How to get ahead in US museums
Once considered the weakest candidates by boards, curators are now getting the top management jobs
By Erica Cooke. Museums, Issue 232, February 2012
Published online: 15 February 2012
Senior curators who want to step up and run a museum have to overcome a credibility gap in the eyes of many trustees seeking a director. Agnes Gund, the president emerita of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), grew increasingly frustrated while sitting on selection committees because curators were being put “in last place”. Four years ago, she did something about it, launching the New York-based Center for Curatorial Leadership.
Gary Tinterow, the new director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, is one of the centre’s star graduates. He takes up the post this month after 28 years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, most recently leading its department of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art. “I volunteered to be in the first course,” he says, wanting to learn about the challenges of being a director. “One has to be not only an energiser, a motivator and a visionary, but one also has to be a consensus builder,” he says, as well as managing an organisation and balancing the budget.
Tinterow is the fifth graduate of the centre to become a director. So far 41 curators have taken part in the programme created by Gund and Elizabeth Easton, a former head of the department of European painting at the Brooklyn Museum. They are proud that 60% of graduates have been promoted to more senior posts. Tinterow found the experience “life changing”—and testing. “My year was truly overwhelming with the amount of information and number of events, including dinners and lunches with key figures in New York’s cultural community.”
Ten curators a year have taken part in the programme since 2008. The course includes four weeks of instruction over a six-month period (some taught by the Columbia Business School), being mentored by experienced directors, and a residency at a museum other than their own. Gund funds nearly 95% of the centre’s $500,000 annual budget.
Gund says the centre was needed because she found that fellow trustees often “had no measure for how curators would be as directors”: whether they could meet the challenges of fundraising, management, team building and understanding the obligations of non-profit status.
Facing a crisis
Gund and Easton’s fear that US museums were facing a leadership crisis was shared by others. According to a report by consultant Janet Meredith for the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in 2009, the greatest issue in museum professional development is the lack of investment by institutions in their employees to gain management and leadership skills.
It raised the question: who would succeed the 60 or so directors planning to retire by 2019? Instead of candidates steeped in the ethos of museums, the top jobs would increasingly go to people drawn from the business world, Gund, Easton and others feared. The leadership centre was created when more than two dozen major US museums were searching for directors. Trustees wanted candidates who had administrative experience to manage museums’ endowments and numerous departments, as well as raise funds (The Art Newspaper, July/August 2007, p11). It looked as if people from outside the museum world would prevail, or trustees would hire an administrative head and a creative one and opt for dual leadership. Hiring a curator with little experience of budgets or fundraising was perceived to be risky.
Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Met, says that increasingly, curators have to think about the budget for exhibitions and programmes that they propose. And they are often asked to raise money. “It is a different world from the 1960s when I started.” He says trustees need to be given credit for appointing curators, such as his successor, Thomas Campbell, rather than an “accountant”. “Trustees realise that promoting a [chief financial officer] is not going to land a great exhibition.”
Curators to the fore
Meredith reported in 2010 to the AAMD that 60% of their peers came from curatorial backgrounds. The percentage seems to be increasing. Besides Tinterow’s appointment last year, the Art Institute of Chicago chose one of its own curators, Douglas Druick, and the Frick Collection, New York, hired Ian Wardropper, a former curator at the Met and before that the Art Institute to be its new director.
Christophe Cherix, now one of the chief curators at MoMA, is another graduate of the centre. He thinks that the idea that museums should be run more like corporations has given way because of a recognition that the voice of the curator is needed “at a time when the relationship between object and viewer has changed”.
Another graduate, Michael Taylor, who is now the director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, was a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He wanted to become a director to “make a better world for other curators to come”.
Easton says: “It is easier to teach business to art world professionals than it is to teach people from business about the art world.” Trustees, she says, who often come from the business world and deal with finance daily, prefer speaking with directors who are passionate about art. She and Gund also believe that museums are better off with leaders who understand the needs of curators.
Thomas Pritzker, the chairman of the board at the Art Institute of Chicago, says: “There is always a scarcity of leadership talent in every business that I’ve ever been in.” But when the Art Institute was searching for a new director he was “pleasantly surprised at the quality of choices”.
When a museum is in financial difficulty, Eli Broad, a trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MoCA), says there is still an issue. Before he lured Jeffrey Deitch to rejuvenate the museum, he brought in a troubleshooter. “When MoCA got into financial trouble, I convinced Chuck Young, the former chancellor of UCLA, to come in for a year and straighten things out. I couldn’t think of anyone in the art world that had the skills and reputation to right-size the staff and establish financial control.” Broad says the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is another example of an institution that, after experimenting with different directors, needed a financial executive from outside of the museum community to save it from economic collapse. Once the situation was stabilised, Michael Govan, a director-curator, took charge.
Bringing Hirst’s shark to the Met
Paul Ingram, a professor at the Columbia Business School who teaches at the Center for Curatorial Leadership, has co-written a case study, due to be published this month, about Gary Tinterow’s contribution to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For example, Tinterow persuaded the collector Steven Cohen to lend Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991 (above), to the museum for three years, which was seen as a “pivotal moment” in the museum’s approach to contemporary art. Ingram describes Tinterow as an “entrepreneurial leader” who is good at “shifting structures and managing relationships”. Another example of Tinterow’s entrepreneurship was spotting the possibility of leasing the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Marcel Breuer building after the Whitney moves downtown to Chelsea by 2015. Tinterow, the museum’s director and other supporters convinced the trustees that a branch museum at the Breuer building, five blocks away from the Metropolitan museum, made sense for the display of its modern and contemporary art collection. Tinterow told Ingram: “Change is not what happens naturally in the museum world; the Met is a risk-averse institution and for good reason.” That is how it built its reputation as one of the world’s great museums, says Tinterow.
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