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’être 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?

12 thoughts on “Mission creep: the museum-director dilemma”

  1. Interesting idea Marc, since “splitting the job” is precisely what Art Basel did in creating the triumvirate of which you are currently part. So it’s not just museums but also other large arts institutions that might well employ this strategy.

    The problem, of course, is not just recent and not just American. Pontus Hultén, director of both Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Pompidou in Paris, mounted legendary exhibitions at both, and worked closely with artists like Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol and Tinguely. But in 1980, when he moved to LA to help found MOCA, the responsibilities of fund raising, the “corporate” side of the job, became frustrating, unfulfilling, not of interest. He foundered for four years, mounted infrequent exhibitions, and finally decamped for Europe. He was decidedly the museum director as super curator, as aesthete and bohemian. Connoisseurship was his forte. Niki de St. Phalle once said he had “the soul of an artist, not of a museum director.”

    The current spate of vacancies at the top of American museums is possibly due to an unfortunate tendency among boards of trustees to only go for proven star material. If they were more open and adventurous in their search parameters and looked beyond the obvious marquee names, perhaps it would feel less like a game of musical chairs. Seemingly the Getty program is one way to groom the up and comers and increase the pool of attractive candidates.

    I suppose the real bugaboo is the fear of creeping philistinism. We are much more concerned that a museum not fulfill its aesthetic mandate, not mount shows and programs of interest to the larger arts community, than we are of fiscal mismanagement. We are aghast when the front door opens into the gift shop rather than the exhibitions. We would prefer the museum to show art rather than motorcycles and fashion, even if the latter guarantees massive corporate sponsorship. We would prefer an institution to work well in its home base before diverting its resources towards franchising out.

    Aside from “splitting the job”, there are other structures that can allow for shared power and responsibility. When it is an MBA type at the helm, there could be a mandated dialogue with a strong curatorial committee that will advise and consent on aesthetic issues. Easier said than done, with the large egos involved and the power struggles that only sometimes remain hidden from the public. Obviously the checks and balances in such situations need to established well before the deal is signed and director is installed. Kind of like a prenuptial.

    Strangely enough, a recent tendency in museums seems to be consolidation rather than division of labor. I’m thinking of the merging of press and marketing departments at many institutions, which has been justified as not only cost effective, but also as a better way to ensure coverage of an exhibition. What this does, of course, is place the entertainment or travel reporter in the same bag as a serious critic. Not to make too precious a point, but there was a time, not so long ago, when this would never have been considered.

  2. The current museum ‘dilemma’ is essentially a problem of leadership and now more than ever before. Running a modern museum is a CEO role with elaborate Gothic-shaped silver-gilt knobs on. Every modern museum requires a leader. Only one. Breaking the job down into committees would be a fiasco. The director needs to bind together a broad variety of disparate tendencies, skill-sets and interest groups behind one creative vision. As you point out, this takes a rare combination of abilities, but the charisma of leadership is the élan vital.

    In any event, it’s definitely a high pressure role and not for the faint-hearted.

    Today, most natural leaders go into business where their skills will be more handsomely rewarded (cf Dennison?) and where there are no precious curators sniping from the wings (cf Saumarez-Smith). In business, everyone is united in the drive to revenue, sharing in a real material sense in any success that ensues.

    In the US you have the Getty program, we have the Clore Cultural Leadership programme, which is yet to mature and bear fruit. Meanwhile, there are directors in the UK who combine the skills Marc outlines — Serota at the Tate, Mark Jones at the V&A, Neil MacGregor at the British Museum, David Fleming in Liverpool, and almost certainly the recently appointed Nick Merriman in Manchester. You have De Montebello, Krens (soon to be back in the driving seat?) and James Cuno (whose book Whose Muse, incidentally, touches on many of the issues we’re discussing). But you’re always going to be fishing from a relatively small pool.

    Charles Saumarez-Smith had the required combination of administrative skill, charisma, and scholarship (not the same as connoisseurship — now an almost obsolete gift). He was, by most accounts, undermined by the barrister who happened to be the chairman of the board of trustees (which brings us to a broader issue).

