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Blame, Boards & Change


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Author photo, taken at Meow Wolf, Santa Fe, N.M., artist unknown

There is a whole lot of blame going on in the museum world with plenty directed at museum trustees. Where are their voices as the pandemic and the racism awakening unleash a Pandora's box of anger?  Anger at the irony of museum leadership releasing statements in support of #BlackLivesMatter while watching staffs decimated by COVID-19 furloughs and layoffs? Of museums sitting silent, serene and closed while women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA staff reveal that life inside isn't so perfect?

Those of you who regularly read Leadership Matters  know my antipathy to Twitter. But, though I rarely tweet, I do read, and recently there have been a a lot of comments about the need for a new sort of museum governance. (Can I pause here and say, how much I appreciate @MuseumsandRace's series of questions on complicity. If you haven't read them, you should. And if you need to spark staff or board discussion, use them.) But back to a new governance model. Many questions were raised by @TylerGreenBooks. He points directly at art museum trustees, suggesting art museums act like corporations not charities (his word), and that their boards are made up of folks whose major qualification for board membership besides money is "that they shop for art." In fact, nonprofits, including museums, are corporations, just of a different type.

Tyler Green also suggests art museum boards are "bereft of experts with knowledge and experience related to the charity's mission" while adding that "wealthy trustees give the minimum institutionally required board dues, and go along to get along." Is that true? I have no way of knowing. And given the huge variety, even among American art museums, it seems a massive generalization. However, AAM's 2017 Museum Board Leadership Report tells us that 2/3 of museum directors say their boards have a positive impact on job satisfaction. Should we believe them? Or have they crossed some economic divide, setting them far from the world of their hourly staff? The Report also tells us the vast majority of museum boards don't assess their own performance, a concerning fact given that it's likely boards presume there's a world of assessment going on inside the museums they govern. And it also offers this nugget: "Board members believe board diversity and inclusion are important to advance their missions, but they fail to prioritize action steps to advance these priorities." That was three years ago. Has that trend continued? If yes, maybe @TylerGreenBooks is correct, but for an entirely different set of reasons.

A year ago, AAM launched its Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity & Inclusion initiative, bringing 51 museums and $4 million dollars together national initiative to diversify museum boards and leadership. That was the same time the Ford Foundation's President, Darren Walker wrote, "everything that moves an institution forward, or holds it back, can be traced to its board." (The Ford Foundation is one of the initiative's three supporters.) Walker says museums have veered too far in appointing trustees whose only defining characteristic is unimaginable wealth. He suggests that board diversity can't be seen as a compliance issue, but instead must be a key transformative step. Is the answer museums without boards? How would that work, in a country where the vast majority of museum funding comes from private donation? Or is the answer better boards? And who watches the watch dogs?

This week Darren Walker wrote another opinion piece for The Times titled, "Are You Willing to Give Up Your Privilege?" It is directed at the world of the one-percent Walker now inhabits. He suggests, "The old playbook — giving back through philanthropy as a way of ameliorating the effects of inequality — cannot heal what ails our nation. It cannot address the root causes of this inequality — what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called 'the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.'” He asks what those with power and privilege are willing to give up?

It seems to me this is a crucible moment for museum boards of trustees, a moment that demands action, because the righteous anger and discontent aren't going away. And as Maxwell Anderson put it so succinctly in his recent essay for Apollo, "The privileging of endowment balances before the pandemic seems to many a short-sighted goal, resulting, as it did, in knee-jerk layoffs," and a sense that once again in museum land, it's money before people.  

Museum boards have particular power; they fund, guide and determine an organization's DNA. But the old ways aren't working any more. Systemic, and in many a museum's case, genteel racism, aren't problems you can throw money at and hope they go away. Boards need to pause and figure out how to respond, acknowledging their responses affect not just their community--however that's defined--but the staffs who are the lifeblood of America's 35,000-plus museums.  And before we're all too smug, maybe this  question--What are willing to give up?-- is one all of us white museum folk need to answer. Our responses may be different than a board member's, but all of us need to reflect on how we have been complicit and most importantly, how we will change.

Because making #BlackLivesMatter can't happen without change. And change needs to come from the top.

Joan Baldwin

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