In early 2020, museums confronted new and unforeseeable challenges—closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, global economic instability, life-threatening climate change effects, and a renewed surge in demands for racial accountability following the murder of George Floyd1—on top of the perennial financial strains, systemic racism, and issues of relevance and competition that already afflict the cultural sector. The public has seen institutions shuttered due to the COVID-19 crisis, with many permanently unable to reopen their doors (Siegal 2020; VOA News 2020). Museum staff has been furloughed and dismissed. Contract workers and junior staff, in particular, have been rendered increasingly powerless and seemingly disposable.2 Moreover, these measures have disproportionately affected employees of color (Johnson 2020). When the wave of social protests rippled around the globe at the end of May 2020, American institutions appeared to play catch-up, publishing performative statements of solidarity and allyship with Black Lives Matter (Brown 2020; Buchanan, Bui, and Peter 2020; Cotter 2020).3
As I write this article, extensive staff restructuring of cultural organizations is ongoing due to an unprecedented number of layoffs and furloughs.4 The workforce is being decimated. While museum boards and directors implement measures to mitigate losses, it is important to remember that our cultural organizations are made of people. For those that retained their jobs, many dedicated individuals are taking on multiple reassigned tasks during these challenging times. With vaccination underway, there is hope that there will be a way through these uncertainties, and museums will need to be rebuilt. The question is, how? The recent, drastic workforce reductions offer an unprecedented opportunity to re-form and reform an institutional staff structure. Yet, I fear that internal top-down decisions could reinforce the corporate administrative systems museums have long embraced without ethical intentionality. It does not have to be this way.
From the museum’s instantiation as a cultural body, its staffing has adapted as circumstances have required, responding to shifting museological functions: collection and preservation, education, and now entertainment. First, came the curators to take care of the collections; then, as museums implemented teaching and public programs, they formed education departments; when they needed to manage and attract donors and funding, they instituted development departments; when they realized they could commodify the museum-going experience, they converted galleries into gift shops; when they went online, they expanded public relations departments to include social-media specialists. In most cases, however, this staff growth occurred without much consideration for the entire structure: what people do, how they work, and how they relate to one another in their responsibilities. Departments have been added much like a building’s physical expansions or extensions, an extra wing here and additional space there, without a corresponding adaptation of the operation as a whole (Figure 1 shows a typical museum staff structure in the United States). Might this unique time afford a moment of self-reflection and the chance to apply decolonial, democratic, and anti-racist values to the mechanics of how museums operate internally?
Outwardly, many museums have shifted their focus and missions to reflect ideas of democracy by addressing diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (Anderson 2019; Garibay and Olson 2020). These efforts have been largely manifest in programming—exhibitions, talks, and events—and the exceptional hiring of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (Morris 2018: 100). There is no question that diverse exhibitions, programming, interpretation, and staff go a long way in making audiences feel represented within museums. Yet, these programmatic initiatives are inherently temporary and subject to the priorities of individual staff members, however far up the hierarchical ladder they may be. As much as such efforts may be authentic, they are also the most vulnerable in times of crisis, when the default position, I suspect, is to return to safeguarding whiteness, privilege, and power.5 They are, thus, only surface solutions—at best, earnest attempts at democratizing cultural experiences; at worst, performative, even cynical gestures—that fail to address flawed institutional cultures.
My vantage point for envisioning a new museum staff structure is from the field. I have held various junior positions in education and curatorial departments at small, midsize, and larger art organizations. My experience is primarily based in the United States, and more specifically, the Northeast. I recognize both the limitations of my geographic area and the dominance of US institutions in museum studies discourse. At the same time, I acknowledge that museums have roots in, and still operate as, Enlightenment and colonial institutions that exercise authoritative knowledge, inscribing a Eurocentric culture founded on hierarchies of race, class, and gender. This is especially true of the hierarchical staff structure within museums’ internal operations. Not surprisingly, as Tony Bennett has already made clear, both prisons and museums were products of the Enlightenment (Bennett 1988; 1995).
Despite the diversity in type, mission, and collection, staff structure is uncannily uniform across museums in the United States. Moreover, while museums have evolved through time—from the elite collections demonstrating imperial and colonial dominance to aspirational educational institutions for the public and, more recently, to museums as “malls,” an appendage of consumer society—the way they operate remains largely hidden from anyone who does not work in museums (Gopnik 2007). This is why the call for change in museums has primarily been directed at what is visible from the outside: the collection, programming, and, more recently, curatorial positions. Systemic change, however, needs to come from within, deep inside the mechanisms of museums, down to the very way they operate and function.
