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Speak the Truth and Point to Hope: An #AAM2022 Keynote by Sandra Jackson-Dumont

Category: Alliance Blog
Sandra Jackson-Dumont standing at a podium and gesturing with her hands

Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Director & CEO of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, opened the Organizational Culture focus area of the 2022 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo with her keynote “Speak the Truth and Point to Hope,” featuring a discussion with panelists Mikka Gee Conway, Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Officer and EEO Director of the National Gallery of Art, and Ben Garcia, Executive Director of The American LGBTQ+ Museum. Watch the full video or read a transcript below.



Announcer:

Please welcome to the stage Carole Charnow, AAM Board Member, Co-Chair of the AAM Local Host Committee, and President and CEO of Boston Children’s Museum.

Carole Charnow:

Aww, I have some fans. Welcome, everyone, to our final day together in Boston. It certainly went fast. The AAM Board of Directors, the AAM staff, and the Boston Local Host Committee sincerely hope that this conference and expo have filled you with inspiration and learning. I know it has for me. Let’s give a shout out also to Tim Ritchie and the hosts of last night’s wonderful party at the Museum of Science. I want to also give a round of applause and expression of heartfelt thanks to the incredible volunteers, local hosts, speakers, sponsors, vendors, and exhibitors, as well as the staff of the Boston Convention Center and our host hotels. I want to give a personal thanks to Laura Lott and the AAM staff. And I do want to say their names, the people that I have worked closely with: Eileen, Jennifer, Brooke, Kaitlyn, Dean, and Aesha. They have been absolutely amazing.

And I’m just going to go off script for a moment to just say a personal thanks to Laura and her leadership for helping to save our sector. As a CEO and all of you who have working in museums across the country, we know how hard this has been. And that funding from the government, and all Laura’s encouragement and support over the last two years, has really sustained us. It is remarkable how we are surviving, and we’re going to thrive. So thank you, Laura, for your tremendous leadership. And I couldn’t stop my thank yous without thanking my personal co-host, Charlayne Murrell-Smith, and the wonderful staff of Boston Children’s Museum, who’ve really supported this conference and allowed me to spend a lot of time with AAM. And thank all of you for coming all this way to Boston and making this convening a meaningful and memorable experience. So thank you so much for being here.

So today I have the pleasure of introducing our final keynote speaker, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Director and Chief Executive Officer of the new Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. She oversees all curatorial, educational, public, and operational affairs for the museum, including realization of an 11-acre campus in Los Angeles currently under construction. I can’t wait to visit it when it opens next year. Sandra comes to the Lucas Museum from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. She’ll be joined in discussion by two other distinguished museum colleagues, Ben Garcia, Executive Director of the American LGBTQ+ Museum, and Mikka Gee Conway Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Officer and EEO Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Certainly none of us can argue that the global pandemic has dramatically altered our workforces, our workplaces, and our work cultures. And as we begin to emerge from its shadow, and I certainly hope we do, our return to work planning and workplace strategies will be characterized what psychologists call stress-related growth that advances the flourishing of all our workplaces.

The study of SRG started in the 1990s and describes the potential positive results of traumatic stress, including resilience, coping skills, and closeness to others. That’s really good to hear because we’ve seen a tremendous amount of stress and trauma from both the pandemic and the racial reckoning of the past two years in our workplaces. Today’s conversation offers a re-imagining of our museum procedures, practices, and policies to ensure a safe, equitable, and more generous work environment. And as we depart the meeting today and return to work tomorrow, let us reaffirm in words and deeds that our greatest institutional assets are those who we work with and employ each day, who strive to deliver the best public service. Please welcome to the stage Sandra Jackson-Dumont to lead today’s conversation. Thank you.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Hello. Thank you. Hi. I feel like Steve Jobs. Maybe not. Okay. Hi. Hello, everyone. Good morning.

Audience:

Good morning.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Oh, come on. Good morning.

Audience:

Good morning.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Okay. I want to thank Laura Lott for her kind invitation and her incredible team, Dean, Kaitlyn, and Kaitlyn for their support in organizing this gathering. I am also grateful to speak on this land today. It is the unceded territory of the Massachusett, the Pawtucket, and their neighbors, the Wampanoag, and the Nipmuc peoples, who have stewarded this land for hundreds of generations. Please join me in paying respect to their elders and the people who are the custodians of this space, past and present.

Okay. Can everyone stand up for a second? Okay. So I hear you guys have been doing some deep thinking this week. No? No one’s been doing it? Okay. All right. We have some work to do then. Sounds like you guys have been doing some great thinking, and really happy to be gathered again together. And so one of the things that I like to do … And my team, who are amazing in the back, raise your hand. Woo-hoo! Lucas Museum. They are probably annoyed and tired of hearing this song, but I can never tire of this song.

