Transcript – Episode 46

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Announcer: This podcast is a project of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency committed to building creative communities and inspiring creative minds.

Dan Yeager: A problem in our field is that we have this tradition of unpaid internships.  Unless we actually take a stand and try to figure out a way to find some stipends or what have you, that, again, is going to work against us to have folks of diverse backgrounds participate.

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Anita Walker: Hi.  I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council.  Welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud.  Our guest today is Dan Yeager, Executive Director of the New England Museum Association.  Welcome to our program.

Dan Yeager: Hello, Anita.

Anita Walker: We love museums at the Mass Cultural Council.


Anita Walker: As you well know, and no one has their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in museum land, I think, more than you do.  If you were going to just sort of in, like, one sentence tell us, what is the health of the museum field in New England, what would you say?

Dan Yeager: Health.  Well, I’d say it’s somewhat mixed, in many, many ways.  There are many success stories that we’ve been hearing about in the news, museums that are expanding, successful capital campaigns, a lot of really strong growth in some areas.  On the other hand, a great degree of our museum community struggles every day because there are just so few resources, and I won’t say it’s competitive, although, in a sense, it really is.  But the fact of the matter is is that New England has the largest per capita concentration of museums anywhere in the country.  Little fun fact, if you want to know.  It’s 12.2 museums per a hundred thousand people, compared to 5.9, so it’s more than double the national average, generally, and what that means though is that we have a lot of museums that are, in fact, competing for limited funding and the like.  So those museums that are great success stories, we really applaud them, but we also keep in mind a lot of the smaller places that struggle, for funds, struggle for, “How am I going to do this with limited staff?” and the like.  That’s why some of your programs are just so essential to what it is that they do.  Even small grants really help boost those programs and allow them to become, you know, maintain the relevance in their communities.  So it’s kind of a mixed bag.  Visitation is, you know, up and down, depending.  I mean, we’ve climbed back from our, you know, low point in 2008, recent low point, you know, and we had a lot of challenges to visitation, so there’re, you know, lot of positive signs but, you know, we’re very wary, and of course, in the, you know, the political climate we’re kind of concerned now about just what ends up happening over the long-term.  I think that’s kind of the question with, you know, funding the ecosystem of funders, I think, is of concern, but…

Anita Walker: You know, since you bring it up, sometimes I think it’s interesting to sort of step back a minute and sort of reassert why public funding matters to our field, whether it’s museums or orchestras or dance companies.  It’s a small percentage.  I mean, it’s a small part of the budget of most of our cultural organizations, but why would you say that public funding matters?

Dan Yeager: Well, as you point out, it’s usually a small part.  Sometimes though it really is a fairly substantial part.  It allows folks to kick start some additional programs, leverage private philanthropy, very often, so there are many, many things, especially with the cultural facilities funds.  When you look at, you know, the ability to create capital projects and the like, that’s really always very well received and, you know, valued for most folks.  But those small grants also matter.  Even if they’re, you know, several hundred dollars or a thousand or whatever, those programs are so essential to maintaining your relevance in a community, to get people engaged and the like, and so that’s really when you see those funds in action, I’m sure it really brings a smile to your face, you know, when you see things actually happening there.  But there’s another aspect too, I think, and that is that in the museum field, but I would imagine throughout the cultural community, the idea that we’ve got a robust Mass Cultural Council or NEA or NEH or whatever is very much a part of the field’s identity almost, and so when you see funding supported at a legislative level for MCC or NEH or NEA, or IMLS or any of the alphabet soup that funds our folks, it really signals that we are valued.  People really take that to heart and when those funds are challenged, which is a great concern right now over the long-term, it’s sort of perceived that our work is devalued by the public.  So, you know, public funding is important on any number of levels, I think.

Anita Walker: So aside from funding, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing the museum field?

