On modern guilds

Acknowledging the present crisis

I’ve been wondering what the future of museum work might look like. As the world starts to hesitantly open up again, it seems clear that most cultural organizations are going to try as much as possible to return to the way things were at the beginning of 2020, despite the still-present pandemic. I am afraid this willful ignoring of the elephant in the room will not help museums in 2021, when our primary role for the next year or more could be what Tom O’Connor wrote about in “Engaging Arts Audiences In A Time Of Trauma”. I recommend it, as well his conversation with Cory Garfin.

“There is one central truth that on its face may seem fairly obvious to you, but which can’t be minimized: our entire world is in the midst of a profound traumatic experience… [A]ny semblance of normalcy (and relevance) for the arts and culture fields will require facing and integrating that trauma head-on.”

There are leaders out there who have been able to articulate alternative visions of what the museum of the future might look like. I think of leaders like Christy Coleman at Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Micah Parzen at the Museum of Us, and Franklin Vagnone of Old Salem Museums and Gardens who are doing not only the hard work of trying to keep their institutions afloat, but also trying to think differently about the social mission of museums and how they can be the kind of places that deserve the trust the public has traditionally bestowed on them. If you know of others, please do let me know in the comments. I’m always eager to find more examples of progressive practice!

Outside this small group, though, most of the cultural sector looks determined to carry on with business as usual, as much as the plague will allow. Waiting for your particular museum to decide to become first, second, or third on the block isn’t an option to the vast majority of museum staff made redundant by the pandemic. As I wrote in the previous post, current museum organizational structures are aligned not with the audiences who attend the events, or the people who staff the place; they are aligned with the social elites who control the flow of philanthropy.

I’ll leave org charts for a later post, and focus here on other ways of doing creative work with the cultural sector.

A 21st century guild?

Armourers Guild, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Even before I joined the ranks of the full-time freelance workforce, I had been interested in the idea of alternate models of working. This strange, mixed-up century has destroyed many of the illusions around how modern technologies and neoliberal policies would “unleash” and “ignite” and “fill-in-the-blank” productivity and efficiency in the workplace. We’re left with industries like academia that function only on the back of a vast unsustainable pool of precarious adjunct faculty. Or a museum sector that requires volunteer and part-time labor to deliver core services. The mere fact the museum unionization efforts have been popping up all over the US and been successful tells you all you need to know about how beset museum workers feel. So is mass unionization the answer? Unions perform a vital protective function to exploited workforces. But I want more. I want a way for creative, artistic, educators and experience designers to pool resources and knowledge and self-organize to do work. What’s that thing called? Maybe the closest thing is like a guild.

I’ve been reading a lot business strategy articles lately (which would probably appall my younger self, but whatever) and it’s been eye opening. In the 1990s, before the gig economy was even a thing, Thomas W. Malone and Robert Laubacher at MIT made some pretty astute predictions about the nature of work and promise and peril of gig work in “The Dawn of the E-Lance Economy”. They said,

“An e-lance economy might well lead to a flowering of individual wealth, freedom, and creativity. Business might become much more flexible and efficient, and people might find themselves with much more time for leisure, for education, and for other pursuits. A Golden Age might dawn.
On the other hand, an e-lance economy might lead to disruption and dislocation. Loosed from its traditional moorings, the business world might become chaotic and cutthroat. The gap between society’s haves and have-nots might widen, as those lacking special talents or access to electronic networks fall by the wayside. The safety net currently formed by corporate benefit programs, such as health and disability insurance, might unravel. E-lance workers, separated from the communities that companies create today, may find themselves lonely and alienated. All of these potential problems could likely be avoided, but we won’t be able to avoid them if we remain blind to them.”

As we now know, their more dire version of the gig economy is the one that came to pass. Aside from being impressed at their ability to forecast, was the footnote in this quote, which states, “Workers’ guilds, common in the Middle Ages, may again rise to prominence, taking over many of the welfare functions currently provided by big companies.”