And this is an incredible song by none other than Donny Hathaway. I’m not going to sing it, but we’re going to dance to it real quick. It’s called “Love, Love, Love.” And if you just listen to the words, I feel like we can apply these words to our institutional spaces. And so we’re going to just take maybe one and a half minutes or so, and then we’ll get into it. But for now, can you guys play this song? And you can turn it up really loud. It’s a conference, but it’s okay. We can pretend like it’s a club for a second. So I’m going to come down. All right. I see one museum director up here who can move. New Jersey in the house. All right. Are people going to dance? Really? No.

Donny Hathaway:

(singing)

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

(singing) I don’t generally dance. I dance all the time, but not onstage.

Donny Hathaway:

(singing)

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

(singing) Do you guys hear these words?

Donny Hathaway:

(singing)

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Okay. You can turn it down. Thank you so much. “I looked out into empty space, and all I saw was your sweet face.” Don’t you want people to see your institutions that way? Don’t we want, as individuals, to be seen that way? Hey, Kelly. Amazing, amazing, amazing. And so you guys have been working hard all week. I know there’s the intro Steve Jobs music, but then there’s that. Just very soulful reach-deep-into-your-spirit music that makes you feel like, “Wow. Why has it been so long since I connected to you?” Right?

So the title of this keynote panel is “Speak the Truth and Point to Hope.” It’s a phrase that I often use when talking about how we can say the thing that needs to be said and still be hopeful. When uncomfortable truths need to be shared, I often, but not always, but often, find people to be unwilling, afraid, or not brave enough, or not skilled enough to have the truthful conversation. I’ve had the good fortune to be joined … I am going to be joined by two amazing colleagues, Ben Garcia, who is the Executive Director of the American LGBTQ+ Museum.

Okay. He’ll be out in just one second, and you can clap again. And Mikka Gee Conway, who’s the Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Officer and EEO Director at the National Gallery of Art. Woo-hoo! So today we aim to speak and have a truly candid conversation about the practices, policies, and strategies that museums are implementing to foster organizational cultures in which we can thrive, we all can thrive. In essence, we will discuss how we can reframe museums for the present. By present, I mean now, now being active and nuanced, recognizing that there is always a now. In other words now is today, yesterday, and tomorrow. We will discuss the ways in which we can be dynamic, evolving and engaged institutions present in the world and of the world, a world that is at once of our time and nonetheless moored in histories and therefore context.

It is no secret that we are living in extraordinary times when hierarchies of all kinds are being challenged inside and outside of museums. The mere fact that we are gathered here together to consider how to speak the truth and to hope suggests a broad awareness that we are not simply going through a moment, but rather we are experiencing an ethical, social, and cultural seismic shift in our work and our practice. The world is moving. So the question is how will our institutions and our skill sets move with it? I don’t pretend to have a one-size-fits-all answer. I’m very skeptical of those kinds of folks. What we can do is take you into our practices, thinking, and experiences, our processes of thought that might be relevant to the work that you’re doing because the questions that we are grappling with as a group of three individuals are most likely very familiar or similar to the questions facing your institution and the people who make up the place where you work.

At the Lucas Museum, we are highly aware of being a part of a long trajectory of institutions that have changed the nature of art museums. I could mention the Victoria and Albert Museum, which sets the model for exploring creativity across the borders of art and design. There’s MoMA, which established a model for museums dedicated to the art of our time in all disciplines. There’s the Whitney, which was established on a national basis to champion American art and American artists. There’s the International Center for Photography, which was founded to collect, document, and teach about a single artistic medium. There’s The Studio Museum in Harlem, an institution dedicated to Black art and artists, which was founded a half century ago as a part of the extraordinary wave of culturally specific institutions. In each of these cases, spaces needed to be carved out, perceptions needed to be expanded, and the canon of art history needed to be reshaped, reordered, or just retooled in order to use language that actually was present in that moment.

Narratives, of which we are completely invested in at the Lucas Museum, are the stories we live with. For that reason, we believe that the perspective that people bring to artwork informs the meaning and significance of the narratives they convey. They inform how we view and understand the world, giving shape and character to real events, imagined realities, systems of power, even. Narrative art gives visual form to specific stories and the meanings they contain. The same is true for our everyday existence in the workplace. It has contours and shapes. And so today, amidst what we like to believe is the tail end of a global pandemic, we are radically addressing this. And so our work lives have been altered. And our work culture has pushed us to raise new questions and possibilities for creating more equitable and inclusive spaces. We’re here to have a candid conversation, so I’m not going to introduce them, and all of their accolades, and all the things that they do. But we’re going to spend time coming up on stage and having the conversation, so that we are going to have a discussion about how we create thriving cultures in our workplaces.

What does it mean to truly invade the intellectual oppression and white supremacist behaviors and practices and realities that buoy humanity and structural feed and freedom? What can we do to foster that? What skills and competencies are required to engender this? It does not happen by osmosis. It does not happen by one training. It does not happen because someone said so. But it happens because we do so. Today we are going to talk about that which gnaws at us and makes us feel a sense of urgency, that which prods us to speak the truth and point to hope. So please join me in welcoming my colleagues and co-conspirers in this conversation, Ben and Mikka. They also are fly. The shoes, check the sneakers. Come on up.

