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Help Wanted

By Ted Loos

The job of museum director has gotten a lot harder of late, and the country’s top institutions are chasing a small pool of superstars to guide them through uncertain times.

In the old days, most directors of major art museums could settle in and look forward to decades-long tenures. The job was unique and prestigious—the qualifications were a background of serious scholarship as a curator and the ability to be a reassuring pillar of the community—if a little sleepy at times.

Fast forward to 2010: Museum directors are hustling more than they ever had dreamed they would have to, grappling with the perils of the Great Recession and with increasing demands on their time. Boards of trustees are antsy, demanding awesome fundraising prowess from their titular leaders, as well as budget cuts.

The museum building boom that began in the 1990s continues apace, downturn be damned, forcing directors to be project-managing CEOs even though their main job qualification may be a Ph. D. thesis on medieval armor. The public clamors for major loan exhibitions (something Impressionist, please) but directors are forced to mine their permanent collections for much cheaper in-house shows.

How are directors and museum boards handling the pressure? The past year has seen a slew of high-profile firings, hirings, defections and never-before-seen surprises. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles—which was headed for bankruptcy in 2008 and saved by $30 million from all-powerful trustee Eli Broad—hired an art dealer, of all people, to fill its top slot: prominent gallerist Jeffrey Deitch. The move raised some eyebrows among those who believe that the forces of the market should kept as far away from museums as possible.

The director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Timothy Rub, left that prestigious institution last summer, after only three years on the job, decamping to the slightly more prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art. Lily-pad jumping is the norm in some industries, but not at big museums, which have traditionally styled themselves as paragons of longevity with regard to their collections and their leadership alike. The trend had already been gathering team for some time: In 2007 Bill Griswold took the top job at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York after only two years as director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

At the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, director Michael Brand left his post after just four years because of friction with Getty Trust president James Wood, who controls the museum’s purse strings. The Getty has long been famous as one of best-funded cultural institutions in the world, with an acquisition fund that put other museums to shame; if tempers are flaring over budgets there, imagine what might be happening at your cash-strapped local museum.

These upheavals may not be apparent to the average museum-goer—classical façades are not yet crumbling; the great works still hang on the walls. But changes in the leadership of cultural institutions tend to foretell big shifts at the ground level, since those leaders trade in decisions that are taste-based and therefore essentially arbitrary. Considering the state of the world, has the job of big-time museum director become too hard to do well for very long, and is there a new shorter-term paradigm in the making?

To answer that, consider the situation of a museum that hasn’t been in the news much lately, the venerable Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., founded in 1842. The Wadsworth started the aughts with some serious bumps—a $60–80 million expansion was canceled; it struggled with deficits; and the museum had gone through three directors in 12 years. Now it’s on track to complete a more modest $16 million renovation by 2012. Veteran curator and director Susan Talbott took over as director in 2008, after stints running the Des Moines Art Center and a division of the Smithsonian Institution.

“Everything is quite different from when I entered the field,” says Talbott, who ran two of the branch museums of the Whitney Museum of American Art in the 1980s. “Tom Armstrong was my boss at the Whitney, and I know what was on his mind on a day-to-day basis is different from what’s on my mind. The weighting of financial concerns has shifted toward directors.”

Upon arrival, Talbott was forced to cut $1.2 million out of the museum’s budget, winning praise from her board. “Ten years ago, I never would have had to say that financial stability was a priority; it would have been assumed,” she says. Talbott adds that her personal expense budget today—for things like meals and entertaining—is roughly the same as the one she had 20 years ago at the Whitney, partly due to cutting by her own hand. “I entertain at home and I do the cooking—that way I don’t have to hire a caterer,” she says matter-of-factly.

Rub, newly installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says, “The business of running a museum as a business—budgeting, operating, events, facilities—has gotten more complex. That has been added to our traditional responsibility of caring for the collection and programming.” Rub says his typical week is divided roughly into three parts: “Collecting and programming; pure administration; and fundraising, which is really a form of constituent management.” Of the last third, he adds, “I do a good deal of ‘making the ask,’ but also it’s a question of reaching out to people—elected officials, donors, corporate boards—and shaping the institution’s image.”

Certainly, a director’s relationship with his or her board of trustees is among the most crucial. Laurie Nash, a leading headhunter for museum directors who works for Russell Reynolds Associates in New York, calls it an “intricate dance.” Nash has worked on some of the biggest recent job searches in the field, including hiring Thomas Campbell as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the controversial hire of Deitch at MoCA.