Restructuring is not just a question of what work is to be done but of how it is to be done. At present, there is a paradox between museums’ institutional structures and where they say they want to be in terms of sociocultural shifts, a crippling contradiction between entrenched, hierarchical, and corporate-minded internal operations and civic-minded outward ambitions to support democratic ideals. Increasingly, this gap appears to be widening, compromising these institutions’ best efforts to be inclusive spaces that genuinely embody diversity. An internal paradigm shift is necessary to effect outward change (Jung and Love 2017: 3–16). As Gail Anderson argues, staff structure creates culture, which reflects values, and imbues every aspect of the work the museum does (Anderson 2013: 194).
In reimagining staff relationships, I bring firsthand work experience, a feminist-informed and anti-racist framework, abolitionist and decolonial methodologies, an interest in systems and processes, and a belief in self-determination and social justice. In April 2020, I was furloughed from my job for three months, giving me the time, space, and energy to imagine a different kind of museum. This essay is aspirational, a rough prototype of a new museum staff structure. It does not address museums globally nor non-Western museums’ organizational structure, as that is beyond my current scope. In this essay, I begin with what I know, and recognize that there is much work to be done. I see many future collaborative opportunities to decenter Western organizational power structures, and to integrate the values of equity, access, and inclusion in the work we do and how we do it together in diverse geographies. This is a start.
Systems of oppression—patriarchal, racial, and economic—thrive inside hierarchical structures. Hierarchy produces power dynamics in social relations and enables racism and abuse, and museums are rife with power orders of every type (see, e.g., Bonilla-Silva 1997; Feagin and Rutter 2006; and Sidanius, Levin, and Pratto 1996).6 As a feminist who learned from older sisters like Sara Ahmed, Nancy Fraser, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde, I am not just arguing for a seat at the table—knowing there will always be too many left out of the conversation—but to change the structure of the table: both the number of seats and their configuration (Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative 2018). I also draw on a rich legacy of Black thought, particularly anti-racist and abolitionist ideas of key figures like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who call for dismantling the systems upholding the mechanisms that suppress and oppress (Gilmore 2007; Davis 2010). Davis and Gilmore each laid out a powerful path for the regeneration and building of a new equitable order; abolition is, in fact, about presence, not absence—about building life-affirming institutions. Museums should be life-affirming institutions in both their external programming for the community and internal operations. Lastly, my ideas have also been shaped by decolonial methodologies, both through on-the-ground social movements like Decolonize This Place and the theoretical orientations offered by academics like K. Wayne Yang and Anibal Quijano who look at oppressive power dynamics through the lens of Indigenous Peoples and their colonized lands (Quijano 1992; Quijano 1999; Yang 2017).7 These frameworks were either unavailable or purposefully marginalized when predominantly men invented museums, but they are becoming louder today, and should guide us to reimagine museums and their cultural relevance.
This paper builds on the legacy of the work and writing of Robert R. Janes, who has devoted much of his career to studying the internal organization and management of museums (Janes and Conaty 2005; Sandell and Janes 2007; Janes 2009; 2013; 2016; 2019). His leadership in the transformational changes at Glenbow Museum (1989–2000; Figure 2), which he documented in a comprehensive case study on organizational change in museums beginning in 1995—addressing teamwork, alternative forms of leadership, the elimination of hierarchy, role and responsibility statements, transparent budgeting, and value-based practice—has been crucial to the field but, unfortunately, too rarely emulated. It is interesting to note that Janes talks about the six months he spent with Dene hunters, an egalitarian group, near the Arctic Circle in the western Northwest Territories of Canada before he started museum work, as incredibly formative to his thinking (Janes 2013: xxix). He experienced, first-hand, different forms of leadership based on competency rather than authority and flexible task groups that worked together to solve specific community needs, all of which informed his future museum work.