    Unfortunately, comparing US and UK museums on these issues is a case of apples and pears. The real problem in the UK is that we don’t take high culture seriously enough. Hence the funding crisis in our museums and the paucity of leadership talent at the top of the sector.

  3. This crisis of leadership is precisely what the Clore Leadership Programme in the UK is aimed at (Nick Merriman – whom Tom mentioned is a Clore Fellow). And as part of this year’s Clore programme (cards on the table) I was pleasantly surprised to see the Director of a new American initiative to develop business skills in curators that is being based on the Clore.

    While these initiatives are admirable, I am concerned that they may delay tackling the bigger issue that I see in visual cultural institutions — the cult of the Director. By elevating the status and persona of the Director, museums are making the same mistakes corporates have only relatively recently begun to avoid — adopting the ‘leader as hero’ model.

    The sooner we can shift from talking about individuals to talking about teams, the healthier the discussion. The UK’s National Theatre – with the two Nicks (Hytner and Starr) – as Creative and Exectuive Directors may be a more relevant model.

    The current unquestioning belief that a tribe of uber directors, who can inspire people, supervise capital projects while entertaining patrons and completing a scholarly tome,exists or can be created, is dangerous. It will only harm the institutions and the people who accept the jobs as they are currently configured.

  4. Universities are coping with the same problems. On the one hand, boards are demanding change, and trying to bring on bosses who know something about restructuring large calcified organizations. On the other hand, the institutional culture demands someone with credibility, drawn from the expert community. Nine times out of ten the mix is off kilter, leaning too far either to “soulless technocrat” or “nice guy, but hopeless manager.”

    But you can’t lump all the cases in one box. Different qualities are required for various scenarios:

    1. The modality: Is the museum in building mode or fundraising more, or both? It’s a cliche, but as a general rule there are good builders, who must have a bit of Howard Roark in them; and good consolidators, who listen to people and bring peace to the land.

    2. The size of the endowment (or subsidy). It’s easy to be a visionary if you have funds to make your vision happen. From a programming standpoint, it would be ideal not to be distracted by a fundraising drive or a building spree. At least 75% of the attention of today’s bosses is distracted by one or both of those needs. The organizational structure is in denial of that simple fact.

    3. The local environment: Some directors have the backing of the local business and social community, and the salient quality required is to harness those energies; this is especially true for museums in smaller cities: success is about getting everyone on board and building a sympatico atmosphere. In other cases, notably in big cities, it’s about competition, for patrons, money, audiences, shows. The qualities required are more competitive and strategic.

    4. The inherited staff and curatorial team: Is the director being asked to drive a Ferrari. Or is she being asked to build a Ferrari?

    5. The governing mandate: Entrenchment or reinvention? It’s rare for both the board and the director to be on the same page about where exactly the institution lies on this continuum.

    Once you start picking the right fit across all these dimensions, you get to a complicated game of Chinese chess. No wonder it’s so hard to find a good match between managers and institutions, and then to make the marriage work.

  5. This may seem a little simple minded, and I don’t really have enough oversight to comment on particular institutions. It seems to me that the lack of leadership has gone from an endemic to a pandemic situation, at least in western society. I think one problem is that we believe leadership comes from an individual rather than a social force. And when we believe that, it is never ourselves that is the individual that we have in mind.

    Leadership is something that needs to be learned by everyone, not just the ones on the track for directorship. A human resource director in a company is capable of launching an initiative that turns that company completely around. We have a non-leader in the white house but no one wants to take responsibility to do what it takes to turn him into a leader, which after some time has made it much more problematic to support that very action.

    It is more important to teach those being led the qualities of leadership than it is to focus on specialized training of the leader. That way when the leader strays, it is only a momentary issue, there is always someone around qualified to recognize the problem. Then it will only be a problem until we make the correction, rather than waiting for it to be made for us.

    It is sad about losing Lisa Dennison, it really seems like the end of an era. But the best leaders are the ones who leave something behind that can survive their departure, and I am certain that this is true in this case.

