American Museum and Gallery Directors

Museum succession in America: onwards and upwards, The Economist, 9 May 2015

More than a third of American art-museum directors are of retirement age. Those in charge of appointing the next generation must focus on three major issues.

Running an American museum ain’t what it used to be. To see how much the job has changed you need only look at the differences between Glenn Lowry, head of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, and Alfred Barr, its first boss. Since he started in 1995, Mr Lowry has doubled the museum’s footprint and quadrupled its endowment to nearly $1 billion. Barr, a former academic who became director in 1929, was a leading figure in the modern-art movement in America, but he lived at a far slower pace. Once, while reading out a passage by Lenin in a speech, he fell silent. After a long pause, he looked up and apologised to his audience: “I’m sorry. I got interested.”

Over the years American museum directors have become responsible not only for questions of aesthetics but, increasingly, for the business side of their institutions too. They are both artistic director and CEO. Given the relatively meagre public funding for the arts in America, the CEO element is no small part of the job and helps explain why, in many cases, the identity of a museum is so closely tied to its leader—le musée, c’est moi, if you will.

A survey by The Economist of nearly 150 art museums, all members of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), shows that more than a third of directors are aged 60 or over and approaching retirement (the median age of chief executives at S&P500 companies is 54; only a quarter are 60, according to Spencer Stuart, a recruitment firm). Museum-watchers had predicted the beginnings of a vacuum at the top of American art museums when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Although a number of appointments have since been made, turnover has been slight, says Sarah James of Phillips Oppenheim, a headhunting firm which over the past year has been involved in recruiting new directors for the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston, the Detroit Institute of Arts (pictured) and the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach. Many museum directors stayed in their jobs for fear of disrupting their institutions at a time of uncertainty. Now that the global economy has levelled out, Ms James says, “the turnover that was supposed to happen over five years might happen in the next 18 months.”

The impending influx of new blood at the top offers museums an opportunity to rethink the job and question many of the assumptions that underlie traditional museum operations: the emphasis on splendid buildings, the primacy of curatorial authority and the balance between rich donors, for whom museums are often personal vanity projects, and the public, who see museums as shared common goods.

To understand the issues facing selection boards, it is important to know how the job came to be as it is. Museum directors everywhere tend to be curators first, with most cutting their director’s teeth on small institutions before moving on to bigger ones. The job has become more demanding, however, as visitor numbers and exhibition spaces have grown while public spending on the arts has been cut. American art museums doubled in size in the 25 years to 2007 and attendance grew by 90%, according to a study in 2009 by Janet Meredith, a cultural consultant. (In a survey conducted last year for the first time, “Art Museums by the Numbers, 2014”, the AAMD estimates that its museums receive just over 61m visitors a year.)

With this growth came the need for more money and for more directors who are skilled at both fund-raising and spending. AAMD figures indicate that American art museums receive just 18% of their revenue from public sources, a far smaller proportion than 25 years ago. (The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the single most important overseer of museums in Germany, by contrast, is entirely funded by the state.) American art museums get their remaining revenue from admissions, shops, renting out facilities and other commercial activities (31%) and endowment income (21%). The largest proportion, though—just under a third—is the fruit of private and corporate fund-raising.

Splitting the top job into artistic director and business head, a model common in the performing arts, has never caught on in the museum world. The long-standing emphasis on scholarship, lower production costs and admission fees, and the commitment to providing a service for the public mean museums have little in common with performing-arts corporations. Those that have tried to split the top job have often been unhappy. In 1995 Andrea Rich moved from being the administrator of University of California, Los Angeles, to being president and CEO of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), only to become embattled and lose her art director four years later. Jeffrey Deitch, an art dealer, took the managerial reins at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in 2010 and then clashed with the well-respected chief curator, Paul Schimmel, whom he later fired. Four artists on the MOCA board resigned in protest, and Mr Deitch was forced to quit.

Museum boards have come to realise that an artistic leader needs to be able to secure funding on faith, and that a business leader needs to be able to understand and articulate a respectable curatorial vision; for these reasons the job should ideally fall to one person. “You need a director who can make a case for that support,” says Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA).

Future challenges

Refashioning museums to appeal to future generations means devising a new vision. Up-and-coming directors face three major challenges: engaging more imaginatively with audiences, addressing America’s changing demographics and negotiating the ever more delicate balance between rich donors and the public.

Audience engagement has to do with a museum’s relevance and its impact on its community. The simplest measure is attendance figures. Engaging younger audiences is key, though; the National Endowment for the Arts reports that in the decade to 2012 the only age group that saw a marked growth in attendance was those aged 75 and older. This must change.

