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Where Have All The Rainbow Pooping Unicorns Gone?

 A recent post from the Future of Museums folks about The Future of History Museums made some suggestions about improving the field by cultivating certain audiences, and truth be told, it was mostly excellent.  Dan Spock’s suggestion that Baby Boomers needed to be cultivated as donors seemed like the “thing that didn’t belong.”
Right off the bat, I should warn you that my ears are up like an Irish Setter’s seeing a shotgun whenever anyone’s generation is mentioned.  I’m old on the scale of Gen X.  Being an older Gen X dude, I see some of my work in the field of museums as a bridge builder and while frustrated at times, I bear little in the way of real ill will against Baby Boomers.  Let’s get that out of the way, too.  One of the reasons I’ve been at all lucky enough to work in the magical kingdom of museums is that I have learned to speak the language of the Baby Boomers and understand what makes them tick.  Mostly they want to be forever young and be seen as cool.  They want to leave a legacy of visionary change.  Unfortunately, this love of youth they have has stunted my generation’s growth.  Here I am at a respectable age, once considered middle age, until a Baby Boomer decided 50-70 was middle age, leaving me…where?  When I was a kid, middle age was 35-55.  So what  happened?

Cultivating Baby Boomers or any other group as donors is more complex than you may think.  There are many facets to a robust development effort in any museum.  You want membership, high level donors, corporate support, foundation support, program support, bequests, angels, government support and admission dollars.  When you talk about cultivating any particular group, your challenge is identifying what it is they see as the benefit and making a connection with a real human relationship.  For many institutions cultivating Baby Boomers is a done deal.  Baby Boomers are the Trustees, the heads of the corporations, a great influence upon family foundations, high level donors of passion, and angels.  Baby Boomers are the people who are approaching these philanthropists, their generational peers. It’s already happening.  It’s not enough, and the appearance is that the long term prospect of successful development efforts depends mostly on something else.  So what is that?  Is it us?  I don’t think so.

Gen X folks are unlikely to be on a level playing field with Baby Boomers when they join boards or reach the Executive Director/CEO/President level of an organization.   We simply do not have the means to give at a level that commands respect.  In a culture of give, get, or get off, we aren’t holding our own.   If we gave according to our means, “until it hurts” like we ask people to do, our contributions wouldn’t make a dent in the widening fault line of an organizational budget.  Leadership, then, escapes us.  We think it’s us, and there’s something fucking wrong with us.  There’s something no one appreciates about Gen X, and it may be that so few of us have achieved a level of financial well-being befitting people of our awesomeness.

I have sat in a thousand development meetings, and nearly all of them have had the same familiar desperation.  One I was at fairly recently was an ungodly early meeting on a cold motorcycling morning with an uber smart Millenial in charge of the food.  As I sat there with no donuts, only some sort of things made out of sticks and twigs, I raged and raged inside.  I was hearing the same things, the exact same things,  now for ten years except now there weren’t even fucking donuts.  One of the Baby Boomers from the committee started in on the “we need to find a Champion” tune.  In Pennsylvania anyway this always leads to the name dropping of several famous people, Kevin Bacon, Gerry Lenfest, and Taylor Swift.  If I had a nickel for every time I heard the name Gerry Lenfest, I’d be a one man development MACHINE.  There were still no donuts here.  Not a one.  Kevin Bacon and Gerry Lenfest are obviously decent, generous fellows who contribute time and money to culture in Pennsylvania, but does anyone here know them?  No.  It’s like wanting a donut.  I had this thought, “What about me?  I’m a champion, goddammit.”

I am a champion.  It’s simply not enough because I am nobody.  I don’t think I’m nobody, but I know a lot of people do.  What proof do they have that I am someone?  None.  Have I given enough to any cause to have a brick or a placard with my name on it?  Is there a hospital wing with my name on the outside of it?  All the other pieces are there.  My head is full of the music we all must sing advocating for culture, museums, heritage, and the arts.  My numbers are good numbers.  You want data, I have data.  Yet data is not enough.  There’s an entire movement that seems to believe data is the last thing you want.  You have to have passion and some kind of superpower it seems.  Passion is easy when you’ve been in the field a while. We get to do things nobody much gets to do.  I’ve seen enchanted things in my career, and it is one of the things you swap for affluence when you sign on with non profit museum work.   I am passionate, but none of us are getting rich here.  That’s what makes the power work like fuel with the spark of passion and the oxygen of passion.  And that’s part of the problem.  That’s what makes me nobody.

As part of my work day, I look at museum job openings across the U.S. on a weekly basis.  It seems that leadership and development positions have just plain gone weird on Gen X.  There was a job search going on a while ago at the Smithsonian Museum of American History after Brent Glass’ departure.  There was a simultaneous search for a head of the museum studies program over at American University.  I took both the job postings and looked at them side by side just out of curiosity.  Here were two high profile gigs in the same town.  Both job adverts demanded a high level of education, something I’ve been too busy working and raising kids over the years to achieve.  Both job adverts were for big jobs, management, fundraising, and all the other bells and whistles.  The short sighted nugget was that the American job was only a year’s worth of non tenure track job, yet both of these positions demanded experience, proven abilities, and a subtext that Gen X need not apply.  There was something about the number of years in the field that just edged us out of both.  And who wants these jobs?  They need people who slightly resemble the last person who held the office. They need someone who can poop rainbows.  A unicorn that poops rainbows would be ideal.

