The Playful, Open Net of an Experimental Leadership Journey

Rachel Ropeik, Manager of Public Engagement, Guggenheim Museum

Fishing nets in Karpathos, Greece. Photo by Miemo Penttinen via Flickr

After a long and soul-searching job hunt, a friend recently accepted a job in Western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley running a training program for community leaders and those looking to become leaders. (It’s a great program. Check it out.) I was catching up with him about his new job en route to a mutual friend’s wedding, and we talked for a long while about how to train people to be leaders.

We agreed that the key is motivating people to find their own leadership styles. Leadership is an intangible asset that comes from very tangible experience. Because no two people’s experiences are the same, no two people will lead in the same way. To become inspiring leaders, we each need to build from our own set of tangibles to create the individualized intangible styles that ring true in each of our lives.

Like my friend, I recently started a new job. I’m now a few months into my tenure as the Manager of Public Engagement at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the leader I want to be in this particular role and in my career more generally. How do I want to make the shift from coordinator to manager? What kind of path do I want to forge for myself on this journey? How can I “pay it forward” to empower those around me to find their own paths?

They’re big, nebulous questions, which are simultaneously exciting and intimidating. They’re also abstract questions, which are hard for someone like me who appreciates a healthy dose of the concrete. So here are some of the palpable things I’m doing to build my answers.

This is not a one-page Quick Start Guide to Leadership. Right now I’m seeking; I have not yet landed at finding. I’m not sure I believe in such a thing as “landing” on a fixed leadership style. But I do believe in the power of the journey. After all, one of the roots of the verb “to lead” is Old High German for “to travel.”

Take a little while and travel with me. See where I turn when I’m looking for inspiration and answers. It’s something of an unorthodox path, but I’m embracing it. This path is certainly not one-size-fits-all. I suggest, however, that some of the big ideas guiding my journey can enable yours as well.

Cast a Wide Net

“Eclecticism is the word. Like a jazz musician who creates his own style out of the styles around him, I play by ear.” — Ralph Ellison

I like to experiment. I have a wide range of interests in my personal life, and that carries over to my work. I introduced myself to a new group of colleagues by getting everyone to play Artwork Charades. I’ve already been talking with my new coworkers about dreams involving 3D printing and sensory experiences and making unorthodox use of out-of-the-way spaces.

Museums are reaching for innovative ways to invite new members of the public into our doors for novel experiences. Museum employees are a group of dedicated and creative people. However, we are also often caught up in bureaucracy and established routine. Our institutions, after all, are founded around the idea of preserving culture and are literally (and in a non-political sense) conservative organizations.

If we want new ideas, we should look beyond our field.
Maybe no museum answers are to be found in a cave in Zelve, Turkey, but I’ll check. Photo courtesy the author

One such source of inspiration is the fast-changing digital realm. As a social media user, I follow and interact with plenty of other museum and art world professionals, but the accounts on my “amusing and awesome” Twitter list are often the most inspiring. When people ask me for creative social media accounts, I don’t point them to my art world contacts. I send them to Pentametron (a bot that algorithmically pairs tweets into rhyming iambic pentameter couplets) or Lost Buoy (a sadly defunct — but still perusable — account that paired data from an unmoored NOAA buoy with quotes from Moby Dick). If you’d like an entertaining and macabre ten minutes, play through the Choose Your Own Adventure pathways of A dreadful start, which just might be my all-time favorite — and refreshingly unorthodox — use of Twitter. Barbiestyle is an Instagram account that does such a thorough job creating a believable world and persona for, yes, Barbie, that it often seems like a more cohesive documentation of someone’s day-to-day than any account documenting a real person’s life. If you’d prefer a Barbie-related Instagram account with a healthy (and hilarious) dose of irony mixed in, check out Socality Barbie instead. The kernels of cleverness, unpredictability, and immersion that I want to create inside the museum are all found in these accounts.

