Making Lemonade

By Claudia B. Ocello
Museum, July/August 2009

Lemonade: 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 1½ tablespoons sugar syrup, 1 cup water. Put the lemon juice, sugar syrup and water in a glass and stir. Add ice to chill. Float lemon slices.—From The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 1990.

Updated Recipe:One pink slip, 8 boxes of books and office decorations, one mass e-mail, an overwhelming outpouring of sympathy, one new website, 250 business cards, 500 personalized Post-its, and as much good, sweet, positive karma as you can add. Store boxes, pink slip and office decorations in basement. Send mass e-mail to colleagues, read overwhelming outpouring of sympathy; cry, laugh, strategize carefully. Design and launch new website, order business cards and custom Post-its, and continue to spread and receive good karma. Yield: a new business venture, several interviews and four consulting jobs.

On a Friday in November, I approached the door to my office and mentally outlined my morning priorities. The office manager greeted me, saying that my boss would like to see me first thing in her office. I kept my coat on as I put down my briefcase, walked down the hallway and knocked on her door.

In 20 minutes, it was essentially all over. My position as associate director of education and public programs at Save Ellis Island in New Jersey was being eliminated. I was being laid off effective immediately, our COO and my boss told me at 9:15 a.m. I signed some papers, turned in my keys and ID, and cleaned out my office.

I personally sought out each staff member and said thank you and goodbye in a positive and graceful manner. My family always told me if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. This looked to be as good a time as any to start. If you are the giver of the lemons, please remember to say thank you to your employees and let them go early in the week so they can start looking into unemployment and other assistance programs the next business day.

Once I got over the shock, next came anger and tears. I needed to be upset for a little while, but then I realized all my negative energy was not getting me where I wanted to go. If you are in this situation, go ahead and complain, mourn, be angry, cry—but then send out positive and happy signals to the universe and rise above the bad vibes.

Suddenly there were many forms to fill out, phone numbers and new e-mail addresses and websites on which to register. I started to compile notes and to-do lists in a new notebook dedicated to this phase of my life: heat assistance, food stamps and documentation of my filing for unemployment. The notebook helped me stay focused and organized, since most of my professional career was now in boxes in my basement.

My Rolodex is just a model or two beyond the original version created in 1958. It was the first thing I put in my box as I packed up my office. At first I was embarrassed to tell people I had been laid off, especially after receiving a national award six months earlier. But I decided I needed to send a mass e-mail to my contacts to let them know what happened, provide new contact information and see if anyone had leads on jobs. If you use a computer system for your contacts, print it out or download it once a week to another source. Employers, please let your employees have at least a half hour of supervised computer time before you shut off their access so they can pull out contacts.

That impersonal e-mail landed me not only an incredible outpouring of sympathy from my friends and colleagues but one definite consulting job and another possible one. Those replies kept me connected to the museum community even though my world had been overturned. (I actually wouldn’t be writing this column if I hadn’t been vocal about my situation.)

Here’s my advice: Start planning now for your layoff. Since we can’t predict the future, hopefully you have been saving money from your paycheck each month, meeting new people and maintaining professional contacts. Think about postponing your vacation; you could be paid for your unused vacation days if you get laid off—there’s a little unexpected money you’ll need sooner or later.

If you qualify for unemployment, file ASAP. At first I was ashamed to look into heating/utility payment assistance, food stamps and other programs like these. But that’s what the programs are there for. Tell people you are out of work: I got offered a job by the person in the next chair when I went to get my hair cut, and a supermarket checkout clerk suggested I give him copies of my resume, since he sees lots of people over the course of the day. You never know where the next job will be or who will help you find it.

Thanks to telling my yoga class that I was out of work, I am now working part-time in the office of a friend’s furniture store. I’m not switching careers to sell or place orders for beautiful leather sectionals, but I am finding ways to apply my interpersonal skills and I’m learning new ones, like the computer program Quickbooks.

Transitions are part of the process. I’m getting used to a different pace to my days and work schedule. Talking to new and former mentors has helped me stay focused and given me a boost. Unfortunately there are more colleagues out there than we think who have lost their jobs. Perhaps you know some of them—please reach out to them and spend some time with them. Your reaching out sends the signal that our colleagues haven’t forgotten us. Staying connected is harder when you’re not working full time in a museum.

While I am looking for another full-time museum job, I decided to start my own consulting business. I picked up some new clients thanks to word of mouth, my contacts and my new website. Think about ways you could reinvent yourself in the museum world or otherwise. Maybe there is another type of job altogether or an angle within the museum world you’d like to explore.

How will museums fare once the crisis passes? What will reduced hours, job and program cuts, and other changes to museums mean for how we serve the public, how the public views and supports us, and how we view ourselves? I’m not sure. I do know that museums can show others how to make the best of a bad situation. Whether you’re the one still employed with the increased workload or the one who got laid off, assess your situation and show the world how to make something bad into something good.

Claudia B. Ocello is president and CEO of Museum Partners Consulting LLC, specializing in creative solutions for education projects, exhibitions, evaluation and issues of universal access. She is also an adjunct faculty member in the master’s in museum professions program at Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J.