Leading from the Middle

I know I am not alone when I think, “Doesn’t every generation feel sandwiched in the middle?” Not being a scholar on the subject but aspiring to be generationally-empathetic, I’ll just say, “Yeah, probably.” So is there anything that makes GenX “special” (with ironic quotes)?  From a demographic perspective, the answer is a firm, “Yes.” We are a thin slice of olive loaf in a Texas toast sandwich between the Boomers and GenY.  So…yes.  We are sandwiched in the middle of these demographically fat generations. While thin, we are complex, representing the lips-and-assholes sensibility of baloney and the Mediterranean “je ne sais quoi” of olives and pimentos.

I agree. That analogy is over the top. Don’t let it stop you.

The pain of being sandwiched in the middle—regardless the thickness of the bread or the moniker of generations—is that feeling of wanting to do something meaningful…something that makes sense to you and the folks that you identify with. This is the pain of every generation. How do you create change? The pain for GenX is that we are demographically small and relatively underrepresented in organizations. So that… to be honest…sucks. For GenXers in small non-profits it often becomes a question of how do you create change in which sometimes only you believe?

Do not despair. Despite the thinness of our olive loaf (i.e., generation), we demographically represent a numerically and financially important demographic for fundraising and earned income for museums. I know. Retch retch. Puke puke. Gag me with a spoon. “I am more than fundraising and earned income!”

You’re right. Every generation represents the link to which it is sandwiched between. You know how the venerable Fresh Prince once said, “Parents just don’t understand?” I strongly believe that GenX is the generational bridge between the demographically dominant Boomer parents and their kooky, creative and demographically boomin’ kids in GenY.

This idea isn’t popular amongst GenXers. We are doggedly “more than that!” Don’t get me wrong. I am with you brothers and sisters. I too am personally more than a bridge between two demographically dominant generations. We have apeloads of assets (and baggage) associated with the cultural milieu of our times that make our generation good leaders and managers. That said, from an organizational perspective we have some very tangible “intergenerational” perspectives that allow us to bridge our sandwiching demographic giants. Capitalize on all those unique assets. Lead from the middle as a generation and an individual. Smart organizations will (eventually) recognize the long-term benefits you represent to the mission.

Asshole 101: Boomer Privilege

Warning: angry, generalized rant ahead in response to the onslaught of ALL THE THINGS perpetuating the myth that Baby Boomers Rule the World and Will Do So Forever.

Dear Boomers: Through a mystical combination of genetics, propaganda, averages and pure, dumb luck your overpopulated cohort has managed to survive a long number of years on this planet. Because of this, The Universe owes you. Therefore, it’s perfectly fine to cut checkout lines, demand old-age discounts, insist that nothing has value unless you created it, and extinguish the leadership torch your children and grandchildren should inherit rather than passing it along.

You want all the privileges, all the time. You want the perks of being old, but you bristle at being referred to as such. You want your incontinence pads renamed “underwear.” You want a steady supply of pills to keep your fun bits engorged engaged. You want younger people to spurn the things you gleefully enjoyed. To everyone else, this ideology smacks of entitlement. To you, it is a right.

You think you’ve done it all. You think you’ve earned it all. You think you know it all. Well, here’s one thing you’re forgetting: none of us get out of this alive.

It’s only a matter of time. Your prophetic and talented peer James Brown said it best: give it up or turn it loose.

While you can.

The Jens (Jenns, Gens, Genns) in Gen X

I am a Jennifer.  That quintessential name that belongs with Generation X.  There are so many of us, after being the number 1 name for girls 15 years from 1970 to 1984.  You’d think with this name we’d all become cookie cutter images of each other.  But Jennifer represents the diversity that many Gen Xers seek.  Because we felt like we might be put into a box with other Jennifers, we found ways to express ourselves by taking control of our names and reinventing ourselves.

In my case, I was a Jenny when I was small.  That works for a cute grade school student.  I went to a small school, each individual grade had about 15-20 students in it.  Typical of the Gen X generation, our numbers were so much smaller than those before us (after I left that grade school, the district closed it and shipped the kids elsewhere).  But even in such a small class, there was still another Jennifer in it.  I was perfectly happy with Jenny.  My parents and siblings called me that, it was my identity, shaped who I was.

