<iframe src="//www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-PWMWG4" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden">

It’s time museum leaders stopped talking to themselves – and started listening instead

24 March 2021

From the April 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Over the past year, working primarily by video conference, I have become acutely aware of how much time we spend hearing but not really listening. Psychologists say that most of us stare at ourselves while we’re on such calls. My own observation is that too often, rather than listening with intention while others are talking, we spend the time thinking about what we will say next – and that when we do speak, it is often to redirect the topic of conversation to ourselves.

Talking to our own reflections is an endemic problem of these ‘unprecedented times’ in the United States, as evinced by reactions to the coronavirus pandemic, to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and to other unsettling events. Art world leaders are no exception. When we speak from within our institutions about our solidarity with the Black, Indigenous, and people of colour who have been most profoundly and tragically impacted by these compounded crises, and we declare our commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion, are we truly listening as we speak, or are we talking to reflections of ourselves, mostly white people of privilege?

Actor Posing in Front of a Mirror (1870s?), Honoré Daumier. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Actor Posing in Front of a Mirror (1870s?), Honoré Daumier. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In my role as director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., I learned a valuable lesson about listening in December. To thank our terrific staff at the gallery for their work last year, in lieu of our usual holiday party we sent each employee a box of brownies from a nonprofit organisation that seeks to build stronger communities by providing jobs to people who face rejection elsewhere. I thought it was the perfect gift – high-quality sweets, great customer service, and a mission in keeping with the National Gallery’s values. One morning I woke up to several emails alerting me that some staff had complained about the box containing the brownies. One side of the box said ‘BROWNIES’ (the product) in bold brown letters; below it, ‘LET’S GET TO WORK’ (the organisation’s mission). Some staff had read the box as a message from a white-led institution telling African American employees, ‘BROWNIES LET’S GET TO WORK’.

My first response was to think that they had made a mistake and misread the box – in other words, that they were simply wrong to feel hurt. But when I took time to really listen to what the staff were saying, I realised that this was not about my feelings, but about theirs. And their feelings come from a lived experience of systemic racism. Context matters. The message on the box was coming from the white director of a hierarchical, historically white-led institution. Good intentions, I learned, can still produce hurt feelings in others, and sometimes they can cause harm. We all want to be heard and know that our feelings matter, that we matter. We just have to be brave, confident and humble enough to truly hear one another.

My ‘brownie lesson’ caused me to reflect on the difficult decision I made with the directors of three other museums last summer to postpone a retrospective of the American artist Philip Guston (the exhibition was to be presented in 2020–22 at Tate Modern, the MFA Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, as well as the National Gallery; it will now take place in 2022–24). As the exhibition drew closer and the strains of the pandemic joined those of the protests over systemic racism, I realised that our institution had a lot more work to do before it could present Guston’s art with care and empathy. Some of the artist’s most admired and controversial works depict cartoon-like, hooded figures that allude to the Ku Klux Klan. The figures were an important part of his oeuvre and are critical to the retrospective exhibition, but as we met with staff members, we began to understand that they could also cause great pain to some members of our community.

Guston used these figures to explore the seeds of racism and the capacity for evil in all humans. His intentions were good, as are those of the National Gallery in presenting the exhibition. But those good intentions do not negate the trauma we may cause in a public display of imagery that makes reference to slavery, lynching and racial terror. It is imperative that the National Gallery slow down and really listen, not only to the curators and art critics but also to members of our staff and the wider community who have something to say about how these works affect them. To ignore or dismiss their very real emotions would be to deny their value and their agency. We will gain new understandings of Guston’s work and the important issues the artist raised by listening to people whom museum directors don’t always hear.

As America changes, so too must its museums. We cannot simply make statements of solidarity and talk about our commitment to diversity. To be and to remain relevant, we must have empathy for our audiences and stakeholders. It is time for museums to move from making statements to material change in what we do and how we do it. That means being humble and normalising the inclusion of historically marginalised voices in our work of collecting, exhibiting and interpreting art – from the very beginning of projects. In my conversations with other museum directors who have navigated public outrage when presenting difficult images involving race and identity, they all said that their mistake was not listening to staff and community from the outset. Hearing other peoples’ stories and learning about their values, emotions, and life experiences makes us better people and also better art historians. After all, art is the expression of what it is to be human.

Visitors in conversation at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Visitors in conversation at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Courtesy National Gallery of Art

In America today, we talk a lot about healing and about coming together, but we rarely talk about how we are going to do so. The world does not always fit in the binary framework of right/wrong, for/against. As our global, noisy and digital world has become more complicated, we let ourselves assume that being for something necessarily means that you are against its opposite. By ignoring nuance and the grey areas in between points of view, we close ourselves to others and create a limited worldview. Retreating to our different sides, we stop listening deeply to one another and seek validation from like minds. Philip Guston was a great artist, and his work still resonates with relevance today – and museums must also be thoughtful and empathic in presenting it. America’s ugly history of racial violence means that not everybody will approach the work in the same way. One perspective does not negate or discredit the other; art is messy and unresolved because people are messy and unresolved.

Moreover, an argument for listening and compassion is not an argument against curatorial expertise. The National Gallery is justifiably known for the depth and rigour of its scholarship. We must recognise, however, that excellent museum scholarship is always in service of something greater – expanding our understanding, generating curiosity, answering difficult questions and drawing deeper connections between people and art. By listening to a range of voices, we can critically assess what we hear to better understand and shape what needs to come next. Museums do not simply preserve and protect masterpieces in empty rooms. We open our doors, literally and figuratively, because we believe creating opportunities to experience the works of art and gain a deeper understanding of them, and of our shared humanity, will make a difference to other people.

Part of the reason we don’t talk much about empathy as a key leadership quality is that it is often dismissed as a female trait. A male museum director once told me that a trustee chastised him for emphasising qualities such as thoughtful listening and compassion, and suggested that he was being ‘too feminine’. In ‘7 Leadership Lessons Men Can Learn from Women’, a recent article in Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Cindy Gallop argue: ‘If men spent more time trying to win people’s hearts and souls, leading with both EQ [a measure of emotional intelligence] and IQ, as opposed to leaning more on the latter, and nurturing a change in beliefs rather than behaviors, they would be better leaders.’ Being kind and empathic does not mean a leader cannot also be tough and decisive – one does not negate the other. The best leaders demonstrate both qualities.

At a recent workshop in which the National Gallery’s leadership team was asked to describe our institution’s future, someone commented that museums must become places that care about people as much as they care about things. In order to create such a future, I am adding empathy to my shortlist of essential leadership qualities, along with agility, bravery and commitment to values. Critical to inspiring staff working in isolation during this time of fear and unrest, and moving toward a post-Covid world, empathy will remain a vital characteristic of strong leaders. The pandemic, continued racial terror and civil unrest are not unrelated events. All result from the cumulative strain of environmental and public health crises coupled with economic inequality and an urgent need for social justice. And tragically, in America, the effect of these compounded crises has affected communities of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour more than others. In decisions about matters small and great, leaders must come from a place of empathy – internalising what they hear, through intentional listening, and considering how the stresses of these times affect people differently.

Kaywin Feldman is director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

From the April 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.