Other museum scholars, too—like Darren Peacock and Gail Anderson—whom I cite, deserve recognition for their contribution to this discourse.8 However, my argument is that until we revolutionize the way staff in museums do work, integrating diversity, access, equity, inclusion, and care into the structure, relationships, and roles, the museum’s work of authentically and openly serving publics and communities will always be provisional. Museums will perpetuate harmful systems of oppression, both inwardly and outwardly. What follows, therefore, is not a half measure that tries to fit new needs within old operating systems. This is an entirely new model, guided by ethical, civic, democratic principles informed by ideals of equality, collaboration and cooperation, accountability and transparency.
What if we abolished museum staff hierarchy, the chain of command that inherently assigns higher-ranked workers power over lower-ranked individuals? What if staff roles were equitable and all workers participated fully in and had self-determination for meeting their institution’s fundamental needs? What if museums’ staff structure looked more like this diagram (Figure 3), with five divisions (represented by overlapping circles) comprising the following categories: People, Objects, Programs, Hospitality, Finances, and a Council. These divisions are flat, relating to one another in a nonhierarchical manner and achieving high coordination and cooperation without a supervisory structure (Hamel 2011). There is no director, no managers; instead, at the center of these five divisions are the organization’s values, guiding all decisions and actions. The entire staff consists of nonhierarchical teams that are nested within larger units according to the five categories above. These divisions directly relate to the museum as a civic and socially responsive venture.
Janes developed and implemented a circular model for Glenbow in the 1990s (Figure 2). He documented the approach’s successes and pitfalls in Museums and the Paradox of Change (1995; rev. 1997 and 2013). While Janes conceived this staffing structure for a specific museum and its particular circumstances (Janes 2013: 400), some elements are common to the model I suggest. For example, the collapsing of education and curatorial departments into one, the Program and Exhibition Development department. However, Janes kept traditional roles such as curator and programmer intact. I would be curious to know how the longstanding hierarchies of such positions played out within this division and Glenbow’s new staff system. Additionally, while the executive director embodies one of the circles, senior management, the board of governors, and a strategy group lie at the center of the operation, maintaining a centralized power system that reports outward rather than downward.
Janes has also discussed in various publications the idea of self-organization, a phenomenon that occurs in the absence of management or hierarchical authority where employees make decisions as a group by consensus (Janes and Sandell 2010: 5; Janes 2016: 129–130).9 This type of behavior fosters interaction and independence. An instructive example of self-organization is the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, Canada. Their staff descriptions are more flexible than those in most peer institutions, and the museum’s informal organizational structure consists of democratic, nonhierarchical committees where the chairs rotate (Krug, Fenger, and Ames 1999).10 However, at present, all departments are still connected to traditional divisions: the director’s office, operations, curatorial-interpretation-design, collection care, engagement and programming, and administration.11
Conversely, the museum literature abounds with cross-functional teams and cross-departmental task forces intended to break down departmental silos and reduce the power dynamics of hierarchy (Villaespesa 2019; Gramstadt 2008; Greene 2006). An important example is the staff structure transformation of the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) in the 2010s (Figure 4), which was driven by financial concerns, as well as new exhibition programming (see Merritt 2013). OMCA renamed and reorganized divisions, putting atypical positions together, as in the so-called Center for Experience Development + Collections. Now the bulk of the work in the institution takes place in cross-functional teams, intentionally drawing on talent from across the institution (Anderson 2013: 198–99). However, these tested examples all maintain a directorial office and a conventional board structure, sabotaging the potential for a genuinely nonhierarchical staff structure.
There are other informative examples of alternative staff structures outside of the museum field. For instance, entrepreneur Brian J. Robertson invented Holacracy, a decentralized management method where decision-making is distributed throughout self-organized teams (Robertson 2015). Under Robertson’s formula, employees have roles instead of job descriptions. They belong to self-managed teams, and decisions are not consensus-based but integrative of all relevant individual input and anchored in the institution’s needs rather than individual egos or preferences. Other models include entrepreneurial management meets community-based initiatives as in the Ujima project in Boston, an alternative platform for living based in nonrepresentative democracy and nonhierarchical relationships. Finally, feminist-inspired arts centers, like the Women’s Center for Creative Work in Los Angeles, whose staff relations grew organically following an ethics of care, serve as an important framework.12 In this organization, founded with feminist values, staff relates to one another collaboratively and non-hierarchically, listening and responding to community needs.
