I conducted an informal survey of museum education departments, and discovered that such departments averaged around 5-7% of annual operating budgets, including salaries, but not including any one-time project grants. While there are many lucrative grants that directly support education programs, it often comes as a surprise to the public to know that large events raising money for education often end up supporting general operating costs. If education is deemed to be an essential part of the mission, we must be careful not to use education as a convenient flag to wave for supporting what is deemed to be more important, inward facing tasks.

If mission statements articulating the importance of education and public engagement are to be taken seriously, and if museums expect to attract a diverse pool of applicants to fill future public-facing positions, then they need to come up with a more sustainable formula for the steady provision of those services. Just as interest drawn from endowment investments is applied to operating expenses at steady levels over several years so as not to affect the principle, so each museum should commit to never falling below a certain threshold of support for education and public programs. To weather the ups and downs of funding individual programs, it would help to endow more mid-level, full-time positions in education (endowments typically go to curatorial positions, and occasionally to Directors of Education) and to create a small fund to support paid internships to provide pathways for a more equitable and diverse pool of future museum staff. This is too important a task to be left up to individual museum organizations. It should be strengthened at the national level in terms of museum assessment programs and professional standards.

The central importance of education work in cultural organizations needs to be recognized and elevated. Words like this are not enough. There needs to be actionable steps taken. I invite readers to consider additional ways of building and securing a more positive outlook for the museum profession. Right now, and far too often, museum education takes a beating. Without new measures to restore and sustain the field, the current situation will deter many talented and interested people from seriously considering the profession as a valid career choice now and in the foreseeable future.

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About the Author

BRIAN HOGARTH is the Director for Museum Education Programs at Bank Street College in New York City. A native of Toronto, Canada, Brian worked in performing arts management before becoming Manager of Public Programs at the Royal Ontario Museum and Head of Interpretation at the Glenbow in Calgary. In the US, he has been Assistant Director of Education at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Director of Education at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and was for ten years Director of Education at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. He has taught classes in art history and museum education at Johns Hopkins (Online) Museum Studies, Johnson Community College in Overland Park, and the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Brian holds an MA in East Asian Art History and a BA in Fine Arts/Theatre.

 

 

Museum as space of opportunity, creativity & care: A perspective from Spain

Written by Fernando Echarri

In Spain, COVID-19 has caused and is causing sudden and overwhelming social change. Spain is one of the countries in the world that is suffering most from the effects of the pandemic at the moment. Effects that translate into new social and personal challenges, involving many factors including misinformation, manipulation, fear and catastrophism. This situation shakes the foundations of a way of living, of coexisting, of perceiving, of doing, of desiring, of dreaming.

This change has happened practically from one day to the next, when the Spanish Government declared a state of alarm. The change meant the closure of many public and private equipment, including all educational centres and museums. We work at the Museo Universidad de Navarra, located in the north of Spain. It is a recently created university museum of contemporary art (2015). With structures and procedures still being established and, therefore, also with the power of flexibility towards new scenarios. The museum’s closure has been very sudden, with the exhibition “Universes” by the artist David Jiménez just opened in March. It has taken place at the same time that the University has stopped its face-to-face activity, so that university students and other visitors from other segments of the population cannot physically visit the museum or carry out their various cultural and educational programmes.

And how does a university museum of contemporary art adapt to a situation that prevents the public from seeing its exhibitions and carrying out the rest of its cultural programme?

We try to raise 5 criteria that can help answer this question :

1.  It must be faced with a positive mind, which sees this situation as a generator of personal and social change that provides a new space of opportunity.

2.  Learn to work with uncertainty; with a continuous and changing uncertainty that the situation itself generates. Uncertainty that affects everything from the biology of the virus and the evolution of the disease to the political and regulatory measures that are taken and the social perceptions and new forms of behaviour that are being generated in real time. These new forms of behaviour will probably include a new emotional and affective state in terms of the relational aspect between people. And in this new generation of new forms of behaviour, the museum cannot be alien. It cannot miss this train, in a challenge that we do not know where it is going, but in which the museum has to be assembled, to travel together with society, to accompany it in the different situations and contexts that are being generated.

3.  Space for creativity. The uncertainty generated provides in turn a great ally, usually forgotten: creativity. Creativity can be a lifeboat when the waters are turbulent and the known capsizes. The undefined space is built with enabling bricks that are linked to the creative cement. New products are thus generated, at this time digital, that respond with contemporary art to the needs of the users.

4.  To focus on the value Care. This value is not usually the focus of most education programmes, and is not usually one of the main values considered in a transversal way in the programmes of museums. However, this word is currently one of the most mentioned in the media and has become one of the key words generated by COVID-19 and which people are taking into account the most. Personal, family and social care is now a trend topic. Perhaps this value has surpassed the value of respect, which is the one most often used in social work. The respect value has fallen short in this situation. If we understand the value respect as the consideration for others, the value care implies respect, but it is more than that value. It also implies concern, protection, solidarity and love.

