Alison Wade, the museum community builder
Did you know there are more museums than Starbucks in the United States? In fact, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services' most recent survey data, there are about two museums for every Starbucks outpost. If the applause that Howard Schultz has received for leading and connecting the more than 11,000 Starbucks outposts across the country is any indication, cohesion is a difficult task for the museum world. Fortunately, though, individuals like Alison Wade, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD)' Chief Administrator, are working tirelessly to build bonds, inspire cohesion, and encourage the development of best practices amongst museum directors from a wide variety of leading arts institutions.
A fifth-generation Davis daughter, Alison Wade not only grew up surrounded by arts education advocates and publicists, but she also developed her own affinity to support the sector. After a series of inspiring internships and jobs early on with organizations like Americans for the Arts, the Museum of Arts and Design, and Davis Art Images, Alison has gone on to do many things for the sector, from founding a student arts advocacy group while completing her Master's Degree in Visual Arts Administration at New York University to creating a blog called Art Advocado to champion exciting work being done within the sector and to support educators in their quest to advocate for the necessary inclusion of the arts in education. As the Chief Administrator at the AAMD, Alison continues to devote herself to the sector. Some of her many roles include updating museum directors regarding community news, administering annual surveys, preparing reports regarding key challenges facing the sector like gender discrimination using survey data, and managing the AAMD website.
Alison's passion for supporting the museum sector sees no bounds. Through her own work and the work that comes from her support of other like-minded individuals like myself, Alison envisions an auspicious future of partnership, prosperity, and progress for the sector.
Two years after first meeting Alison while working on my senior honors thesis regarding philanthropic support of museum arts educational programming (when she not only offered support of my research with data, but she also offered encouragement, motivation, and enthusiasm), I asked Alison to share a bit about her superstar role within the museum community. Here is some of what she has to say:
What inspired you to work in the arts and culture field?
Arts and culture have always been a part of my life. My family’s business is Davis Publications, an art education publisher, and the business has been in my family for five generations. My mom is also an artist. Being an independent-minded Aquarius I thought I would pursue a career in a field more removed from my family. But I ended up changing my tune after I worked for Davis in high school and college. I became particularly interested in art history – I would pore over art history textbooks on my lunch breaks, fascinated to learn everything I could about the background and interpretations of art from pretty much anywhere, any time. History has always been an interest even since I was a kid and viewing art through that lens was a revelation. That led me to study art history and started my career path.
What is your favorite part of working for AAMD?
AAMD has a small but mighty staff – we have three people in our New York office (where I work), and two in Washington, DC. I love my coworkers, they are like family to me, and that’s critical when your office is as small as ours. That said, I also get to work with museum directors and staff from across North America every day, and learn about how they are operating, what art they are showing, and most of all, how they are serving their communities in new and interesting ways.
In your opinion, why is it important for museums to collaborate through platforms like AAMD in the twenty-first century?
AAMD is unique in that we represent museum directors specifically. I think our members find value in the sharing of knowledge through the association, whether that is in person at a conference or event or virtually. Many of the museum directors in AAMD are not located in places like New York where there are colleagues in similar positions that they can call for advice. Their jobs can be lonely, and we hear from members that they appreciate the opportunities for collegiality and camaraderie that AAMD provides. I think that spirit is important for museum professionals at any level and can help anyone be better at their job. That’s especially important for museum directors who are managing so many people... More broadly, platforms like AAMD and other museum associations can help elevate the platform of individual museums and issues beyond one or two places. For example, during the recent government shutdown we put out a call to find out which AAMD museums were offering free admission for furloughed federal employees. And it turned into a snowball effect where we saw more and more museums saying “we can do that too!”
How does the work of AAMD help contribute to a more culturally-vibrant and auspicious future?
Though our members are individual directors, a lot of AAMD’s work is geared toward building a better museum field at all levels. I’m really proud of the work we are doing around creating a more diverse, accessible, equitable, and inclusive museum landscape, in both big and small ways. At the end of last year, we announced a new paid internship program for college students from communities that are currently underrepresented in art museums. We’ve also worked with Ithaka S+R and the Mellon Foundation on two demographic studies of our membership to get a big picture of how diverse our field is and where and how we need to make changes so that museum staffs will better reflect their communities. And we also try to weave this issue into our programs and even simple every day decisions. For example, we removed the $100 fee from our Salary Survey in 2017 to make sure that it is accessible to everyone at all professional levels.
Regarding your own blog, Art Advocado, what inspired you to begin blogging? Since saying adieu in 2014, have you continued to blog in another way?
When I was in graduate school I became really interested in arts policy and advocacy (inspired by two of my professors at NYU, Carlo Lamagna and Ruth Ann Stewart). I was fortunate to get to channel this interest into Art Advocado. It actually came about through Davis Publications - the staff there knew I was moving in this direction with my professional interests and asked if I channel my focus on wonky arts policy into a blog with art teachers and educators in mind. So often, arts and humanities are the first areas to be cut when school budgets are trimmed, so it was amazing to have the opportunity for a platform to share resources in a potentially more impactful way than I could on my own. I only stopped doing the blog because it was tough for me to balance it with my job at AAMD. (Everyone out there with a side hustle, I respect you – it’s no joke!)
I’m lucky that my current position also allows me to remain engaged with arts advocacy in different ways and keep spreading the word about the power of arts and culture through outlets like Museums and Communities News. I also attend Museums Advocacy Day every year with my colleagues, where museum professionals and advocates from all over the US come to Washington to bring to our legislators that museums matter.
Superstar Snapshot: Alison Wade
Superstar strength: organized beyond measure
Superstar secret talent: great at trivia and "parenting" houseplants (with the 38 plants in her current one-bedroom apartment as evidence!)
Superstar noteworthy quote: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” (borrowed from Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell)
(photo credits: Alison Wade)