Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Modern Views on Museum Leadership: The Case Against Visionary Leaders

In her article for Hyperallergic, Chazen Art Museum director Amy Gilman precautions museum professionals against falling into the “cult of the visionary museum director,” the idea that museum leaders should aspire to grand visions for the future of the institution.[1] She argues that this perspective is shortsighted and does not account for the short-term and long-term steps and strategies required to realize a museum’s mission: “As directors we must keep envisioning at the 1000-foot view, but unless we can ground that view in pragmatic examples that help our teams link aspiration to action, the 1000-foot view remains an elusive and frustrating dream.”[2] While Gilman’s argument against the visionary director is controversial, the evidence she provides to support this argument proves that she herself is an effective leader whose career could be interpreted by some to be visionary. For this reason, this article and the topic of effective museum leadership in general allude to the ideological shift modern museums experience to meet the changing needs of their communities.

The job should be less about fantastical visions and more about defining practical objectives for the entire institution and its constituents.

Amy GIlman, HyperallergiC (2021)

Museums are facing increasing public scrutiny about their missions and purpose in their respective communities. To maintain relevancy, museums must meet the complex needs of their communities, and museums are therefore experiencing great changes. It is more important now than ever that museum leaders be intuitive, dynamic, and competent to facilitate this institutional reinvention.[3] Now that museums are increasingly more active in their communities, directors have an even greater need to have experience in public relations, business management, finance, and marketing. While curatorial skills are an advantage, some high-level museum director job advertisements do not require experience in non-profits.[4] As scholar Willard Boyd asserts, the director must understand the mission and culture of the museum. Directors must have an aspirational vision of the museum grounded in reality, and the director must have the means through which to achieve the vision.[5] Boyd agrees with Gilman about the need for a pragmatic, rather than visionary, director: “To be effective, the director must be able to figure out what the right things are and then be able to get them done.”[6] For the role of the director, imagination must be accompanied by sound judgement.[7]

Additionally, Sherene Suchy reminds museum professionals of the importance of strong emotional intelligence. Effective leaders should communicate their passion for their institution to others, including potential funders and trustees.[8] Emotionally intelligent directors are likely to practice cohesive leadership, meaning responsibility is shared and staff training and development are prioritized. Cohesive leaders exemplify the behaviors they expect from their staff.[9] Emotionally intelligent leaders often lean into empathy, a trait critical to modern leadership. It is a driver of change, and leaders who practice empathy may be able to understand the pressures facing underpaid staff. For this reason, empathy is the foundation of diversity, inclusion, and pay equity.[10]

In the study of leadership in museums, it is apparent that there are many ideas about the qualities and skills an effective director should possess. Just as institutions have unique needs and missions, there can be no definitive model of a director that could efficiently serve any museum. Willard Boyd reminds the museum field that a perfect director does not exist. Instead, trustees should search for an effective leader who can grow as he or she gains institutional knowledge.[11] The ideal values of leadership, namely pragmatism and emotional intelligence, are not quantifiable and are challenging to identify in the candidate search process. Board members should therefore be prepared to assess candidates not just on their exciting ideas for the position, but also on their commitment to their current posts.

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Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University

FOOTNOTES

[1] Amy Gilman, “The Era of the Visionary Museum Director Is Over … or It Should Be,” Hyperallergic, July 27, 2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gail Anderson, Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2012): 1.

[4] Willard L. Boyd. “Wanted: An Effective Director.” Curator 38, no. 3 (1995): 171-172.

[5] Ibid., 177-178.

[6] Ibid.,177.

[7] Ibid., 178.

[8] Sherene Suchy, “Emotional Intelligence, Passion and Museum Leadership,” Museum Management and Curatorship 18, no. 1 (1999): 60.

[9] Des Griffin and Morris Abraham, “The Effective Management of Museums: Cohesive Leadership and Visitor-Focused Public Programming,” Museum Management and Curatorship 18, no. 4 (June 2000): 335-368.

[10] Amy Whitaker, “Reconsidering People as the Institution: Empathy, Pay, Equity, and Deaccessioning as Key Leadership Strategies in Art Museums,” Organizational Leadership 64, no. 2 (April 2021): 257.

[11] Boyd, 177.

Fundraising Galas: Effective or Expensive?

As we enter another busy holiday season and close out 2022, many museums and non-profits are engaging in special fundraising projects to increase end-of-year giving. Among these development strategies is one that many museum professionals have come to know and even fear: the annual gala.

Fundraising galas, most popular during the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day, are one of the most popular and commonly used high-yield development projects. A well-executed gala not only brings in significant income—it also attracts media and drives public interest in the museum or charity hosting the event. Many of these events, such as the notorious Met Gala, are synonymous with wealth and popularity, but are they effective in creating economic stability for the host institution? It’s a complicated issue over which development and museum professionals are divided.