Building on these examples, let’s consider how staff in museums could operate differently. An institution where individuals are self-managed and empowered, responsible for acquiring the tools needed for their work, and encouraged to fulfill their potential within their roles. A working environment where individuals have control over specific tasks and negotiate duties with their peers.13 This embeds a culture of equity where all workers are equipped with what they need to be successful while considering that individuals are positioned differently in social spaces and have different needs. Above all, without the power dynamics of a hierarchical model, every person fulfilling their role is undiminished and treated with integrity.
With every voice legitimized, everyone can suggest improvements to the organization. Change, therefore, does not come from above but from within. Creativity and innovation are valued and spontaneous. Individual authority, however, should not be confused with unilateral decisions. Each person must work with others to see how what they want to accomplish impacts the greater whole and the museum’s mission. Staff license to act comes with the responsibility to make each and every role work. The mechanism of operating, therefore, is based on creating consensus on desired outcomes from the broader group rather than from above.
To build a culture where each person is valued and aligned with the collectively decided museum mission and values, every employee crafts a Colleague Letter of Understanding (CLOU), outlining their role and activities and how they integrate with the larger institution. The CLOU is available and accessible to all employees, making responsibilities clear to all. This makes each individual accountable and committed to their colleagues and the organization. By the end of the year, instead of a manager’s review, everyone develops a self-assessment document that outlines how they performed against their CLOU goals and other self- and team-devised metrics. These are peer-reviewed and discussed.
Teams design their work and govern themselves with mutual accountability. Project-based work in museums has been implemented before, but as Vikki McCall and Clive Grey recount, with difficulty (McCall and Grey 2014). Traditional hierarchies associated with positions—such as the curator ranked above the educator or administrator—interfere with peer dynamics. Within this framework, such distinctions would not exist, as conventional roles and their status have been recalibrated to be peer-to-peer, without the power dynamics that result from valuing certain knowledges over others. Position titles and superiority of rank, such as Senior Curator and Associate Curator, will also be eliminated, but not the knowledge expertise of art history, for instance, or object treatment knowledges in the case of conservator. Teams may be formed, disbanded, and redefined in response to the organization’s needs, embedding flexibility in the workflow to adapt as conditions shift. Staff can move in and out of the teams as needed to complete work, and anyone may hold more than one role, each clearly outlined in their CLOU and within their respective units. This team-based structure is designed to facilitate collaboration, where each individual understands how they can be supported and support their colleagues. Likewise, each team understands its role within the larger scheme of the organization.
The consolidation of power in the director position epitomizes the detrimental effects of hierarchy in the staff organization of a museum. This structure works against the creative industry that the museum sector supports by limiting the degree of autonomy given to individuals. Top-down control has direct repercussions on employees’ agency, their capacity to innovate and to take action in their workplace (Janes 2019: 9). Historically, this structure has only served white male leaders, who tend to understand notions of power unilaterally. Why should the leadership of a museum rest on the shoulders of just one individual? Moreover, it has become apparent that this formation no longer even serves the white male director. Marjorie Schwarzer has shown that museum leaders are in crisis, caught in the middle of growing multiple demands (Schwarzer 2002; 2013). In today’s democracy, which calls for equity and inclusion, this is not a feasible model. It is time for a new one that reconsiders power structures, authority, pay, and working conditions.
Traditionally, the director is the lone liaison between the organization and the board. This governing body has, historically, according to Richard Sandell and Robert R. Janes, uncritically adopted corporate models to increase funding opportunities and revenues, imbuing business values into the heart of museum operations (Janes and Sandell 2010: 2–3). While a certain amount of business knowledge is critical, as Martha Morris writes, the corporate-minded board has skewed internal values in the direction of money, consumption, and marketplace ideology and fostered a reliance on the for-profit sector to assure sustainability (Morris 2018: 4). Moreover, the overall distance between the governing body and the staff—through the director’s isolated position—is vast. This creates a significant disconnect between the museum’s operations and its leadership. The result is that those with decision-making powers, removed from ground operations, have a limited view, often framed by hard numbers, of the bottom line in terms of success measures.
What if we brought these elements—the director and the board—together and recalibrated the power dynamics by sharing the institution’s responsibilities? Janes has speculated about what a museum could look like with what he calls Primus inter pares (first among equals) model, where a leadership team replaces the single director, adding depth to decision-making and distributing the responsibilities of the director’s position (Janes 2013: 353; Janes 2016: 278–282). What if we took this idea one step further and incorporated those individuals tasked with governance and strategic planning into the very staff structure of the museum: the Council. This team would not be hierarchically above or outside the other museum units, rather integrated into the circular and flat staff relationships (Figure 3). In setting the institution’s navigational course for the next few years, their role would be interpreting the museum’s values and mission in response to the community’s needs. This unit would be legally responsible for the institution and charged with creating and implementing a strategic plan that aligns all teams and individuals in the organization.
