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Panel Discussion
Leadership and Institutional Change: Taking it to the Next Level
Saturday, June 3, 2006

David Cohen, Contemporary Crafts Gallery and Museum, Portland
Kate Eilertsen, San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art
Michael Monroe, Bellevue Arts Museum, Seattle

Contemporary Crafts Museum & Gallery
When David Cohen was hired, CCMG had been in the same location since its founding in 1937. The building is in a residential neighborhood off the beaten track and with practically no foot traffic.  Despite a first class collection and good reputation David found the museum stagnating and asked the question: “Is this place worth saving?” The Board met for 1 ½ years, decided a move was necessary, and came up with the specs for a new site.  They found space in the Pearl District, a growing mecca for high density housing and creative enterprises.  Several other art galleries will be in the same building to better take advantage of the traffic from First Thursday and other arts district promotions. CCMG will leave the building it has inhabited for 69 years in the spring of 2007.  To become better known as a museum instead of a gallery they will keep the gift shop, but plan to stop selling art out of exhibitions.,

San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Arts
When Kate Eilertsen was hired in 2004 she had been lead to believe the museum was in good shape, but soon discovered it was in debt and the previous director had alienated almost everyone. After the first step of cutting staff and programs it became obvious that the only way to survive was to produce more earned income and the only way to do that was to leave the Fort Mason site and relocate somewhere more easily accessible by public transportation nearer to a more commercial area.  The city helped them find a suitable site in the museum district downtown near the convention center.  Since SFMCFA couldn’t afford a long down time they managed to raise the necessary money in 6 months.  Moving was relatively easy since the museum has no permanent collection. 

One source of earned income is the museum shop which now grosses $200,000 per year and has a goal of $400,000 per year.  In addition, admittance paying visitors have increased by 500%.

Bellevue Art Museum
Michael Monroe was hired as director of a museum that had failed and closed.  The community was divided about the institution’s future, so he committed not to reopen until 3 million dollars had been raised.  He decided to return to the original vision and format – that of a craft museum, partly because that niche was missing in Seattle art scene.  Many local donors were angry with this decision, and as a result most of the money was raised out-of-state.  Since there were clouds over the old administration and since any success would have to be spectacular to overcome the past failure, Michael made sure all his planning and goals were totally transparent.  When BAM reopened it did so with a Board of Directors who were all business people and a mostly young and enthusiastic staff.  Results: the slowest day the museum has now is busier than the busiest day of the previous operation.      

What provokes institutional change and what are obstacles to change?
The possibility or reality of failure provokes change.   

Discomfort with change among board members, staff, the public, and artists is the biggest obstacle.  All three panelists were hired as directors at a time when things were going wrong or had already gone wrong; it was their job to overcome the human obstacles, as well as physical ones.   They had no devotion to the institutions’ traditions.  Unlike the long-timers, they asked questions and never said, “But we’ve always done it this way.” 

What role does the Director have in implementing change?
Must have a creative vision of new possibilities for the museum.  It is a distinct advantage to come with a good track record at another museum and to be a seasoned professional in the field.

Must build trust among the board, staff, donors, and other constituencies.  Each group needs to have ownership and buy-in for a new direction, and each group should have the opportunity to connect with the other groups.  Since change is difficult for some, new blood may have to be recruited.  Inflexible or reluctant staff and board members often quit, but may have to be eased out.  If a leader has the trust, others will follow, even if they can’t yet see the change in a totally positive light yet.

Must “manage the message” to win the larger community over.  It is important to have good press – a positive mention in a major magazine will cause others to jump on board.  The staff and board needs coaching on what to say in public about a move or other change so they will not contradict the official message.

Transparency is important – the words and actions of the Director have to match.  Go with small increments and don’t promise too much, especially to big donors.   

How can the Director develop an excellent board?
If a new Director has conflicts with a strong old Board, a facilitated retreat may help find common bonds.  The facilitator may end up saying the same thing as the Director, but a board often finds buy-in easier coming from an outside voice.  Be sure to check the references of the professional facilitator – not all are effective.

To attract a dynamic board (as opposed to Old Mossy Back Slugs) there should be a definition of qualifications for board members, rules about attendance, contribution, and work written into the by-laws.  Make sure expectations are clear: that the Board’s duty is to set policy and raise money, not to play staff member.

It is better to have a few good board members than lots of fair ones.

What about problems of succession and continuation?
A development/marketing director is a key to continuation.  There are 32 non-profits looking for development directors in Seattle today.  It is a good field to enter right now.

There is a cult of personality – the Director is often “the brand.”  It is a problem because of the impossibility of plugging in a new person when “the brand” leaves.

How is it possible to measure success after a PLAN has evolved from the MISSION?
It is very hard to measure success.  Try to move toward a higher quality, learning what works and what doesn’t as you go along.

It is most important to set priorities – that is what effective leadership is about.

Just as an artist is always reformulating and moving on, directors must do this. An organization is like a sculpture -- parts can be stuck on or pulled of.  Take risk, gets lots of ideas and combine them. Stopping means getting rigid and losing insights.

When you have the perfect situation and are successful, how do you avoid getting stale?

  • Transition from success to higher success
  • Try new things because one failure won’t put the institution at risk
  • Have a facilitated session for everyone to dream, vision, and ask:  what else can we do?
  • Form community partnerships or grow an endowment

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