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Letters from Erika

Learn about what is happening at MANY from Executive Director Erika Sanger.

"Quiet as It's Kept" 2022 Whitney Biennial

May 2022

Seeing and Making Change

Two years ago today, George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Yesterday, nineteen elementary school children and their two teachers were shot to death in Texas. Eleven days ago, ten Black people were murdered in a mass shooting in Buffalo. In our nation alone, over one million people have died from the coronavirus. Numbers like these can become meaningless without connections to people and actions that move us to change.

As our cultures, institutions, and educational systems attempt to respond to the devastation wrought by the pandemic and systemic racism, every one of us needs to play a role in changing our society and our museums. Our museums need to promote truth and dignity, to encourage every person on staff to take ownership of their work, and to respect the work of their colleagues no matter their position or title.

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April 2022

Letter from Brian Lee Whisenhunt and Erika Sanger: 2021 Annual Report

We are pleased to share this annual report and express our sincerest gratitude to our members, donors, and sponsors who helped us find spaces and places to gather, create, and support each other’s work in 2021. Together, we faced the challenges of operating in both virtual and in-person environments and treasured the rare moments where we could pause, assess our work, and share our achievements. We are pleased by the progress we made this past year and honored by the new partnerships we forged that will help us shape a better future for museums and museum professionals.

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March 2022

Data-Driven Decision Making, A Call to Advocate for NYS Museums

If I had a personal FAQ sheet, “How many museums are there in New York State?” would be at the top of the list. Believe it or not, it is a hard question to answer. MANY uses 1,400 as an estimate, but I have learned that to be an effective advocate and to counter inaccurate, commonly held beliefs and perceptions, we need to use precise and relevant data about who we are, who we serve, and what funds make our work possible.

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February 2022

Less Than or Yes, And: Why We Advocate

On Wednesday, February 16th, I had the honor of testifying at the New York State Legislature’s 2022 Joint Budget Hearing on Economic Development. I have testified at hearings called by the Assembly Standing Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts, and Sports Development, but this was my first time at an Economic Development Hearing. Although I only had three minutes to speak, with my comments, those of others giving testimony, and the questions asked of us, I am certain the word “museum” has never been said more frequently at a New York State Economic Development hearing.

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January 2022

Doing Community Differently

This winter the Hudson River has frozen over so hard that Ice Yachts are sailing across and down the River. It is a tradition that dates back to the nineteenth century. On January 25, we marked sixty years of the Museum Association of New York serving our state. I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about our traditions.

I was going to write this letter about our past and recount all we have accomplished for our museum community. But news of the pandemic this morning reminded me that we can not repeat the past, we can only move forward differently.

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January 2022

What Are You Learning?

When I was young and was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I didn’t have an answer. I tried being a park ranger, an artist, and a teacher before I found museum education. At the time, being a museum educator encompassed everything I sought in a career. But the thing that kept me motivated in the face of innumerable challenges was that I was able (and required) to continuously learn new things.

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December 2021

Light in the Darkest Days

I wake early this time of year to see the glorious colors of winter sunrises. All of us have worked so hard over the past two years, it may be hard to remember that we are just a few days away from the solstice when we can welcome the increasing light. Last week I was in Corning, NY for meetings about our 2022 annual conference. I woke up in our conference hotel and for a moment didn’t quite remember where I was - this tends to happen after a lot of travel. I crossed the room, lifted the shades to watch the sunrise, and was gifted the sight of a bald eagle flying up the Chemung River.

We have been challenged this week to keep up with all the announcements of funds granted to New York museums for 2022. There is good news from so many of our funders that renewed my hope for 2022 being a brighter year.

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Building Capacity Workshop at the Museum of Arts and Design, October 26, 2021

October 2021

People in Actual Rooms Talking About Museum Work

I write from the Museum of Art and Design in New York City. The twenty-five museum professionals with us are bouncing energy around the room. My heart is filled with joy to be here among such passionate, and dedicated people. In this fall’s Forums, we are learning how partnerships help museums reach new audiences, grow resources, and interpret collections. Today, the New York City Building Capacity program participants are sharing their successes, challenges, and hopes for the future.

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The Rockwell Museum's Art Lab in Downtown Corning, NY

September 2021

More than Destinations

I write from Great Camp Sagamore on day two of the Museum Institute. It is sunny and cold by the lake. By the end of the week, most of the green leaves on the trees will turn red and gold. The remarkable presenters are challenging us to believe in our power to create positive change in partnership with our fellow arts, history, and cultural organizations and with our community.

