Participants in a MANY Meet Up discuss questions based on the book Change Is Required at the Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College. Erika Sanger, MANY’s Executive Director, is seated at right.

By Erika Sanger, Executive Director, Museum Association of New York

In April of 2022, I was invited to provide a promotional endorsement for the book Change Is Required: Preparing for the Post-Pandemic Museum, edited by Avi Y. Decter, Marsha L. Semmel, and Ken Yellis and published by Rowman & Littlefield as part of the AASLH Book Series. When the manuscript arrived, I placed the stack of pages at the center of my desk, anticipating an engaging and thoughtful read.

The note that accompanied the invitation said that the collection of essays would empower readers to “address the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, economic dislocation, and social protest and stimulate new thinking about the future directions of museums in America.” The powerful voices held within that stack of papers lifted me to a place of hope for the future of museums beyond the struggle, loss, and injustice that we heard from thousands of museum professionals during and in the wake of the pandemic.

About a month later, with passages of the manuscript covered in highlights and Post-Its, I submitted the endorsement. Serendipitously, that same week, the New York State Council on the Arts announced a “Regrowth and Capacity Enhancement” grant opportunity. Inspired by Change is Required the Museum Association of New York (MANY) submitted a grant application for a discussion series for New York’s museum community. Although MANY was able to hold its 2022 annual conference with COVID-restricted attendance limitations, and virtual programs that reached over 3,000 of people in 48 states and eight countries, MANY staff had not been able to travel and gather colleagues in each of New York’s ten economic development regions for “Meet Ups.” Before March of 2020, these small group discussions offered attendees the opportunity to learn about the work their colleagues were doing at museums in their region and helped create a sense of community. These “Meet Ups” were sorely missed, and the issues and challenges addressed in Change is Required were an ideal place to restart MANY’s statewide, in-person programs. The application was favorably reviewed and MANY was granted the requested funding.

The program goals were to create a safe space that could spark hope for change and help people understand they were not alone in facing the lingering effects of the pandemic. We faced two challenges 1) how to distill dozens of essays into thoughtful questions and 2) how to generate honest feedback to those questions in a room where museum directors would be at the same table as curators, educators, and visitor services staff representing the widest possible range of museum disciplines and budget sizes in the region in which their museum was located.

With her knowledge of current field-wide issues and her well-stocked tool kit of technological skills, Megan Eves, MANY’s Assistant Director for Programs and Communication, and I decided to use the Google tool Jamboard to gather feedback to four questions:

  1. If you were to open a museum tomorrow, beginning from scratch, and you had enough resources to get you through the first five years with time and money not an issue, what would you prioritize?
  1. What is at the center of what you need for your collections, exhibitions, community partnerships, or human resources?
  1. If almost everything at your museum had to change, what is one thing you would want to keep that is at your museum now?
  1. If almost everything at your museum had to remain the same, what is one thing you would want to change that is at your museum now?

We start each program with introductions and a brief update on MANY activities before discussing Change is Required. We then take 10 minutes for people to respond anonymously to the questions on the Jamboard platform. We project the Jamboard onto a screen so that attendees can immediately see responses and people who don’t feel comfortable speaking up can equally participate. 155 people have attended the six “Meet Ups” held between February and the end of June this year. With a small group of people and the right technological tool we created the safe space we were seeking for the discussion. Six more “Meet Ups” will take place between August and November, one as part of a gathering sponsored by the Long Island Museum Association and another will be included in MANY’s 2023 Rethinking Leadership program at The Museum Institute at Great Camp Sagamore.

As many of the authors in Change is Required passionately relay in their essays and in the thoughts shared in our discussion, people are at the center of the changes that museum professionals are seeking. Comments about needing a larger and more diverse staff, equitable salaries and benefits, and access to training and professional development dominate the conversation. Attendees add notes to the Jamboards about changing museum core values to include diversity, equity, access, inclusion, and justice as well as audience engagement to inform exhibition and program development. Funding challenges, informed leadership, and the need to create realistic actionable plans with measurable goals were raised in each discussion as well as the need to not only invest in staff, but in current technologies and capital funding to secure the physical structure of the museum. Capital funding opportunities for museums in New York lag greatly behind need. In New York 42% of museums are housed in historic buildings, 27% in historic structures with landmark status, 20% in buildings that were repurposed for museum use, and only 15% in purpose-built spaces. We end each discussion by giving away a copy of Change is Required and encourage people to purchase the book to keep exploring and sharing the essays. We will publish a summation of the “Meet Up” discussions in 2024.

Speakers at the closing session of the MANY 2023 conference.

We are sharing Change is Required in other ways. The closing session of our 2023 conference was a roundtable discussion with Marsha Semmel and four contributors to Change is Required: Shivkumar Desai, Grants Officer, Columbia Museum of Art; Kirsten McNally, Education Specialist, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Historic House Trust of New York City; and Brian Lee Whisenhunt, Executive Director, The Rockwell Museum and President of MANY’s Board of Directors. Panelists shared their ideas about the importance of taking steps towards positive change, managing work/life balance, crafting effective communications, and creating positive, rewarding, and inclusive organizational cultures.

I’d like to extend my thanks to Eric Morse at AASLH for the invitation to share MANY’s work, to the New York State Council on the Arts for supporting the program, and our ten host museums:

  • American Museum of Natural History, New York City
  • Oneida Community Mansion House, Central New York
  • Planting Fields Arboretum, Long Island
  • Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Mid-Hudson
  • Memorial Art Gallery, Finger Lakes
  • Finger Lakes Boating Museum, Southern Tier
  • Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Capital Region
  • Lake Placid Olympic Museum, North Country
  • Buffalo AKG Art Museum, Western New York
  • Munson Museum, Mohawk Valley

Photo credits: First and second photos courtesy Megan Eves and MANY. Third photo courtesy Daylight Blue Media.