Cultivating Baby Boomers is the status quo.  Far too much of it is being done, if  you ask me.  Baby Boomers won’t be here forever.  Gen Y is going to be where it’s at in fundraising by the time I get my pink slip or resign.  What are they going to want?  How much are they going to be willing to give?  You’d best get started.

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About rustybaker647

Museums, motorcycles, art, pop culture, literature, Gen X, history, politics, baseball, Pennsylvania. I direct the activities of Pennsylvania's statewide museum association. I am like Mad Max driving a mini van with properly installed car seats.

8 responses to “Where Have All The Rainbow Pooping Unicorns Gone?

  1. Reblogged this on karlitoweb and commented:
    Karlito is feeling lazy today. Karlito will therefore dip into the well of awesomeness that is GenX Says… and share this awesome post of awesomeness whilst I go track down Thesaurus Rex and my Muse and get them back into their cages.

  2. rustybaker647 ⋅

    This post ended up being pretty timely. It was announced today Taylor Swift gave $4 million to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

  3. Dan Spock ⋅

    Ha ha! Great post. Just to clarify where I was coming from in my talk since the CFM post was a summary: The main gist re: Boomers is that they’re getting to a, umm, “mature” stage of life and, in the past anyway, people at that life stage become less future-directed, have a retrospective desire to take stock of the past, think about leaving a legacy, etc., which in turn could be an opportunity for history museums. Also, I pointed out that history museum boards and donors tend to run scary old, with many elderly non-Boomer members still serving and donors still giving in their 80’s and 90’s, a over-reliance leaving the possibility of a leadership and funding support gap as they pass on without Boomers stepping up. Of course, many Boomers have a lot of money at this point in their lives and there are a lot of them too, so getting them engaged should be a priority purely from the practical standpoint of institutional self-preservation. But I cautioned that, so far, Boomers have defied expectations and have generally tried strenuously to do everything differently than their predecessors, including being in denial about getting old, even eschewing all of the traditional terms of aging like “senior,” “elderly,” “retirement,” etc., etc. I noted that Boomers are primarily interested in themselves, as evidenced by their even stronger than anticipated showing at The 1968 Exhibit at the MN History Center (48% of visitors between the ages of 60 and 70 alone!) Though I am a late Boomer myself (b.1959), I’m pretty cognizant of the shortcomings of our generational cohort and share a lot of the frustrations of the GenXers.

  4. This is right on time. I had a very heated debate (rant) over lunch yesterday about how too many leadership position openings in museums are designed to make sure that no one of my generation has a snowball’s chance in hell of even coming close to qualifying for them. I tried to make my argument more coherent at the time, but that was the gist of it. I’m waiting (perhaps with futility) for current leaders to step up and truly mentor, rather than hoarding all of the career goodies for themselves.

  5. rustybaker647 ⋅

    Thanks for all the comments, and thank you Dan for fleshing out your remark in the summary. Almost all museum issues are more complex than most of us can articulate in thousands of words, and that’s probably why that particular recommendation seemed out of place next to the others and such an easy starting point for me.

  6. Love me some Dan Spock and starting to like me some Rusty Baker, too. This is a fantastic post and I love your prose style that feels so personal, engaging and entertaining. We have a responsibility to get edgemecated, though.

    We can’t just sit back on our Smiths records collections and bemoan the fact that we can bemoan really well.

    You can take six years to get through a two year MBA program, with a kid in between. I think…I don’t remember most of it. I didn’t sleep much. Don’t now neither.

    And the more we apply for those jobs, the more we are going to get them.

    Director of Honolulu Academy of Art: Stephan Jost http://blog.honoluluacademy.org/?p=2260 when the job was announced in Jan 2011, “…And he turns 42 on Saturday…”

    Dennis Kois, DeCordova Museum (Lincoln, MA) http://legacy.artnewengland.com/issues/Aug_Sept_2008/dennis-kois.html in 2008 “..Kois, thirty-nine, a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, studied museum design and management at institutions including the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; New York University; and the Getty Leadership Institute…”

    The challenge is how to then be really, really good when you get there. These two men are doing it. And well, “I was looking for a job, and then I found a job. And heaven knows I’m miserable now…” 😉

  7. rustybaker647 ⋅

    “And the more we apply for these jobs, the more we are going to get them.” That made my morning. Right on.

  8. JennX

    damn straight you all. We (Bay Area Discovery Museum) have a new CEO (Karyn Flynn, Gen X), a new Executive Director of our Center for Childhood Creativity (Elizabeth Rieke, Gen X), a Board probably 90%+ Gen X, and we’re hiring for a Director of Development and a Director of Learning & Educational Content – the finalists I’ve met with have all been Gen X.

    So it’s probably because we’re a children’s museum so our current adult constituents are parents (lifestage + demographics = Gen X). And we’re not huge ($4m budget, 300,000 visitors).

    But still – maybe we as a generation need to look at museums that are more likely to attract younger stakeholders – and that’s where we can make our mark higher up, if that’s what we seek?

    And this: “The challenge is how to then be really, really good when you get there.” YES YES YES

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