But if all the educators are gone?

If we’re lucky, we all have particular moments in our career that we can point to and say “I’m really proud of this. If this is my legacy, it’s enough.” Earlier this week, Facebook reminded me that it had been 10 years since one of those moments–the founding of the Informal Educators of Dallas County. In a cruel twist of irony, that same day, a dear friend found out that the entire education department of her museum was being laid off in the first round of cuts. Though she wasn’t at the founding meeting, she has been involved with IEDC since the early years. She’s someone I never would have formed a friendship with if it hadn’t been for that group. We’ve traveled together, drunk countless beers together, and she’s been a special pandemic buddy as we’ve shared a produce box. IEDC began as a response by educators to the 2009 recession. As we move through this pandemic, I’m seeing many opportunities for museums to begin again and build something better. But if all the educators are gone, what hope do we have for a better, more equitable museum field?

IEDC began because I got annoyed at a meeting. In a room full of struggling nonprofits, a leader in the arts community asked us to create a huge, new program, outside of most of our wheelhouses. She told us to “not think about budgets, just think about the children.” I had just been asked by my boss to figure out how small our staff could be–and still provide quality field trips. After the meeting was over, I stood in the parking lot with a friend, and we ranted together. And that’s when we realized something important: informal educators get together regularly at various meetings, but there’s never any time to network or get to know each other, especially across disciplines. We kept being asked by various funders to collaborate, but there was never any opportunity to brainstorm or just get to know each other.

The two of us reached out to a few other educator colleagues. On a rainy night in June, we met at a local bar. We all realized we needed dedicated time to network, brainstorm, and see each other’s institutions. So, we formed the Informal Educators of Dallas County–a group for anyone that taught outside of the classroom. We decided to meet every other month–6 institutions were represented at that first meeting, so we walked out with the plan for the year. Because we’re educators, and that’s what we do. Our meeting format has remained essentially unchanged: meet at 3 p.m. at the host institution (which rotates) for a tour, 4 p.m. discussion on various burning issues, 5 p.m. adjourn to a nearby watering hole. The tour and happy hour are optional, and there are plenty of people that just come for that meeting’s topical discussion.

A tour of the Bush Library back in 2013.

Ten years later, the group is still going strong. At one point, I think representatives from 40 different institutions were involved. I’m not sure what the number is now. Though I crossed over to the dark side of being an executive director in 2014, I still occasionally join them for drinks. I have made so many good friends through this network. When I became an ED, I realized very quickly that there wasn’t a local group for EDs that I could seamlessly enter. Recently, I’ve started to build that local ED network, but it has taken years.

And what has IEDC meant for Dallas? There have been some great cross-institutional partnerships. One of my favorites was between the Dallas Theater Center and the Holocaust Museum during a production of Cabaret. When a short-sighted decision by Dallas ISD threatened field trip funding for all non-arts institutions, we were able to mobilize in days. Our programs are better–none of us are operating in isolation. And when the pandemic began–something none of us could have imagined–we had friends to turn to and commiserate with and try to adapt.

As I watch the layoffs throughout the country, it appears that education departments are taking a disproportionate amount of the cuts. Others have noticed too–there’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter. Here in Dallas, the frustrations of the last recession helped us build a much stronger community for informal education. It’s too soon to know how the pandemic will shape the future of museum education, but I wonder if too many cuts have already been made. If no educators are left at the end of this, what will the future of informal education be?

At DHV, we’ve been able to avoid major layoffs. It helps when you’re already a tiny, bare bones organization. As I talk to the board about options, I often ask the question: If we gut the organization, how do we recover from that? How do we re-emerge and rebuild if no one is left? What’s more important–cutting short term financial losses or the long-term health of the institution? If there are options to keep people employed, we do that to save the museum.

I will never understand why educators are often the last hires at a new institution, and the first to be laid off when cuts are necessary. We’re all having to ask ourselves very tough questions right now. Will anyone notice if my museum just disappears? What is the point of a museum if we don’t have any visitors? How do we continue to fulfill our mission while we’re closed?

In my mind, there’s only one answer to these questions–and one answer for museums to survive the pandemic. Educators.


Leadership today. . . and the Great Recession back then

Lord have mercy–the world has changed a bit since I last wrote, hasn’t it? There are a million thoughts I could share about the Covid 19 pandemic and museum leadership, and maybe someday I’ll be able to write out all those thoughts. Or not. Has anyone else noticed how exhausting a pandemic can be?