Richard P. Chait, William P. Ryan, and Barbara E. Taylor outline governance as leadership and the three modes this Council would need to encompass: a fiduciary mode, which is concerned with stewardship of tangible assets; a strategic mode to set the organization’s priorities on course; and a generative mode, where the group frames problems and makes sense of challenging situations (Chait, Ryan, and Taylor 2012). Thus, the Council sets the agenda to which the rest of the museum staff agrees and adheres to, for their CLOU are purposefully aligned. In establishing the course, the Council might appear to have authority, but it is not power over other staff, as the Council’s members are appointed to their roles by the organization, thus creating a mutually shared accountability.
The Council members have a limited term, which resets every six years to prevent abuse of power. While the museum’s values might remain the same, the strategic plan—how to implement those values within the organization—should be contingent on the current moment and thoughtfully considered to account for its repercussions into the future. The Council comprises five staff, three community members (not donors), and two active artists (in the case of an art museum), or disciplinary stakeholders (in other types of museums). For example, a children’s museum might include parents or teachers in its Council. To define terms, the community members and the artists are self-selecting individuals from the local community interested in shaping culture in the broadest social sense. Each member—staff and non-staff—is elected to the Council by the entire staff and other community stakeholders and serves a three-year term, renewable once based on mutual agreement. This ensures enough time to implement a course of action without allowing enough time to consolidate power. Everyone on the Council is compensated: the staff has reduced responsibilities in their other museum roles, and the other members of the Council are paid for their time and labor. In this way, the Council directly models a democratic process within the museum’s structure that aligns with the museum’s values in the broader community.
At the core of this reimagining is understanding what the organization creates for and with its community. All production activities are grouped under the division of Programs, including exhibitions, events, talks, courses, and art-making workshops. This has been attempted before in various staff organizational changes. For example, the Glenbow Museum in the 1990s and the OMCA in the 2010s integrated their education and curatorial departments. Program and Exhibition Development at Glenbow incorporated curatorial, design, production, and events coordination under that division’s director (Janes 2013: 400). Likewise, the responsibility for organizing shows in the OMCA’s most recent staff model lies with the Center for Experience Development and Collections, and community connection rests in the Center for Audience and Civic Engagement. The two are connected through cross-functional teams whose work is project-based.
Pat Villeneuve and Ann Rowson Love make clear, in Visitor-Centered Exhibitions and Edu-curation in Art Museums, the necessity of combining education and curation to produce visitor-centered programming (Villeneuve and Love 2017). They adapted feminist systems theory to inform methods to integrate community voices into the exhibition-development process. However, their models still maintain divisions between curatorial roles, which bring object-based expertise, and education, connecting the institution with its audiences and community.
Curators live in and experience the world outside of objects, and educators also have knowledge and interest in objects and understand how to build a narrative. I advocate integrating these historically separate departments into a non-hierarchical Programs unit. Moreover, I would dismantle the traditionally distinct roles of curator and educator. Instead, in the Programs Unit, the roles are fluid, drawing on specific expertise in response to particular projects. Specialty skill sets in this unit include object-based knowledge, exhibition conception and development (including thinking about the exhibition medium as both a physical and an online enterprise), design, interpretation, events, activities, publications, and outreach or public relations.
Teams form around different projects and initiatives, making staff agile and flexible within the organizational structure. In this way of working, exhibition ideas need not originate with a curator and then develop along traditional pathways through subsequent collaboration with educational teams, community stakeholders, design, and interpretation, as is typical in most art museums. Instead, programming ideas, including exhibitions, may originate with anyone within this unit. Collaboratively, the team with expertise in the collection works together with the community to shape the exhibition at the moment of its conception and vet its viability against the organization’s goals, mission, and strategic plan. In this way, expertise and authority are decentralized. The community, therefore, has an equal voice in the genesis and evolution of the organization’s programming, as this division is in direct contact with its broader publics.
