Do You Get to Touch the Art? Working in a Museum: A Day with the Vice President and COO of FWMoA, Amanda Shepard

Amanda Shepard, Vice President and COO interviewed by Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

When people learn we work in a museum, the first question we often get asked is “What do you do all day? Do you just get to stare at art?”. The follow-up question is, usually, “Wait, do you get to touch the art?”. It often comes as a surprise, therefore, when they learn that many museum jobs do not include handling objects at all! Therefore, I sat down with Amanda Shepard, our Vice President and COO, to talk about her background, what her job entails, and if she is ever disappointed that she doesn’t get to touch the art.

What does COO stand for and what does a COO do? What is the normal day of a COO?

“COO” is the conventional acronym for “Chief Operating Officer” – a hefty title that you’d find as part of the “C-Suite” of traditional corporations. C-Level titles have, until recently been, reserved for the top dogs of very large, for-profit companies. In the past few years, however, nonprofits have adopted these titles for their leaders as well.

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Amanda Shepard at her desk at FWMoA. Photo by Kaitlin Binkley

I can’t speak for all COOs, but, in general, a COO is managing the operation. That means understanding everyone’s job function at macro and micro levels to develop processes that will support a smooth operation. What is a smooth museum operation? For us, that’s maximizing programmatic output (exhibitions and programs) with the resources we have (people, time, and money). To make that happen, I need to know how every decision we make will affect this person or that person’s ability to do their job, and in turn how that will affect our ability to fulfill our mission while at the end the year having met revenue expectations.

I also need to know what everyone is doing at all times (which is impossible, but I try). If the CEO comes to me and says, “Hey, I have this idea…” I need to be able to answer him with, “That will work, this will not, and this is why, because this person is doing that, etc.” If a staff person says to me, “I want to do this project…” I have to know what questions to ask so I can understand how a project will impact other departments and the public. Every decision affects the museum in some way, and I must do my best to understand those affects. I rely on the staff for their respective expertise in contributing to the information I use to make decisions. I also rely on the 30+ years of experience of my C-Level counterparts, Charles Shepard, President and CEO (Chief Executive Officer) and Lon Braun, Vice President and CFO (Chief Financial Officer). The combination of their experience with my ground-level day-to-day working with the staff is the fuel for decisions.

My days are filled with internal staff meetings, either with small groups or individual weekly meetings. This is where I get my information about what everyone is working on, the challenges they face, and the wins they’re having. Then, there are external meetings with current and potential partners, board members, and donors. This is where I get my information about how our museum affects the community and vice versa.

What path did you take to becoming a COO?

In college, I stuck to a liberal arts education and felt that business classes were for “other” students, not me, so I never once thought about a leadership position or something in administration. By the time I graduated, I was focused on attending graduate school or becoming a professor or full-time artist. But first, I would get my feet wet professionally by working at FWMoA right after graduation. I enjoyed having a full-time job with a salary and benefits. I’m a structure-loving person, so I thrived in the “9-5”, and I was challenged every day. Thoughts of graduate school or professorship began to seem less and less realistic, because I realized those pursuits were constructs I had drawn for another version of myself. So I just kept on working.

I started in the adult education department, planning programs for adults like tours and lectures. I enjoyed the content-building aspect, but I was repeatedly disappointed by the unpredictable audience turnout for what I’d worked hard to create. About this time, we were embarking on the American Art Initiative Capital Campaign, and I had the opportunity to work with the late Karen Kasper on purchasing furnishings and signage for the renovated museum. Karen was a very organized, sharp, and focused manager who demonstrated excellent project management skills that intrigued me, and she guided my decision-making with her decades of experience. I found myself more interested in these administrative, business-oriented projects than the programmatic, educational projects.

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Amanda and Charles Shepard speak with Michael Janis, Co-Director of the Washington Glass School and Studio at SOFA. Photo by SOFA Press Photographer Wittefini.

Near the end of the renovation, it became apparent that there was a need for a Deputy Director position to manage a majority of the then-Executive Director’s direct reports. The position was offered to me and I accepted. I was thrust into managing staff, which was difficult for me with no experience in this area. I’m a naturally shy and inward person, so I had to learn to become a strong verbal communicator to develop relationships with everyone I was managing. My role was designed to free up the Executive Director for curation, collections management, and more donor cultivation, and so it became apparent that I, along with our then-Business Manager, was managing day-to-day operations, while the ED was focused on long-term, big-picture work. A few years ago we translated those key positions to be C-Level titles.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of your job?

I don’t give myself the luxury of focusing on what I like or don’t like in this job. It all has to get done and I need to put as much energy and heart into all of it, so there isn’t a lot of space left over for preferences. I’ve learned to love almost all of it because it’s all ordered to the goal of giving the community a world-class art museum.

I find that I’m most fulfilled by the decision-making process, by writing and crafting meaningful content, and I enjoy conferring with my colleagues to build solutions for complicated puzzles. I like helping staff develop their potential and I feel like I have the most value when I can give them good information so they can be the best they can be at their jobs. My energy is sapped by interpersonal conflict, untangling mistakes, and coaching staff out of dysfunctional behavior.

To answer your question more pointedly, I love the writing I get to do: grants, marketing copy, policies, case statements, business proposals, exhibition content, and blog posts. And nothing beats getting a check in the mail!

The least favorite part of my job is disappointing someone with a decision, whether that be an internal or external relationship. I also hate it when I can’t get someone a decision quickly—I feel like I’m the weakest link in the operation and that makes me very uneasy.

