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Museum leadership in a time of crisis

28 May 2018

keep thinking about the psychological toll that this volatile time must be taking on our collective psyche. Every day we are battered with, among other things, unpresidential tweets from the American president; threats to global democracy; cyber criminals stealing data and elections; an unconscionable and endless war in Syria; gun violence in America; the plight of desperate refugees; the chaos surrounding Brexit; and the fact that many Puerto Ricans still don’t have electricity. It is tough enough to navigate all this anxiety as a private citizen, but perhaps even harder as the leader of an arts organisation. 

Art museums are intensely political organisations – political with a small ‘p’. Art is political because it is an expression of lived human experience; identity, love, sex, religion, death, home, happiness, and trauma have always been subjects for artists. A concerned trustee at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), where I am the director, recently asked me if we would ever be the focus of protest. I assured him that we would, and urged him to walk around the galleries if he wanted to find offence. We have it all on our walls: imperialism, colonialism, war, oppression, discrimination, slavery, misogyny, rape, and more. Artists reflect our beautiful and horrific world back to us. As Walter Benjamin wrote, in ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940), ‘There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’.

Our audiences are anxious, too. The recent Culture Track study by the cultural strategy firm LaPlaca Cohen pointed out that the third most common motivation for a visit to a cultural institution in America is to ‘decrease stress’. Stress relief won out over other motivations such as ‘giving life a deeper meaning’ and ‘feeling inspired’. The study also identified that millennials are the most stressed of our visitors; not even the young get a break on anxiety.

I don’t often use military vocabulary to describe my world, but the acronym VUCA is one that I have endorsed and adopted. After the end of the Cold War, the US Army War College described the new context in which the world operates in terms of four distinct challenges:

• Volatility
• Uncertainty
• Complexity
• Ambiguity

The business community quickly adopted VUCA as a touchstone for agile and aware leadership, since leaders must remain bold but flexible in the midst of a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. Leaders have not only to embrace change but also to anticipate it, constantly scanning the external environment and consumer trends in order to inform strategy and adapt tactics. 

This complicated moment is made even more complex due to changing demographics in America, offering intriguing new opportunities and demanding audacious institutional change. The US Census Bureau estimates that by 2060, 57 per cent of the US population will be people of colour; today the majority of young people under the age of 18 are people of colour. Demographic changes offer museums the potential to expand their audience, and require diversification in staffing, programming, and collections in encyclopaedic art museums. Mia opened its doors in 1915 and held a mirror up to the community to show what culture and good taste looked like – and it looked like Europe. In our first 20 years, 65 per cent of the artwork acquired for the museum came from Europe; 26 per cent was American; and just nine per cent originated from other parts of the world. In the following 80 years our global collections have grown substantially, but not enough if we are going to attract and engage future generations of diverse Americans. 

Changing demographics have brought identity politics front and centre in art museums, engendering angst in museum leadership across the country. Leaders are afraid of a misstep that could lead to vocal public protest. We must engage in the contemporary dialogue about race, class, and gender, but in doing so, we expose ourselves to potential controversy if we do not do so thoughtfully and in collaboration with stakeholders outside the museum walls. For example, the 2017 Whitney Biennial produced lively debate and protest about the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016). The painting, created by a white artist, was informed by a disturbing photograph of 14-year-old Emmett Till lying in an open coffin, taken in 1955 following his brutal murder in Mississippi after being falsely accused of whistling at a white woman. Protestors argued that African American trauma should not be appropriated by white artists. The museum did not remove the work but embraced the public dialogue that had been engendered by the event. 

As long as the staff and trustees at American museums remain predominantly white, it will be difficult for museums to tackle the often painful but important contemporary issues that we must address. Many museum traditionalists, most of whom grew up in a different America, do not understand why younger and more diverse audiences insist that museums engage in contemporary issues. Museums, however, risk irrelevance unless they step up to address formidable and pressing societal issues. 

