Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Knowing Justice and Peace in Times of Crisis

Today, Kathryn Hill, President & CEO of the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, NC, is sharing her thoughts on her museum's actions in the wake of the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott and the community unrest that followed. She describes how her museum pivoted to respond to an immediate community need and how that moment is shaping future programming. Read her candid, inspiring words below and share how your museum enacts social responsibility in times of crisis.

The Levine Museum of the New South
To celebrate my arrival at Levine Museum of the New South, the Museum’s Board hosted a lovely cocktail party to introduce me to the community.  Barely into my third week as President of the Museum, I had already met dozens of Charlotte’s civic and cultural leaders, and, as I told the assembled guests, I have lived in 3 countries, 13 states and 21 cities, and I have never felt more welcomed or immediately at home as I feel in Charlotte, North Carolina.  That event occurred on Tuesday, September 20.

That same evening, just a few miles north of our gathering, Keith Lamont Scott was shot by a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer.  Charlotteans spent Wednesday anxiously waiting to see what would happen.  That night, protests erupted, and Charlotte reeled.

On Thursday morning, Levine staff met to figure out how we would respond.  Over the course of its twenty-five year history, the Levine Museum of the New South has earned a reputation locally and nationally for confronting tough issues courageously and for inviting the community to engage in productive dialogue, grounded in history and focused on the future. 

At this moment of crisis, we recognized our unique obligation to respond. The Board demanded action, and together, staff and Board affirmed our commitment to advocate for community, for education, for dialogue, and for social justice.  So, while most Uptown institutions and businesses closed, Levine Museum of the New South remained open. 

Over 120 community members attended the program
On Saturday, September 24, we hosted a free-day of guided tours, informal discussions, and art-based activities.  On Wednesday, September 28, a week after the shooting, we held a town hall forum and invited the community to consider the historical context which was giving rise to the shooting and the resulting protests.  We offered participants the opportunity to talk to each other in un-facilitated small groups.  More than 120 community members, diverse in race, gender and age, packed the room.  Levine’s staff historian, Dr. Brenda Tindal, talked about the deep racial divide that has always characterized Charlotte, despite its aspirations to be a city of the New South.  The small group discussions that followed were passionate, authentic, and respectful.  It was a powerful moment for these members of the community and for Levine Museum of the New South.

After the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, we issued a statement that described Levine’s role to help Charlotte understand the present in the context of the past, and importantly, our promise to serve as Charlotte’s memory to ensure this moment would not disappear from the community’s consciousness with the next news cycle.  After the town hall forum, we followed up with participants and asked them to evaluate the program and help us figure out how to continue the work we’d just begun.  We had planned to do an exhibit entitled K(no)w Justice, K(no)w Peace in 2018.  But we recognized that this exhibit, a photography show that examines the lives and the stories of victims of police-involved shootings throughout the country, would never be more timely, and that it offered us an opportunity to engage with community members across the ideological spectrum to share stories and search for common ground.  We will open K(no)w Justice, K(no)w Peace in December of this year.

The shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, and the protests that continue in Charlotte, have shaped our strategic focus for the long term, because we understand Charlotteans cannot address the issues at the core of these events – the issues of social mobility, institutional racism, and implicit bias – without understanding the long history that has given them root.  Levine Museum uses history to build community, not because history is helpful but because it is imperative. 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Futurist Friday: A Dark View of the Next Urbanism

Military people are professional pessimists. Which I guess is a good thing, since we want them to be prepared for the worst.  Back in the 1950s, Herman Kahn (often cited as the father of scenario planning) helped the US envision potential futures in the event of nuclear war.

But while the Cold War focused on threats posed by national nuclear arsenals, 21st century aggression may play out as urban warfare in "megacities" home to over ten million people each. There are already 35 megacities in existence, lead by Tokyo (population 38.8 million). The UN has predicted there will be forty one by 2030, and the US military is preparing for conflicts that play out in their crowded streets. 

Your Futurist Friday assignment, watch this brief (5 min) video outlining the Pentagon's dystopic vision of hyper-urban life. This scenario outlines challenges that will face cultural organizations as well. How will museums, libraries and our kin help ease the challenges foreseen for megacities: slums, crime, homelessness, overcrowding, inequality, pollution and resource scarcity?

(Pentagon Video Warns of “Unavoidable” Dystopian Future for World’s Biggest Cities from The Intercept on Vimeo.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Volunteers and Museum Labor

As I untangle the strange economics that shape our field, I’ve written several posts exploring the causes and consequences of the generally low salaries attached to museum work. In The Museum Sacrifice Measure I asked how poor people are willing to be in order to work in a museum; in What is the Fair Market Value of a Museum Job I explore the dysfunctions that arise from people feeling trapped in their current professions.

Today I’m sharing some thoughts about a third factor shaping wages in our sector—the fact that so many people are willing and eager to do this work for free.