Okay. So we had an amazing conversation, and on the phone, and we tried to not talk ourselves out of this, meaning not talk ourselves out of coming here, but talk ourselves to the point where it doesn’t feel interesting and compelling with you all participating. So today the first question we should talk about is this conversation we had about trust and museums. Mikka, you brought up this notion of trust and the need for trust. And I’ll just start by saying when she said, “I think museums, we need to be able to trust them.” And she talked about this need for that. And I said, “Well, I think trust requires safety.” And I said, “It’s interesting. I generally don’t believe in safe spaces. I believe in safer spaces. I haven’t found a place where I felt completely safe yet.” And so Mikka and Ben and I had this awesome conversation. And so maybe we can let people into that discussion.

Mikka Gee Conway:

Well, I came to the National Gallery in September of 2020. So I onboarded during the pandemic. And it’s a place where I still … There’s still a lot of my colleagues of … We’re close to a thousand staff, I think, at the National Gallery. And there’s a lot of folks that I still have not yet met in person. We haven’t had everyone all back on site. But I’ve met a lot of people on Zoom. I’ve met many people in person. And in the conversations that we’re having, and some of the challenges that we face as an organization, as we try to change, one of the things that I think is in short supply is trust. And there’s a lot of lack of trust.

And like Sandra said, we need to make those spaces safer. But it’s hard to figure out how to do that when you don’t know people. And it’s so foundational. And it’s also tied in with this larger notion of museums themselves as being trustworthy. And I think at various times during this conference, people have cited the fact that museums rank very high on this trust scale. And I think sort of questioning why that is, and what museums need to do, and how they need to change to stay trustworthy is a big part of what we’re looking at, especially in jobs like mine.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Yeah. Ben?

Ben Garcia:

Yeah. I think what you were saying before, Sandra, about … I think workplaces aren’t safe for lots of people who come into them. And if you’re Black or brown, if you are queer, if you are coming from a background that doesn’t have generational wealth, there’s all kinds of ways, if you are identify as a woman and you’re gender non-conforming or transgender. And so I think for those of us who work in spaces and want to find trust, it’s with people, right? Not with organizations. So we don’t trust institutions, we trust people. And so as leaders of organizations, we need to build organizations that are full of trustworthy people. The way you become trustworthy is you look at your participation in structural oppression, in systematic racism, in systematic … All the -isms. Right? And so Stephen Weil is always quoted about museums moving from being about objects to being for people. And that was really focused on visitors. And we really need to extend that now in this moment, I think we’re all seeing, to the people who work within organizations. Because unless we’re for our people, we’re not going to be for other people.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Mm-hmm. Let’s spend a little time talking about that. We often build values based on visitors. Right? I even find that interesting. It’s like you’re visiting my home, as opposed to a user, if you will? And so maybe the two of you can talk a little bit about this notion of what it takes to do that. What does it take to actually build that kind of environment where the values are not only externally facing, but they’re internally facing, and they’re the same?

Mikka Gee Conway:

Right.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

I was telling them on the phone that my mother is from Mississippi. And I just quote her all the time, for better or for worse. And there’s this one she used to tell me when I was a child, “You know, when you’re picking your friends, just know that if they’re ugly on the inside, they’ll be ugly on the outside at one point.” It’s like whatever you do inside also spills outside at some point. Right? And so just make those the same and be consistent. And so maybe we can talk about what you were just saying, Ben, this idea that those need to be aligned. Right?

Ben Garcia:

Yeah, absolutely. Do you want to go?

Mikka Gee Conway:

Sure. One of my great dear colleagues, Sheila McDaniel, who’s out there in the audience somewhere, is always saying, “We got to walk before we can run.” And there’s a lot of, I think, excitement and enthusiasm around the idea of DEAI and what we can do to be more inclusive, and bring in new audiences, and diversify the collection. And all those things are fantastic, but we also need to treat our staff as one of our primary audiences. Right? And not have that daylight, like you said, between how we treat people inside and how we treat people outside.

And so I’m leading an initiative at the National Gallery called Workspace, where we’re really trying to interrogate our newly articulated values as a staff, and in small groups really reach a shared understanding of what those values mean, and how we’re going to behave towards each other in support of those values. Because we recognize, like Ben said, we’re an organization that’s made up of people who behave, and people do things, and people need to know each other and have some self-awareness. And so really we’re focusing very much on that as a start.

Ben Garcia:

Yeah. I know there’s a session later today on human-centered HR practices. And I’m really excited to sort of hear how that panel gets into this conversation a little bit more. But we have to think about the whole lives of the people who are coming and existing in our space. The model for our industry, for nonprofits generally, has been that people come. They give as much of their energy as we can extract from them, as much of their time as we can extract from them. And in exchange, they get a wage that does not meet their basic needs, and very little or no security upon retirement, or in that last part of their life. So until we look at the salary discrepancies in our field, we’re not going to be able to do this. We have to build this on people’s security.