Moreover, intellectual and administrative tasks can be equally shared among individuals. For example, for one project, someone might be working […] and for another, the same person might be part of the interpretation team. For each project, individuals would volunteer, and production tasks would be assigned collectively. This would necessitate that individuals divest themselves from territorial or proprietary ownership of ideas and responsibilities and work together to produce content and materials.
Not all museums are collection-holding institutions, but all museums deal with objects and artifacts in one form or another. A hierarchy exists in the classification, handling, and interpretation of those objects that reflect museums’ colonial and Western-centric foundations. As much as the mandate of stewardship is important, museums’ focus has begun to shift to community and audiences. Janes defines museums as multidisciplinary, knowledge-based organizations, changing the focus from “stuff,” to what you can do with objects in connecting people. (Janes 2013: 49–52). Museums’ colonial logic of ownership is problematic, and Janes elsewhere has noted that museums are staggering under the weight of their collections as they continue to amass more and more (Janes 2013: 350). In other words, museums have become victims of capitalist accumulation.
This Objects unit encompasses all workers who deal directly with things in the museum, similar to Glenbow’s Collections Work Unit, comprising registration, conservation, and collections care operations (Janes 2013: 400). However, going one step further, this unit merges traditional collection care and facilities job roles, taking care of all objects in the museum: art, library books, and functional items like office apparatus, such as desks and chairs. The traditional hierarchy of things mirrors the museum staff’s structural order, making certain objects visible and others invisible and dispensable, just like those at the top of the staff pyramid absorb most of the resources in the museum, while those at the bottom are treated as if they were expendable. This is especially evident through the current uncalibrated wage structure, where upper-management, leadership, and director positions earn substantially more. The parallel here is that the same hierarchal systems of worth are applied to people and objects in museums, which creates a very distorted view of values.
This reorganization—an alternative epistemology for collections—reframes how we treat and value both the staff that does the work and the things with which they do it. It would abolish the double order for objects in museums—those considered the collection and those outside of it—as it would promote care and thoughtfulness to all materials we use.14 Functionality should not be hierarchically separated, and value should inherently be placed in function. For example, a painting serves a purpose (to be experienced for its aesthetic, historical, social, and political content) just like a desk lamp (to light the workplace). This utilitarian approach fundamentally changes our relationship to things, making art a little less precious and emphasizing the need for good design, efficacy, and longevity in typically mundane objects. Additionally, this reordering assists in asset management.
Certainly, we need to consider that paintings and books require different kinds of care, so this unit comprises a range of expertise and experiences and is prepared to think about the longevity of use-value of all material objects. The roles in this division include conservation (for the treatment of objects, both “fine art” and utilitarian), registration (to handle the movement of all things), collection management (whose role is to budget, develop policies, and devise strategies for the collection: art and office supplies), and library management (to organize and care for the books that facilitate research for the museum’s programming), with the understanding that each object is important and serves a unique purpose within the organization. This leveling of object ranking contributes to a more sustainable future, integrating thoughtfulness in everything we consume as we unlearn our distorted relationship to things. In this way, Museums can become leaders in environmental sustainability, and it starts with rethinking what constitutes a museum collection.
There will be tensions among peers, and the way to overcome these interpersonal challenges is with team meetings and the help of the People division, which adaptively facilitates conflict resolution. Notably, the People division also takes care of staff in all its needs—from coordinating benefits packages to promoting wellness and mental health care—functioning similarly to a human resources (HR) department. However, unlike in traditional corporate structures, where HR tends to do leadership’s bidding by upholding the maintaining the hierarchy, the People division works and treats all staff as equals to equip and support each individual to fulfill their CLOU, which is aligned to the institutional mission. The People division also facilitates the coordination of a mentorship program, woven within the museum’s values and staff structure. The mentorship program functions internally as peer-to-peer support and externally to build relationships among other institutions and the community. Additionally, the People division advances a cross-division buddy system among staff to foster a culture of empathy. Unlike the mentorship program, which is based on career learning, advice, and growth, this buddy system creates human relationships among all staff to promote an environment where people learn from each other from a human perspective and take care of each other.