I’ve been working with several different groups of people trying to develop new models for organizing work, and figuring out what to even call something new is a real challenge. I was already interested in the idea of a guild as an inspiration, and this gave some fuel to the fire. In “Flexible Work Arrangements and 21st Century Worker’s Guilds” they laid out a rationale for a kind of organization that could meet some of the human needs of its’ members currently provided by larger organizations, namely:

  1. ensuring their financial security,
  2. providing placement and professional training services,
  3. becoming a locus of social interaction and identification.

In the U.S. context, financial security has everything to do with health insurance, but could be thought of more broadly to include other kinds of insurance like unemployment assistance.

“Guilds could help mitigate this risk by establishing “income smoothing” plans. For example, imagine that members paid a fraction of their income to the guild in good times, in return for a guaranteed minimum income in the bad times. This is, of course, a kind of unemployment insurance. But unlike conventional unemployment insurance, this form would possess an additional feature–guild members would have an incentive to help their out-of-work peers to find jobs, to ensure that they gained the skills needed to be productive, and to exert social pressure on any guild members who were not trying.”

Placement assistance and professional development could manifest in the form of matchmaking between clients and guild members, reputation verification for members, and formal training and apprenticeship programs.

And on top of these formal programs, a guild could be a home base for the kind of informal community building that makes communities vital. Malone and Laubacher posit a future where instead of identifying with where you work, “I do __ at Museum X.” You might say, “I’m a member of the Educators’ Guild”. Pretty heady stuff, and mostly written at the end of the last century, to boot!

More recently, John Hagel’s writing has continued this line of reasoning, and with articles like “From the Gig Economy to the Guild Economy” he updates Malone’s and Laubacher’s ideas, positing that we are seeing the point where the scalable efficiency model has run its course, and there are diminishing returns in trying to do ever more with less, and faster, too, please. For Hagel (even though writing during the middle of the pandemic), the biggest pressure for modern workers is going to be how to learn more and learn faster.

“As independent workers become more aware of the imperative for accelerating learning, they will tend to affiliate into guilds that will help to connect them with others who might become part of their impact group and, more broadly, with other impact groups that share their passion for increasing impact in a particular set of activities.“

As someone who’s been interested in personal professional development and skill building for years, this rings true to my ears. The endemic skill crisis in museums, not just in “digital” fields, but across the board, comes in no small part from institutions being unable and unwilling to devote resources to upskilling the staff they have. If you want to retain and upgrade your professional skills, there aren’t a lot of options for the vast majority of museum staff. But a 21st century guild would have career building and skill building baked into its mission.

In addition to gig workers, Hagel sees guild potential in specialized product and service businesses, which could apply to almost field of museum endeavor. As future customers demand more specialized services, the opportunity for guilds to be the place to find tailored solutions only goes up. A guild focused on providing digital services to museums could likely outperform most in-house museum digital departments in all but the largest, best-endowed museums. And even there, I think a guild might have an advantage, because of the ongoing learning that would be part of any guild.

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that I am aware that medieval guilds have a problematic history. They were exclusionary, racist, protectionist, and a host of other things that we wouldn’t want to repeat. For Hagel, this is the major challenge to overcome. How do you avoid the temptation to become just a new set of gatekeepers? For Hagel, that comes from focusing on creating and sharing new knowledge rather than guarding the existing hoards, so that everyone, not just their members, learns faster.

Maybe the opportunity of this pandemic is to build groups which help participants to learn faster, to leave behind the luggage of a scarcity mindset that views everyone else as “competition” to be feared, and, as Hagel writes “cultivate an abundance mindset.” That word “cultivate” brings me right back round to Gopnik’s take on Voltaire. Maybe “the place we build with love” looks like a guild.

What do you think?