While I am certainly a fan of the potential of digital tools in museums, my wide net embraces offline experiences, too. Immersive theater events like Sleep No More are a chance to be utterly present in the moment in exactly the way many of us museum educators dream of being with our program audiences. How can I bring that feeling of being completely swept up in your surroundings into the museum? What lessons can I borrow from other experiences that leave memorable traces? What new ideas might speed dating or karaoke or cooking classes spark? I like to think any of these might inspire a new museum program. The wide net means that if you’re open to it (more on this idea later in this article), you can find inspiration anywhere.

Lest any quiet, independent souls be reading this and fearing that I’ve forgotten my Falk, I’m well aware that some of the lively, interactive strategies above may work for me and leave you cold. My desire in casting a wide net for ideas is not to apply a singular vision to my work, but rather to find a variety of strategies I can use when they’re most needed.

A river guide on my recent rafting adventure in the Grand Canyon used the expression “giving privacy”. Camping along the Colorado River, it was about the need to give people space to perform basic bodily functions. But it also resonated with me regarding how I approach my museum work. Every strong leader I’ve worked with has created space for others.

Allow others to cast their own nets wide, and inspiration can strike from any direction — a key to the kind of leader I aim to be.

“Trust is magic,” was how Kevin Huynh referred to it at a Creative Mornings talk. Give people — visitors and colleagues alike — the space and the trust to come up with their own ideas, have their own thoughts, and find their own influences.

As I move through this developing time in my own career, I am relying on these online, offline, and interpersonal ways of seeking inspiration from as many corners of the world as I can reach, and connecting people with a rich array of sources to guide their own ideas.

Keep Playing

The museum can be a quiet space for contemplation. I can’t count the times I’ve been happily mesmerized by silent, solo time with an artwork.

The museum can be a space for discussion and critique. On a recent trip to the Barnes Foundation, I loved getting into meaty art historical and visual analysis with two friends.

I still believe in the power of the museum as a cultural temple.

I also believe in the museum as a space for fun.

Getting my X-Men on at Cooper Hewitt with Damiàn Ortega’s Controller of the Universe. Photo courtesy the author

I like playfulness, and I will always argue for its place in adult programming in the museum. It goes beyond making a school field trip or a family museum outing fun for potentially-bored kids; adults can also get bored, and also like to play. I’ve written about this before. Play isn’t just key for child development, it’s a way for adults to engage in an activity of our own choosing with no pressure for a particular outcome. In lives so busy with work and deadlines and errands and bills to pay, let’s keep on carving out a space to exist and enjoy without expectation.

Fun is also a goal for myself and for those with whom I work. The state of playfulness is defined by attitude and approach, rather than by activity. Museum educators have not come to our jobs for the lure of lucre. It is important to me as I become responsible for other employees to foster the creativity and dedication that many people bring with them into the museum education field. What better way to encourage those energies than by making the museum a place that values the attitude of playfulness alongside the practical actions of getting work done?

I love being a museum educator. I really do. Part of that is because I believe in the value of art and art history. Part of it is because I’m committed to sharing that value with people who may not come to it on their own. And part of it is because this field is fun. That’s why I help create events like Museum Throwdowns and MuseumEd Mashups. I can’t express how excited I am to hear about the spread of these kinds of spontaneous, shared, playful teaching moments. When my former boss at the Brooklyn Museum returned from the AAM “Leading the Future of Museum Education” gathering in Denver in May, she was raving about the Throwdown: how it won over any initial skepticism she may have had, how it encouraged her to see art in a new way, how she came away feeling she had truly learned.

Play keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. It teaches us the value of collaboration. It reminds us that learning can happen in ways besides the transmitting of informative content, that sometimes learning can be the experience itself. And it prompts us to remember that yes, museums can be fun.

So, invite play into your work. Start a document called “Dreaming” to keep track of your ideas. Give your meetings imaginative titles. Maybe buy yourself and your department a copy of The Space Deck. Encourage your teams to take up creative brainstorming exercises. I know I will.

Stay Open

“Adventure comes to you… Adventure is to let things happen, to be in a state ready to deal with them.” — Alexandre Poussin

I remember meeting with Sree Sreenivasan when he first joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art as their first Chief Digital Officer. He referred to himself as spending his first months on the job as Chief Listening Officer, and that phrase has stuck with me. Now that I find myself in a management role in an institution that’s new to me, I’m taking that idea to heart.