We think of the Maslow hierarchy. We got to take care of those basic needs. And I was talking with the board of this new museum about this and talking, proposing a set of salaries for staff as we’re going to staff up. And a reasonable perspective that can come forward is, “Well, let’s make sure we’re looking at salary surveys across our industry and across nonprofits.” And I really want to push back on that. We don’t need consultants to come and do salary surveys, because salary surveys only show us the current situation. And that current situation is not equitable. If you are a person who doesn’t come from generational wealth, you need to pay your rent. You need to pay your student loan. You need, depending on where you live, $500, to $750, $1000 a month to cover your basic costs. We want you to put a little money in savings. And we want you to put money in retirement.

Minimum wage in New York, I don’t need a survey to tell me. I can do the math. You need to make $75,000 at a minimum in New York City in order to do those five things. So that’s where we pitched our minimum wage. And I think all of us get really nervous and turn to consultants. And listen, I will hire consultants, day and night. I love the work that consultants do for organizations. But in this particular instance, I don’t need a consultant to let me know what I see directly in front of me, which is the real situation of real people who are working. And we want to diversify this field. And we want it to be a place that works for people who don’t come from generational wealth. And we want people to be able to know that at the end of their life, they’re going to be secure. Right?

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Yeah. So I think this is going to be such an amazing panel that I know people want to clap every time Ben and Mikka speak. But if we could just stand up and do one big cheer at the end, we’ll get even more of these tidbits in. This generational wealth piece really strikes the court with me, in that I’ve been at several institutions, either have been privy to conversations or myself been someone who is just like, “Oh, so we’re all going to take a 10% pay cut,” during this moment where we actually are at a certain level of the institution, those of you that are at this level or above, you’re going to need to … We are all going to just … It’s just like, “We’re all going to go grab a glass of water. We’re all going to take a 10% pay cut.”

And I was talking with my colleagues here about this. And I’ve said this in other forums, that while I might have been at a particular level in the organization, I also don’t come from possibly the same place that the other people that share that landscape sit within. And so I don’t come from generational wealth. I’m the main provider in certain spaces in my family, as is my husband. And so my dollars are different, say, than someone else’s. So this notion of generational wealth is not a topic that we talk a lot about in institutions. And oftentimes, those conversations are reserved for particular levels of the organization.

Actually, we just talked about this the other day. And we were having a conversation, and this came up. And I brought up the generational wealth piece because I don’t find that, even in a leadership space, we have those discussions. So I think it’s an important piece to talk about. I also think we should stop giving ourselves carrots, or not carrots, certificates for making whatever the basic minimum wage is. Right? I think it’s an important thing to talk about how we do not do something else in order to actually make sure that our teams are taken care of. And so I think, Ben, what you’re doing is very courageous. And I think it’s a really important factor. And I hope that resonates with a lot of folks because it’s an imperative. So-

Mikka Gee Conway:

Can I …

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Yes.

Mikka Gee Conway:

… just add, I think another thing that’s really important is that at an organization, and especially the bigger your organization gets, that you have got ways for people to advance. And not necessarily advancing just within the organization, but that they’re growing, that you’re giving them opportunities to grow and learn as a professional and gain the skills and competencies that they need to advance their career, wherever it may be, whether it’s at your museum or to go somewhere else because that sort of constant growth and prioritizing the development of the staff, I think, is another way that we can help people get to the point where they are making a salary that they can live on.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Yes, and this is real. I think that we often feel like the person has to grow exponentially at our sites. And we have this false sense that the art world and the cultural world has produced that someone has to be an intern. Then they become a coordinator. Then they become a blah, blah, blah. And then they become the director. And then they’re on the board. And then they leave all their money to the institution. It’s kind of like that has happened at on … That has never happened for me. But I also think that that’s happened at certain kinds of institutions that, it’s not even that structure is in place, it’s also that in order for that to happen, you also have spent such significant time there that you’ll have the inside track. You know what I mean?

I mean, we really have to talk about this in a very different way when we’re talking about staff growth. So I tell people all the time, “If there’s not a position that we have, I can help you find a job somewhere else.” That is an actual gift that we can use to activate our networks. We oftentimes don’t think of things that way. And so I think that’s a really helpful thing that you’re talking about. All right. So how about how our budgets reflect our values and morals? So we talked a little bit about how transparency can also apply to how we allocate our resources. What does it mean to pay? You just talked about a livable wage for workers. But let’s talk a little bit about the budgeting, where dollars go, what that means, what that signals.

Ben Garcia:

I think if we go back to Stephen Weil, being about objects or for people, and think about where we put our money, do we put our money in the people in our organization? Or do we put them in support of the collections, or the artifacts, or the cultural resources that we have? I think, to your point, a budget is a moral document. And I think, for big organizations, I’m excited to be the leader of this new organization and this growing organization. I know there’s many people in this room who are thinking, “Well, that can work for the American LGBTQ+ Museum,” because right now we’re a staff of two. Hi, Lucy. And we’re going to be bringing three on this year, and then four more. So look out for our jobs.

