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MANY Board Spotlight: Andrea Harden

June 26, 2024 4:35 PM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

Andrea Harden has over twenty years of senior-level management and consulting experience in training and development, employee relations, harassment prevention, diversity and inclusion, change management, and effective communication. She is a key partner in supporting museum leadership, focusing on employee engagement, relationship management, and Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA). Harden is responsible for developing and administrating various plans and procedures that guide and support museum staff, including recruitment, retention, performance management, development, and compliance. Harden collaborates with the museum’s director and other staff to understand, refine, and implement the museum’s strategic plan. She works with the Buffalo AKG’s Leadership Team and Management Team to ensure alignment of departmental and individual goals and objectives with the broader institutional plan, which includes coordinating IDEA processes, programs, and initiatives in collaboration with other Leadership Team members, ensuring the integration and measurability of IDEA in all aspects of museum operations alongside institutional goals, and making changes and updates as needed to ensure compliance with local, state, and federal employment laws and regulations and best practices for museums. 

Harden joined the MANY Board of Directors this past January. We spoke to her to learn more about her journey into the museum field, what motivates her, and more.

Andrea (far right) with MANY Interim Executive Director Sheila McDaniel (left) and MANY Board President Georgette Grier-Key (center) at the 2024 annual conference "Giving Voice to Value" in Albany

Museum Association of New York (MANY): What was your first museum experience?

Andrea Harden (AH): I have two early museum memories. Both were from school field trips. Shortly after I moved to Buffalo, I remember a giant, taxidermied polar bear at the Buffalo Museum of Science, and it was terrifying. It’s still there because when I took my kids years later, I wondered if it was still there, and sure enough, it was! The other memory I have is of the mirrored room at what was the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which is now known as the Buffalo AKG Art Museum. 

What’s your current role?

AH:  My current role is the Director of Talent and Culture (formerly Human Resources) at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum. It’s a department of two, including me, with a Talent and Culture Manager. We are strategic partners with everybody in the museum and are responsible for recruitment, performance management, development, and retention. Our goal is to make sure that our employees have the best experience that they can. I work closely with the leadership team, providing assistance and guidance on performance management, shifting away from the typical once-a-year review to ongoing communications – coaching them on ongoing conversations to have with their team regularly and understanding how they can be better leaders. Bottomline, while people are here, I aim to ensure that it’s their best experience. It’s also about strategic planning for the museum, understanding who we are, what we look like, and how we can keep people central to our core of who we are. Our core values include inclusivity, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA), and we want to know how this plays out within the organization across departments. We want to make sure that these values are immersed throughout the museum. 

What other jobs have you had? What did your journey look like to get to your current role?

AH: Buffalo AKG Art Museum is my first museum job. I’ve been in human resources for about thirty years, primarily in corporate HR positions or consulting. Albright Knox (Buffalo AKG Art Museum) was one of our clients and we were helping them hire their human resources manager. I ended up helping the museum on a part-time basis because at the time, I still wanted to consult and have that flexibility. It was a nice transition for me to learn more about museums. Then, about a year before the museum was set to reopen after extensive renovations, rebranding, etc. I decided to accept the full-time position, and I love it. 

What experiences from previous jobs have been most helpful for your current role?

AH: At the end of my consulting career, 95% of my role was training, primarily diversity and inclusion training, because of what was happening in the country in 2020. There was a lot of training and facilitation across New York State, and facilitation skills are very helpful to my role at the museum, especially working with employees from all generations and backgrounds. I think I also came into their role with a lot of patience and the ability to help people interact with each other. I think that’s the biggest skill I could bring from my previous experiences, and I’m okay with talking to people on the leadership team and the board or in entry-level positions.

What was the last museum that you visited?

AH: Probably The Buffalo History Museum, and full disclosure, my daughter works there! She didn’t tell me she was interviewing for a position there, and I didn’t know that she wanted to stay in Buffalo, but she has a background in digital media. She’s working as a digital media specialist at the museum. I enjoyed the exhibition “Say Their Names: Honor Their Legacies” by the Uncrowned Queens Institute, which shares the stories, wisdom, and insights of Buffalo’s community elders. It closed in April but highlighted African American men and women who have made amazing changes in our community but may not get all the recognition. I saw a few friends of my parents, who I hadn’t seen since I was a child, being recognized. 