Taking care of the sites where the museum operates, the Hospitality division includes roles that manage the physical building, the museum’s infrastructure and information technology network, the museum’s services (which include commercial and refreshment spaces), as well as individuals whose role is to welcome visitors, typically called frontline staff. These roles are equal in importance to those in other divisions, recognizing that it is just as vital to offer a genuinely welcoming environment as it is an engaging one. For instance, there are no guards in this new museum; the authority figure that presides with unequal power dynamics over visitors has been abolished. Instead, all staff members take turns spending time in the galleries to interact with the community as part of their regular work schedule. Therefore, all staff will be trained in emergency response, first aid, crowd control, which will aid them in their roles at the museum and as citizens in the community.
Revolutionizing how museums work inherently involves both budget allocation and where that money comes from. Since the mid-1990s, museums have faced shrinking governmental support on all levels (Semmel 2013). It is not uncommon for museums to pursue several funding streams, from ticketing, donations, grants, and government support to revenue-generating initiatives. Janes points out that museums have assets that can operate as businesses, such as food services, gift shops, and facilities rentals. At the same time, they also have other assets that should not be considered with a marketplace framework if they are also going to operate as part of the knowledge-based mandate of the institution, such as the preservation and care of the collection and the programming associated with it, including exhibitions (Janes 2010: 9).
Museums need to get creative in securing their financial sustainability. The future might rely on networked efforts that engage diverse community stakeholders and funders in collaborative ventures (Kania and Kramer 2011). Alternative funding models addressed in Catalyzing Networks for Social Change: A Funder’s Guide, published in 2011 by the Monitor Institute and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, stress “working with a network mindset” (Monitor Institute 2011). This networked approach, for example, is already succeeding in the Brooklyn-based organization A Blade of Grass (Blade of Grass 2020). It positions itself as a public resource and draws on various funding sources, private and public, like local government budgets. For instance, they promote a Municipal-Artists Partnership program, founded on collaborations that use creative processes to rethink and improve spaces and systems for their communities. Additionally, for those institutions fortunate to have an endowment, there is ‘impact investing,’ strategically using investment endowments to support social entrepreneurship, as well as financial returns (UpStart CoLab 2020). Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, for instance, which has the largest African American art collection in the Southeast, invests in a socially responsible fund that provides access to capital for women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) entrepreneurs (Souls Grown Deep 2020).
In the reimagined museum, the Finance division is responsible for managing the funds coming into the organization through grants, membership, and gifts, and the dollars going out to support programming, hospitality, care for the museum’s objects, and staff pay. The public, partnerships with social services and organizations, and city agencies could share the programming costs. Donations are encouraged but not depended upon and handled with transparency. If there is one, the endowment is managed according to the institution’s values, extending the community-based goals through ‘impact investing.’ Thus, the museum directly serves its community in ways that it can and is willing to financially support (Fisher 2020).
In many museums today, disproportional funds go to the director or executive leadership compensation. Abolishing such hierarchies of roles benefits the financial health of the institution. Staff compensation in the reimagined museum will be capped within a range of standards for living in a specific geographic area. Those amounts are recalibrated yearly to keep up with inflation. A tiered salaried system accounts for differences based on education, knowledge, and experience, with never more than a thirty percent disparity between the lowest paid job and the highest. Therefore, everyone makes a living wage, with no exponential differences between staff. This is the true meaning of nonprofit work. All salaries are transparent to all individuals, and they are not used as an insidious tool in hiring or to foster unhealthy competition between staff. Instead, the institution’s financial focus is its programming and community, which is the moral core of a not-for-profit enterprise.
As the museum is accountable to the community and public, the Finance division must, every six months, publish a detailed account of the institution’s financial picture—including all income, expenses, and balance sheets. Museums in the United States are already required to make publicly available the Form 990; this would exceed that legal minimum, and the museum would make public a more detailed financial picture, similar to what the Dallas Museum of Art already provides.15 This would ensure the museum’s transparency and accountability to its publics.
The essential ingredient for all this to work smoothly is radical transparency. People cannot perform their roles successfully without the information they need to monitor their work and make wise decisions. In the new model, all staff receives the same reports regarding the overall work, decisions, and direction of the five divisions. This cross-institutional information, shared every two weeks, is vital since one team’s or individual’s actions can impact other areas. With radical transparency, the organization can function holistically. Additionally, when colleagues are accountable to one another, folly and sloth are quickly exposed and adjusted. Such internal institutional honesty and accountability are essential because, as Janes states, museums contribute to the norms, networks, shared values, and trust that create social capital. This intangible wealth is transferred into the social sphere and holds society together by facilitating interconnectedness and long-term associations that are not self-interested or coerced (Sandell and Janes 2010: 223).
