Deep in listening mode


Before I became a museum director, I was an art history professor, and made my living by communicating ideas—and then coaxing them back out of bright undergraduates. I was truly happy as an art historian but realize in retrospect that listening carefully wasn’t necessarily a rewarded virtue, and even less a guarantor of success in the classroom. Reading, thinking, and speaking passionately about art and its complex intersection with history was stimulating in itself, but ultimately it didn’t require reciprocation from my audiences, except for asking them to write exams, papers, and fill out teaching evaluations at the end of the term. Since I usually got very good feedback from my students, I confess I didn’t spend much time worrying about what my own active listening might mean to those constituents. I feel differently today.  

I am deep in listening mode as I complete my second week on the job at SAM.  

A museum leader is often called upon to “say a few words” in any number of contexts, and sometimes on a moment’s notice, which is a skill in its own right. However, listening closely is by far the most valuable skill that any recently arrived director can possess. Attending carefully to what is said in staff and board meetings, to say nothing of what is casually exchanged in hallways, at openings, and in spaces beyond the museum itself, is in many ways more important than anything I might find myself actually saying at these times. Without a willingness to hear what others think—about SAM, about Seattle, about expectations for our programs, and the role of museums in contemporary culture—it would be perilously easy to follow a path that leads nowhere, or satisfies no one . . . except, but only briefly perhaps, the director.

Listening to as many different voices as possible sounds easy, but actually isn’t. For one thing, it is hard to keep track of “who said what” and then to have the presence of mind to wonder “why is this considered important to be heard right now.” To avoid cacophony, I try to ask similar questions to as many different people as possible and then interpret the variety of responses I receive. For instance, I have been asking everyone who will meet with me: “What do I need to know about SAM in order to be successful?”And, internally, I am trying to track: “What is the significance of the emphasis, repetitions and variations in perspective?”; “How can this help me as I develop a plan for my first year at SAM?”; “Why is this issue so important to this individual, and why hasn’t it come up in other conversations?” Most importantly, I have been asking, “What haven’t I heard yet?” and “Who else should I speak with in my first months on the job?”

Maybe it is the fault of having parents who were both psychoanalysts, but listening thoughtfully has served me well as a strategy for the first months in my three previous directorial roles. Listening cannot be a meaningful substitute for making statements about my vision for the future of SAM, except on a short-term basis, but it will help ensure that when those statements come forward, they will have been shaped by voices and experiences beyond my own. I am all ears and would be eager to hear from you.  

Derrick Cartwright