Supporting Museums As They Transform: An Interview with Charity Counts
Charity M. Counts is an experienced museum exhibit director and producer, creative team leader, project manager, exhibit tour agent, and fine artist. Charity discovered her passion during undergraduate school and later received an MA in Museum Studies from IUPUI. She currently serves as the executive director of the Association of Midwest Museums. Prior to leading AMM, Charity was the Associate Vice President of Exhibits at the world-renowned Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. Charity was kind enough to provide this interview for the ExhibiTricks blog.
What’s your educational background?
I studied drawing at Ball State University, and I followed my heart precisely because my mom convinced me that I should. My mom was career military and could have suggested a more practical and certain career path for me, yet she didn’t. That encouragement set me on my journey to where I am today.
After I landed my first full-time museum job, I realized that I needed to learn more about museums and went back to school. I was fortunate to work and study at the same time, and I received my MA in museum studies from Indiana University at IUPUI in 2008.
What got you interested in Museums? And what has been your trajectory working in museums? While an art student at BSU, I was invited to participate in a community project at the Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry. A team of interdisciplinary students worked with a local museum – Minnetrista – to research, develop, design and build an exhibit about Indiana in a single semester. I served as a curator on the project, fell in love with the notion of working in creative teams at museums, and then applied for a part-time job at Minnetrista right before I graduated.
When I started working in museums, I told myself that I would be the director of an art museum someday. At the time, art museums were the only museums I had any experience with and as I focused on my career, it seemed natural to aim for the biggest job those museums had to offer. As my career advanced, I found my goals shifting from “lead an art museum” to “transform museums” to “share what I know to help museum people” to “support museums as they transform.” Today, I am happy doing whatever people need me to do to ensure success for museum professionals and for the museum field.
What prompted your switch from working in museums to becoming the head of AMM?
I had several motivations for the switch. It boiled down to:
1. Family. By the time my son was 3, I began to feel the lack of balance in my life between work and home. I had been conditioned to believe that I could only succeed by dedicating long hours to my institution and responding to every email or request with the highest of urgency. That simply wasn’t sustainable. (In fact, it was just plain wrong.) I needed to shift gears, and the role with AMM allowed me the flexibility to do this without relocating my family.
2. Goals. After 14 years in the field, I was asking myself what I wanted to be when I grew up. The goals I had set when I started no longer applied. I loved working in the exhibits/experience field, but after a rapid climb up the career ladder, there was nowhere left to go at my institution. I thought about the aspects of my job that brought me joy and set my sights on leadership roles that provided those same opportunities. AMM was a new challenge, and it made me feel entrepreneurial to take on the work.
3. People. I was inspired by the wonderful people serving on the AMM board. The chance to work with leaders like Whitney Owens (Cincinnati Museum Center) and Melanie Adams (now director of Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum) was a big plus for me.
During this same period, we started receiving appeals to require salary information in listings on our online job board. We understood how pay transparency could support salary equity in our field but felt that any such change needed to involve the AMM community for it to have lasting impact.
We started with a member study in 2018 to learn more about the existing practices and policies at museums in the network, and to get a sense for whether a change in AMM’s policy would impact on their use of the job board. Nearly 20% of our member institutions responded to the survey, and the results removed any concerns we had for implementing a new policy. Many participants also suggested resources we could provide to support them if we were to proceed.
In the year that followed, we continued to share our desire to change the policy with members and listened to their concerns. Their feedback informed the language of the policy, and we have developed a plan for implementation that is inclusive and flexible as a result. (Salary/wage information can come in many forms.) We also started compiling and sharing the resources they requested and recruited sessions for the 2019 conference for continued education.
We invited members to endorse the policy change in a live public vote at the Annual Meeting. It passed with 108 votes in favor and only 1 against. The new policy will go into effect on November 1st.
What's next for AMM? You can’t talk about changes in the field you serve without also looking inward. When we announced changes we were making with the job board, we also shared that AMM is due for some improvements in the areas of diversity and inclusion.
For example, the board is quite diverse in terms of institution types and disciplines but does not yet represent the demographics of the professionals within our community. We hope to shift that balance over the next couple of years.
We also want to be more inclusive in our planning process for the annual conference. Milwaukee 2020 is really our first conference that we will get to try out our desired process from start to finish, so we’ll see how it goes!
AMM will continue to evolve and grow with museums in our region and I am so appreciative of the members who have supported us on our journey.
What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals who want to become more involved in their regional or local museum organizations?
Local and regional organizations have programming that addresses field-wide needs or issues, and along with those resources, it’s important to know that they also provide valuable connections. You can meet with people who share a common, sometimes geographically based, set of challenges and needs.
I often hear people say that they prefer to attend state or regional conferences because they offer a more intimate setting for building relationships with peers. And, let’s face it, there are probably just a few degrees of separation between you and your next boss. It’s best to network whenever and wherever you can, and local conferences make it super easy (and less expensive) to do just that!
What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?
I think that the future of museums lies in community relationships and local partnerships.
There’s this ongoing issue of relevance for museums, and I believe that the organizations that will thrive are those working collaboratively with their local governments, colleges and universities, schools, service organizations, and cultural centers to improve the lives of the people in their communities. That’s what helps an organization standout as a resource, as an anchor or even as an essential service.
We can see this today in the new public high school at Grand Rapids Public Museum, Making the West Side programs at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, Milwaukee’s Museum Week collaborative, Cincinnati Museum Center’s bounce back after a 2 ½ year closure, and the transformation at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History under Nina Simon’s leadership.
I’m writing this while still thinking about a recent presentation at our conference by Nina Simon regarding OF/BY/FOR ALL. If everyone starts rowing in that direction, the “museum of the future” will be a radically different, highly relevant, and sustainable place. Museums will be poised and ready for whatever changes may come.
What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions? I’ve been privileged to visit so many museums in my career, of all kinds, and the most impactful experiences were the unexpected ones. I think of the time I wandered into my first Yayoi Kusama installation (You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies) at the Phoenix Art Museum, or the content testing/prototyping space at The Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden. Of course, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis holds a special place in my heart too.
If money were no object, what would your “dream” museum project be? Honestly, I’ve always wanted to create an Alice in Wonderland experience that really immersed visitors in that trippy world using a variety of media. I’ve seen an exhibit or two that scratched the surface but didn’t really fold in the powerful messages of those stories. For example, what if you could climb into a dirt-filled rabbit hole? What if someone used Yayoi Kusama’s immersive tricks (mirrors, lighting, etc.) to create an otherworldly feel? What if we could all have an opportunity to reach beyond what others expected of us and discovered the courage within to conquer the riddles and roadblocks thrown up in this strange land, just like Alice?
If anyone wants to make this happen with me, let me know. I’d love to work on it!
Thanks again Charity for your thoughtful and inspiring responses. If you'd like to find out more about the Association of Midwest Museums, click over to their website here.
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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!
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