Wednesday, December 17, 2008

When Is It Time To Leave?

At what point does the museum professional decide that their career, sanity, and valued time outweigh their commitment to the success of a single institution? The time to leave may be simply when the battle has been long and hard fought, and there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel for this particular institution. Your life and talents might be better spent some place else.

In the past year I have witnessed, albeit on the outside looking in, some of the skirmishes and full-fledged wars between directors and their boards. At last year’s NEMA conference I attended a “seminar,” that may have been more appropriately named museum melodrama, that seemingly brought one museum professional’s ongoing twenty plus year battle with the powers that be at an historic state building, which includes art and objects dating back to the 17th century, to the level of tragedy ( Names have been avoided so as not to exasperate an already volatile situation). The presenter nearly broke down several times while imparting the details of her battle, as its official caretaker, with her “board” and state officials seemingly apathetic and unresponsive to her pleadings for added funds. She has worn many hats in her capacity as director and has bounced back and forth between full and part-time status over the course of two decades in her devotion to this cause. I have to ask myself whether her seeming martyrdom for this collection is justified?

She, like so many museum professions, will never receive the recognition they deserve. Such sacrifices are a given of the profession, but when the fun, enthusiasm, and reasonable financial compensation are gone its time to leave and find a place where you are once-again reminded of how much you love working in a museum. This professionals own seemingly hopeless plight was further evidenced by the fact that one of her board members had chosen to come to the conference, attend this particular seminar, and sit directly in front of her, as she proceeded to air the institution’s dirty laundry. The “board” member introduced herself as having a “different” purpose in attending this seminar and conference than other attendees in the room, including myself, in that she was here “to hear the complaints” of this director.

I had to ask myself had this particular director done all that she could do, if one of her board had to come all this way to hear her complaints? To be fair, this particular board member seemed empathetic to the museum director’s challenges on some points, and this was indicated when she directed her to elaborate on the issue of a leaking roof, its threat to an important mural in the collection, and that this was merely one of many impending threats this director faced on a regular basis.

Given the obvious tension in the room between these two women, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to deal with this for decades? What had been a seminar entitled “College & University Museums: Professional Affinity Group Museums within Larger Institutions” turned out to be, in this particular case, a venue to cry on the shoulders of fellow museum professions, and future professionals, who experience problems in various degrees at their own institutions. This is par for the course. Signs of the attending audience’s irritation were obvious; several skulked out of the room while others stood their ground and rolled their eyes periodically or sighed aloud so that everyone could hear. There were also some whose sympathy extended to some great suggestions in the Q & A portion of the “presentation.” Someone suggested that it was futile to remind the powers that be that this collection is part of every citizen’s cultural heritage and worthy of greater financial attention.

This insightful audience member reminded us that this director’s superiors were elected officials who were given the responsibility of finding funds for this state collection’s preservation during their term of office and who also appointed board members to oversee its maintenance on a more immediate level. She further clarified that politicians only respond to larger constituencies that jeopardize votes and hence their political survival, so this particular director’s pleadings alone are and would always be futile. She suggested turning the situation against her unsupportive board and, ultimately, a political administration responsible as its caretaker by both surveying a public and making the fact that this collection, which has long served to educate school children on field trips and outreach programs, is in jeopardy of deteriorating through financial neglect. This might incite parents to contact these politicians and voice concern. An exhibition about this collection’s positive influences on succeeding generations of citizens, through testimonies, oral histories, etc., might serve the cause.

If this director has reached a point where she is consumed by her own complaints and the futility of her own actions in accomplishing what she needs to accomplish, then it’s time to pack it in and move on. The institution itself might benefit from someone new at the helm. The resigning director might find a new cause, a new museum, and invigorate her own career. Of course, someone who has been entrenched in one institution in a community for more than twenty years has much of their life invested to simply walk away. Advocating such a response is rooted in the believe that the future of the only life we have and finding greatest happiness we can in it supercedes all and hustifies taking risks, periodic change, and life reassessments. People are living longer and healthier lives than ever, and that has inevitably meant that we can reinvent ourselves, have more than one career, learn more in a lifetime, accomplish more than we ever thought, if we allow ourselves to do so. “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” In this case, after twenty years, for this particular director, it’s time to run.

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