“It’s the one choice trustees really have—hiring and firing directors,” says Michael Conforti, president of the American Association of Museum Directors and director for the past 15 years of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. Conforti immediately corrects himself: “It should be the only thing.” In the for-profit world, the past decade has seen a movement to make boards more active and accountable, to counter the machinations of all-powerful CEOs. In the museum world, however, the opposite grumbling has been heard: Boards are meddling too much, leading to director-swapping.

Reba White Williams, who, with her husband Dave, a former Met trustee, gave a large American drawings collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., last year, puts it this way: “Extremely powerful and rich trustees assume they’re going to have a lot of influence on a board.” And if they don’t, they might clash with their director.

Max Anderson knows a thing or two about trustee conflicts. Now director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Anderson ran the Whitney for five years, but tensions between him and the board (in particular with board president Leonard Lauder, the cosmetics executive and heir) cut his tenure short in 2003. He wanted to construct a new building, but also to create envelope-pushing exhibitions. “I wanted the Whitney to be risk-taking,” he says. “And the board didn’t like it; they wanted something else. At some point the pressure was so great to change course, and I thought, ‘What am I doing here? You obvious don’t want me here.’”

His current board situation at Indianapolis is a “night and day” difference, says Anderson. “They believe in their city, and they believe in their museum as the cultural engine of the city. They want it to succeed, and they have faith in the professional staff to deliver on that.” He adds, “As long as they have that faith, I’ve got a job.” So far, so good: The endowment at the IMA is now $330 million, in the top 10 among U.S. museums, and its ambitious new 100-acre Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park opens in June.

Boards can come in handy after hiring, too. “In a time of financial stress, the role of trustees with financial expertise is thrown into high relief,” says Campbell, who took over the Met on January 1, 2009, with the world economy in free-fall. “By the day I took office, we already had a plan in place that would help us deal with that situation as it developed. That became the blueprint for much of what Emily [Rafferty, the museum’s president] and I did in the first six months.” With significant trustee input, the Met reduced staff costs by 15 percent and made other cuts.

According to Nash, the hard economic times have an up side: “Recessions sometimes force scrutiny where there wasn’t enough before, and that’s not always a bad thing.” But in come cases that scrutiny means more work for board members; it’s not the glamorous sinecure you might imagine from seeing pictures of black-tie museum dinner parties in the newspaper’s society pages. “I’m amazed at the amount of time board members put into these director searches,” says Nash. “It’s mind-boggling.”

And few people have put in more time on that duty than Michael Horvitz, president of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s board, who holds down a day job as a high-powered attorney at the firm of Jones, Day. “I’ve been through a lot of them,” says Horvitz with good-natured chuckle. He went through the same thing in 2005 to pick Rub, whose departure was a particular blow because it came about halfway through a massive $350 million fundraising campaign to build an expansion by architect Rafael Viñoly. It is now scheduled to open in 2013.

“Timothy was doing a good job,” says Horvitz, who is himself a collector of European paintings from the 17th to the 20th centuries. “He is a very solid director, and we were sorry to see him go. We’re better off having had him but not at all happy about having to go through the search process again.” Horvitz has taken Rub at his stated word that the departure was not motivated by issues at Cleveland but rather by the fact that the Philadelphia job was the offer of a lifetime at an institution for which he had always had a special fondness.

“There are a lot of people who speculated, ‘Well, that was a lot of money to raise in this economy, and he couldn’t get along with the board,’” says Horvitz. “I really don’t think that’s the right answer.” One longtime director says simply: “Timothy takes the prize for lily-padding.” For his part, Rub says, “I do think it was a short tenure. Leadership transitions are always difficult. I regret that.” Whatever the reasons, the transition highlights a basic fact: In Horvitz’s words, “There are more great museums than there are great museum directors.”

Part of the problem is that you can’t study for the job in the traditional sense; no university offers a professional degree in the field. The job has generally involved a leap of faith for a board that has to promote an academically trained person to run a large institution. However, in 2008, MoMA board member and super-collector Agnes Gund, along with former Brooklyn Museum curator Elizabeth Easton, founded the Center for Curatorial Leadership, devoted to developing potential directors through mentoring and a fellowship program.

Anderson has worked with the center, with aspirants shadowing his every move at the IMA, which he jokingly calls “terrifying.” Even though he deems the center a “very promising thing,” Anderson also notes that there’s an element of un-trainability here: “How do you train someone to do this? I think it’s more that you have to have the chemical balance of being managerial and art-historical in equal measures.”