Then we moved to another town.  I started junior high (ah, remember the junior highs before they all became middle schools?) in a town a little bigger than the one I grew up in.  This town had three junior highs that all fed into the high school.  The student numbers were large enough, that junior high included 7, 8, and 9th grade and high school was 10-12.  More students, more chances for Jennifers.  Each grade had a good number of them.  Many went by Jenny.  Or Jenni. Or Jen.  Then, in eighth grade, someone told me that there was another Jenny at a different junior high, a year ahead of me, with the same last name!  Same last name spelling!  What eighth grader wants to share a name with someone?  We want to be different, yes?  I made the choice then, that at least I would spell my nickname differently.  I became Jennie, just so I could be different.  So many of us Jennis and Jennies and Jennys were together in high school.  In fact, the other Jenny was in choir with me.  They couldn’t call us by our first name and last intial (which we were used to in so many other cases).  It never occurred to either of us to go by Jen or Jennifer.  We got called Jenny A. and Jenny L.  Thank goodness the middle names were different, otherwise, I think I would have really wanted to chew out my parents.

Moving through college, I found my name to be even more versatile.  College often means you need to change up your image.  Start calling yourself a different version of Jennifer.  Jennie had become too little kid-ish.  Besides, we all shortened our friends’ names to one syllable.  So Jennie became Jenn.  Not Jen, because of course, everyone was using that spelling.  There were Jenis, Jennys, Jennies, Jens, Gens Gennies, and even the dignified use of Jennifer.

When I became a museum professional, it seemed more appropriate to call myself by my full name, to show I mean business.  My new business cards had Jennifer on it.  I would wince if someone shortened it to Jennie, because that was my younger self and seemed inappropriate to me.  Although, the older gentlemen who volunteered in my museum did not get the wince.  Since they were older, I let them call me whatever version of Jennifer they were comfortable with.  Other people would get gentle reminders that I preferred Jennifer.

What does all this have to do with Generation X?  I think the way each of us Jennifers takes our name and uses it to reinvent ourselves, while having a version of our name that still identifies us as a Jennifer shows how versatile we are as a generation and how we take something ordinary and common and make it our own and extraordinary.  This basic name versatility translates into our creativity and adaptability to changing situations.  We are getting older, and I would agree, sometimes we don’t like change.  But once we get over the initial shock of change, we’re willing to dig into the new stuff, marvel at it, play around with it and make it our own.  It’s been pointed out in articles that we just want our Baby Boomer bosses to recognize us for our versatility and creativity.  Well, that and actually use our ideas.  We get frustrated with being pushed aside, when our ideas for change are not tested.  Not all GenXers are perfect, but when we show our creativity and excitement, take notice and use it.

If we don’t get our talents used, we push that energy elsewhere, evident in our versatile creativity.  Me, stuck in a job I was hating, first channeled that creativity into writing.  Writing an entire fictional novel, about, what else, time travel and history with a friend and co-author.  Still stuck in the same rut, I then channeled that energy into preparing for a 471 mile bike ride across the great state of Iowa.  Ok, so biking doesn’t take talent, but I wanted to feel accomplished again.  And what can feel more accomplished than hauling ass across 471 miles in seven days?  I get to learn stuff about bikes, biking, biking gear, increase my fitness, find some dedication again and see a light at the end of the tunnel.  So not related to my history museum job, but look at how I reinvented myself yet again.

I love each of my names.  Jennie is what my family calls me, what my friends from junior high and high school call me.  It reminds me of being a little kid, being young and with less cares.  Jenn is the wild and crazy college student, striking out on her own, also what my adult friends call me. I’m casual and fun.  But when it came down to business, I was all business and pulled out Jennifer.  It feels powerful, in charge and business-like for me.  So, to all the Jennifers, and Gennifers, and any other way you can spell it, keep changing who you are and be ready to be versatile.  And that goes for the rest of Gen X as well.

Don’t Cry For Me Argentina!!!

