Co-authorship As Museum Leadership?
First, let’s begin by trying to fully understand the following:
“Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.”
—Howard Stevenson, Harvard Business School professor
Perhaps this sounds familiar. Is this not the case for museum leadership? After all, in the museum field, institutions are largely driven by unfunded ambitions.
Stevenson’s classic definition of entrepreneurship may offer some potential insights into the lives and pursuits of many leaders in the cultural sector today. His definition is more or less about a practice, a kind of orientation—a mindset. He goes on to say that entrepreneurs “see opportunity and don’t feel constrained from pursuing it because they lack resources…they’re used to making do without resources.” And the outflow of entrepreneurship is observed organizationally as anti-hierarchical: quick and nimble teams that enable fast decision-making. The “currency” used and received by all is largely driven by sharing in the vision.
Most museums depart from this, structurally and culturally. Museums are often controlled environments, hierarchical in nature, and slow and careful deliberators—rightly so, for the care of their collections for generations to come and for the many current publics that they serve. However, sharing in the vision is also the “exchange” among many museum stakeholders (visitors, board members, staff, public officials, foundations, etc.), and it’s readily available.
There are inherent dual rationalities at play here and rather than seeing them at their extremes, it might be more useful to try to understand them across a single shared spectrum. For an in-depth study of such spectrums, consider reading Stevenson’s industry note, “A Perspective on Entrepreneurship” (an introduction can be found on the Getty Leadership Institute website’s Compleat Leader). And in many instances, these tensions can often complement rather than live in opposition (more on this in the blog post, “Name the beast!”).
Now, how to consider co-authorship in this mix? Could the pursuit of museum leadership be enhanced by a form of co-authorship? By “co-authorship,” I mean to suggest a type of practice and orientation—a mode of thinking, understanding, and behaving. It’s a style of leadership that’s inclusive of others and identified by the give and take often seen in creative, innovative processes. Namely, like entrepreneurship, co-authorship has great potential to create and respond to discontinuities. Done well, it can draw on the best of multiple sources, sharing successes (and burdens).
For museums in this rapidly evolving world (one of many pressures being the influence of technology leading to a faster, more dynamic, porous, and transparent culture), leadership today has to be shared and co-authored to keep apace. Museum leaders need to “create” their opportunities, as is often the case, with other entrepreneurs; they need to be open to seeing and sensing their world differently in order to receive and feel anew—and reinvent. Rather than moving away from time-honored values, in the words of Stevenson, “opportunity can be found in a new mix of old ideas or in the creative application of traditional approaches.”
Because of the constant pursuit of more resources for unfunded ambitions, many museums today are in this mode, being reflective and seeking ways to redefine the activities of their organizations with others, be they in the form of partnerships, alliances, or collaborations. In many instances, they are showing a great deal of entrepreneurship, as defined by Stevenson, with creative invention taking a major role in their experimentation.
One of the museums we studied is the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Scotland. In 2004 and 2005, their leadership was confronted by a familiar and incredibly difficult problem: how to reinvigorate an institution that was revered but had grown disconnected from its community. They found the key to this transformation was in looking to their community members, simply to find out what it was they wanted and what it was that they valued (and that this was important). They listened and reconfigured the structure of the organization, using their expertise to incorporate the needs of the community, thus making it more responsive to many constituents. The general public was the key partner.
One of the simplest tools Kelvingrove employed was a paper form, created for curators, educators, and other program staff, wherein they were asked to articulate what specific story they were trying to tell, what audiences they were trying to reach, and why they thought those particular audiences would be interested. To go back to our definition of entrepreneurship for a moment: Kelvingrove (and its director, Mark O’Neill) pursued the opportunity to connect to the public in new and relevant ways, without regard for having a professionally developed evaluation system or expensive audience research in place.
Will this pursuit be sustained? When times are better, will cultural institutions choose this mode? Will there be a conversion towards co-authorship as a more permanent means? Only time will tell.
For an accessible and applied read on entrepreneurship, check out the book Breakthrough Entrepreneurship and the Inc.com article by Eric Schurenberg, “What’s an Entrepreneur? The Best Answer Ever.”