One could describe them the same way Winston Churchill famously described democracy: the worst option, except for all the other options that have been tried before.

Taylor Dafoe, ArtNET

Galas clearly create economic opportunities for those participating. During gala season, event planning agencies, furniture rentals, event venues, caterers, and entertainers experience a significance increase in business. Many museums and non-profits lack the operating capacity to achieve an event of such scope with their in-house resources, so they seek out community partners to pull of these fundraisers. This creates fantastic opportunities for collaboration, but often stretches the financial limits of the fundraising institution.

Best fundraising tactics stipulate that the cost for executing a gala should not exceed 30% of the income generated by the event; however, this is a budgeting goal that is oftentimes unrealistic, especially for nascent and small organizations. Galas come at a staggering cost to plan—a study for ArtNet reveals that some museums’ gala budgets exceed the total income brought in by their yearly admission sales. This ratchets pressure for museum staff to plan and execute an event that will surpass the steep investment.

Not only is the stress of planning a successful event a considerable burden for museum staff—it also often precludes them from completing their typical professional duties. This is especially true for smaller organizations, as development departments often cease other projects in the months leading up to the gala in order to complete the rigorous planning process. As seasoned fundraising professionals note, this can considerably negatively impact a museum’s overall fundraising success by derailing other significant revenue-generating projects.

In addition to apprehensions regarding the fundraising efficacy of galas, some professionals note the ethical dilemmas of such projects. Academics Philip Hackney and Brian Middendorf reveal that galas can potentially contradict the intentions and missions of the non-profit institution. Because these celebrations often focus on grand gestures of decadence, they may not represent the non-profit’s philanthropic values. This may be especially relevant for nonprofits dedicated to serving an economically disadvantaged population. 

In light of these arguments against the traditional gala fundraising model, some alternatives may point towards a more sustainable future. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many museums to forgo their annual in-person galas. Some institutions opted to host virtual events. While these events typically worked towards a reduced fundraising goal, the virtual nature also decreased overhead costs. Some nonprofits like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital also produce “no-go” galas, sponsored events with no in-person party. As fundraising professionals recognize, annual galas are attractive because of their abilities to drive large donations; however, museums can work towards this goal with other major gift campaigns that may require less investment of limited resources.

Overall, galas are a recognizable form of fundraising that increases visibility in the public eye and introduces museums to potential repeat donors. Museums should exercise caution, however, before pursuing such an event. Fundraising professionals recommend museums consult their boards and operations staff to determine feasibility and goals for such an involved project.

SOURCES:

Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University

Haunting Attractions for the Halloween Season

Agatha Wojciechowsky. American (born Germany), 1896-1986.
aw 0323, 1963.
Watercolor on paper.
Courtesy of the Collection of Steven Day, New York, NY

Image from the Minneapolis Institute of Art from the Supernatural America exhibit.

It only takes a few steps into a pharmacy or grocery in the month of October to see the impact of Halloween on the public. Aisles are filled to the brim with candy, fake spiderwebs, and gregarious costumes in anticipation of a raucous holiday season. As the town of Salem prepares for a record-breaking month of tourism, one thing is abundantly clear: mainstream interest in the occult, the scary, and the supernatural is stronger than ever.

Can this affection for the macabre manifest in the museum world? Is it possible to run exhibitions on the things that go bump in the night? Would people view a museum as the authority on the supernatural? In short, yes! Many museums have capitalized on the paranormal. Some institutions have featured supernatural themes in rotating exhibitions while others dedicate their entire exhibition capacity to allegedly haunted objects. For example, the recent traveling exhibit Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art enjoyed well-attended displays at the Toledo Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Speed Art Museum.

Of course, a bizarre and subversive topic like the supernatural lends itself to dramatic and otherworldly interpretations, with many institutions blurring the line between museum and haunted house. But rather than dismiss these unconventional museums for their unorthodox methods, we should approach them with curiosity—they are tapping in on an interest that is in high demand. If these institutions can generate excitement for visiting exhibits, they are making an invaluable contribution to the museum and historic house community.

Here are some haunting attractions to enjoy this Halloween:

Zak Bagan’s The Haunted Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada may look like a haunted mansion from the outside, but it holds hundreds of artifacts relating to true crime and the supposed supernatural. With thousands of positive reviews, it is clear that the Haunted Museum is providing an exciting and memorable visitor experience.

The Paranormal Museum in Ashbury Park, NJ is a popular roadside attraction in the New Jersey community. Combined with the Paranormal Books & Curiosities shop, the Museum is home to many haunted artifacts and ghost-hunting equipment.

Of course, historic Salem makes this list with the Salem Witch Museum, one of many occult museums and historic houses in this scenic New England town. At the Witch Museum, visitors can expect to learn about the origins and impacts of the Salem Witch Trials and will be encouraged to consider more modern iterations of this community-wide panic.

