Luggage to leave behind

The previous post, “Where to now, friends?” was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever written for public consumption. It needed to come out, but that didn’t make it any easier to hit “Publish.” I am grateful for all the love and support you’ve shown since then. And I especially appreciate how many people have engaged with the hopeful parts of that post. Because there is a lot to be done. We have gardens to cultivate. And, I for one, want to step into the new era with as little baggage as possible. How, though?

At the end of my previous post, I posed a number of questions I was rolling around in my head.

  • What carcasses should I stop dragging, what luggage is it OK leave behind, so I can walk more lightly?
  • What does “the better place we build by love” look like and if it was a museum, what kind of museum would it be?
  • What is my local responsibility, and what immediate action can I take in my garden?
  • What am I ready to fight for?

Answering those questions, or at least attempting to start addressing them, is a thing I have already been working on for months, with small groups of friends and colleagues, and a larger circle of folks who got cryptic DMs/texts/emails from me about wanting to discuss guilds, alternate business models, etc… and still said they’d be happy to talk. I thank you all.

I’ve been reflecting a lot since being severed from my last job about how to characterize my tenure there. What will I say about my time at PEM now that it is in the past? It’ll be one of the first things an interviewer or potential client might ask. For my own sanity, I need to process it as “a thing that has occurred and is now finished” as opposed to “a thing I’m living through right now.” Reflecting on it is making me rethink old “certainties” that seem like they might actually be baggage I can do without. Here are two which I will endeavor to retire.

Inside vs outside

Chief among those old certainties was the firm belief that the only place from which to steward transformation was within an institution. Throughout my career, I have been almost smugly convinced that only insiders have enough skin in the game and the longitudinal perspective to be able to break old systems and build better ones. I’ve watched generations of outside visionaries/change agents/disruptors come into the cultural sector and go back out with little or no broad impact. Incremental change, sure. New vocabulary and tools? Certainly. “The better place we build by love?” No. Not even close. So, my thinking had always been that you had to be inside the system in order to seize the means of production. Only now, I’m not so sure.

Organizational structures and cultures are extremely durable things. They can resist tremendous amounts of force applied to them, even in situations where there’s broad agreement on the need for change. Wanting to do business as usual, and the myriad unspoken ways that “That’s not the way we do things here” can grind down change agents and smooth “disruptions” down to bumps that are easily bridged. I know so many talented friends and colleagues who went into organizations eager and willing to do the hard work to remodel them into better places. Most of them don’t work in those places any more. If they’re still in the field, they’re consultants.

When changes have occurred in museum practice, it has often been at an agonizing pace as the field waits for enough other institutions to try something, before trying it themselves. Elaine Gurian addressed this in her 2009 talk “Wanting To Be Third On Your Block” which, like so much of her work, is prescient and as relevant now as it was a decade ago.

“There has also been acceptance of the change initiated by the most revolutionary of museums by the most recalcitrant by a process that I suggest should be called “wanting to be the third on your block”. The acceptance comes after many others have tried it, most especially after the most flexible of your own class has taken the plunge.”

Elaine Gurian

So it’s not just a disinclination to act, but an active resistance to acting, until such time as its been proven harmless by others. And what is that harm that make museums so resistant to change? According to Gurian, “I now understand why so many museums have successfully resisted changed. It is because they aspire to remain in the “classic” camp most especially aligned with the social elite and based on the stereotype found in movies and literature.” Anything that doesn’t get between the institution and the social elites who comprise their boards and donor base is likely to be tolerated or at least winked at. Anything that that tries to disentangle them gets squashed. Inertia isn’t the root of resistance. Proximity to power is.

Fighting the powers that be

“The social elite” is the unspoken audience who is catered to first and always. And the fact that they are never named as such ( for the most part) makes it much, much harder to disrupt that relationship. I am guilty of most of the kinds of performative rogueishness that Robert Weisberg problematizes so aptly in his post “Going rogue, revisited”. The whole thing is great reading, and goes into much more constructive territory. I was especially taken by his astute observation that “[g]oing rogue does not automatically take on structural problems. First of all, it’s easier to get away with going rogue when you’re part of the hegemonic system.” There may even be a built-in incentive for the system to allow a certain amount of staff “going rogue” as a pressure relief and evidence of the system being basically sound. Reflecting on my career, to what extent might all of my rabble rousing and troublemaking have been just safe enough not to upset the status quo? Probably most of it.

So, one carcass I will stop dragging is the willful blindness to the power dynamics that drive the industry. Any model built on the assumption that private philanthropy from social elites is going to pay the bills is going to bring with it all the ills that the sector is currently drowning under. And if 2020 teaches us anything, it’s that when things get desperate, the elites will hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. So stop looking for a helping hand.

The second carcass to stop dragging behind me is that I need to be employed by an institution to effect meaningful change in the sector. It can be done. I know people in the field doing the work right now. But, I don’t believe they are our only hope. In fact, I am more and more convinced of the truth of Jay Rounds’ observation that the only way out of the paradigmatic shift is for people to experiment with lots of new models. Somebody’s going to come up with the next vision for what cultural institutions like museums can be.

The next post will look at what that “better place we build by love” might look like. Spoiler: It involves you!

3 comments

  1. “philanthropy from social elites is going to pay the bills is going to bring with it all the ills that the sector is currently drowning under.” Yes! You know when you have the niggling that this is going on, but can’t put your finger what is it and also have just been brushing the feeling away? Also don’t quite know what to do about it.

    Like

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