While this alternative museum structure is not complete or comprehensive, it builds on critical precedents and provides ideas for reorganizing how work could be done in a future cultural landscape. We need a reorientation of frameworks inspired by feminist ideals, decolonial methodologies, and abolitionist practice to shatter hierarchies between people and leadership, departments, types of work, and objects. At present, I work as a curator and have worked hard to get to where I am. I also fully realize that I am writing myself out of my current position as it is defined in typical museum staff structures. While there will always be a need for social and art historical expertise related to objects, the way that knowledge is activated and used needs to be reimagined in alignment with a recalibration of power dynamics. In asking myself, in what system would you like to work? I found that I would gladly shed my job title—and all its privilege within the hierarchy—to work dynamically, equally, and collaboratively with others.
Hierarchies determine that some things or persons are more important than others, which inevitably results in the subjugation of people and objects. To embody the democratic ideals our cultural institutions espouse, we need a nonhierarchical museum where horizontal relationships can thrive and where creativity and innovation are nurtured in every role. While a few museums, like Glenbow and OMCA, have begun experimenting with tangible schemes for change, many have only articulated ideals. Without profound structural change, these ideals are, at best, a mirage. The first step to get us to these ideals is profound structural change. After all, museums have been manmade, and therefore they can be unmade and remade according to different values, principles, and structures. It is up to us to have the courage to evaluate how we want them to work and what work we want them to do for our communities, and to imagine collectively how we can do cultural work differently and better.
1George Perry Floyd Jr. (October 14, 1973 – May 25, 2020) was an African-American man arrested in Minneapolis and killed by Derek Chauvin, a police officer, who knelt on Floyd’s neck and back for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. His death sparked massive protests against police brutality, especially towards Black people. See “George Floyd, the man whose death sparked US unrest,” BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52871936, accessed April 16, 2021.
2This is very much an evolving situation, but news coverage reveals the extent of the layoffs occurring at museums across the United States as early as June 2020 (see Kenney 2020; Salisbury 2020; Uren 2020).
4For example, in August 2020, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City laid off 79 employees, while 93 took voluntary retirement and more agreed to furloughs, totaling a 20 percent reduction in workforce (see Jacobs 2020). The Philadelphia Museum of Art laid off 85 staffers and accepted 42 voluntary separations, totaling a 23 percent reduction in workforce (see Dobrin 2020). The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, laid off 69 staffers, and more took voluntary retirement, totaling a 15% reduction in workforce (see Cascone 2020).
5While this is a current, ongoing situation not yet historicized by the Museum Studies field, examples like Mia Locks, Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, sudden resignation over the Museum’s Leadership failed attempts to fully embrace Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion initiatives show that Museums have adopted a performative approach to systemic change. See Deborah Vankin, “MOCA senior staffers quit, citing diversity inertia and ‘hostile’ work culture” Los Angeles Times, April 19, 2021: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2021-04-19/moca-curator-staff-resignations, accessed April 20, 2021.
6More recently, Smith 2020 looks to the need to address the overarching system of white supremacy in order to counter racial inequality.
7The decolonial project is both structural, but also about histories and knowledges. To decolonize the organizational structure is one aspect of the decolonial project, which needs to work on many simultaneous multitudes. This essay, however, is not about how to decolonize museums, but it is about how to decolonize organizational staff structures.
8For a review of museum staff structural change, there have been relatively few—see Peacock 2013.
9Janes is quoting from Stacey 1992.
11See Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia website: http://moa.ubc.ca/contact/, accessed December 10, 2020.
13Being responsible for tasks on behalf of the group does not imply having authority over the group. Rather, the group trusts the individual to do certain types of work that align with the interests of the broader group (see Hanauer 2020).
14For a discussion about the hierarchy of things in art museums see, for example, Pearce 2006.
15For example, see the Dallas Museum of Art’s website: http://dma.org/about/financials, accessed December 13, 2020.
I want to thank Dalia H. Linssen, Michelle Millar Fisher, Abigail Satinsky, and Anni Pullagura for the conversations we had during the COVID-19 lockdown in the Spring 2020, as we witnessed museum events unfolding and our anxiety over the future of our cultural institutions rising. I would also like to thank Kristin Swan for her incisive editorial contribution.
The author has no competing interests to declare.
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