Four Life Lessons I Learned Working in a Museum

I just heard some great news. The Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art is receiving an award from the governor of Oklahoma. This museum really does phenomenal work. I’m super proud and super thrilled to have been on staff for 5.5 years.

The press release from the Oklahoma Arts Council says…

The Arts in Education Award recognizes an individual, organization, school, educator, or group for their outstanding leadership and service in the arts benefitting youth and/or arts in education.

Working at this museum for almost six years had a serious impact on my life. I met some of my closest friends there. I found amazing mentors there. Here are some of the best life lessons I learned there.

Small institutions can have big impact. 

Just like the press release says. The Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art has “outstanding leadership and service” to the state of Oklahoma. The museum works with over 13,000 students per year.

I’m a huge fan of the Craig Groeschel quote “To reach people that no one is reaching you have to do things that no one is doing.” They run some very clever outreach programs including loaning Treasure Troves of authentic historic objects that teachers can request for their classrooms, Cultural Connections that bring performers to local schools, and field trips that are completely free for schools (including busing reimbursement).

Dollar signs don’t equal important art (and vice versa). 

One of the iconic paintings at Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art is a portrait by William-Adolphe Bouguereau called Reflexion. Bouguereau was a French realist painter, who lived from 1825 to 1905. During his life, his art achieved good prices, and he was given numerous awards. However, following the 1920’s, the demand for his work dropped and so did the prices. For the next few decades, his paintings were selling at fire sale prices. It was during this time, that the couple who later donated Reflexion bought the painting at a furniture store in a small southern Oklahoma town. Flash forward to the 2010’s. Last time I saw one of Bouguereau’s paintings at auction, it sold for 1.5 million. During those decades where his work was out of style, was this painting any less stunning or important? Absolutely not. The lesson: Markets change, but it doesn’t affect the beauty or intrinsic value of art. 

Good leadership trusts their employees.

One of the first things my boss said to me when he hired me was “I’m not going to micromanage you, so you’ll need to find projects that benefit the museum.” This is one of the best leadership lessons I have ever had. Of course exhibitions had to be completed on a deadline. But in the time I wasn’t preparing for a show, I got to find some awesome extracurricular projects. The museum has an amazing social membership group called the Visionaries. One of my favorite extracurricular projects was putting together a time capsule with the Visionaries.

Be generous to a good organization. 

I have quite a few mentors from my time at MGMoA. I learned a very important lesson from them. Find an organization you love, and do amazing things for them. I saw experts in African and Native American art do volunteer research. I saw established artists donate artworks for the collection and for fundraising. The message came through loud and clear. Be generous.

To see hilarious artwork previously on display at MGMoA, visit this article

Photo Credit: The exterior of Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art in Shawnee, Oklahoma. By Daniel J. Lay

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