  6. As a contrast, the Chinese system of museum directorship is entirely politically based. Directorship hiring is either internal, usually from the department heads, or more often from within the government. The newest head of the Palace Museum was from the National Government’s Bureau of Culture. Though I don’t know about the smaller provincial museums, I’m assuming the trend holds true, in keeping with the ‘trickle down’ effect of both politics and economics here.

    The fundraising dilemma is also curtailed by the lack of a donor pool. Private collections often stay private in order to conceal the depths of the owner’s wealth. Private museums are rare, and usually are headed by wealthy individuals using them as PR generators. In fact there is no major incentive to donate to museums in this country beyond loosely ingratiating others, as there is no tax break granted for the value of the goods donated.

    Granted, this leads to museums of lesser object breadth and programming strength, but it also relieves the pressure of running a museum like a corporation. This may also be due in part to the fact that this country has no permanent collection of world cultures, it is instead working to maintain authority over its own culture.

  7. Do we really think or believe that the director of a fine arts museum requires a Ph.D. in Art History or some equivalent training in connoisseurship?

    I don’t think we have the same standards for curators, or at least not any longer. Sure it is excellent when a museum brings in a curator from the ranks of academia (Barry Bergdoll’s addition to MoMA’s ranks is a case in point), but, like the derth of viable museum directors, the pool of Ph.D.’s that would be willing and able to fill a full-time curator position at a major institution is comparatively small.

    I think a more viable and ultimately more productive option for a museum director position would be someone who demonstrates a real love of the education and intellectual activity in which a museum is engaged (or of education and intellectual activity in general!). Who is going to be a better advocate for a museum: someone who wants to learn from the exhibitions and programs that the institution has to offer; or someone who does, or needs to be perceived as, knowing it all already?

    This may get trounced as a starry-eyed view of what a museum director could be, but if the question is one of leadership, I think historically the best leaders–political, military, business, social, whatever–have demonstrated just this kind of intellectual thirst. Whether or not it resulted in a couple more letters at the end of their names is besides the point.

  8. Jonathan

    I would not necessarily equate (or limit) connoisseurship to a Ph.D. in art history. My point being that there are many ways to attain the first without the benefit of the second. Nor would I think that such a Ph.D. precludes intellectual curiosity. My point here being that achieving an advanced degree does not automatically lead to a “know-it-all” elitism which destroys any enthusiasm for the museum’s educational role.

    Ideally, there should be no limits on intellectual thirst, whatever the level of formal education achieved by a potential museum director. There’s an old saying (I forget the source, and I’m surely paraphrasing): the more I know, the more I realize how little I know. Certainly, as you indicate, the director should be willing to grow into the job, should be prepared to be amazed, should be passionate in his/her advocacy of the institution and its intellectual mission. Otherwise, why even go for the interview? But this is less a question of objective qualifications (advanced degrees and the like) and more about the innate attributes a candidate can bring to the job: confidence, empathy, even humility.

    To use your analogy of a military leader, some generals have the common touch and lead by example — citizen soldiers, if you will, who identify with their rank and file. Others are blinded by their battle ribbons and the stars on their epaulets. It is the difference between a true leader and a martinet.

    Since you have brought up the subject, I suppose it’s fair to say that the search for a museum director is ultimately the search for that particularly amorphous quality: character.

  9. The manager of any institution requires, first and foremost, the ability to manage. Sadly, in all my years with different types of societal systems, business or otherwise, I have found that good managers are rare. And this, in a society (at least in the West) built on managed organisations and heavily populated with so-called management schools. For the institutional Arts sector, museum or otherwise, connoisseurship, a sensitivity to education needs, an awareness of the state of the society in which the institution sits, and curatorial skills, are all additional characteristics of a great director; but they are still secondary to the principal demand of managing the place and the people within it.

    But finding such management skills is harder than one would think. And well meaning search committees, so concerned with including all the traits on everyone’s wish list, often don’t pay enough attention to the one skill that could make their institution great. Of course finding the perfect person for any role is hard. Which I guess is one reason why Basel has spit their role into three parts, and where this thread started?