I was also planning on posting another article that was completely relevant last week but as the weekend continued other things became other new things to write about. Before I wrote a kind of crazy post about tea-baggers, hippies and spare change, as well as, innovation and living off-the grid. I somehow related this all to museums reaching their full potential. Instead, please read about how as of today I officially don’t work at a museum anymore, It’s somewhat of a farewell love letter…

I have loved working at @artsmia for the last 7 years. My history extends back to when I was a young girl taking art classes, including stretching my first canvas to paint at the museum (I remember this vividly as we were listening to Beetles Yellow Submarine in the classroom).  I used to skip high-school and spend the day here and when I went to art school it was just a block away…  As an adult who returned to Minneapolis, I have had the fortune to work at this museum and really let it be the place where I learned all I could and got my chops…

Last night was my official last evening of work at the museum…  I will share my early museum history and why today I’m just fine that I left… Perhaps I am crazy, as Only Idiots Listen to Bob Dylan clearly points out, people do not leave their museum jobs!

After applying for a long time (maybe about 12 times over three years) and repeatedly receiving the “white card of rejection” in the mail. I finally got an interview with HR from a personal recommendation (thank you!). I was so excited to get this opportunity – finally!  Unfortunately, I only had a BFA from one of the best art schools and 20 years of experience directing galleries, founding an art gallery in Taos, NM, teaching art since I was 15, being a historic tour guide, kid’s camp arts director, exhibiting fine artist etc. was told I had no experience for lack of an advanced degree. I was shut down and told there really was no jobs available for me.  I just refused to leave that office without a job and asked if there really wasn’t anything.. I was offered to work in the gift shop or as a gallery security guard. I thought it would not be bad to look at art all day so I said please being me the uniform! This single Mom was happy, thought I was actually a good guard and felt completely fortunate to finally work in the museum I wanted to for so long. I ultimately had way bigger dreams then being a security guard but for then was willing to work my way up the latter!

A friend I made while being a guard gently refers to working in Security sometimes on FB as working in “the mines”… I understand that. Whereas in Europe its very prestigious to work in museum security, here I have seen and experienced where it may become a labor of drudgery for some.  Despite being on the bottom of the chain, I still rocked that uniform with fabulous looking boots and a great attitude. I seized that opportunity to really learn the art in each gallery. I’d secretly sketch the works, once caught, I’d memorize all the labels. I’d make a game of learning the accession numbers, listen to docents and learn details about all the works.  I even would help visiting students write their essays on a work of art they were excited by in the area I was guarding.  Eventually I started noticing occasional errors in the labels or weird things I thought “needed to be fixed” in the galleries.  I would find this nice guy I’d see walking around who seemed to fix things named Ken, and tell him things like, “The date on the Fournier painting is wrong”, and explain why I thought that. Shortly after, the label had changed. So again, I said “Excuse me, may I just show you there’s a Period room with two different colored candles, this sconce has an ivory colored candle and the opposite has an eggshell colored candle”, and again they changed it!  My shining moment of glory was after the entire Bell Court Decorative Arts Galleries were completely re-installed, I pointed out that the Wedgwood box couldn’t bee seen well enough because the frame of the bay window was blocking the view. I knew I could NEVER say that to the curator even though it burned inside of me and kept me up at night. I took the risk of gently suggesting to Ken that if it was moved just two inches over it would not have a deep shadow on it.  A few weeks later it had been quietly readjusted. It was confirmed for me then that I had influence, I could really change things. I felt that my voice, carefully used, actually mattered here.

After a couple months of standing around guarding art I knew I should try to peruse an advanced degree and thought since I love to paint and have read art history books since I could remember would then perhaps be a Painting Curator. While working in the Judaica gallery a docent offered a group of visiting school children what I considered a pretty poor explanation of a Tzadaka box . I realized then that it was important for me to be a Judaica Curator so I may be in the appropriate position to change the docent files and possibly other things that could help educate others. I knew if I wasn’t part of the solution, that I was part of the problem of the lack of cultural understanding and compassion for others. This path was more meaningful to me then writing about Caravaggio or Botticelli, for instance. Perhaps I may contribute to something bigger then just my personal interests in art. Perhaps I may even contribute to the prevention of another genocide.