But this is something that we were implementing at the Ohio History Connection as well with 250 staff. And you just have to understand that you’re not going to get there in one year. But the transparency that you use with your team is to say, “We’re taking this seriously. We’re creating a process. We’ve got a goal, which is to get you an equitable situation. And we’ve done the analysis based on our realistic revenues and expenditures. And that is going to take us x-number of years.” Maybe that’s three years. Maybe that’s four years. That’s not going to help anyone in the moment necessarily. But it is going to help them understand what you’re doing. And so that’s the transparency.

I think many of us get these salary surveys, and then we sit on them for months because we’re so freaked out by what the results of them are. We need to just start … Don’t be scared to communicate. Just start with the communication, and people will go with you. They’ll understand your reality and your situation. But there’s something else to think about too. Are you willing to do one or two fewer changing exhibitions a year in order to move resources from that area of your organization, to your people? You have to be willing to take a step back in certain places to move forward the equity. And you’re not going to do both at once. And you can’t tell the staff, “Well, we still need to be doing this. And so it’s going to take 10 years to get there.” That’s not reasonable. So I think those are some of the decisions that we have to make in large institutions, as well as in small.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

And so we all know that there’s restricted funds. You can’t move these funds for this. I can see the whole slew of directors being like, “You know we can’t do that.” And so there are other ways to do it and keep it top of mind. Right? So let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about museums as sites for discourse, and being in and of the world. We have recent culture wars. There’s Roe vs. Wade. There’s all kinds of things. There’s how people stood up, or stood back, or participated in tweets, and posts, and letters, et cetera. Let’s talk about museums as places and vehicles for discourse, and dialogue, and the comfort levels, and how that’s tied to equity, and that’s tied to race in class. So let’s just talk about that.

Mikka Gee Conway:

I’ll say, again, having started at my museum when I did and having the museum be closed for a lot of that time, a lot of this has been internal. Right? And what I’ve been focused on is thinking about it internally, and in the wake of events like what happened in Buffalo. When you want, as leadership or as the Chief Diversity Officer or just as a colleague, to be supportive of your colleagues and the people who are hurting, but finding it very hard, again, in these big structures where we don’t really know each other and they don’t have that trust, that there’s a great deal of discomfort around that. And also lack of skills. We talked about the skills and competencies that we need to move our museums forward. And I think holding an emotional space for your colleagues is not something that we’re all very well trained to do. So again, I think it goes back to trust and skill building before you can even have, sometimes, these discourses. Again, walking before you run, at least for us, where at the gallery where I feel like we have more work to do around that.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Okay.

Ben Garcia:

Yeah. We are all representing institutions that exist in states where women’s reproductive rights and LGBTQ people’s lives are pretty guaranteed to be protected by state governmental structure, at least for the foreseeable. But many of our colleagues are working in states where educators are not allowed to talk about the real issues that are going on, the real experiences of Black and brown people, the real experiences of queer people. And they’re not allowed to address the reproductive and health choices that women need to make.

As museums, we need to be there to step up. We need to step up and be there for our colleagues who are facing those issues, and all of a sudden are now living in a place that feels much more hostile to their lives than it even did a few months ago. We need to be there for the educators and those across the state who are now trying to grapple with this muzzling of truth. And those of us who are in states where that has not yet become a reality, or where the state legislatures aren’t trending that way, need to figure out ways to support our colleagues in those other states.

But even in New York, right, we had front facing staff attacked by a visitor with a knife. We are dealing with a population nationwide that is at the edge of its sort of mental wellness. And it is our front-facing staff, and the lowest-paid people in our institutions, who are feeling the brunt of that. And I hear so many leaders say, “I can’t wait to get the staff back to the organization. I can’t wait to see people here. I hate walking through the offices and not seeing people.” And it’s like, yeah, but that’s because mostly, we, I, am hanging out in the offices and not upfront.

And so we just need to recognize that the human-centered policies that came up as a result of this pandemic are the best policies ongoingly. It’s just like the best accessible design is the best design for everyone. These policies where we actually realize we need to accommodate the whole lives of people due to the global pandemic are the best ones for everyone. So we really need to pay attention and connect with our colleagues who are in these states where these laws are getting passed. And we should be talking within our institutions about how we can support their work if they’re not allowed to do it.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Yeah. Thank you for that. I’m sitting here thinking about how the pandemic heightened so many things that were already in existence. And I’m struggling with our field consistently acting like it happened in the pandemic. You know? These things were existing for quite some time. The number of times … When in my twenties, I was confronted by museum visitors who felt that I should do A, B, and C. You know? And so it’s not only about how do we protect staff, and also protect some people that are coming to our institutions from some of our ill-equipped staff? Which, I have to say, is there’s a preponderance of that.

Ben Garcia:

Yes.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

And so maybe we could have a little bit of a discussion also about through HR, through DAIB. I love the belonging that’s actually finally found this place in this work. Maybe we can have that. We’ve been nice so far in the conversation. Let’s just go there.

