Intel just hired Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas to be their Director of Creative Innovation. Google hired futurist and noted transhumanist (“the singularity is coming”) Ray Kurtzweil as its Director of Engineering. President Obama just nominated Sally Jewell, the chief executive of Recreational Equipment Inc., to lead the Department of the Interior.
That leaves me wondering, who would museums hire if they looked beyond the traditional pipeline?
Especially as there is such widespread dissatisfaction with the traditional pipeline (e.g., museum studies programs, arts administration). Some signals of how this model of training and hiring is creaking at the seams include:
- Recent graduates of museum studies programs are overwhelmingly white, and female, at a time when museums themselves are saying they need a diverse workforce to better serve diverse audiences;
- Recent museum studies graduates tell me that they feel there are not enough opportunities for employment, and the resulting bidding war by applicants (for jobs) results in entry level salaries so low they don’t justify the educational debt they have taken on to earn their degree;
- Museum managers labor to rejigger org charts, assignments and hiring to staff positions that didn’t even exist five years ago: curator of audience engagement, social media manager, director of digital and emerging technologies;
- Museums struggle to find truly new approaches to delivering their core experience in a financially sustainable way, taking advantage of those emerging technologies and shifting patterns of cultural consumption without losing the museum’s soul.
I’m not convinced the solution to these challenges lies in recruiting different people to museum studies programs and tweaking the syllabus. I suspect it lies in a completely different pattern of recruitment.
I’m not talking about a return to the fad that (I hope) peaked in the ‘90s—that of hiring people from the business world as museum directors on the premise that for-profit managers would do a better job managing non-profits that people who trained up in the system. (That myth was, perhaps, finally laid to rest by the mess Larry Small made as regent of the Smithsonian, after having been recruited on the strength of his experience at Citicorp, Citibank and as president/COO of the FNMA.) As one person observed (in the discussion that followed Chris Norris’ recent post on the CFM Blog), people recruited from other sectors straight into museum directorships are likely to try to recreate the museum in the image of their own sector, be that higher ed or business.
I’m talking about hiring for entry and mid-level positions, drawing people from diverse backgrounds, experience and skills, and giving them the museum-specific training they need once they are on the job.
This is not a revolutionary thought. Many of the most talented and creative folks I know working in museums today had at least one foot firmly grounded in a different field before they committed full-time to museums. Joël Tan, a poet and editor, was as the artistic director at SF’s Asian American Theater Company and worked as a health educator on HIV prevention programs before joining Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as their director of community engagement. While Seb Chan was getting a toehold in museums as systems administrator at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, he was also working as a freelance journalist, organizing music festivals, working as a producer at a radio station and founding and editing a magazine. Now he’s leading the “digital renewal” of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Nina Simon got her bachelors’ degree in electrical engineering, and worked as a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Center while beginning to work in the museum realm. Fewer than 10 years later, she is putting her principles of participatory design and practice to work as the director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. (I could go on but then some people might get cranky if I left them out, so I will stop with this short, highly curated list.)
I’m not suggesting something new, I’m suggesting a shift in what seems to be the default expectation for training and hiring.
Here is a list I’ve started of sectors I might fish in for museum staff, were I hiring today, with notes on the skills I hope they might bring to the job:
- Gaming and games design: how to make experiences rewarding & compelling
- Community health/community organizers: how to put the museum’s resources in service of community needs and (if you hire locally) a deep knowledge of and ties to existing community organizations
- The military: logistics, planning and project management, risk assessment and management
- Law (given the recent glut of law school graduates): considering how few museums can afford in house-legal council, having a staff member trained in research, critical thinking and writing with a legal background as well couldn’t be a bad thing.
Two things I’d love to hear from you: pocket bios of museum colleagues you admire who have “non-traditional” backgrounds (or your own alt bio, don't be shy), and your list of other sectors we might draw on to diversify our ranks (in many different ways).
And as to how hiring in this manner might change the economics of museum jobs? Well, that gives me the topic for a future post…