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.

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.

When we run out of old white men…

Sometime in early November I came across the blog post the usual way. It was tweeted, and the catchy 140 headline made me think, “Whoa, here is somebody with something to say.”

That tweet was: What’s the easiest way to be a Museum Director? Evidently, be a man. There was a link with its crystal blue cryptic temptation.

I clicked on the link that led to the blog, and there it was in all its glory. The author had looked over one Facebook page, The Art Museum Partnership’s page, upon which they do the scrivnin’ of who becomes a director at museums. Big surprise, seventy eight percent of their postings were about some man or another who made it to be a museum director. It was admittedly unscientific, and the author challenged readers to contribute their thoughts about what might be up with that. I resisted the urge to type the obvious. I have been in this business long enough to know a thing or two, yet something about the man in me told me it’d be making myself a big target to speak my mind in the comment section, re-tweet that shit with some kind of snark, or put it on my wall with something witty and smart that only a few of my friends would have appreciated.

People are people, even on the internet, and the path of least resistance works there just like it does anywhere else. Pages like the Art Museum Partnership are full of news that was widely and easily shared. News gathering for a field like museum work is a simple thing, and I do this exact thing for Pennsylvania’s statewide museum association. It’s a big part of my working day to find enough content to share on Facebook, Twitter, and the central tool of my organization, its website. I have saved searches. I have lots of them. I search like a human museum-bot every day for museum jobs in Pennsylvania, museum press releases, and museum trend topics. I have learned this one thing: small museums suck at getting the word out about anything. The Art Museum Partnership, short of accusing whoever is in my shoes behind that page of laziness, tends to take a broader look at the museum landscape. They are looking at bigger searches, and that is sure to yield information from bigger institutions.

What I’m trying to say is that there may be an unusual number of male directors at larger institutions just like there are many, many more men at the heads of for profit corporations, and as the organizations get smaller and the pay scale drops, there will be lots more women than men in the Big Chair. When you get into the more passion/less prestige range of organizations, the volunteer ones with no staff whatsoever, it would probably be 78% women. It could be even more because the median age of these types of organizations is blue haired and widowed. These women make it happen for nothing, the cow and the milk for free, just like their fathers warned them about in 1922.

The education level is also at play here, and the men who run the bigger organizations today are at an advantage over the women who may be in competition for the jobs. Most men don’t have gaps in their experience from caring for children or long periods of under-employment (jobbing down for more time with kids). Sometimes I think the Baby Boomer women should hate the Baby Boomer men more, but they can all go out together as far as I’m concerned. This generation now in the Big Chair is not leaving, not soon enough, and when one leaves, the Trustees are looking for another one just like the last one. This will go on for a while, but it will stop someday. Someday it will have to stop. You can’t have incontinence, rambling alzheimers, and physical inability all over your workplace forever. Dead men can’t run museums, can they?

When it comes to commenting on gender gap, do you know who is the least reliable source? The least reliable source is the person with an ax to grind about the opposite sex. The least reliable source is the one that comes in with an agenda and without an ear to anything beyond that agenda. I didn’t want to comment on the blog. I’m a man. I wouldn’t want to comment publicly on race and museum directorship as a white man, either. There are far too few qualified black candidates for museum work, and too many African American museums have struggled with poor directorship, management, and white shackled resources. The African American community in most places has low expectations of its museums and museum experiences, and rightly so given history’s disappointments. There are people who will bait you on both of these issues, gender and race, and sometimes it’s best just to be a good listener.

Rewrite the tweet: Have what it takes to be a museum director? Evidently be a Baby Boomer.

In ten years, I will still have a B.A. and about twenty years of experience in arts, culture, and museums. I will probably not be a museum director again in my lifetime, and it was odd that I ever was. It was an unusual circumstance. I may be able to work in museums, and it will be a very different world in ten years. My boss will have about twelve or fifteen years of museum experience. She will have an advanced degree in the field, and she will have done some hard time in the trenches. She will have snuck out behind the dumpsters by the loading dock to get high before continuing the endless task of digitalizing all five million pictures in the collection. She will be Gen Y, and she will be a good thing. She might have a management degree, but the degree she got for the thing she really loved will be there to talk about. She will be a good manager, and she will listen politely when I talk about how much the Baby Boomers sucked. She might be black, and I won’t even think twice about it.

“You are a part of the first global workforce that contains members of FOUR generations.”


How many generations do you see at your museum or organization? We’re hiring an intern this summer who is 18 (still Gen Y) and we have one staff member who is in her 70’s (which makes her a Traditionalist). As a children’s museum we probably skew younger in staff than other museum types.

Do any of you ‘reverse mentor’? What does that look like – more than giving Facebook tips to Boomers, right?

Incidentally, when will Gen Z get old enough to give themselves a moniker?

Collaboration across four generations