Mikka Gee Conway:

We are being recorded, Sandra.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Yeah. Huh?

Mikka Gee Conway:

We are being recorded.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

I know we’re being recorded. She’s serious too. I know. And I know that too. But how do we actually have the … Maybe that happens in the session after, in small group work. But how do we have the conversation about the ways in which we have to build a staff that is not only competent to talk about the basics of line, form, figure, foreground, middle ground, and background, the history of a work of art? They can have a conversation about Artemisia Gentileschi, but not necessarily about Kerry James Marshall or Kara Walker. Or one can have a conversation about Fragonard, but not necessarily Fill-in-the-Blank. How do we have these discussions? And what skills and competencies are truly necessary? Let’s just name some of them so that we are putting some names on some of the things that are necessary for us to actually become the institutions we’ve been talking about for the last two years, as opposed to acting like what was before was normal.

Mikka Gee Conway:

Mm-hmm.

Ben Garcia:

Yeah.

Mikka Gee Conway:

Mm-hmm.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Because that wasn’t normal. How many of you feel like the before was normal? Maybe pieces of it were. Pieces, maybe. And so let’s talk about that a little bit. What skills do we need to be the places that we described just now as wanting to be?

Mikka Gee Conway:

I think one really important trait is emotional intelligence, which is closely tied to empathy, but being able to read what another person is doing or feeling, or understanding what’s motivating them, and how to reach them, how to make your position legible to them, and also humility. I think those are probably two of the … For me.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm . Mm-hmm.

Ben Garcia:

Yeah. I would add to that, courage. And one of our board members passed recently, Urvashi Vaid, who was an incredible activist throughout her entire career for an intersectional approach to queer liberation, really understood that liberation for one group is predicated on liberation for all, and was often the only woman of color in the activist space because of the white supremacy of the LGBTQ+ liberation movement, which is true of all liberation movements, which is true of all culture. So the courage that she modeled is the courage that we all need to have as leaders. This panel, “Speak the Truth and Point to Hope,” that encapsulates it perfectly.

When our legal counsel, or our board chair says, “Let’s not put that DEI policy into our bylaws because that language is going to be … Let’s just rework this for the third time,” hello, I’m looking at someone out there, “Because like that language isn’t going to quite fly with our board.” That’s where we, as leaders, we need the courage of our convictions. And we need to say, “Yeah, the legal standard is the minimal standard. Minimum wage is the minimum standard. Is that how we want to live? Is that how we want to be?” If we’ve learned anything in this pandemic, it’s that now that we’re stepping into a different way of being, we need to make it count. And we need to make it count for everyone. And that’s not about minimums. And that’s not about caution. We need to be courageous.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Yeah. Thank you for that. I think it’s also interesting to, maybe in addition to all that you all said, and I’m not being flippant when I say this, I do think the reading competency and comprehension, and treating this work that we’re talking about as a basic skill … It’s basic. I know how to check email. I know how to check this. I didn’t learn, you all didn’t learn what you’re doing, by osmosis. You actually are very well-read people in this field that have studied. And there’s entire bibliographies on how to do all of these things, emotional intelligence. Even if you’re at the airport, there’s that little roundabout bookstore at the airport where it’s like Harvard Business Review and it’s like Emotional Intelligence. I picked that up yesterday. That was … Yeah.

But it is there. I guess the thing that I’m trying to say is, I think oftentimes when we’re talking about objects, we become extremely well-read. When we’re talking about certain things, we read a ton. But when it comes to talking about some of these other areas of work, it’s kind of ancillary. I love the fact that colleagues in education and in programming, particularly education and youth development people really, really … It’s a requirement of your work to do this. It truly is.

Okay. So next thing. And this was a question that was presented to us as something that we felt that was really, really important to talk about. What has the pandemic work from home done to the workforce? And then the second part of that. Will we be in the same room together ever again? Yes, we are. But a lot of us are in conferences and activities, but we’re not back in the office every day. And so what does that take? What does that look like? And how does that affect place based organizations who need staff on site without further exacerbating the frontline staff, and everyone else gets to work from home in their pajamas? So let’s talk a little bit about that and the impact of that, this moment. Mikka, you had something to share.

Mikka Gee Conway:

Well, I think that the work from home, one of the things that it’s done, at least for me, is it’s really underscored the need for connection, and however that may happen. And I’m old. And I’m old-fashioned. So I don’t yet know really what that looks like outside of in-person, everyone’s in the office all the time. I think we’re all learning. I mean, everyone is. Corporations, universities, museums, we’re all trying to figure this out. But I think it’s trying to figure out what is, when you need to be … There are certain functions we know need to be in the museum. You can’t guard the galleries from home, for example.