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IMLS Building Capacity workshop for NYC museum participants at Fraunces Tavern Museum on August 11. Photo by Alex Cassetti

August 2021

Arrival is Unpredictable


I was recently in a city that had their bus schedules on scrolling LED boards in their bus shelters. As I waited for my route to be posted, the LED board began flashing on and off with the words “ARRIVAL IS UNPREDICTABLE.” The other folks in the bus shelter gave me side glances as I burst out loud laughing. It seemed a metaphor for my state of mind as I once again masked up to meet the world safely.


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Glacial Erratic Trail, Settlement Quarry, Stonington, ME*

July 2021

Pathways

From March 22 to April 26, 2021, MANY gathered data on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on NY’s museums. The report that we will publish later this fall will paint a picture of a field grappling with tremendous change. Like the way glaciers deposited boulders from afar onto the granite ledges of the Maine coast 16,000 years ago, COVID-19 dropped into our society and caused us all to change direction.

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MANY staff at Fort Ticonderoga, June 24, 2021

June 2021

Remember Going Places with People?

On June 23rd, MANY’s board of directors met at the Hart-Cluett Museum in Troy. During a break, we toured the Hart-Cluett’s exhibition galleries and the historic “Marble House” at 59 Second Street. The next day, MANY staff visited Fort Ticonderoga where we saw their new virtual program delivery studio and gained a deeper understanding of how the Fort, located between Lakes George and Champlain, played a pivotal role in history. Today, an image of the Everson Museum of Art from June 2019 popped up in my Facebook “memories.” We were in Syracuse to launch the New York tour of the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street Water/Ways exhibition at the Erie Canal Museum.

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The Water Hole, Hall of African Mammals, American Museum of Natural History

May 2021

Creating New Collective Memories

Many of my childhood memories were formed in New York City’s museums, zoos, and gardens. In those places I came to know the world outside of my constructed environment - about things that grow in fertile soil, not between cracks in concrete; places where fish swim in rivers unbounded by sea walls; creativity beyond paint on canvas; and how people live close to earth, not in boxes twenty stories above the ground.

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April 2021

The Big Picture

When I looked out my window this morning, I saw maple leaves unfurling, sunlight on the river, and men fishing from small boats floating south on the falling tide. After living with uncertainty for so long, I have stopped trying to see beyond what is in front me while keeping the pursuit of a more inclusive, sustainable museum sector tied to my optimism for our future.

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

March 2021

Our Incomparable Museums

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.

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February 2021

Growing Toward the Future Stronger

I’ve had an awful case of cabin fever for a couple of weeks and I know I’m not alone. The past year has left those of us who have dedicated their work to the museum field tired, isolated, and grieving. 500,000 Americans have died, an estimated 30% of New York’s museum professionals lost their jobs, and our physical and mental health has deteriorated. The vaccine is the hope on the horizon, but I am concerned that in our haste to recover financially, we will lose the opportunity to make the changes necessary to reach our audiences with relevant content whether they are on site or in their living rooms, to deepen our role as essential community partners, and to develop a workforce that reflects all New Yorkers.

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March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963 by Rowland Scherman, Courtesy of NARA

January 2021

Democracy and Advocacy

On January 6, as I watched the white supremacist, fascist mob breach and defile the halls of Congress, learned about the stabbings at the Capitol in Albany, and read about the Confederate flag tied to the door of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, I was stunned. After a couple of anxiety-filled days and mindless activity, I moved to a place of outrage and renewed my commitment to take action and speak out.

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December 2020

History Will Read Us Loud and Clear

As we prepare to put behind us a year that changed our lives, I am filled with gratitude for our museum community. Your calls, emails, notes in chat boxes, and social media comments gave us the hope and energy to face an unknowable future together with resolve and resilience. 

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FANTASTIC FOUR #52 July 1966, First Appearance Black Panther, Collection of John A. Vasquez

October 2020

Tell a Good Story

In my junior year of college, I took my first art history class. When we arrived at Chapter 8 of Janson’s History of Art “Early Christian and Byzantine Art,” I was completely lost. Christian art had not been included in my life experience. In multiple visits to museums I learned the characters, the setting, the plot, the conflict, and the resolution of the story. In the process of learning how to decode the narrative art, I also learned that good storytellers shape their message to the medium in which it is carried.

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September 2020

Building Capacity, Creating Sustainability, Growing Accessibility

MANY is pleased to open the call for participation in “Building Capacity, Creating Sustainability, Growing Accessibility” and extend our thanks to our congressional representatives for their support for the IMLS with CARES Act funding for Museums. 

