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Women at Work

In Conversation with Michelle Millar Fisher

Michelle Millar Fisher is the current Ronald C. and Anita L. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She is currently working on a new book, Craft Schools: Where We Make What We Inherit.

For the Q & A part one, read here.

From Michelle’s website:

A white woman with blond hair in a black turtleneck shirt looking sideways at the viewer
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

“She has written widely on care work, mothering, and reproductive labor, including parenting in museums (and hiding care work at work), being childfree, grief and mothers, and the architecture of maternity. Since 2017, she has co-organized an independent team of collaborators around a book (MIT Press 2021), exhibition, curriculum, and program series called Designing Motherhood: Things That Make and Break Our Births. “

Michelle shares her personal experiences with IVF on her Instagram page.

The following conversation is edited for length and clarity. (15 minute read)

Sarah Guérin (SG): I'm working on a project to gather oral histories from Lynn’s elders who once worked in the shoe industry. Eventually I’d like to speak to other bootmakers nationally. I feel quite a marked cultural divide with other Western bootmakers a lot of the time because I'm from New England and France, I don't share the same cultural background and connection. But our craft transcends a lot, Massachusetts’s footwear history links us, mostly I hope with this project to begin to rectify this gaping exclusion of women's perspective in footwear.

Michelle Millar Fisher (MMF): I applaud the idea of asking better questions. There's that really laudable goal, but also, you deserve to ask these questions. It's absolutely fair for you to ask these questions. And indeed, in doing so, you are creating space for women's voices in a field that I would imagine has not historically always been welcoming or friendly to them or valued their opinions or their work or their outputs. So yes, claim the right to ask questions.

SG: In the “New Books in Art” podcast, you said in your early years you lacked an example of mothers working in the upper tiers of museum hierarchy. How has your work on the book and exhibition Designing Motherhood affected your perspective on how mothers might become leaders in museums?

MMF: That is such a hard one. I have such hope from that project because I see mothers all the time now in positions of leadership - even if it's not with a title of leadership - they lead by example; they lead by being the most amazing and creative workers. I have so many colleagues in museums who have care responsibilities of some kind, however, the union contract we recently negotiated doesn't have any provision at all for childcare subsidy, or any kind of subsidy. If you're being called in for a Saturday program and you need to arrange childcare, it's just taken as read that that's your expense; it's not the museum's expense. And so, even though many women with care responsibilities are brilliant leaders of all kinds in museums and beyond, there are still real structural issues in terms of the way that reality meets the rigidity and hostility of the US workplace.

While there is a greater awareness of the need for racial diversity in museums to address racist practices that still exist and have existed historically, there is still a real blind spot around gender discrimination. And that is an intersectional issue, it informs the experiences of women of color the most in the gender pay gap and in the abuse and the difficulties that they might face in any workplace, museum or otherwise. But that gendered aspect of labor is really not thought of nor talked about as much as it should be. It's not seen as this burning issue in the same way that race is. That is a peculiarity of the United States, where for absolutely historically important reasons, race is seen as an issue. But if you're ignoring gender issues, you're still fucking over women of color the most.

I'm glad the Designing Motherhood project existed because it has raised that conversation. I still don't see action in museums as much as I might like to, mostly because decision making positions, especially in larger museums with operating budgets over $15 million, are still dominated by male directors. There is more gender parity in smaller museums but far less diversity in these larger institutions. I think all the time about how that might be different. It has to gradually change but it's indicative of a country that still finds it very hard to imagine electing a female president; there's just a real resistance to women. Take for example the political situation we're in currently around reproductive justice and health rights - I really don't think men in positions of power connect that to systematic gender disenfranchisement. It is such a curious blind spot in people.

SG: Tressie McMillan Cottom quoted another sociologist, Jessica Calarco, to sum up the obvious: “other advanced nations have social safety nets, the United States has chosen instead to rely on women”.

MMF: Totally. Why pay for something when you can get it for free? There's a great book by Jenny Brown called Birth Strike which really foregrounds reproductive labor and the labor of care work as work that has been traditionally not just underpaid but is unpaid. When it can bleed that labor for free, or almost nothing, why would a governmental system ever pay for it? It's hard to reverse that trend when all of the social systems in a country are built on that assumption. It's really, really hard to push back against.