In fact, the majority of people working in museums are volunteers. The last national financial survey AAM conducted (published as 2009 Museum Financial Information) reported a median figure of about 6 volunteers for every paid staff member for museums overall. That ratio soared to 18:1 in museums with budgets under $250,000, but even in the largest museums, volunteers generally outnumber paid FT staff two to one.

As a museum person, this figure surprises me not at all. I start
Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens
ed out (at age 12) as a museum volunteer. The first museum where I held a paid job—a small children’s museum-cum-nature center—couldn’t have existed without volunteers. And Cincinnati Museum Center (my last museum job before defecting to the association world) had a whole army of volunteers, with a full-time staff person dedicated to providing them with training and support.

Because museum volunteers are ubiquitous, it took me a long time to realize that free labor has its problematic aspects. For one thing, it’s ripe for abuse. For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act is crafted to prevent employers from pressuring staff to “volunteer” their time (in lieu of counting these as work hours, triggering time-and-a-half pay). The need to guard against this kind of exploitation put the Department of Labor in the position of defining what constitutes legitimate volunteerism, to wit:  “Individuals who volunteer or donate their services, usually on a part-time basis, for public service, religious or humanitarian objectives, not as employees and without contemplation of pay, are not considered employees of the religious, charitable or similar non-profit organizations that receive their service.” Such activities are characterized as “ordinary volunteerism,” and DOL considers a number of factors when called upon to determine whether a given set of activities are “ordinary,” including “whether full time employees are displaced.”

That does, indeed, sound fair, right? Except except except. As someone who has worked in museums of various types and sizes, and combed through the financial statements, org charts and policies of literally hundreds of museums of all types, I’d be unable to hazard an opinion on whether any given volunteer, or set of volunteers, is “displacing” a full time, paid employee. Does the volunteer director of a tiny, all-volunteer historic house museum “displace” a (theoretical) paid director the governing authority would otherwise have to fund? Would a large museum employ more (paid) interpreters if they didn’t have a dedicated and passionate core of docents?

I worked in a natural history museum that relied on volunteer (aka “adjunct”) curators and collections managers to care for collections that would otherwise wither from neglect. I know for a fact we weren’t in a financial position to create paid positions to do that work. Does that mean we should have deaccessioned the collections, rather than maintain them with volunteer labor for the present, with the potential for paid staff in the future?

As I talk to museum people about labor and wages, I often sense an undercurrent of resentment about volunteers. Some people come right out and say that museums should hire a “real” (i.e., paid) staff person rather than allowing someone to do the work for free. This troubles me in part because I’m pretty certain that museums can’t afford to support six times the people they currently employ (see ratios from the MFI, above). And I would hate for us to scale back our work to only that we can accomplish through paid staff.

But this also bothers me for a much more fundamental reason: volunteerism isn’t just a stop gap measure; it is a good in and of itself. The US is unusual among nations in the size and strength of its third sector—the nonprofits that complement the work of private business and government. I believe (from my admittedly imperfect knowledge of political and economic history) that nonprofits are embedded so deeply in US culture because from our inception we valued nonprofit associations as a forum for civic participation. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the early 1800s, he noted that our new nation was strengthened by public participation in a wide range of civic associations, including clubs, churches, community groups and nonprofits of all types. Volunteering isn’t just a way for nonprofits to make their dollars stretch as far as possible. One of the benefits nonprofits provide to society is the opportunity to volunteer.

Volunteers are a necessary and desirable part of the museum workforce. They are a distinct class of people who benefit from museums in deep and meaningful ways. And they expand our ability to do good work that reaches others. With due respect to DoL, I think it’s impossible to draw a bright line between work that is enhanced by volunteers and work that is displaced by unpaid staff. And I think it’s inevitable that museum salaries are influenced by free labor. That makes the job of setting fair and equitable wages more difficult, but not impossible. And so the conversation continues…

Volunteers at the Mississippi Children's Museum

Friday, October 14, 2016

Futurist Friday: An Anthology of Climate Fiction

Here's an extra special treat for your Futurist Friday: "Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction" was just released as a free digital download by the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative (ICF) at Arizona State University. 

ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination has long been using fiction as a vehicle for exploring the thorny problems raised by potential futures. I'm a fan of the stories commissioned through the Future Tense Fiction project (in collaboration with Slate Magazine and the New America Foundation). 

This latest anthology is the result of a climate fiction short story project. The publication is very timely, as the Paris Climate Accord, ratified by 72 countries, will take force next month. However, as President Obama pointed out earlier this month, even meeting global goals for cutting carbon emissions will only delay the worst consequence of climate change. As a nation, and as a species, we have a lot of work yet to do, imagining and planning for the world we soon will live in.

The anthology's, editors, Manjana Milkoreit, Meredith Martinez, and Joey Eschrich, see climate change as "a social and and cultural phenomenon, not just a scientific and policy issue." They believe that "art and literature can be part of the much-needed work of humanizing climate change." I would argue, very strongly, that museums can as well. 