One way to engage young people is through education programmes. The American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM’s) Centre for the Future of Museums, a research and advisory office in Washington, DC, shows that $2 billion a year is spent on such programmes, resulting in 55m visits by school groups. In 2011 the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the MacArthur Foundation launched “Learning Labs in Libraries and Museums” to try and find new ways of interesting teenagers. Nine museums were involved, including the main art museums in Dallas and Houston. (There are practical reasons too for courting younger audiences; museums one day will rely on the millennial generation for its endowments).

Some museums have been good at increasing attendance through the internet. In 2010 the Indianapolis Museum of Art had nearly 430,000 visitors, but its robust website, where viewers can peruse its collections and watch videos, helped raise the number of web visitors to over 1m in just three months. In the same year the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museums started a YouTube Play project, which yielded more than 23,000 submissions from 91 countries. Then there are more experimental ideas, like the friends programme at the DMA, which tracks individual visits. In two years the DMA has signed up 100,000 friends; similar projects are planned for the Denver Art Museum, LACMA and the Minneapolis Institute of A If museums are to make any headway in engaging with audiences they must also work on broadening their appeal. Last month the AAM annual conference was told that the three Ws of traditional museums are white, Western and “womanless”. In 2010 the Centre for the Future of Museums reported that minorities made up just 21% of museum visitors, compared with over a third of America’s population. In 30 years, according to the Census Bureau, minorities will make up half the population, so there is no time to waste.

But engaging minority audiences is not easy. As Michelle Obama said when she opened the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on April 30th, “There are so many kids in this country who look at museums and concert halls and other cultural places, and think to themselves: ‘Well, that’s not a place for me.’” Some have made efforts to bring black voices into the museum, like the High Museum in Atlanta’s popular “InterSessions” talk series which pairs hip-hop artists with figures from the art world, though other efforts, like MoCA’s “Art in the Streets” in 2011, were pilloried as pandering to minorities.

Part of the problem is that the pool of potential art-museum directors in America is a long way from reflecting the country’s racial diversity, despite high-profile curators, such as Okwui Enwezor, who has overseen the 2015 Venice Biennale, and Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Michael Govan, LACMA’s director, calls engaging new, diverse audiences “the most urgent issue for museums right now”. Last month, in the keynote address to the AAM’s annual conference, Johnnetta Cole (pictured), the 78-year-old director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, said the most important book for museum directors should be the national census. Her call was aimed in part at museum-studies courses at universities, which are still 80% white. Only two stand out for their efforts to place black students in museum jobs, one associated with the Smithsonian and the other with the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Museum-studies programmes are, however, overwhelmingly filled by women, which makes the shortage of leading female museum directors all the more inexplicable. In museums with operating budgets of up to $250,000, women directors outnumber men by a factor of two to one. But that picture changes with bigger museums. Of the 30 museums with budgets of more than $20m in 2013, only five were run by a woman.

Plaything or academy?

The biggest challenge facing new directors, though, will be keeping true to the idea of what a museum should be: a plaything for rich collectors whose philanthropy comes with an increasing number of conditions, or a precious centre of public education. In her speech Ms Cole reminded AAM delegates that baby-boomers still control 70% of the nation’s disposable income, and that wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Navigating successfully between these competing visions will separate the best art-museum director from the rest. The Art Institute of Chicago recently beat off MoMA, among others, to secure 42 works valued at $500m from the collection of Stefan Edlis, a retired plastics manufacturer, and his wife. The Chicagoans promised Mr Edlis they would show the works as a group for 25 years in a new modern wing designed by Renzo Piano. By contrast, the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami last year decided to remove its collection, because, among other things, it did not like the new city-appointed director. Instead, it decided to start a new museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Centre for the Future of Museums, says she thinks some of the most successful future directors may well come from non-traditional backgrounds: technology, journalism or community work: “not because those sectors are more successful than museums, but because an ‘outsider’ would bring a fresh perspective to our work.”

Expensive expansions often lead to change at the top as trustees, their nerves frayed by delays and cost overruns, adjust to reality. All too often opening a new building marks less an end than an unwieldy—and costly—new beginning. It happened at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Walker Art Centre, the Phillips Collection and the Bellevue Art Museum. In the past year in Boston alone, the heads of the three major museums—the MFA, the Harvard Art Museums and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—announced that they would be leaving, after a big expansion. Their successors—indeed all new museum directors—must aim, chiefly, to ensure their missions match the needs and tastes of their future beneficiaries. Or risk becoming irrelevant.