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Lessons learned - an interview with Betsy Bradley and Jordan Perry of the Mississippi Museum of Art

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Betsy Bradley, Museum Director and Jordan Perry, Director of Development for the Mississippi Museum of Art recently shared some observations and lessons they learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and how the recent past could inform future activities. Their interview with Ann Shackelford, Senior Consultant at Arthur Alley, follows.

What were some of the most obvious ways that COVID-19 has affected your work?

Betsy - As I think about it now, I can't really separate the COVID crisis from the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. It all comes together as a moment in history that is profound. Reactions to both of those events are related to each other, and I also think that there is something new and different about the energy of this moment. We'll look back in many years and think "that was a moment, not unlike the 1960's."

So I am grateful that we already had a strategic plan that voiced clear focus on race & equity, that prioritized the work of CAPE (Center for Art and Public Exchange), and that we had 3 years of experience in building an initiative about race & equity. And so we were ready for the moment. For the most part, we had done our internal work, with the staff and the board, and frankly each of us individually, wrestling with these issues and what they meant to us as an organization so that when the issues emerged as those of national and community concern, we had the relationships built that could help us determine next steps.

Jordan - To all those who had contributed to our gala, we offered small tours of the museum, with masks. Just bringing in a few people and really engaging them. This may be one of those blessings in disguise. Maybe if we can find a way to raise money without having to dress up and go out...This could be the death of the gala!

If we then look at the pandemic and some of the other movements and conversations happening in society recently, how do you think this will affect your work both short- and long-term?

Betsy - In our field, art museum directors nationwide have been in conversation much more frequently than we have before. We're on calls every week now. That's been good. Frankly, when it was just COVID crisis, there was this generosity of spirit, about sharing protocols and resource documents and those kinds of things. It felt supportive and affirming and like there was a community.

Since George Floyd was murdered, the conversations have been less of that, either more silence or more posturing. These statements that people rushed to produce, that to me seemed like cloaking in pretty words intentions that were not backed up with actions. I fell into that, I worried a lot about having the right words, until I figured out that making the right moves was more important.

I've learned that "diversity" can be a charged word. The conversations I was having with other art museum directors felt very tactical. Recently I've said that I don't think we're asking the right questions - about board representation, and the type of exhibits we offer and how to appeal to a broader audience. I think we need to be asking: "What's our reason for being? Why are art museums here? What does a museum look like in a Post- Colonial world, because I think that's where we're headed and should be headed. What does that mean about owning art versus helping art get created? What does it look like in terms of making decisions with community, tearing at the edges of the structures that we've had?"

Did your online/email/digital engagement increase during the Pandemic? How so?

I look back and think that we didn't pivot to digital nimbly enough, in terms of

programming or quickly enough.

What new habits/strategies/tactics will you bring with you into the post-COVID-19 era?

There were things that we had been planning that seemed to be 3+ years in the future that now suddenly we're writing into Federal grants. Like making the Museum a touchless experience.

Also this is such an opportunity for us as a staff to talk about nonprofit funding structures. This has really been an eye-opening thing at this time for our development


How did your donor engagement change during this time?

Betsy - We strove for honesty and transparency at all levels, internally and externally. I think that strengthened our internal teams, especially the development team, who put a very intentional and strategic communications plan to work on the fact that we had received money for an event we could not have. (The Museum's annual gala, scheduled for April 4th to celebrate the opening of their new exhibit, was cancelled and the Museum shut down for four months.)

So they were very skilled at that, personally contacting all patrons and sponsors of the event, and the result was that no one wanted their money back! We were able to meet our fundraising goals without having an event. Jordan did a great job of focusing her team in a way that was very smart.

They then took the opportunity to call every single member of the Museum, realizing that people were at home and might actually answer the phone. So that was both relationship building, a chance to get good data, to ask questions.

Jordan - The member calls - I realized we would never get a better set of circumstances in which to do those. So I'm glad I pushed those. For agencies and foundations, they have been so responsive and expedited funding, knowing how much we and other nonprofits needed those dollars.

Do you have a development plan in place? Did you stick to it?

Jordan - Yes! We engaged Arthur Alley last year to help us create a development plan, just as we'd completed and embarked on executing our overall strategic plan.

Not only did we have a strategic plan in place, but we have managed to get back on track during these 4 months we've been closed. Betsy has gotten us back focused on strategy meetings. Which is pretty impressive, right?

Betsy - The Foundation world has certainly taken a shift toward direction that, thank goodness, we were already headed in, and they have rewarded us for it.

And what it means for our financial model? I don't really know yet. How we engage our community in more unilateral investment in what we're going? We haven't figured that out yet. But we're starting to talk about it. It's exciting to be in the middle of these sea changes.

Any other lessons learned - professional or personal - that you'd like to share?

Betsy - We have learned an incredible amount. At first, we were thrown a little bit off even though we did have a strong strategic plan, with our overall concern for the safety of our staff, our board, our patrons, our community - the physical health of everyone took our attention. Then we shifted from physical health to mental health. Thinking about the strain that people were under in so many different ways, depending on their personal situation. Communication was essential. We scheduled more Zoom meetings during this time than we had had in person meetings before.

We're looking at endowment, which had been a focus for us. Does that appear to be hoarding of wealth? I do think that we need resources and security to put flesh and muscle onto our values. But how will we move forward in that area?

I think the time that people had to reflect, made us ready for unrolling a more disciplined and structured approach to realizing our work plans to effect the strategic plan. There wasn't a crisis of faith; there was only affirmation.

And that was nationwide. After the initial response to both crises, the country began turning to art and creativity. It says a lot about stripping down to the essentials, and we all turn to family & friends, and to the central role of art & imagination to sustain the human spirit. That has come back to us many times.

Jordan - Two words sum up this time for me - opportunity and anxiety. We had gone through a reorganization with several new employees. So we had this time when everyone was isolated and we had a chance to get to know each other. You know that

expression: "Never let a crisis go to waste."

This interview was conducted by Arthur Alley as part of our efforts to share what we learn. Arthur Alley fundraising & mission development counsel empowers you to craft a meaningful story firmly rooted in your organization’s purpose and to effectively secure resources. Arthur Alley has the experience and insight to help you achieve your career goals and for your organization to thrive.

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