Sci-Fi great Kim Stanley Robinson (who also selected the finalists) writes in the foreword that "Near-future fiction...concerns itself with events in coming decades, and because of the rapid pace of change in technology and society today, this subgenre of science fiction has become in effect the realism of our time." Fiction, he goes on to observe, "is how we organize our knowledge into plots that suggest how to behave in the real world." Download this anthology to your computer, iPad or e-reader, and dip into it in coming weeks. I hope you find the many and varied scenarios presented by the authors suggest ideas about how you, and your organizations, may behave in coming decades.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Advancing Equity Through Arts and Culture

HI, Nicole here! Earlier this month, I had the honor of participating in a panel discussion held by Cool Culture, a New York City cultural organization that encourages arts education by providing free access to local arts institutions for low-income families and children. I joined panelists Margaret Morton, Program Officer at the Ford Foundation; Tom Finklepearl, Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, artist Miguel Luciano; and James E. Bartlett, Executive Director of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts for an in-depth roundtable entitled, “Advancing Equity Through Arts and Culture.” The discussion was ably moderated by Cool Culture’s Executive Director, Candice Anderson. The audience included members of the arts and culture community, thought leaders, and a core group of museum educators who comprised the current cohort of Cool Culture’s Laboratory for New Audiences.

Some of the highlights of the discussion included:
  •  The impact of social movements on museums
  •  How institutional change happens in cultural institutions
  • The effects of having artists involved at the board level
  • The importance of including disability in articulations of diversity
  • Funding priorities that raise up works from the margins
L to R: Anderson, Morton, Finklepearl, Luciano, Ivy. Photo by Cool Culture

Museums and the Fight for $15

The very first question of the evening invited us to reflect on how social change influences the role of museums in society--and how social movements bear on the urgency of museum work. In my comments, I tried to stress the fact that this dynamic is not new, that the field of museum work has consistently responded to social trends and disruptive events across the twentieth century. I took this moment to reflect on the current Fight for $15 movement, in which low-wage workers across the country are fighting for a livable wage. I tried to link this movement to present-day discussions of diversity, inclusion, equity, and accessibility that are shaping the museum field. I believe that any museum community outreach must also be complemented by internal practices that privilege equity and inclusion in the workforce.

Since the discussion, I’ve had some time to reflect on my comments and on how this specific movement for a living wage influences the museum field. Many (non-museum) people tend to think of museums as places where thoughtful, well-heeled people go to quietly appreciate objects or living collections. Of course, many, many museums offer leading-edge programs and exhibitions that debunk this stereotype. But, the fact remains that persons in the lowest income brackets are the least likely to attend arts events—recent surveys place that number at 37%, compared with nearly 54% of the entire population. There are persistent and “significant disparities in museum participation by different racial and ethnic groups,” with non-white museum visitors making up only 9% of museum-goers.

For people earning less than a living wage, fees for museum entry tend to fall lower on the list of budgetary priorities. The need for a livable life--and for sustenance--is a priority that we all share. The Fight for $15 is linked to museum practice not only by the ways it calls for employers to pay wages that support the basic living conditions of workers but also by the fact that it reminds museum professionals of how precarious the lives of many of its would-be visitors actually are.

A Call to Accountability
Photo credit: Margarita Corporan for Cool Culture
One of the most poignant insights of the night, for me, came from a comment made by Naiomy Guerrero, founding editor of Gallery Girl NYC. Guerrero recounted her personal story of growing up in the Bronx, in a city rich with cultural resources, but never exploring the rich arts institutions right near her neighborhood.  She explained that she had to go to the Midwest, as a college student studying art history, to find out about the depth of arts innovations in her hometown. Her question, posed to Commissioner Tom Finklepearl, was pragmatic and deceptively simple: “I always hear…politics have to change, or…these very general statements and no, I want a plan. When are y’all taking us to the museum? What’s up? When are we going?” Finklepearl’s response was equally specific. He talked about the IDNYC card, an identification card that offers NYC residents free membership benefits to 40 cultural institutions, including the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the City of New York.

What stood out to me was the accountability that Guerrero’s question demanded of the panelists and of the audience. “No,” she said, “I want a plan.” Her tone was hopeful, confident, and inviting. But few could miss the urgency in her witty delivery. In that moment, a young, Dominican-American woman moved the conversation beyond the more abstract discussions of politics and power in order to focus the conversation in on the lives of the individual people museums serve.

Guerrero’s question and the rich exchange sparked from it remind me of the power of the personal. Too often, storytelling work can make the personal narrative something that demands only the imagination of the listener and not a response (for a good description of this, see Vanessa Chase’s Mistake #5 here). Museums can use Guerrero’s story and her mode of questioning as a prompt to consider who their neighbors are and pay attention to those times when members of the surrounding community aren’t part of the visitorship.

You can view the entire conversation on Cool Culture's website. I'd love to hear how your museum engages social movements and action. How does your museum approach  community accountability? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!