  10. I’m a bit too schizophrenic about this issue to weigh in definitively one way or the other, which is why I’ve been lurking, but not commenting. Still, perhaps my indecision will add something here.

    On one hand, I tend to fall into the camp of those thinking the way Ian does (i.e., a director should be an expert manager, first and foremost, and leave the more creative/appreciation side of things to those with expertise in that). It never hurts if they have that extra advantage (some knowledge) over the competition, but the most brilliant of art historians can bankrupt an institution if they don’t manage it well.

    Then again, for a supposedly good manager without much appreciation of the raison d’etre of his institution (i.e., someone who doesn’t seem to be a true believer in what he’s leading), there’s clearly more potential to lose sight of the mission and focus instead on the measures of success that are secondary to it (which is the most charitable way I can describe some of the more populist choices made by some high-profile museums).

    If it were up to me, and all the candidates fell into one of those extremes, in the end, I reluctanly would support someone who’s a true believer first and a good manager second.

  11. I don’t believe I suggested either/or. But I do believe it is the most important skill for the running of any large institution. Then one picks the best management-competent candidate taking into consideration the smorgasbord of other qualities one might like. A true believer is great for an Artistic Director, but isn’t enough for the person who has to run the place. Now if you can get both in the one body, so much the better.

    One proviso: occasionally one finds a wonderfully competent, organisationally astute individual who doesn’t want the top job. Someone who can cover the management inadequacies of the named Director. That can also work, but only if the Director respects this individual and confers on anything that requires internal follow-through.

  12. Copenhagen journalist Clemens Bomsdorf mailed us this:

    A recent recruitment process in Norway serves as a good example for how the demands to coming museum directors can change. After the board of the National museum did not find the right person as the new museum’s director, in the second round of recruitment the demand that the applicant should have a solid academic education in the field of art and a background from the museum world was basically dropped (in Norwegian “Samtidig vil kravspesifikasjonene endres noe idet solid kunst- og museumsfaglig kompetanse fortsatt vil være ønskelig, men ikke et absolutt krav.”).

    In this way a bigger number of possible candidates could emerge. Having too-high demands regarding the museum-related background of the applicants seemed simply to be an obstacle to finding the right person for Norway’s biggest museum, which is undergoing a restructuring right now. The old National museum is merged with the museum for design and architecture. Swede Sune Nordgren, a widely respected museum director (BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England; Malmö Konsthall, Sweden), had begun that task. After many disputes with the museum’s board, Nordgren left the job end of 2006. Restructuring of organisations is usually more a business person’s job than that of an art historian. Maybe that’s why the board changed the description of the opening in the second round.

    Shortly afterwards, Allis Helleland was presented as the new director. Being an art historian and having headed the Danish National museum Statens Museum for Kunst for the last 13 years, she clearly had what according to the new description of the opening was not necessarily needed anymore. Luckily(?) the board did not have to take somebody who just fulfilled the lowered demands.

    Or did they anyhow? Despite her background Helleland had been the most criticized museum director in Denmark. She was too much a populist and only tried to increase visitor numbers, many of the country’s top artists as well as critics had repeated over and over again the last couple of years. (Nevertheless, I several times experienced how famous artists who disliked Helleland’s approach proudly told me that her museum had acquired one of their works for the collection. Obviously they respected her anyhow.) Not caring much about what other people said, but just pushing through her agenda, she was the Iron Lady of the Danish museum world – a quality one expects to find more often in the political or business sphere. Manager skills like Helleland’s leadership are important when heading Norway’s National museum in the ongoing phase of restructuring.

    Helleland started her job in Norway beginning of August. Now, she, who in Denmark had proven to be able to push through her agenda even in times where only the visitor statistics prove her right, should prove that art historians also can be good managers. However, whether she can also satisfy the Norwegian art world remains to be seen. If that does not work out, the board might next time really take somebody with a business background.

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