Blue and Orange cowboy boot rendered in color pencil at a 3/4 view
Saboteuse design sketch inspired by mountains in the American West

SG: More and more in my own work I am starting to see the symbolism of the American West and the cowboy figure as key to this idea with which we've all been brainwashed: individualism, male white exceptionalism, being able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, quite literally. I feel duped, duped in a way that I didn't realize until I was 45 years old.

You've been very outspoken on inequity in museums in a way that is daring and necessary, but also potentially harmful to you, your work, and your career. You have spoken of keeping your distance from people who are really inured to or are resistant to change. That dynamic is really a “catch-22” when there is such an acute imbalance of power between museums and workers, museums and artists, and museums and women, yet you address it so bravely. Can you talk about the challenges that has presented you?

MMF: Projects like Salary Transparency have been with other people in collective protected solidarity. With the union, I have a huge privilege being in a curatorial position that is not a termed position. So even though you can still be fired at will anywhere in the US, when you have a certain sense of security, you should acknowledge it and use it. It would be embarrassing not to; it's like manners, it's the correct thing to do.

I definitely did think perhaps earlier on that this isn't a great thing to do if I want to be promoted or retained in a job, but at the same time I've become very much at peace with not really being interested in being promoted. I'm interested in doing work. I love reading and writing. I like making exhibitions, but I much prefer making books. And so while I need a job because I am the breadwinner in my family, I feel fine with the idea of not inhabiting a leadership position in the traditional sense.

White woman carrying a large colorful sign saying "our director has a contract + yearly raises"
Millar Fisher at the MFA Workers Strike in Boston November 2021

I'm not sure I would want to lead within the structure of the US museum governance model where you have to make nice with incredibly wealthy people in order to make the world go around. Some of our donors that I've met are delightful, wonderful people, they care deeply. But my thought is always to just tax very rich people more, because although I'm delighted by philanthropy, I don't think support for a museum, or arts program, or hospital should come down to somebody's individual largesse. You should be able to have some things that are just taken as read because they are state funded, and that includes the arts. So I never feel worried about being open. It feels like productive work to be gently and firmly and politely insistent upon thinking about the ways in which our systems work, and how they might be able to work better.

There's also the flip side to it: I have actually never had to lead a giant museum before. What decisions would I make? It's possible to critique, but it's harder to do the job. I am confident that most of the time people who critique with critical analysis could do a better job than the people who are in power. But I also think there are other models of leadership: I love the idea of a co-leadership, not always having one director at a pinnacle, but being able to have an advisory team of three people. If you can bring together people who are really good at working with one another and can set aside ego because they're interested in having an institution excel, then it’s almost like parenting. If you get sick somebody else can continue moving forward. The system is not always reliant on one person.

SG: Rugged individualism.

MMF: Amen. This notion of being able to work in community and collaboration could really change leadership models. It would be great to find a space in which that were possible. I'm not sure that I am in the moment in my career where that's the right thing for me, but maybe it will be in the future.

SG: You also extend to the public the very personal experience of your journey through fertility. First, I want to thank you for giving me, a woman who easily gave birth to 3 children, not so much language, but permission to support people with fertility issues that I care about. I struggle with that so thank you. I don't see anyone else really doing what you're doing out there. Is it okay to ask you about? How do you handle that delicate swing between public and private?

MMF: Yes, I always ask [my partner] Austen if it is okay to share this. It's actually much easier to share because I don't want to be hiding something from work. I'm very, very transparent with my boss and with my colleagues because when you have any kind of medical issue and have to go to appointments, instead of feeling embarrassed about taking sick days I can say, “I have an appointment at 10, you know what it's for, and I'll be doing my work on either side of it.” As somebody who gets very anxious about always turning up correct for work and delivering what I meant to, there is much less anxiety for me if I am completely transparent.

With any form of medical care, the more you make it visible, the less people can penalize you for it. There are rules through Human Resources, the boundary or right to actually have health care. And for me it absolutely comes back to the work of Designing Motherhood, where it's about following along in those traditions of consciousness raising.

I want to know about your life, it may have been easy to conceive your children, but it's definitely not easy to raise them and work in a very sort of misogynistic or gendered environment.