Talking about grant writing: Why do we do it? How long does it take to write grants? How do you find the grants? Is it like writing an essay or is it something you had to be taught?

We write grants because they are essential sources of funding for our organization. Without grant funding, we wouldn’t have important funding for operations (heat and lights!) and programs like Children’s Education, which is offered for free to thousands of children and their teachers each year.

Some grants take longer to write than others. The most complicated grants take the better part of a week to complete, and some simple grants I can finish in an afternoon. Given our organizational track record of successful fundraising for decades, most of the grants I work on were written the year before for the same program, so it’s a matter of updating information and ideas for the review committees. I always augment those grants, however, with new grant sources which I discover through my colleagues, new relationships, or through various funding websites.

Sure, writing a grant could be compared to writing an essay. But it’s a form of technical writing that needs to be infused with the heart of our organization, and all of the funder’s questions need to be answered with sound logic and thoroughness. As the grant writer, I not only need to answer each question completely, but I need to anticipate what they may be implying by their question. Good funders will be very clear about their expectations, but I need to be shrewd in imagining what the funder really wants from us. We are competing for funding, after all, and if we don’t have the competitive edge, someone else will.

I was not taught to write grants, although I have developed my skills with the help of our CEO and former Director of Development. And although it’s all a lot of work, the real skill is not in anything I could learn in a classroom. The key is to a.) know my funder and b.) be intimately involved with whatever I am writing about and be able to translate that information to an articulate and compelling proposal for that funder to consider.

Is there anything you’ve had to do that you did not expect would fall under your purview?

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Amanda and her Museum Studies students speak to Chuck Sperry during sale set-up. From left to right: Josef Zimmerman, Amanda Shepard, and Chuck Sperry. Two Museum Studies students stand in the foreground. Photo by Kaitlin Binkley

I’m taking on a larger role in shaping the exhibition schedule. In the early years of my job, I was not contributing too many creative decisions, but today I am contributing to decisions about exhibitions and artwork display as it pertains to the visitor experience and museum image. Rather than limit my thinking that operations only has to do with technical matters, I’m thinking of museum operations as a concept that encompasses everything. For example, if the sculpture is in this spot, where will we put the bar for our parties? It seems funny to think that a priceless, one-of-a-kind sculpture is competing with a bar, but if we can’t put the sculpture in the perfect spot, it won’t look very good. On the other hand, if I can’t set up a bar because the sculpture is in the perfect bar spot, I limit my abilities to entertain the public and donors to celebrate the sculpture and inspire their continued giving. It’s all a big circular puzzle that has to line up in the right way.

What is the coolest thing you have gotten to experience?

I’m doing it right now! I’m working closely with Martin Blank and his team to make sure all the pieces are in place for his large-scale sculpture to look the best it’s ever looked, right here at FWMoA. I made sure we had the staff and equipment in place to make this happen in a week, and I’m managing the communications with the public and press. I was part of the discussion to place the sculpture bases, making sure the sculpture promotes wonder and the safety of our visitors. The whole FWMoA staff is contributing to all of this in a big way, but in my role I get to be part of it all. All of that fascinates me to no end.

About a year ago, I got to spend one-on-one time with Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men and tireless advocate for repatriation of lost treasures that were looted by the Nazis. Mr. Edsel is a kind, fascinating, and passionate figure working to correct these cultural wrongs in a very hands-on grassroots way that still has me fired up! 

What do you wish was part of your job?

I’m lucky in that I’m doing everything I want to do, and there’s not enough hours in the day for it all! I do wish that I could take certain projects to even higher levels, but I often can’t give everything all the time that I want. I’ve had to learn to dial things back to get things done and keep things moving.

As an educator, I don’t get to handle objects. How much of your job is getting to touch artworks?

Almost none, and that’s okay with me. I’ve never had a particularly strong urge for that professionally. As a rule, I don’t touch the art unless I am invited to do so by the artist (which is rare). The last time I touched art as part of my job was when I was an intern and Leah Reeder, Registrar, was watching me like a hawk. If another, more experienced professional on our team is handling the art, why do I need to do it?

How does your job relate to the art in the museum?

I need to be articulate about art, and that’s where my experience as a studio artist and art history student becomes useful on the job. I have a general knowledge of most art terms, I can visualize different processes, and I understand what an artist goes through because I’ve done it or seen it happen in a studio environment. I have a broad understanding of the history of art.

With those skills in hand, I need to be able to write about art for people who don’t know anything about it but are curious, for people who know something about art and want to learn more, and for people who are going to fund us. I need to quickly understand what’s interesting about a work, or learn something unique about the artist to craft a story for the audience. I work with Exhibition Content staff to help them shape their writing for exhibitions, so I need to know almost as much about the work as they do so I can offer meaningful critique to put the best information out there for our visitors. I oversee marketing content, so I need to know what should or shouldn’t be said about work to make it relevant to our audiences. I also get asked to talk about art on the spot at parties or for impromptu tours, and I need to always have a bit of knowledge and passion ready to go when those moments pop up.

Do any of the artworks inspire any part of your job?

To be honest, no, but I don’t mean to say that art doesn’t inspire me. Just as I don’t focus much on my “likes” and “dislikes” when it comes to job responsibilities, I don’t put the art in this museum into categories of what inspires me or not. I think it’s more productive to think about art in terms of appreciating skill, originality, strength of concept, and craftsmanship, not my fleeting and meaningless preferences.

Once we’ve made the decision to show a work, we’ve adopted that work as part of the “team” that works for the good of the community through the museum. As a manner of speaking, if you’re on the team, I’ll fight for you!

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