This project will support 100 museums in high needs locations in the state to help them respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by giving staff the tools and training to reach their communities virtually and raise their profiles with audiences beyond their physical locations. The project will provide museum professionals with hardware, software, and training to develop virtual programs focused on stories from their collections revealing cultural and racial diversity within their communities. Each museum selected to participate will partner with a local library to develop and implement programs that build on the assets of both organizations resulting in access to 200 new virtual programs for audiences - no matter their geographical location.

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Opening day at the Central Park Children’s Zoo, September 28, 1961. Photo courtesy of Parks Photo Archive.

August 2021

Looking, Listening, and Learning

Memory deceives me into believing that as a child, I spent all my Sunday afternoons at the Central Park Zoo watching zookeepers toss fish to sea lions, peering into the whale’s mouth at the children’s zoo, and counting hours to the spinning animals on the Delacorte Clock. On one visit, the hippopotamus swam towards my father and me, stopping at the glass wall of its enclosure close enough for us to see the drops of water on its skin. My father didn’t notice a wide gap between the upper glass sections and accidently stuck his hand into the hippo’s mouth. When he jumped back in fear that the animal would attack in retaliation for the intrusion, I was knocked to the floor. This minor disruption transformed our zoo routine. Subsequent visits excluded the hippopotamus tank and I learned to look more closely at the built environment. 

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July 2020

Slouching Towards Recovery

We are fortunate that New York State is represented in the US Congress by members of the House of Representatives and Senate whose steadfast support of our museum sector has historically helped sustain our federal funding agencies. New York Congressional Representatives were also instrumental in passing the CARES Act, which included provisions that helped many of us through this worldwide health crisis caused by COVID-19.

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Lionni, Leo, Little Blue and Little Yellow 1959, NY Ivan Obolensky Inc.

June 2020

Navigating our Future with a Moral Compass

Perhaps after 100 days in quarantine topped by protests against police violence in support of Black Lives Matter, some of us would like to put away our moral compasses, open our museum doors, and return to business as usual. But if we are to successfully navigate our futures and thrive as a field, it is necessary to change our physical spaces in response to the COVID-19 health crisis and revise our policies and practices to ensure a culture of inclusion and racial equality. Museums need to chart a course beyond statements, to address long-standing disparities of power in our museum field, and to fight racism as we find it within our walls and in our programs. 

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Novi Belgii map, 1685, Library of Congress

April 2020

Mapping the Coast of our New Word

As we enter the eighth week of “NY on Pause,” I want to start this letter by acknowledging that some of us are grieving and that we are all unsure of what the future may bring.

I believe New York’s museums are in an existential crisis. Not the textbook definition of an existential crisis, but a definition that encompasses how New York’s museums will never exist again the way we did at the start of 2020.

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March 2020

Working Together in Uncertain Times

I hope all who are reading this are well, that your families are well, and that you are taking precautionary measures to remain healthy and safe.

When we began to prepare the 2019 annual report that will be included in the March 30 MANY newsletter, there was no way to foresee where we are today. Every museum in New York is closed, thousands of staff have already been laid off, and thousands more will follow. A Washington DC source estimated that as many as 30% of museums across the nation may remain permanently closed. That is a statistic that we are working hard to reduce with advocacy, information, and support for the field. If you have not looked at the resource pages of our website, please take a moment and check, there may be something there that can help you make a hard decision easier.

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NYS museum delegates gather outside Senator Gillibrand's office as part of Museums Advocacy Day with the American Alliance of Museums and (AAM)

February 2020

Making the Case for New York's Museums

If you’ve attended a MANY program in the past couple of years, you have heard me ask you to reach out to your local, state, and federal legislators to let them know what resources you need to serve our communities, preserve and share collections, and sustain and grow the unique power that museums have to transform lives. I know some of us find it difficult to speak up and get loud enough to make a difference. Many museum professionals identify as introverts, while others may be uncomfortable speaking with people they don’t know.

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"Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty" was a phrase coined by Jack Weinberg in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Button Museum

January 2020

Don't Trust Anyone Over (or Under?) 30

This past November I turned 57. Depending on which demographer you choose to believe, I am either a Baby Boomer or a member of the elusively-defined Generation “X.” My older cousins wore POW-MIA bracelets to honor soldiers captured in the Vietnam War. Some went to Woodstock, others got stuck on the Thruway trying to get there. I was surrounded by people who fought for racial and gender equality, protested against injustice, questioned authority, broke dress codes, and stepped outside of social norms. There was a clear divide from older generations fueled by a mutual lack of trust; places and spaces to come together and agree on politics, music, or values were few and far between.

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