Mission creep: the museum-director dilemma
I met up with a few artworld friends for drinks last night, and the conversation turned to the Sunday Times piece on Philippe de Montebello’s Met leadership and the inevitable speculations about his successors. Soon after she left us to go have dinner, Alexandra Peers blackberryed me: “Just heard Lisa Dennison has left the Gugg to do business development for Sotheby’s.” Lo and behold, another museum-director slot to be filled! That makes 25 in the United States, based on the Sunday Times article on the Getty’s museum-director training program.
During our cocktails, I had pointed out the fact that at any given moment there seem to be 20-odd open museum directorships and only a half-dozen names in circulation as their likely occupants. Often, of course, those are other museum directors, and when they switch slots, the dilemma remains. Now, musea are not my forte, but from my relatively outside perspective it seems the problem lies in the way that the job has evolved through mission creep over the years. In addition to the classic connoisseurship required, fund-raising and business skills have become a big part of the job, as has the ability to deal with major construction projects and foreign governments. The Getty article quoted Cloisters/Met curator Julien Chapuis saying: “I’m concerned that the next generation of museum leaders will be business people not trained in art history, people who have little knowledge of the collection, which for me is the raison d’Ãªtre of a museum.” Then again, a museum director needs to have the respect of his curators. As the Guardian reported when London’s National Gallery director Charles Saumarez Smith quit, he was said “to have been undermined by a cabal of his own curatorial staff who belittled his intellect and thought him a poor connoisseur.”
So it seems today’s ideal museum-director candidate would have a PhD in Art History, an MBA, plus several years of Foreign Service and corporate experience under the belt. It’s a tall order, which may explain why it’s so frequently found to be difficult to fulfill, especially outside the top institutions. As I suggested to my drinking companions last night perhaps it’s time to widen the notion of how museums are led: Splitting the job into business and art functions, rather than desperately seeking candidates combining all the skills required in the modern museum era and paralyzing the institution until the ideal candidate surfaces. Thoughts?