It’s not easy for me. Like many educators, I’m an extrovert who is not inherently comfortable with a passive, silent role. But it’s time for me to shut up and listen, to learn about and from my new colleagues’ ideas and expectations.

I’m determined to hold onto patience and receptivity. To borrow from the improv community, it’s the “Yes, And” principle. You hear someone’s idea, you affirm it, and you build on it. Added to that openness mentality is the corollary that you have to be willing to try new things. It’s not “Yes, But,” after all. When colleagues make suggestions, it may require wading into untried waters to test them. Let’s wade gladly, not as though we’re heading into a stagnant puddle, but like we’re dipping into a cool, refreshing spring on a hot day. When the occasion allows, let’s jump.

That’s me jumping off a waterfall at Elves Chasm. Photo courtesy the author

It’s not that I always want to jump. Or wade. Or go into those waters at all. To stretch my metaphor further, I’ll confess that I’m quite nervous about water, especially when it’s dark and contains who-knows-what other creatures besides me. But my anxiety hasn’t prevented me from jumping off that waterfall above or working at a summer camp swimming dock or going SCUBA diving in the Caribbean. Pushing through the worry and being open to experience has brought me far more good things than bad.

These life lessons from outside museum walls are feeding my work within museums and with the museum educators I am leading. If I intend to follow Kevin Huynh’s “trust is magic” advice, I need to welcome my team’s contributions and build on them. I’m diving into discomfort, reminding myself that listening, supportive collaboration, and withholding judgment will be worth it. I’m someone who struggles with uncertainty, and I tend to hold onto my opinions strongly (a kind way of referring to my stubbornness). It’s not always easy to put those opinions aside and listen to someone else’s thoughts, but that is exactly what I am expecting of myself as I grow into my new role.

I facilitated a session at the NAEA Museum Education Division Preconference in 2015 in New Orleans, which came at the end of a day all about reflecting on our careers. I asked my participants to write down one piece of advice they wanted to give to their future selves, which I then mailed to them later in the year. One person wrote:

“Be somewhere that makes you feel comfortable, then push yourself to feel a little bit uncomfortable. Find a way to keep growing!”

The discomfort is necessary for the growth. When I’m below the water’s surface breathing through a tube and watching gorgeous scenery, or leaping from a waterfall into a clear, warm spring-fed pool, I’m not caught up in my worry. I’m proud of myself for pushing past it to relish the unique experience I’ve been offered. It’s worth repeating; the discomfort is necessary for the growth. Be open to seeking it out and pushing through it to see what’s on the other side. It’s not easy, but it’s my path toward being a leader who inspires trust and respect.

That’s where I am on my leadership journey right now. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t want to create a structured framework that may keep some of those answers out. I’m listening and asking questions and figuring out how to make this transition from Educator to Manager. I do know that these three big ideas are important to figuring it out. So I’ll go right ahead casting a wide net for sources of inspiration. I’ll keep on playing while I develop into my new role. And I’ll most assuredly remind myself of the importance of staying open to the opportunities and relationships that come my way.

This is not a strategy that comes with a map, and it won’t look the same for you as it does for me. But it is something anyone can try. You and I can try it together. It isn’t easy, but it is rewarding, despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that we can’t know exactly where it will take us.

In addition to guiding our individual paths, these ideas can benefit our field as a whole. We’re in the middle of ongoing debate about how museums do and can and should exist within their communities. Change is constant, and we owe it to our visitors and ourselves to keep museums relevant and inspirational. To make good and exciting moves, we need leaders who will inspire creative change. There are many out there right now, and I feel honored to work with them and learn from them. I’m also excited to be joining them as my career progresses. I intend to build a leadership role for myself that works toward that goal, and I look forward to the ongoing adventure of the journey.

Rachel Ropeik

Rachel Ropeik (Twitter) is a museum educator and museum adventurer currently serving as the Manager of Public Engagement at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. She is always in pursuit of the unexpected museum adventure, is a passionate advocate of fun in the museum, and regularly changes the color of her hair. Rachel has previously brought her sense of experimentation and curiosity to major museums in both New York and London, and did the formal school part of her training in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art and Wellesley College.