Image courtesy of Save Our Cemeteries.

No list of haunted attractions would be complete without mention of New Orleans. For those seeking a more interactive activity, a cemetery tour is the perfect fit. Explore the historic crypts and mausoleums of Orleans parish while learning about some of the cemetery’s most prominent residents. Tours conducted by Save Our Cemeteries, Inc are historically accurate and mutually beneficial—proceeds earned from tours are reinvested into the critical preservation of these historic landmarks.

Happy Halloween from the Tufts Museum Studies Program—we hope you have the happiest and safest of holidays!

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Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History & Museum Studies

Tufts University

Membership Models for the Modern Museum

For visitors seeking immersive exhibitions or riveting programming, memberships may seem to be the least exciting offerings at museums. That’s no surprise—without exhibits or programs, memberships would have little value to museum visitors. Internally, however, memberships can be one of the most integral components to a museum’s operations, and the structure of these programs can reveal the institutional priorities and value with which museums hold their members.

For museums with an established membership base, memberships can be a critical source of operating funds. Members are, after all, repeat donors. Other fundraising efforts often produce restricted funds that can only be used for specific projects (often exhibitions, programming, or DEAI), whereas unrestricted revenue allows museum leadership to apply the funds to other underfunded initiatives such as staffing or facilities maintenance. This study by Colleen Dilen shows just how large an impact members have. Many members are unaware that their support allows their museum to keep the lights on, so it is important that museums express their gratitude to their members.

Valuable benefits are critical to a sustainable membership program.

While acknowledgement letters and other expressions of appreciation are important means of recognizing members for their contributions, studies have shown that members feel more fulfilled by meaningful benefits such as museum shop discounts, complimentary admission, and members-only programming. These deliverables can come at a cost to museum operations, showing that membership programs are not just another method of donor cultivation, but a more involved investment into key community relationships. Many museums struggle to fund staffing positions that can dedicate sufficient time to membership, meaning these programs should be integrated into feasibility studies and strategic plans to ensure the development of a sustainable program.

The ideal membership program has options for both guests seeking affordable experiences and patrons seeking philanthropic opportunities. An interesting study by Audesh Paswan and Lisa Troy examines the many motivations of members, and museums must cater their levels to match these interests. Membership levels that are too expensive may alienate a significant portion of a museum’s audience, while too many low-cost options may not attract higher-level donors. Museums struggling to produce meaningful benefits should look into reciprocal programs, such as the North American Reciprocal Museum Association, that allow members to enjoy the benefits of museum membership beyond the walls of their host institution.

With the purchase of an admission ticket, Museum of Us visitors may seek complimentary membership for one year.

Many museums are experimenting with new models that may shape how we perceive museum memberships in the future. Some museums, like San Diego’s Museum of Us, have embraced a free membership program aimed at increasing accessibility and audience retention. Other museums, like the San Antonio Zoo, have launched monthly membership options. Similar to a Netflix subscription, these levels seek to increase giving by providing a more digestible alternative to annual membership fees.

Whether following a traditional model or offering more updated alternatives, museums offering memberships must continue to evaluate the efficacy and accessibility of their programs. Luckily, there are many professional development resources designed to inform museum staff of the latest strategies and theories in membership cultivation and retention. Those interested in learning more should visit the online resources provided by the American Museum Membership Conference and the American Alliance of Museums.

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Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University

My Home is a Museum: Balance

Layla Gabulova

Baku, Azerbaijan

For me one form of balance, is depicted on the Strength card which is the highest arcana of the tarot deck. It shows a woman who is taming a lion with her bare hands. The image stands for the balance of strength, wisdom and kindness. One needs to have inner strength to avoid break downs in sight of challenges. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain a healthy balance of forces, otherwise one will turn into a victim or a tyrant.

The characters and their actions also serve as symbolical representation of balance. The lion stands for human passions and fears, while the woman symbolizes awareness and the higher self. If the woman treats the animal with cruelty, the latter can cause unpredictable destructions. Thus, taming the lion needs strength and understanding, power of will and goodness. The infinity sign above the woman’s head, informs of her connection to supernatural. There needs to be a harmony of consciousness and subconscious.

 

Prashant Mishra

Pune, Maharashtra, India

“Mirror on the wall, here we are again through my rise and fall you’ve been my only friend”
When Li’ll Wayne says that in a song, I am reminded of this piece of balance hanging on my wall. Every day I wake up and right before I walk out into the world, it makes me stop and look for a second, doing away with any doubts about myself, assuring to walk out with confidence.

Then once you are through our day, it is the same you reflected in the mirror there. Knowing this brings me back to myself, overlooking the scars on the surface and bringing the focus back to myself. After all, when I look back at the reflection, I hear Wayne’s voice.


“I see the truth in your lies
I see nobody by your side
But I’m with you when you’re all alone
And you correct me when I’m looking wrong”

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