But for everyone else who does have portable work, how do you make the time in the office meaningful, right? What are the kinds of things that can only happen on site? And that’s going to look different for every organization and for different size organizations. But balancing that with also, especially at a big organization like the National Gallery, wanting to give each team and each work group autonomy to figure out what works best for them, right? It may not be that everybody should be there on Wednesday across the board. That might not be what that team needs. But it’s a real struggle. That’s what we’re spending a lot of time talking about right now. I don’t have the answer. But I think people need to connect. They still need to know each other, no matter whether they’re working from home or on site.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Ben?

Ben Garcia:

Yeah. Sandra, you were talking a little bit before this session about when people ask you what the workplace culture is at The Lucas. And it’s like, “How do we …?” I mean, we don’t know what the work … We know what the workplace culture on Zoom is. [inaudible] We know what the workplace culture is of these meetings we have. And I think all of us, whether we’re a new organization starting up, or whether we’re an established organization that has had two and a half, two years, of our interactions very deeply affected by what we’re all going through, we really are in this incredible moment.

This is a point to hope moment where we get to decide what we want that workplace culture to be. We get to, together, maybe co-create that with our staffs and then look for ideas and ways that we can build toward that, where people are working in all different ways. Right? I’m so proud of my colleagues at the Ohio History Connection during the pandemic, when we made the decision to resource childcare significantly for staff because all of us saw the pressures on parents during the pandemic. And like you said, those pressures on parents were different during the pandemic, but they existed before. They had just as much needed that support before as they do now. So we’ve figured out some good things together during this pandemic. And so let’s make this the topic, right, and figure this out together. Because our team knows what they want the culture to be. So we get to listen and lead that.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. So can we talk also about how we position these values? Right? And so we know that oftentimes values are not … They’re not resourced. They just are.

Ben Garcia:

Yeah.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Have you guys ever felt that?

Ben Garcia:

Mm-hmm.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

It’s like there’s the mission, vision, values, and then there’s tactics for those of us that are working on strategic plans, et cetera. And tactics and things like that are resourced. But values oftentimes don’t get resourced. They just kind of are. They’re osmosis stuff. You know? It’s just in the air. Kind of like over the years, diversity, equity, inclusion, all that stuff is just kind of in the air. You just learn it. You just get it. Right? And so maybe we can talk a little bit about the intentionality around resourcing values. Because that’s what we’ve been talking about here.

Ben Garcia:

Yeah.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Right? The deficit around resourcing values.

Ben Garcia:

Yeah.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

So how do we get there? What kind of messaging do we need to share to get there?

Mikka Gee Conway:

One, I think foundationally, having a shared understanding of what the values mean. Right? Because they are very … Like, for example, the National Gallery, you’ve got empathy. You’ve got excellence, for example, which can be a very loaded term. Right? So reaching an institutional sort of shared understanding about what we mean by those things. Because I think without that you’ve got different people who have different perceptions. You’ve got the potential for them to be weaponized against different groups, if you don’t agree with my definition of empathy, for example. So getting to a shared understanding of that and how you’re going to behave to further that value. And then I think the way you weave it through is when you look at the tactics, and what are the things you’re going to do, and those are the things that get resourced, you choose them based on how well they demonstrate the shared understanding of the values, right? You should be looking at every project or every priority to see, “How well is this advancing the vision, the mission? But where are the values going to be demonstrated in that project?”

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Ben Garcia:

Yeah. I think I think what you’re pointing to, Sandra, is the way in which values feel like they’re applied to … They’re so surface, and they’re about sort of an outward articulation, and they’re not deeply authentic. And I think they make our board members feel good, and they make some of the team feel good. But everyone who works in an organization, the value statements, they just annoy us if they’re not backed up by what we’re seeing happen in the workplace. Right? And that is going to be projected out. And that’s the same with our communities.

And so unless we start internally, to your initial point, and take care of the real whole people within our space, people outside of our space are not going to feel like we actually are invested in them. It is every institution has the ability to prioritize their values through their budget. Micah Parzen, my former boss, was one first person who sort of articulated to me that idea that if it doesn’t have a line item, it’s not a priority. So where’s your line item for your values? Maybe redo your budget and have those be the categories and those be the lines, along with the other lines.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Yeah. So that’s really what I’m getting at. How do you resource empathy? I’m pausing for emphasis there. Did you feel that? Yeah. How do you … Even excellence? You know? How do you resource these things? Does it mean certain kinds of trainings? Does it mean access to certain kinds of people? Does it mean mentorship? What does it mean? Because when we think about coaching, oftentimes, it’s like the person with the problem gets the coach. Not it’s just, “You just have coaching at your disposal.”

Ben Garcia:

Yeah.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

“Oh, you want to go to this training?” But coaching is different. Right? And so how do we actually start to think with a different type of intentionality? I love the idea, this idea of empathy as a line item. I’d love to see how board members respond to that. Yeah. And there could also be, as a part of professional development for the board, empathy, excellence, all these kinds of things as well. All right.

