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Point of View: What Matters Most

Category: Museum Magazine
Oakland Museum of California’s longest-standing community advisory council has partnered with staff and community members for 26 years to present El Día de los Muertos cultural celebration, one of the museum’s most popular annual events. Odell Hussey

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

Accountability to our community means making changes from the inside out as well as from the outside in.

AAM’s initiative to enhance diversity and inclusion in board governance is called Facing Change. This prompts the fundamental question: What change must we actually face?

Clearly, museums must continue to face the imperatives of our country’s changing demographics and consider how our institutions reflect these changes through their boards, staff, collections, programming, and audiences. Are our institutions truly reflective of, and in service to, our communities? And if not, what are the broader and necessary changes that need to be faced and, perhaps more importantly, made? What are the profound and fundamental changes required in the way we operate at every level of the organization? And are we really ready to face these truths?

One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned over the past few years—both as a participant in the Facing Change initiative and in our museum’s work to advance anti-racism and equity—is the need to shift our thinking around the core concept of accountability. To whom are we as institutions most accountable?

Most often, I would argue, museum leadership has been most accountable to its donors and funders, driven by financial considerations and the urgent need for funding to accomplish our priorities, whether that is mounting an exhibition or acquiring a work for the collection.

Because boards often comprise our major donors, we typically hold ourselves most accountable to our trustees or board members. This notion of accountability centers extraordinary power within our boards, which we have clearly seen creates formidable barriers to inclusion and equity and has limited our ability to face change.

So facing change must involve transforming our thinking and practices about accountability. What if we were most accountable, truly most accountable, to our publics, and especially the members of our communities who have been traditionally left out of, or deliberately excluded from, museum participation?

Whose stories have been overlooked or under-valued by our museums? Who are we most accountable to when we have to make trade-offs or sacrifices due to budget limitations? While our museum certainly has a long way to go in answering these questions and embracing new notions of accountability, I believe that we are learning what it means to face this change and how accountability to our community means making changes from the inside out as well as from the outside in.

The Work Within

The first significant shifts in facing change and shifting accountability at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) began as they do in many institutions—with programming. Our museum has a decades-long tradition of working with community advisory councils, the most long-standing being the volunteer advisory council that has co-created our annual El Día de los Muertos celebration for the past 26 years. Through this annual event, our staff and a volunteer committee share authority, power, and accountability to convert OMCA to a sacred space for community gathering, honoring cultural traditions that for many years did not have a place in museums.

More recently, we have engaged in rigorous and deep community engagement practices in developing exhibitions, often collaborating with dozens of community members at every stage of the process. From the outset of exhibition planning, our staff and community members partner so that participants bring lived experience and personal impact to the stories that are shared in the exhibition. This work requires an enormous amount of trust-building, finding and defining the delicate balance between expertise, influence, and authority.

As we moved forward in the work of equity, inclusion, and anti-racism over the past few years, however, we’ve learned that the most profound change—and the most difficult—is internal. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, national protests in support of the Movement for Black Lives, and 15 months of closure, our board and staff have engaged in deep internal work that has called upon us to think very differently about accountability.

We’ve examined our decision-making processes, bringing to the forefront those most impacted by the decisions we make on everything from COVID protocols to approaches to staff restructuring and pay equity. While we traditionally made major institutional decisions within our executive team, we’ve now formed cross-functional teams to facilitate all major initiatives that include staff at every level and utilize staff surveys and other feedback mechanisms to gather broad staff input.

We’ve transformed our approach to budgeting, both in the substance of the budget as well as in the process itself, guided by our equity and social impact values. This spring, our CFO led more than a half-dozen full-staff sessions on the budget—making transparent every phase of our work, including the difficult budget trade-offs—and we incorporated key elements in the budget for which staff advocated, such as specific marketing dollars allocated to promoting our free and discounted admission programs.

The board, too, revised its trustee recruitment and onboarding process and experimented with new meeting and committee structures, utilizing the same community agreements for board meetings that we use for all staff and staff team meetings. We are also beginning to bring staff and board together around joint initiatives, such as anti-racism learning and training and socially responsible investing policies.

Rethinking Accountability

As distinct and sometimes incremental as some of these activities may appear, they share common and vital principles: the work of equity and inclusion happens in day-to-day organizational practices. These new practices call for a different definition of accountability that centers those most impacted, internally and externally.

A true shift to become a just organization requires more than diverse representation on the board, of staff, or in programming. It means examining and transforming the processes, policies, structures, and culture of an organization. It also means shifting the focus of accountability and the centers of power. This shift is not a one-time or short-term initiative. This work, and the accountability for it, must be ongoing and must become part of the organizational DNA.

Of course, our organization has a long journey ahead in this work. Personally, as a white leader who has benefitted from many long-standing museum structures and systems, I am particularly accountable and responsible for examining my own role in these systems and for taking meaningful action. I have undertaken my own learning journey to better understand how whiteness shows up in museums and in my leadership, and I strive to recognize and address my discomfort, whether that is disrupting typical hierarchies in decision-making or having difficult conversations with trustees about evolving long-standing processes.

As we learned through the Facing Change initiative, the work of equity and inclusion must start with the personal before it can move to the organizational and systemic. The museum field has taken way too long to hold itself to account. I believe this is what facing change is all about.

Tips for Facing Change

The work of “facing change” must be grounded in clear purpose and values.

Fundamental organizational change requires new understandings of accountability and a willingness to share power, authority, information, and decision-making.

Changing an organization’s relationship to the community requires changing the organization’s relationship to accountability and power, internally and externally.

Facing change means becoming a learning organization and requires personal as well as organizational humility, curiosity, and self-reflection.

Facing change means an ongoing commitment beyond the short term and must become part of the organization’s DNA.

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