That day I went home and enrolled in grad school to get a MA in art history. Soon I quit being a Guard and gravitated into a Student Internship in the Judaica Gallery.  I also got an Internship Assisting the Main Registrar of Collections, as well as a temporary/seasonal position as an Art-in-the-Park, Family Day and Teen Youth Programs Art Teacher.  The rest is history… 7 years later, I’ve made a million contributions to that institution, including the Judaica Docent files. I’m able see evidence of my work all over the museum. I’ve been well liked and supported by the other staff members. I’ve had great Mentors and had many extraordinary opportunities. However, no one’s really seriously championed me there or said omg this girls so amazing – she knows all the things we should do!  Her paintings are amazing she’s going to be famous one day and wow what an amazing museum Director she will be… so innovative and smart etc..” but they respect me and honor my work. Last night I taught all the new program teachers how I do an art lesson. Many new teachers approached me after to share with me their hopes and dreams of contributing to the program as I once had.  I was Tweeted yesterday a generous “thank you for wearing many hats” and I saw many colleagues I may connect with at I desire. I feel like I still have an open door and almost the illusion of free-reign in many ways when Im there…

Although I felt that I was contributing to change there I also felt like I was becoming stuck. First of all, I didn’t have a “real full time” job there. So I was never really “in”. How much change can you make when you aren’t even really “in”?  I once actually got fired for refusing to do something very compromising during a short job stint in Visitor Services and figured I never really got hired again because there was a big red NO! at the bottom of my records after that… Or perhaps because I was so full of ideas about new ideas and things and how cool it would be if x-y-z… Change is sometimes threatening to people. I remember years ago in Italy (I went there with that same great man Ken I ended up Interning & Volunteering for)  -after seeing a Kinects wall in an exhibition, returned talking all about it and people looked at me like I was crazy…now the museum brings in other people to do that stuff even though I’ve been telling them stuff like this – like to build cool apps with our collection using new innovations like AR & games etc for a long long time!!!

I was able to infuse iPads into lesson plans for teens and kids out in the parks. I also showed Registration how they could make in-galley inventories with an iPad and how easy it was.. I want to move forward with a PhD Program in Digital Innovations and make iPad apps with games for Jewish art history and immersive exhibitions for in-gallery and on the street using digital technology. Eventually I want to establish a Jewish museum and build it using the most advanced media as the architecture and mission of the museum. I’d tell people about it but realize theres no job like that offered at the museum or opening anytime soon there. Between a job-freeze and slow institutional paces of change I realized I’d have to quit my current positions if I wanted to go forward. I had reached my full potential in the roles that I had but not in the museum. A Teacher does not become an Innovative Director by staying a Teacher or volunteering to do every other job… I think could recontextualize myself and reproach the museum, and other museums, as a Visiting Artist and I also have the option of being a mentored phd student, or even get a proper job in another museum… I’ll take any/all of the above if I can! I know eventually I will have a really great job & am willing to go anywhere to do so. I have contributed a million ways to the positions I have had and to the museum and intend to again in the future…

So I’m not crying today that I don’t have a job at my favorite museum. I am ready for my next steps and know the museum is there to support me in many ways (but not necessarily a job) – but now I also believe my life and career are bigger then just this museum…I’ve enlarged my scope and feel like I’m full of options. So please, don’t cry for me Argentina!!! When my neighbor asked how will the museum go on without me? I answered that a well run institution (despite that it could use some change, as all museums can) should not fall apart if any one person leaves. A well run organization should just keep running smoothly and if your work matters you will be able to see and other people’s work perfectly…Perhaps at one time my ego may have wanted it to shake a little – but not anymore.  I love my museum but now its time for me to move forward!

Only Idiots Listen to Bob Dylan

I was planning to write something over the weekend about my mentors, mentoring others, and the generational divide in the workplace.  Instead, there is this.  There will be something less ridiculous and less fake-angry some other time.

There is a big generation of people who ought to, by now, be leaving the workplace so people like myself have greater opportunities.  Somehow, though, they just won’t leave.  I need the money, they say.  I am still doing the job, they say.  I’m experienced, they say.  I am still cool, they say.  So I’m going to give you a couple of tips I’ve picked up along the way to help you help these people go away.

Tell everyone around you that Wings is much better than the Beatles.  Sing Wings songs loudly to support this notion.  The world needs more silly love songs.

Insinuate JFK, RFK, and MLK had it coming to them.  Insist the world would be exactly the same had they never existed.

