When the Madison Children’s Museum, located on Capitol Square in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, closed in March, 2020, President and CEO Deborah Gilpin had to suspend all programming, lay off 54 of its 70 employees, and cut many remaining positions to 20-hours a week. It was also in the midst of designing a new large outdoor active play space, with a major fundraising campaign attached. In a unique position – choosing not to go virtual, since its strength is hands-on programming, and on the cusp of a capital campaign – the Museum’s leadership used the closure to rethink its staff structure and its programs to increase equity and diversity.

In this video, hear Deborah’s description of the capital campaign’s design and how it effectively engaged the community even while the Museum was closed.

Deb’s leadership style, based in kindness and humanity, set the stage for mutual support during this challenging period – and provided room for staff’s lives outside of their Museum work. “If you’re only working half-time, how do we make sure you are NOT working the rest of the time?” Deb explained. “We identified what days we would be working, how we would communicate our schedules, and then leave each other alone the rest of the time. That’s a really good practice that we’re continuing to do now.” The same fairness holds true for full-time positions. “We go for the 40-hour-a-week if you’re full-time – if you’re doing more than that, let’s help you prioritize to get to that.” She recognized that this is unusual in nonprofits but notes its downside of “tending to burn out staff and expect a lot more hours of them.” MCM’s stance is good for the organization, she contends. “All of our people have personal lives that are very rewarding and bring richness to everything they do for the Museum, so we had to help them figure out that part of their lives as well.”

How to maintain the Museum’s high quality – it consistently wins awards and is typically among the top dozen child museums in the country – with a smaller staff? It required a shift of expectations in many ways, including internal structure and the scope of what the Museum does.

In this video interview with Deborah, you’ll hear how the Museum pared down its team and programming and redistributed leadership, gaining greater staff capacity.

Many arts organizations have a “thin-ness” of institutional knowledge. Only one person knows how to fix the boiler, only one person knows how to manage the database, only one person has a relationship with a major foundation. The MCM was no different. “We had already identified that we were a little bit siloed and kept trying to do everything… presenting over 1,200 programs a year without good metrics for how we make decisions about our activities,” Deb said. “The pandemic really brought this amazing opportunity to reset all that. So, we identified very crisp objectives and key results, that the board and staff agreed on.” The numbers and results are transparent, so the entire staff and board know how the organization is doing – and who made it happen. “It’s given [the staff] a sense of control and knowledge about the outcomes and how it might shape their job later, we can identify merit raises better.”

A total re-organization offered up opportunities to increase equity for entry level and junior staff. The pandemic caused the organization to “pretty much throw the organizational chart out the window and say ‘we’re a startup now. Do the things that need doing, and we’ll figure out the departments later.” A number of departments were combined into the new Visitor Services area. “Those front-line levels were $10-an-hour, which in our region is appropriate, but we bumped that up to $14 an hour, and we also converted more to fulltime positions so that they would get benefits.” Cross-training is building institutional resiliency while benefiting individual staff members. The former facility rental program is greatly reduced, so dedicated staff isn’t realistic anymore. The current staff was offered the chance to be trained to work onsite events, to be part of the hours they work when needed. “They’re raising their hands.” When someone trains in a new area, they get a pay bump, and the Museum has greater capacity and resilience, as knowledge is spread around and each staff member is more flexible. [The Arts Organizations at a Crossroads Toolkit: Managing Transitions and Preserving Assets, a free online resource, includes the Knowledge Capture and Transfer tool to help arts organizations document key job functions and do effective cross-training.]

View the full video conversation on “Addressing Internal Equity and Resiliency” with Deborah here:

The MCM has been a leader in diversity, working with the Cultural Competency Learning Institute, providing racial justice training for staff, and running a summer workforce program for teens of color with full pay and mentorship. “Some of these kids said, ‘I’ve never been to the Square, my family does not come downtown.’ Now, they and their siblings and their families come and play in the Museum, or come to see their sibling working.” As the MCM team is being rebuilt after the significant layoffs, “diversity is the number one commitment we have in how we’re rehiring,” said Deb.

This commitment is demonstrated through programming, as well. Over the course of years, Deb and her team have patiently built a relationship with the staff and residents of a YWCA located across the street from the Museum. “When I arrived here, the families weren’t visiting, and they get in free – 133 individuals with about 60 children under the age of eight – and it’s 62 steps away. So, I walked on over there, and knocked on the door, talked with the director, and asked ‘why aren’t your clients coming?’ We identified that racism was a key part of it. The way they felt the way when they arrived, the way other visitors treated them, the way our staff behaved, the way they had to pull out their ‘poor card’ to show to get in.” MCM totally changed their access system “to not cause poverty shaming… their [free entry] cards look just like our other membership cards, we took programming to the Y. We’re neighbors, we’re family now, we’ve hired as staff women who live there… it took a really long effort, it took noticing ‘what’s the problem here?’ and being willing to listen to it with an open mind and not be defensive.” This relationship has reached an exciting new point, in 2022. The parents told MCM “that their kids aren’t getting out in nature, that they wish they had a backyard.” And now they will – the $4 million capital campaign met its goal, which includes Wonderground, which broke ground in April 2021: “A safe place for all children to play, to come together once again from all neighborhoods. The exhibit will provide a fun, healthy outlet for getting young bodies in motion; a nurturing space where children can experience the healing power of play after a rough year-plus; and a cultural anchor that draws families back to the square and the surrounding downtown.”

A transcript of the entire interview can be found here.

Mollie Quinlan-Hayes ([email protected]) is an arts consultant based in Georgia.