11 comments

  1. Ed, as I read this I kept thinking about Hollywood Guilds (and I confirmed with my S.O to be sure I have this right). While there is much to complain about the Hollywood system, they do understand how to support effective organizations to support the work of creatives. As an aside, they also have unions, but those are more like the teamsters and the electricians — different than the guild creative work. Dues are steep, worked out with employers but the benefits are helpful for those who work long-term in their respective fields. I’ve always wondered if evaluators should not band together in a some forceful way since having an outside evaluator is always in a project’s best interest. The money in film is so much more than that in museums, but maybe something can cross over to be useful for museum workers.

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  2. I am very intrigued by this idea – it also makes me think about apprenticeships as part of the process of gaining experience. Instead of jumping to expensive degrees, people new to the field could join a guild and be paired with a master-level someone to start gaining experience, while being paid. I felt that our youth program at the Museum of Science, which was very much based on a work-learning model was close to an apprenticeship experience.

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  3. There’s a model you might be interested in exploring – an active and contemporary guild which practices much of what you hope for, sharing knowledge, providing resources and advocacy for graphic artists – a historically freelance economy. Take a look at https://graphicartistsguild.org/# . They have decades of experience organizing, including a very influential pricing and ethical guidelines resource.

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  4. I love this idea. I wonder if we could experiment with smaller “pods” who would meet to share stories and resources and skills like once a month- and then maybe once every few months pods could join forces. If we were ever ready to become something bigger we’d have an organizing system in place- and if not, no harm done- we just made a few extra friends.

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    1. I love this idea too and if people are interested, I think that the National Association for Museum Exhibition) NAME organization (board and interested members) could help organize and support an experiment like this. We have informal coffee chats now (Wednesdays at 10 am EST and Thursday 10 am PST) but more formally organized conversations may have different needs. Thoughts? Ideas?

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    2. Hagel’s article actually posits that smaller groups, what he calls “impact groups” would have to happen first. They’re exactly what you describe, a small cluster of individuals who come together to do work. Get enough of those out there and they could consolidate into a guild.

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  5. Hi Ed, While not directly to the subject of guilds, although i find some parts of this intriguing, I’d like to quote from a longer piece, that will be published in October Since what this describes became official only at 4:00PM yesterday, I had to add it:
    “Consider the impact if major museums were to follow the example of the Peale in Baltimore (officially the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture). Based in the oldest purpose-built museum building in the US, it opened in 1814. With the exception of 1931-1997, it has had a tumultuous history that included the near razing of the building, multiple non-museum uses (including the first public high school for African Americans in the city), and transfer of its collection to the Maryland Historical Society when the Peale was closed in 1997. In 2017, the Peale was reopened after 20 years of standing vacant, and is today a community-driven museum, home to a born-digital collection of Baltimore stories and an experimental site for cultural practice. As part of the Peale’s commitment to seeking new and more sustainable models for non-profits in the sector, in June 2020 the Peale’s inaugural director, Nancy Proctor, who is white, proposed to the Board of Directors that the Peale move away from the traditional museum hierarchy with a single director at its head. In September, the Peale’s Board began the process of adopting a more inclusive and shared leadership model by approving a job-share between Proctor and Krista Green, an experienced preservationist and museum professional of African American heritage. This is the first step in what is expected to be a more thorough process of re-engineering the Peale’s management structure, including board diversification over the coming months, that aims to help sustain the momentum of the current civil rights movement.”
    from ZDDoering, No Small Steps: The Time Has Expired, Curator: The Museum Journal, 63.4, (Oct 2020) forthcoming..

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  6. Thanks for the mention! Just wanted to chime in about the guild idea: I love the way it takes people who would be perhaps only competitors in a modern capitalist market and allies their interests so that, in the best case scenario, they are mutually-supportive collaborators in creating a better future/market for everyone. More easily said than done for sure, but without these examples and concepts as North Stars, we’ll never navigate our way out of our current broken systems.

    Also thanks for the links and references to all these great sources, Ed – your prose is as illuminating as it is elegant, as always!

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