We’re back from #WMA2016 in Phoenix, Arizona. The conference was a great experience for our team and we were very impressed with the welcome we received from the people behind museums on the west coast. Whether in sessions or during breaks in the exhibit hall, we had great conversations with museum professionals on different topics surrounding the conference’s theme: Change.
Many sessions were about change, from those focused on topics considered by many to be “traditional” museum concerns like visitor engagement, capital campaign projects or collections management, to sessions that offered commentary on social topics like inclusion in museums and the repatriation of indigenous artifacts. Both the opening and closing keynotes discussed the role of museums in ensuring diversity and inclusion of communities of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and ensuring accessibility for all visitors to museums. We could tell from the speakers’ comments and conversations in person and on Twitter that museums are looking forward to focusing on facilitating conversations from diverse backgrounds. That excitement was evident from conversations about the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., that had opened a day before the conference. With these important conversations in mind, many attendees talked about looking at change as a gradual—but deliberate—process that takes place over time.
In the contexts mentioned above, change was viewed as a positive, exciting thing. Museums want everyone to feel welcome and included in their space, and they want to make changes that will positively impact their communities. However, these positive conversations were underscored by another commentary on change: museums have seen a lot of change in the recent past, and some of it has not been good.
Tuesday afternoon saw a session titled, Building the Broad and Other Capital Project Tales. During the session one attendee asked about the benefits of completing a new project in-house compared to outsourcing the work to a 3rd-party separate from the museum. The speaker responded with a question: “When thinking about completing a project in-house to save money, first ask, ‘is my museum overstaffed?’” The question got a laugh from the audience because the answer is obviously, no. In this day and age, museums and cultural institutions have trouble getting the financial support they need to complete their operations. They find themselves making the most of what they have, speaking each year to potential members, donors, executive boards, and government legislatures about the benefit of supporting arts and culture. Even the largest of museums are not immune to financial trouble. As WMA wrapped up on Wednesday the Met announced 34 employee layoffs as part of its goal to reduce its deficit by 30 million.
Returning to the session conversation, the speaker went on to discuss how no museum is ever overstaffed. When new projects get pushed onto the team it leads to other tasks and duties getting moved to the side or left behind as the team tries to do more work in the same amount of time. The point of the speaker’s answer is that museums and their staffs have limited resources and are looking for ways to streamline their operations. Using 3rd-party consultants or organizations to help the museum affect change through new projects does not mean that the museum’s staff is any less competent for doing so. This is a thought that came up multiple times throughout the conference, as this tweet from another session on Monday shows:
Throughout the conference, as attendees were considering the details of how to bring positive change to their museums while preventing negative change, one quote from Laura Lott, President of American Alliance of Museums, kept surfacing from the conference’s opening session on Monday.
When thinking of the context of Laura Lott’s quote, museums have been around for decades, even centuries, and have withstood the negative change that has come over that span of time. Though it can be daunting for museum professionals currently facing the uncertainty that change brings, the fact that museums were present at WMA and participating in conversations about changing for the better shows they’re taking a step in the right direction.
I had an amazing time at WMA. Participating in conversations about change with museum professionals during sessions and events at Heritage Square, Arizona Science Center and the Phoenix Art Museum helped me gain a better understanding of the challenges facing museums today. Now that the team has returned home we hope to take what we learned to continue the conversation and contribute to the change museums are looking to see.
Did you attend WMA? What were the conversations about change you participated in? Did you think anything was missing from the conversation? Let us know on Twitter @Cuberis.