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Letter from Erika: Our Incomparable Museums

March 31, 2021 9:05 AM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

Student Installation, Teacher's College, Columbia University, April 8, 2017

Dear Members, Colleagues, and Friends,

At an exhibition opening almost twenty years ago, I was chatting with a group of people when a woman I didn’t know asked me what I did all day while my husband was at work. When I replied that I was the director of education at the museum; her face broke into a big smile and she said that it sounded like I had the best job because I got to spend my days making art with children. I smiled back and agreed that was part of the job, unsure of how to make the real answer comprehensible. Her comment was a familiar disconnect between what many people think museum professionals do and what our jobs actually encompass.

Around the time of the abovementioned exhibition opening, the Oxford American magazine was in crisis. They were losing readers, sponsors, advertisers, and donors and eventually they were forced to stop publishing. When the magazine found a new home, its rebirth embraced all of Southern culture, no longer relegating the contributions of people of color and native nations to the last paragraphs of articles about musicians, chefs, writers, artists, and preservationists. They gained new sponsors, supporters, and a much bigger following.

A legislative aide recently told me that museums don’t have a lot of friends in Congress. His comment launched a cycle of thoughts about how we might take a page from the lessons learned by the Oxford American to help us recover from the multiple crises we face and make more friends. I believe that we need to find a better way to make museums and the work of museum professionals comparable and comprehensible so that when a legislator questions federal funding for museums, we can clearly articulate how museums are essential components of our communities and valuable contributors to our economy.

Part of the solution will be found in the ways we choose to move forward. Last week someone asked how a museum was supposed to fight racism, sexism, gender bias, and discrimination when their deficit was growing and their access to earned revenue was cut off by pandemic restrictions. I responded that I thought the fight for inclusion, equity, access, and social justice offers a path toward sustainability, that we have the opportunity to take action to create the future we want to see.

In the past five years I have read innumerable mission statements, vision statements, statements of need, and statements of solidarity. I remain unsure that these successfully communicate why our museums are important to our audiences and funders. Today I would be able to say to the guest at the opening that I work with teachers, artists, families, and community leaders to make the museum a significant part of their lives. I could have offered insight into my work without going into the details of planning meetings, grant applications, and budgets.

With the data shared by colleagues in our 2019 State of NYS Museums and Covid-19 Impact surveys, I am learning how to tell the story of NY’s museums in compelling ways by comparing our museums to other non-profit sectors and sharing the ways in which we make a difference in our communities. If you haven’t contributed to the 2020 State of NYS Museums survey yet, click here to participate and help us tell the stories of NY’s museums more inclusively.

With thanks for your support, 

Erika Sanger

The Museum Association of New York helps shape a better future for museums and museum professionals by uplifting best practices and building organizational capacity through advocacy, training, and networking opportunities.

Museum Association of New York is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization. 

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