I’m so appreciative of all the museum leaders that have already shared their thoughts and the philosophies that are guiding them through this. In a lot of posts and comments, my own thoughts and moves have been confirmed. I find this incredibly comforting, though the small pessimist in me could also be convinced that we’re all heading in the wrong direction. And while I so appreciate those leaders that have shared their stories of leading through the Great Recession or 9/11, what I’d really love to hear would be stories from those who were regular old museum staff during these previous crises. How has that shaped their choices during this current crisis?

In March 2009, I bought my house as the Director of Education at DHV. At the time, it felt a little risky, but prices were down and I needed a place to live. While I was deciding whether to pursue a home purchase as a single person working in a museum, I did ask my boss if my job was safe. He said it was, and so I bought a house at the very top of my budget range. (To be fair, my range was pretty low for a major metropolitan area like Dallas.) Luckily, I was able to find a roommate to help share expenses. In early July, my car decided to die on me, so car payments were added to my budget. And in late July, on the last day of a vacation, my boss called to tell me that all staff were being furloughed and I could expect a 20% pay cut for the rest of the summer.

Things were already tight for me. They got really tight. I took a part-time job. I was incredibly grateful for having a roommate. But it was incredibly hard and incredibly demoralizing. I had no idea that furloughs were a possibility. I don’t know that I would have done anything differently with my personal finances, but it would have helped to have been mentally prepared. As I think about the last month, I have realized that my experiences as a non-leadership staff memberĀ  during the last economic crisis have very much shaped my response to the current crisis. How many other directors can say the same? How many of us regular staff members even survived the Great Recession?

We closed DHV the afternoon of March 13. I immediately told frontline staff that they could expect to be paid for their scheduled hours through the end of the month. I also told them that beyond that, I just wasn’t sure yet. My mantra during that very first crazy week was the following: Buy time. Don’t be a jerk. (I might have used stronger language, but I’m trying to be professional here!)

The executive board met. We decided to do three things to keep cash flow going and staff employed: pursue a line of credit, talk to donors about redirecting major gifts, and/or dip into the invested funds. As we chatted, I realized, in spite of our ongoing operating deficit, we were in a stronger financial position than we were in 2009. We have no debt. We have major gifts that can be redirected. And our invested funds are large enough to use as collatarel for a line of credit.

Really, we’ve been taking it pay period by pay period. But I’ve also tried very hard to give staff plenty of warning and a few options. By paying people through March, we bought time to come up with some work from home projects for frontline staff. At the end of March, we let frontline staff know their options–and that we would pay them up to half of their average hours if they tackled some of the work from home projects. We gave them the option to use their small pool of sick time (a city ordinance that went into effect last fall) or furlough and file for unemployment. We also made a few other cuts. But then the Payroll Protection Program passed, and we put those cuts on hold.

As we continue to move forward, we’ve told staff that we will only pay them for hours actually worked. Some aren’t able to work from home right now due to other obligations, so they’re choosing to furlough. I’m taking a pay cut myself. Our PPP loan has been approved, but we’re waiting on funds. The line of credit is on hold due to all the PPP paperwork. Things are tight for DHV, but I also feel like we’ve bought enough time to ride this storm.

Through it all, in addition to my first set of goals (buy time. don’t be a jerk), my other goal was to give staff choices where I can. To keep them updated on the financial picture. That if there are surprises, there’s at least some time for folks to adjust and plan for those changes before they take effect. When I see the mass layoffs, I just wonder how those leaders were personally impacted by the Great Recession. Have they forgotten what that felt like? Or did they just never know? I totally understand why the furlough had to happen. But some warning or inkling that a pay cut was a possibility would have been a huge help to me personally. Transparency and communication is key. I know this is absolutely shocking!

Here’s the beautiful thing about handling things this way: staff are stepping up in a truly wonderful way. As I worry about the big picture financials, I have folks that are rethinking the daily visitor experience. They’re planning small classes that will meet community needs in the aftermath. They are rocking our social media channels right now. And they have a wee bit of security in knowing that I’m fighting for them on all fronts.

We’re not through this yet. There is so much work to do. I’m grateful that we have an outdoor facility which should be able to open a bit more quickly than other cultural institutions. I’m grateful that I have a staff that are working really hard to make sure we hit the ground running when we push the play button after this indefinite pause. But I do think it would be interesting to know more about how not being a leader during the Great Recession has shaped being a leader today.