Dan Yeager: Well, huh, hm.  I would say there are sort of micro challenges, always.  Just where’s the funding coming from?  Maintaining donor relations, maintaining those corporate relations, making sure that we’ve got a terrific visitor experience so that people actually visit, marketing, all of those things.  Those are more of the day-to-day things.  I think there are some real systemic challenges though for the field as well, diversity being one of the largest ones.  In New England, for example, we’re about 90 percent Caucasian and we’re 80 percent female.  So that is, you know, on the face of it, well, that’s just a fact, and what do you do with it?  But when you look at museums that are demographically homogeneous like that, but they’re located in communities that are changing rapidly, their demographics becoming much more multicultural, that museum is really becoming irrelevant in their community and it’s not sustainable.  So a number of museums individually are really working on this when you look at– just popped in my head, but Fitchburg Art Museum for example, Nick Capasso there is doing such a terrific job diversifying his staff, his board, and programming and reaching out into the communities and really he’s making what was once a museum that was dedicated to art, built by the, you know, the industrialists, now is really concentrating on becoming a community museum, and I think that’s really something that we need to concentrate on a lot more.  I know our association is working on that systemic level to try to come up with some solutions to recruit more people into the field that have multi-cultural backgrounds and also to encourage museums to diversify their boards because that’s a huge challenge as well.  You have to have the voice on the board as well.

Anita Walker: Those are the two questions I get more than any when I visit cultural organizations in Massachusetts.  How do we get more diversity on our staff and how do we get more diversity on our board?  Because that is really seen as part of a pathway to being seen as welcoming to the entire community.  Have you identified any solutions or any areas about why it’s so tough?

Dan Yeager: Well, you’re opening a can of worms.  So you talk about diversity, but diversity is necessarily tied to wages in our field, and like many cultural fields, we are at least perceived as being relatively low pay and we’re not particularly, you know, there is a gender disparity and there’s all sorts of things that are working against actually recruiting a lot of multicultural folks, especially people that have high degrees of debt coming out of college.  They go through museum studies programs and the like.  So we’re starting to really, we’ve got a task force working right now, to really identify some of the issues and problems and then identify potential solutions as well.  It’s, you know, any systemic problem like that really needs to go far beyond just individual museums, even individual museum associations like NEMA.  I’m working with my colleagues nationally in regional associations and the American Alliance of Museums and the other associations to address some of these issues with diversity.  We’re anticipating creating some grant funds to actually hopefully create a recruitment program nationally over the course of time to deal with these issues of wage disparity and how do we boost wages?  One of the other issues that’s a problem in our field is that we have this tradition of unpaid internships, and that’s like many, many, I think, nonprofit fields, but, you know, unless we actually take a stand and try figure out a way to find some stipends or what have you, that, again, is going to work against us to have folks of diverse backgrounds participate.  So there are many, many things that we’ve identified as a field that we need to tackle and now the question is getting beyond just talking about it and actually starting to do it, and course, that costs money, so… <laughs>

Anita Walker: So let’s look at the bright side for a minute.

Dan Yeager: Right.

Anita Walker: <laughs> Because I know you, again, have an opportunity to see the best and the brightest of what’s happening in the museum field, and one of the things that’s intrigued me and I’m interested if you’re seeing similar activity, is museums thinking about turning themselves inside-out.  Not seeing themselves as just sort of a building and you have to come in it and that’s where you find museum.  You can actually find you stumble across it elsewhere in your community.

Dan Yeager: Yeah, yeah.  Yeah.  It’s part of the conversation and is an exciting new trend.  We, at our most recent conference, had a lot of discussions of what we’re calling pop-up museums.  They’re, you know, bringing the programs out into the community, and as a matter of fact, we have created a new program called Museum Hive, which is a gathering of folks in real-time, in real-life, IRL, but also connecting them with nationwide thought leaders, and we had our first Museum Hive meetup a while back with this person named Nina Simon, who’s kind of a guru on the West Coast, and she’s very hot on this idea of the distributed museum, the idea that museums are not just a single place but, you know, they’re in different formats throughout the community, and one of the things that we started talking about at that event was what if we had, like, food trucks, why don’t we have museum trucks?

Anita Walker: <laughs>

Dan Yeager: Why don’t we have, you know, instead of bookmobiles, museum mobiles or something, right?

Anita Walker: Yeah.

Dan Yeager: And, you know, actually that, it turns out, has been experimented a little bit.  But I love that concept so much, because I think that, you know, the old model definitely is– I won’t say it’s broken, but there are so many opportunities for people to become engaged with museum programming, collections and the like, in their own backyards and then being attracted into the grand spaces or the historic houses or whatever.  So I think it’s a good strategy.  It really is.  Especially if we’re talking about opening up our doors to new audiences.

Anita Walker: A lot of exciting things happening in the museum world.  No one knows more than our Creative Mind Out Loud, <musical outro> Dan Yeager, Executive Director of the New England Museum Association.  Thanks for joining us.

Dan Yeager: Well, thank you so much, Anita.

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