Write a letter to your newspaper every summer when they do their usual, annual “we remember Woodstock” article, and clearly articulate how Woodstock was practically a genocidal disaster, nothing but mud and people who would later claim to have been on drugs.  Explain how it’s ridiculous how anyone could think singing loud anywhere would actually stop a war or secure the logistics to feed a large group of young people.  Expose the many liars who claim to have attended Woodstock, all seven million of them that you know personally.

Say “Bob Dylan was an idiot” as often as you can.  Say it on the phone over your lunch hour.  Say it on your break.  Get a T-shirt made that says this and wear it on “dress down” day.

NEW DATE: Meetup for Drinking About Museums: Friday June 8

Alight, so life as a multi-tasking, juggling GenXer gets a little complicated. I’m the teaching assistant for an MBA class at University of Berkeley Haas School of Business, and I have class on Thursday nights!

New date for #DrinkingAboutMuseums: Friday, June 8.

So, if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, and you’d like to come hang out and talk social media or GenX or museums or anything like that, please join me on Friday, June 8 at 4 p.m. at the Bay Area Discovery Museum. We’ll take an after-hours tour, check out our new Patrick Dougherty willow sculpture, then head over to the Presidio Yacht Club for a tasty beverage or two with a view (don’t worry – it’s more dive bar than yacht club).

Let me know @ZeitgeistMama if you’re planning on coming so I can meet you – the Museum closes at 4pm so this is a private tour!

Gen X Loves Museums. Do Museums Love Us Back?

*Hat-tip to The Pinky Show for completing biting their title

I wrote a post for my blog, Cabinet of Curiosities, bemoaning the lack of racial diversity (for the lack of a better word) in museums, particularly in leadership positions. It’s not like I expected things to miraculously change in the two years since it was written, but I confess that in my heart of hearts burned the desire that the collective ship would have at least begun to recognize that it was hopelessly off-course and begun the process of righting itself.

But in keeping with my sailing theme, it seems that not only has the industry failed to find its way, it has been magnificently obstinate about remaining lost at sea. Expand diversity to include ethnic, gender and age differences, and it’s even worse.

Museums Need to Admit They Have Image Problems

My former museum gig involved (among way to many things to list here) sitting in a very public space and discussing educational programs, how they actually allow us to have art Kansas City (“Wow! I can’t believe this is the Midwest!”), and helping them find the bathroom (right next door). It was also a prime spot to observe visitors’ perceptions of that museum in particular and the industry in general.

I often heard variations of the following:

  • “I’m so glad to see you here.” This from black folks who appreciated the fact that I was in the building and operating in what seemed like a “professional” capacity (not food service, security, or maintenance.)
  • “Why is there nothing but old, white man art on the walls?”
  • “How come there’s no art by (insert ethnic/racial group here)?”
  • “I haven’t been here since the third grade. It just doesn’t feel like a place for me.”

The last bullet is particularly troubling. Why would someone feel this way? What vibe, overt or otherwise, is the museum projecting? Are museum leaders aware that people think this? Do they care?

Museums Need to Admit The World Has Changed

Much literal and virtual ink has been devoted to rapidly changing demographics, particularly in the United States.  It boils down to this: changes aren’t on the horizon, they are here. According to the U.S. Census Bureau:

  • U.S. population tripled during the last century, with the fastest growth among “minorities.”
  • In 2012, 50.4% of children in the U.S. under the age of 1 are of a “minority” group.
  • “Minorities” are expected to become the majority by 2042. Do the math, people. That’s 30 years.

Anyone who truly believes that the status quo can be sustained is misguided at best and delusional at worst. Your current and future visitors, students, and donors will expect to see themselves reflected in your trustees, staff, collections, and exhibitions. This may be a good time to revisit (or create) that diversity policy.