This June, Mia will open ‘Art of Healing’ (16 June–27 July), an exhibition of artwork made by community artists in the wake of the shooting of Philando Castile. Castile was fatally shot in 2016 by a policeman in the nearby town of Falcon Heights after being pulled over, ostensibly for a cracked tail light. In the months after Castile’s funeral, many artists were motivated to make art, which they then gave to the Castile family – gifts intended to help the artist, the Castile family, and friends to heal, while also bearing collective witness to the tragedy and its resulting grief. Castile’s family, moved by this generosity, approached the museum with a desire to share with others this artwork, which includes video, sculpture, posters, paintings, and quilts. 

The exhibition is significant for our museum, but not an easy one – not easy for the museum’s staff and board, for the Castile family, or for members of our community. But what more important role could a museum have today than in attempting to ease people’s pain and bring them together in a safe place for difficult conversations? Frankly, this project keeps me up at night because it’s really tough and complicated – and I want to do the right thing. But it is also tough because it’s so important and because there are a lot of stakeholders who really care about it.

When people ask me to pick out the skills most needed by museum directors today, they expect to hear ‘fundraising’. Instead, I say ‘agility, closely followed by bravery’. The days have passed of primarily preserving and perpetuating an institution – of a ‘keep on keepin’ on’ attitude – and the status quo is actually the riskiest place to be. Cultural leaders and their teams must be adept at harvesting and understanding data and also analysing contemporary trends. Armed with this information, they need to create agile strategic plans that are constantly examined and repeatedly challenged. The days of 10-year ‘long range plan’ binders are over. At Mia, our strategic plans never have more than three strategic directions, which can all be explained on a single page. While we remain committed to the strategic directions, our tactics to get there change regularly, enabling us to remain nimble and opportunistic. 

In my 25-year career as a museum director, I have not seen a more challenging time to be an arts leader; the national and global political climates have created a situation in which our essential principles are under attack. It is not appropriate for a public museum to take positions in partisan politics. We must, however, stand up for what we believe in and defend our values. During this time of contention, I am anxious to protect beliefs that are core to Mia and that frequently seem threatened today, including:

• Gender equality
• Diversity, inclusion, equity, and access
• Social justice
• Global understanding
• Scientific research
• Liberal education for all
• Open democracy and freedom of speech
• Essentialness of the arts

Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic, argues that leaders must follow their ‘true north’, an internal compass indicating one’s life purpose and lived values. For George, only authentic and ethically grounded leadership is effective leadership. Our cynical and media-savvy world quickly spots inauthenticity, both in leaders and in organisations. After the death of Prince, the Cheerios and Hamburger Helper brands, both owned by General Mills, posted tributes on Twitter, tying the products to the music legend from Minnesota. The posts were swiftly removed after public outcry. The General Mills communications team was no doubt trying to honour a hometown icon but their messages came across to fans as an inauthentic attempt to use Prince’s fame to sell products. 

When a leader and the organisation stand firm for their values, their guiding compass helps to determine authentic behaviour. After President Trump first proposed a ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries in 2017, the museum’s staff and I felt compromised because that message didn’t align with our belief in inclusion. This prompted us to come up with a quick and authentic response to express our values with a billboard campaign.

It has been invigorating to see parts of corporate America take a stand for their values over the last 18 months. Delta Air Lines was one of many companies that severed their relationship with the National Rifle Association (NRA) after the recent killing of 17 people at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In retaliation for Delta’s actions, the Georgia legislature voted to eliminate a tax break for the airline, which could ultimately cost it millions of dollars. ‘Our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale,’ wrote the company’s CEO, Ed Bastian, in a letter to employees. 

Agility and bravery are two sides of the same leadership coin. You cannot operate in one mode without the other in the VUCA world of 2018. Cultural leaders sometimes shy away from bold statements and agile actions in response to contemporary issues and trends. The hesitation is understandable, since we serve many masters – elected officials, boards of trustees, donors, volunteers, diverse communities, and staff. But as Stephen Covey has written, ‘the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’ And the main thing must be bravely maintaining one’s personal and institutional true north in anxious and volatile times.

Kaywin Feldman is the Nivin and Duncan MacMillan Director and President of Minneapolis Institute of Art.

From the May issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.