Ben Garcia:

Well, Sandra, I think what you had said before about the kinds of groundings and education that we expect for our team members when they come into our organizations, and the things that we don’t look for. So you sort of started that idea. It’s like they’ll know a lot about the field, history, science, child development, whatever it might be. If we’re not requiring people to have done anti-racist training or decolonizing training, we at least need to provide that. We need to make sure that they know that that’s equally important, in terms of their development, if they want to work in this organization.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Absolutely.

Ben Garcia:

That’s something that we can help them do because we know our educational systems aren’t currently structured to provide that. Right?

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Exactly. You know-

Mikka Gee Conway:

And I think also-

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Go ahead.

Mikka Gee Conway:

… being intentional about hiring for those skills, for skills around that would make someone able to develop staff, and sort of ripple that out, and being more intentional about those, the qualities that we’re looking for when in addition to the expertise and the experience. But again, back to that emotional intelligence and that growth mindset that you want to see in everyone you’re bringing into your organization, and certainly the people you’re hiring or promoting into management positions.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Mm-hmm. I live for the day where we treat these things we’re talking about as the skill, and competency, and a part of the job expertise.

Ben Garcia:

Yeah.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

I don’t know why we don’t. It’s like, “Wow, you treat people poorly. But you’re excellent at writing.” What is that? You know what I mean? A lawsuit, maybe? I don’t really understand that, right? How do you actually … We live in a world where this is where we are. And so to treat people poorly in the workplace is to actually create a vulnerable organization if you’re the person that really only thinks about the institution. So it’s a very interesting proposition to think differently about what it means to form a job. What does it mean to actually look at that? Okay. I think the last question … The timer’s not on to tell me when to stop, so I’m just going to keep going. But the last question I have is what is the most urgent thing you think we can be talking about when it comes to speaking the truth and pointing to hope in the workplace? Or at cultural institutions? Doesn’t even have to just be in the workplace. Our presence in the world.

Mikka Gee Conway:

I think it’s been said already, but it’s the human-centeredness. Even for an art museum or a collecting organization, you have the collections for a reason. They’re a tool to serve people. So I think this really relentless focus on human centering everything that we do.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Everything that we do be human-centered. Okay.

Ben Garcia:

Yeah. I do think that there’s so much urgency when we look at what’s going on in culture, in society, in our organizations. But I do think that is a full-circle question, right? Where it goes back to what Mikka was talking about with trust. So start by how do you build trust within … We know how to build trust in systems, right? Privacy makes sense. Secrets are bad for systems, right? We have to get rid of secrets and talk about why certain things are private, right? And we have to have a conversation about whether that makes sense to people. People, we just need to build trust within our groups that we …

A lot of our institutions made decisions to lay off lots of people during the pandemic. And those who were laid off went to other institutions maybe and feel the real trauma of that. And those who remained feel the uncertainty and the trauma of being the people who stayed behind. That was a process that was done very quickly in many institutions. Not in thoughtful conversation. Not with us being really explicit about our process for making those decisions. We have had this enormous breach of trust within our, museum families, our workplace families. So we have to start by rebuilding that, being humble, as Mikka said, acknowledging that in some instances we messed that up. And, “This is what was happening, and this is what we commit to moving forward.” So, yeah.

Sandra Jackson-Dumont:

Yeah. This notion of trust is a deep one. And we can, I think, end on that. Mikka, you said the trust deficit is at the center of the difficult things we are trying to deal with, when we’re on the phone. It’s a great quote, “the trust deficit”. I find it to be an important bit of conversation, particularly because it’s not just about the folks that are working in our institutions, just the infrastructure, the history of museums, as a structure, the history of cultural organizations as entities are wrapped in this notion of distrust for certain kinds of folks. We’re on display. There’s a whole history. Colonialism, pillaging, and pulling, and all those kinds of things.

And so I think it’s an interesting opportunity for us to think about how trust actually is one of the greatest currencies we need to analyze because without it, on some level, it’s not even that people have to trust you. They just kind of need to like you a little bit. You know? A lot of our research that I feel like I’ve participated in across institutions has been around, “How do you feel when you come to this institution?” Or, “Why don’t you come to this place?” Or, “What did you like and didn’t like?” And oftentimes, pages and pages and pages of research gets narrowed down or boiled down to they didn’t feel welcome. They didn’t feel welcome. And the reality is that a lot of people … I mean, people care about being welcome. But I don’t feel welcome as certain stores I go to. You know? I don’t feel welcome. However, I go there because I want the thing that I want to get. Those shoes, that bag, that sandwich, that whatever. And so I take the risk of feeling not welcome.

The reality is that oftentimes people don’t choose us or they don’t trust us because they just don’t like us. They don’t like how we’re behaving in the world. And so I think what you were talking about is, from a trust point of view, is super central to how we need to think about unpacking it moving forward, so that we humanize our places. The words that we’re using to describe institutions are very personal and human. And so I think at the center of this is this notion of if we’re going to speak the truth and point to hope, we need people to at least like us a little bit, imagine being in some kind of relationship with us, seek love with us, and dare I say, love, love, love. So I want to say thank you all for joining me for this conversation.

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