Museums Need to Admit They Give Gen X the Gas Face

The National Endowment for the Arts released a report called “Age and Arts Participation.” While it narrowed its focus on the Baby Boomers Cohort, their data showed that “Baby Busters” (defined as those born between 1966 – 1976) ranked second highest in art museum attendance. Obviously, you have fans in Gen X but as a whole you’re not checking for us, especially when it comes to hiring for leadership positions. If you want your museum to be truly progressive, consider the following:

  • Gen X is an untapped pool. We are highly educated, with 60% of us having some college education, yet we value experience as highly (if not more so) than formal education. We work more hours as a whole, love flexibility, and base our career choices on the potential for skill development and continuing education.
  • Gen X is your next board of trustees.  We are the most diverse generation alive, with less than two-thirds of its population reporting as White non-Hispanic. The U.S. Census reports that 29% of immigrants are aged 29 to 40.
  • Gen X is adaptable.  We are independent, adept at problem-solving and securing coalitions of the willing. While our foundation is in the early pre-information era, we came of age during the rise (and fall) of the dot-coms, and are well-versed in technological innovation. Connectivity is a key value, and given the proper due, we will become your biggest cheerleaders.

I  believe there’s more than enough room for Gen X at the table. Museums just have to offer us a seat.

A GenXSays Tribute to MCA / The Beastie Boys / Adam Yauch

Paige Dansinger says:

Let’s make a Beastie Boys tribute like you did the GenX “mixed-tape” .. Wonder if we are feeling collectively blue… Maybe each send in a favorite song Jen?

Netty’s Girl: Oh Georgie Girl you are the one… You really got your shit together o o o Georgie Girl you are so fine…
I named my best-ever dog Georgie Girl. She was a mastiff-lab and certainly saved my life a few times.. Georgie Girl was a real good dog. She was the one and her shit was together..

James Leventhal says:

I tried to think up a Beastie Boys song that means the most to me and what resonates is Brass Monkey.  Wait: Shake Your Rump…I mean, Sabotage.  And, y’know, so I took a moment to try and look up some lyrics to quote and a I realized a barely know a word.  Maybe like REM’s Murmur, it’s all about the feel.  The deep feeling.  It is all about creating a new sound for a now sound.  And where REM might have been a brilliant amalgam of several threads of mountain sounds of Appalachia, the Beastie Boys felt the concrete.  These are songs that make me feel greater than I am, transcendent.  Or, y’know what?  How about you just play all of Paul’s Boutique and let it roll…aw, man, take me back to 1989.  And this ain’t no joke.  This is about life and death, y’all. “If you can feel what I’m feeling then it’s a musical masterpiece. But if you can hear what I’m dealing with then that’s cool at least. What’s running through my mind comes through in my walk. True feelings are shown from the way that I talk. And this is me, y’all-I M.C., Y’all my name is M.C.A. and I still do what I please…”

Jennifer Caleshu says:

no sleep till brooklynI didn’t know I knew the Beasties so well until MCA died. Then I went back and realized I could quote verbatim all the lyrics on Licensed to Ill. And since I was 10 when it came out, it must have been through osmosis – I certainly didn’t buy the album when it was released (In 1987 I admit to Tiffany, Whitney Houston, Debbie Gibson and Belinda Carlisle!) But I went to an amazing summer camp (Four Winds Westward Ho) where the super-creative counselors came up with a skit called The Craftos singing “She’s Crafty“. And later I remember the senior boys singing “Candy! All I really want is candy! In the morning it’s candy! Cause in the evening it’s candy!” instead of “Girls!” And this kind of pop culture osmosis continued – of course through Sabotage (one of the best music videos ever) to inkjet printing a tshirt in 2005 for my newborn son that said “No Sleep Till Brooklyn!”

Jason B. Jones says:

The wackiness and creativity of the Beastie Boys always kept me enthralled. Especially the “incident” at 1994 MTV Video Music Awards – where Adam Yauch’s “uncle”, Nathaniel Hornblower, stormed onstage during the presentation of the Best Direction in a Video award (Sabotage had just lost):

Awesome. Afterward, Adam Yauch was apologetic . Stage storming rules, though – and it even happened in the GenX session at AAM. Wackiness and creativity abounded in their videos, too. Sabotage for one. Body Movin for another, and one of my faves. Enjoy!

Adrianne Russell says:

Three MC’s and One DJ:

An essential, no-frills, hip hop love letter.

Amparo Leyman says:

In my case the BB gave me, inherit the anthem:
you’ve got to fight for your right to party“, again the treasure to work to live…what a blessing…believe me, I fight a lot to got my right to party….
Sent from a club partying at the Bay Area

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.