There’s been a lot of investment in Buffalo into art and cultural organizations, and we're seeing a shift in how the public and museums approach each other. I enjoy visiting other museums because I see a different perspective from that of a contemporary art museum.

Let’s take a step further back… can you tell us about where you grew up?

AH: I was born in Los Angeles, California, and everybody asks me why I am in Buffalo. (laughs) It really wasn’t my choice, but my father, who actually bribed us, told us that there was snow in Buffalo, which, as a child, got me excited. I moved here at a really young age because both of my parents grew up in Buffalo, and my dad was big on family. He wanted us to be closer to grandparents, aunts, and uncles. I ended up staying and attending Buffalo State for my undergraduate degree and then attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City for fashion merchandising and business. 

Did your 18-year-old self imagine that you would be where you are today?

AH: No, I always thought that I would be a teacher. My mom is a retired teacher, and I was that kid who lined up my stuffed animals to teach them. In my senior year of high school, my guidance counselor told me that there weren’t jobs in teaching and that it wouldn’t be a good path for me. They said that I should be an accountant because I excelled in math. But I didn’t want to do that, so I went to Buffalo State to major in communications and business. I loved fashion, which brought me to the Fashion Institute of Technology. I liked New York City but wanted to return to Buffalo and figure out what I wanted to do. It still came back to teaching. I love training. I attended the University of Buffalo School of Management and got my MBA in Human Resources. 

I don’t think I ever thought that working at a museum would be part of my future. It’s funny because I think the pandemic solidified it for me. After all, it was the people we had at the museum who realized that healing could happen and that we could use it through art. I could see the breadth of our museum experience for people and wanted to be part of what we were trying to do for our community. 

What motivates you to do what you do? What do you get excited about? 

AH: Last week, we extended an offer for one of our leadership positions, an internal promotion, to someone who had started here part-time in a front-of-house position. They left and then came back to a different part-time position. Then, they were promoted to a full-time position and moved up into management. Now they’re our new director of museum experience. That is what motivates me –seeing change and growth in people. 

The other thing that motivates me is ensuring that I represent our community and that the museum looks like ours. As a Black woman in a senior leadership position, I like to make sure that my face gets out there, attend conferences or meetings, and say what I’m doing and where I’m doing it because representation matters. 

Can you describe a favorite day on the job or is there a favorite aspect of your role?

AH: Training and facilitation are my favorite things. Last week, I worked with two people who were having a difficult conversation, and I was able to help by sitting in on their conversation as a mediator. I listened more than anything but was there to help summarize. 

We have a training day each year, and we also incorporate team building. My favorite days are when I interact with others.

What is your superpower?

AH: Flexibility is one, you know, learning on the fly, as we call it in HR. It’s important to be able to pivot. Diplomacy is another, making sure I am saying things in a way people need to hear so they’re still willing to listen. I would also say my positive attitude. I didn’t realize this until my mom told me that I said, “It’ll all work out” and that I always say that. I heard myself say that at work last week and just started laughing. I guess it’s true that I say that a lot!

Do you have any key mentors or someone who has deeply influenced you? Can you tell me about them?

AH: My parents. Both were professionals and established my work ethic when I was young. My dad passed a few years ago, but my mom is 90 and is running a food pantry at her church. They both set a strong foundation for me. 

In my museum career, I would say our former Deputy Director Karen Spaulding. She was the one who kind of convinced me to stay at the museum. She is such a strong servant leader. I saw her strength, but she was never overwhelming to people. She’s very good with courageous conversations to the point that The John R. Oishei Foundation here in Buffalo has a fellowship for Leaders of Color named after her. I was fortunate to be part of the signature cohort five years ago, and now my daughter just finished her cohort. 

She’s amazing and taught me the balance of speaking up and using our voice. Our voice is powerful; if we don’t use it, then we’re not doing a service to ourselves or anyone else following us.

The Museum Association of New York helps shape a better future for museums and museum professionals by uplifting best practices and building organizational capacity through advocacy, training, and networking opportunities.

Museum Association of New York is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization. 

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