Veteran New York dealer Richard Feigen, who has supplied the country’s top museums with some of their best Old Master works, notes that “not a lot of the best people want to go into a field just to raise money.” He adds, “The directors out there are tempted to move around, and therefore tenures are rather short.” In Feigen’s mind, some rethinking is in order: “If museum missions were clarified, that wouldn’t be the case.”
It’s not too surprising that a dealer like Feigen, a man who sells beautiful things for a living, wants to see museums refocus on acquisitions. He praises Philadelphia’s late Anne d’Harnoncourt, who died last year, and the Met’s legendary ex-director Philippe de Montebello (who breakfasts with his successor, Campbell, every other month) as paragons of the connoisseur-director who could also run the whole show. And incidentally, he thinks Rub and Campbell are just the ticket to carry that banner forward at their respective institutions.

Feigen’s biggest bugaboo is the continuing building boom. “In some cases, these projects have become the museums’ mission,” he says. At the Milwaukee Art Museum, Santiago Calatrava’s soaring, bird-like 2001 addition cost $125 million and put the museum $30 million in the red. The museum’s director, Russell Bowman, left just after it opened, and the following director, David Gordon—who then departed himself in 2008—worked hard to retire the debt. One veteran museum director called the project “the poster child for poor planning.” Then again, Milwaukee’s civic leaders consider it a success for boosting tourism and the city’s image.

Conforti, of the AAMD and the Clark, says, “There’s no doubt that the building boom relates to the ambitions of certain directorial personalities. It’s catalyzed by people who want to put their stamp on institutions.” And it can’t be surprising, then, that in fact the Clark itself is in the middle of a two-phase Tadao Ando expansion, with one part completed and the other to come in 2013.

According to Rub, we’re just at one end of a natural pendulum swing. “If we were having this conversation 30 years ago, we’d be asking, ‘Have museums paid enough attention to their facilities and buildings?’ Everybody wants more and more things from museums, like performance spaces, but you have to have a place to put it all.” Indeed, Philadelphia is beginning the $80 million first phase of a three-part expansion project later this year.

Certainly the fundraising for and managing of new buildings is the number-one cause for director burnout; once the goal is reached, everything else may seem anti-climactic. “A really tedious doctoral thesis would be, ‘What’s the average length of time after someone builds an expansion before they leave?’” says Anderson. “It’s probably two years.” Anderson has a knack for his own timing: He was hired a year after the IMA renovated and expanded in 2005.

The multiple constituencies that directors have to juggle are another challenge. “My bosses include the press, patrons—everyone and their brother,” jokes Anderson. And curators—a smart and often prickly lot not always thrilled to have one of their own lording it over them as director—are another group that must be heard loudly and often. “We have 17 departments and more than 100 curators, all passionately pursuing their projects,” says Campbell. “It’s hard to find your balance when you’re being petitioned from all sides. It does sometimes feel like a Baroque court.”
Into this kind of pressure, albeit on a much smaller scale, steps Jeffrey Deitch in his new MoCA post. Deitch, a former art advisor for Citibank, runs the New York-based Deitch Projects, but he will close the gallery by the time he starts at the museum on June 1.The dapper dealer is known as a major tastemaker and has had a knack for embracing edgy new movements, from graffiti to street art, and his gallery has at times operated on a non-profit basis.

Considering the problems that MoCA has had, there’s nowhere to go but up, and a lot of people are rooting for Deitch. “He’s eminently qualified to lead MoCA,” says Feigen. “He finds new talent and executes exciting projects.” But there are a few potential ethical and professional conflicts not normally faced by incoming directors, according to Robert Flynn Johnson, a former curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “He should write a letter to all his artists: ‘I’m sorry, but because I represented you, I can’t do a show of your work. I have to be Caesar’s wife,’” Johnson says. “He really has to build a firewall.”

The fact that MoCA is embracing someone from the world of the market shows just how much the museum director game has changed. Meanwhile, institutions like the Getty and Cleveland continue to look for leadership. The AAMD reports that of its 193 member museums, 14 have vacancies at the top, which set the stage for another round of musical chairs. But Conforti warns against having too rosy a vision of the museum world from decades past. “Don’t romanticize it,” he says. “These changes parallel other changes in society, where you have shorter-term CEOs, college presidents and the like.”

One thing is clear: Consultants like Nash will continue to be busy for the foreseeable future, matching directors to institutions and trying to get all the players to agree on a well-articulated mission. How long those matches will last is anyone’s guess. “Sometimes boards get it right,” says Nash, “and sometimes they don’t.”

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: June 2010

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