We could simplify by considering that care = respect + love. In this situation generated by COVID-19, it is clear the numerous evidence of care that is being generated in society. Neighbours who previously did not speak to each other are now wondering how they are doing, how they are handling the situation, if they have any sick relatives, if they need anything. Anonymous people who help other anonymous people. It’s not a minor change. COVID-19 is possibly making society better, more humane. Or maybe it already was, but there were no opportunities to make it so obvious. In order to adapt to this situation, museums should integrate this value into the relational possibilities offered by their various programmes.

munencasa

5.  ‘Stay at home’. This is the communicative message that the Spanish Government is promoting during this period of confinement. This message has forced the Museo Universidad de Navarra to change its communication, dissemination and educational strategy. This new situation is a challenge for the University of Navarra Museum. It means devoting all its efforts to off-site activities. If the visitor does not come to the museum, the museum will look for the visitor. It means taking the museum to the people’s homes. That is why it has created the ‘MUNENCASA’, with the intention of providing artistic, cultural and educational support to the various people and groups that are currently confined.

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This impediment to living physically in the museum has made it possible to develop a parallel, virtual museum, which offers users programmes, activities and tools such as virtual visits to the exhibitions, multimedia videos, digital gamification, a blog with recent history and current affairs, and classes for university students and the rest of the population. It also pays continuous attention to the different social networks, publishing not only news. The world of social networks has increased its volume of traffic these days and we must redouble our communication efforts. In record time, digital materials are generated that adapt existing analogue resources. Programmatic resources are generated, both exhibition and educational, which help people through art and culture.

This is what we have to do at this time: to approach each home and accompany, help, and care for our users as much as possible.

Society expects nothing less from us.


Header Image: José Ortiz Echagüe, “Tenura”


About the Author

FERNANDO ECHARRI IRIBARREN holds a degree in Biological Sciences (University of Navarra, 1989) and a PhD in Museum Education (University of Navarra, 2007). He is an associate professor of the University of Navarra (Pamplona, Spain) and teaches in the following areas: “Art Education”, “University Master’s Degree in Higher-Education Teaching” and “University Master’s Degree in Curatorial Studies”. Since 2014, he has been Head of the Education Department at the University of Navarra Museum. His interests include meaningful learning and significant learning experiences.

Writing in a Time of Crisis: Open Call for Submissions

Right now, I realize that we are all affected by the current coronavirus pandemic in wide-ranging yet different ways. From the realities of severe economic downturn and the daily experience of physical distancing to concerns about our own health and the well-being of our families, friends, and loved ones, this is a challenging time for us all — our entire global family.  Moments like this change us. And I believe that it is part of our collective human responsibility to reflect on moments like this, to write about our experiences, and to share our stories with each other.  Stories that allow us to be vulnerable, open, honest, and more human.

At times in my own life when I feel the most challenged, I reach for the writings of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron.  In her transformative book When Things Fall Apart, Chodron explores the human response to moments of intense despair and loss. I grabbed my copy of this book off the shelf last week, and began flipping through the pages, reading bits from each section.  One sentence stood out to me more than all the others: “This very moment is the perfect teacher.”

Open Call for Writings and Reflections

So here is my invitation and open call.  I would love to gather together a series of posts over the next weeks and months from anyone willing to share their own reflections during this time of crisis, this very moment. There are few if any guidelines here, and I’m open to any type of personal writing as well as creative responses that open up new ways for us to share our stories.

Here are some questions that are interesting me, but more importantly I want to know what interests you about what you are seeing, hearing, and feeling during this time.

How have you been affected by the current crisis?

How are you and others taking care of yourselves and each other through these difficult times?

What does strong, compassionate leadership look like for you right now?

How can museums continue the vital, necessary work of dismantling systems of oppression during and after this crisis?

As we move further into this crisis, how can museum leaders (and those who remain working for these institutions) place human care and relationships above all else?

In what ways can museums and cultural organizations serve as places of healing and connection for our communities?

What is something that has gone unspoken or unsaid since the beginning of this pandemic and its impact on museums and cultural institutions?

How to Submit

If you are interested in submitting or have something to submit for publishing online as part of this series, please just send me an email at murawski27@gmail.com.  I only have one requirement for these posts — each submission must have at least one image or photograph (that we can reproduce here on this blog); and I’m happy to help find an image if you don’t have one.

Share this Open Call to anyone in your community who might be interested.

I am continuously grateful for everyone who has come together to support each other during this pandemic. I hope this series of posts, writings, and stories can be a way for us to be listening to each other and find human connection, loving-kindness, and compassion amidst the darkness of these difficult times.

-Mike Murawski


Header photo: “Writing” by akrabat, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0