A pregnant woman standing between two carousel horses ridden by children.
In 2008, very pregnant with my third child, taking my children ages 5 and 2 on a carousel. 8 months after attending Cordwainers College for footwear, 2 months before my husband delpoyed to Iraq with the US Navy for 10 months.

SG: I did not have childcare. Saying I “stayed home” doesn't sound right, but I did stay home and raise three children for the past 20 years. I'm at a point now where having three teenagers is so difficult; and it has been “one or the other,” career or family, and I have not developed or matured my own work because I have dedicated years to my children. My question to you is where do you see this journey toward motherhood taking you in the context of “one or the other”.

MMF: There are so many parts to that question. This may not work out. Even with an egg donor, which we might not be able to afford, it just might not work out. There's also a point at which maybe my body says, “this is the end of it.” My body can take only so much of this. I am fully aware that it might not work out but regardless, it's something I would want to have explored. It has been really great in a way for my partner and me because we've been able to clearly state our feelings, our desires, and our hopes around this, but also to acknowledge there is an end point to it: either it does result in a child or it doesn't.

We've had conversations about career versus care work because the US is deeply hostile to any happy medium. It would affect my husband more than me because he is the person who is freelance in our relationship, I have to come back to work if we want healthcare. He would be the primary caregiver so I've showed him my research on the US as a terrible place for caregivers. If he wants to continue doing things that he loves it will have to be an intentional and daily commitment on both of our parts to make sure that that is kept for him, that he can still have a career. It’s not even hard, it’s impossible to do both. We have talked about quite literally remortgaging our house to pay for help with care. I don't see any other way for someone to be able to have the personal and professional space that they need.

I would not have known that in my 20s. I came into that awareness in my 30s as I looked around me. Designing Motherhood was almost a research project over a decade to be like, wait a second, how does this work? As of now at age 40 I am able to say, "okay, we're putting aside money" – and I have the privilege of having a greater income than I did at 25 as well. If we get to have a child, we will be so delighted because it has been many years in the making, but we also exist in a lovely way right now. If I want to write for six hours this Saturday, I will. I have deep latitude in terms of the way I spend my time, which will evaporate in a second when we have a child. My mom did it as a single parent with three kids. She had disabilities and I do not understand how she did it.

SG: My husband has left on deployment for a year at a time. It's hard. It's not the same as being a single parent at all but it's impossible to convey that experience to other people that don't know it. It's impossible.

MMF: It's almost harder to do that Sarah than to be a single parent because for all of the financial hardships of a single parent, she gets to call the shots, to say, “This is the unit and I am in charge.”

SG: I love Designing Motherhood. The book is such a separate thing from the exhibit and I wasn't expecting that. I bought the book first, then saw the exhibit at the Mass Art Museum, and it was a totally unexpected gift to have that experience. Will there be a Part Two about menopause?

MMF: A next book? Yes, for sure. Initially we came across a dearth of design and conversation around this topic. So yes, as I am on the precipice, I think a lot of my fertility issues have to do with being in perimenopause and I'm totally fascinated by it. I've learned about hormones and the ways in which they absolutely govern us, but we can govern them to a certain extent too; that part is fascinating to me. There is a total and complete lack of understanding of it, utterly lacking, the ways in which it can have profound effects on mental health, on the ability to undertake work that you want to do, to live a life that you want to live. It's treated as a joke by most people who have never gone through it, and it's another way to demean people who experience it. It’s the final taboo and frontier in terms of these conversations because it also is synonymous with aging, which is another deep taboo. People either have a Peter Pan complex, or they think “it's never gonna happen to me”, or it's something that is shrouded in the same "ick" factor that birth is shrouded in. And yet, as sure as everybody is born, everybody is going to die.

Maybe not everybody gets the ability to age, not everybody dies at the same time, but I'm fascinated by it. I’ve promised myself to really dive into thinking about this idea next summer after I’ve handed in my doctoral dissertation, because by that point in time I will know whether or not I'm on the way to having a child. That will personally affect my professional research approach to how I attack that topic.

SG: Is there anything you would like to add?

MMF: No, those were amazing questions, the best questions I've been asked in a long time. That was just a really lovely conversation.



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