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Design Museum hopes 11th director's the charm
The exhibition “Beth Lipman: Collective Elegy” on display at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan, July 24, 2021. Experts say the executive churn could affect the museum’s ability to raise funds or attract new visitors. Jeenah Moon/The New York Times.

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Since 2013, directors have passed through the revolving door at the Museum of Arts and Design at 2 Columbus Circle with startling vision — and speed. One director lasted five months, suddenly resigning to pursue what he described as a commitment to “the fate of humanism and democracy.” His successor lasted two years, pushing the museum toward what some employees called an “identity crisis” by emphasizing technology over design in exhibition programming. Board members intervened after employees complained about his management style, and he resigned.

Enter Timothy R. Rodgers, the museum’s 11th director in eight years (six of them interim). Trustees say they are depending on Rodgers, a former director at the Phoenix Art Museum, to lead the design museum following a turbulent year of pandemic cutbacks and executive resignations.

“We wanted someone who can really be our future,” said Michael Dweck, the museum’s treasurer, who led the search for a new director. “I understand the stakes are high given the perceived churn that we have had.”

Some employees said that a carousel of different directors bringing new approaches has exhausted staff, strained relationships with some artists and damaged trust in the board. Former directors described the institution’s woes as reflective of bad board governance.

“The buck stops with the people who made these appointments,” said Holly Hotchner, the museum’s director for nearly two decades, who left in 2013 and now leads the National Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C. “The directors selected have had very little experience in business and financial management.”

Rodgers, who takes the helm in September, said that “the first thing I have to do is earn the trust of the staff.”

He added, “You have to be fair and consistent. You have to be clear.” He expressed a desire to focus on contemporary artists, create a curatorial position for Indigenous arts and diversify the predominantly white board.

Founded in 1956 as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, on West 53rd Street, then renamed the American Craft Museum in 1979, the institution touted itself as the country’s first museum devoted to craft. Hotchner broadened its mission in 2002 by incorporating art and design, signaled by a name change to the Museum of Arts and Design, known as MAD. She moved the museum to Columbus Circle, adapting a 1963 building by noted architect Edward Durell Stone that had fallen into disuse. The new 54,000-square-foot headquarters, inset with transparent and fritted glass and a glazed terracotta-tile facade, opened in 2008.

The museum has cultivated a reputation for acclaimed exhibitions by curators like Lowery Stokes Sims and David Revere McFadden. There are more than 3,000 objects in its collection by artists such as Faith Ringgold, Wendell Castle and Derrick Adams. Its gift shop and skyline restaurant bring in a combined $1.8 million in revenue, more than the museum made in admissions and membership fees in 2019.

But despite the accolades, MAD has had an unusually high turnover rate with directors, a trend that industry experts said is an aberration in a field where leaders often stay with their cultural institutions for many years.

Even through a pandemic when thousands of New York City cultural workers have experienced layoffs and furloughs, the turnover rate for executives has remained low, according to Christine Anagnos, director of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

Turbulence at MAD represents how a series of bad decisions can snowball into disaster, critics of the board argue. Many say the problems began after the board replaced Hotchner in 2013 with a vocal critic of her administration, curator Glenn Adamson, who joined with a vision to restore the museum’s early commitment to craft. (When that word was dropped from the museum’s name in 2002, not everyone was happy.)

Hotchner described the transition as “unnecessarily thoughtless,” saying Adamson “was hired with no experience as a director,” and he struggled to grasp the institutional reins. By his own admission, Adamson said, he was more focused on leading the museum’s curatorial endeavors. “Candidly, fundraising hadn’t been one of my strengths going into the job,” said Adamson, whose former role as director of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was not the usual executive experience for a director.

For the past decade, MAD has regularly posted yearly deficits as much as $2.4 million on its federal disclosure forms. The board has typically covered those shortfalls, and did so again during the pandemic, donating nearly $2 million. But attendance remains low, with about 33,000 visitors in the first six months of the year, nearly a 75% decline in museumgoers compared to the same period in pre-pandemic 2019.

Addressing the fiscal challenges, Adamson, who resigned in March 2016, said that the institution’s Columbus Circle location is expensive to operate, even with the board partially covering losses. “It’s harder to raise money for facilities costs than a programming budget,” he added. “There’s a right-sizing that the institution’s next leader still needs to do.”

Adamson’s resignation triggered another executive search, which ended with the appointment that September of Jorge Daniel Veneciano, a former director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. But he lasted a mere five months, leaving under a cloud of accusations from staff that he wasn’t engaged with the mission.

“It was the wrong cultural fit,” Veneciano said this month, explaining that he joined the museum with a vision to explore social justice themes through the globalization of arts and design. “But ultimately, the infatuation between myself and the board wasn’t sufficient enough to solidify our partnership.”

When Veneciano left, several managers requested involvement in the board’s next search for directors but said they were denied. Christopher Scoates joined MAD in 2018 from the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum near Detroit, promising to lead the design museum into the 21st century and “challenge the way we think about the future.”

But employees said that Scoates was too focused on the future, urging the curatorial department to shift toward exhibitions devoted to technology rather than craft. Staff members complained to the board that he was disruptive, often overstepping protocols and overpromising to artists. He resigned in August 2020.

“Chris made a hiring decision and moved to create contracts for my department without even advising me,” said Shannon Stratton, the museum’s chief curator, who resigned in 2019 because of disagreements with his leadership style.

During his administration, an artist in the museum’s residency program, Emma Sulkowicz, complained to an official that she felt unsafe working in a studio on the premises, informally called “the zoo” by staff because it was accessible to visitors.

In a letter resigning from the program, provided to The New York Times, Sulkowicz expressed frustration that a security guard watched as a museumgoer brushed against her repeatedly in what she termed “molestation.” She said Scoates had met with her and promised that a guard would be stationed outside the studio but that the visitor came back and the harassment continued.

“I will not sit in that torture chamber,” Sulkowicz wrote to the museum’s education manager, Cathleen Lewis, in her November 2018 resignation letter. Sulkowicz said she never received a response to her letter. Wendi Parson, a museum spokesperson, said last week that the museum had worked to implement “reasonable measures” to protect the artist’s “personal safety.”

There were other issues raised at the museum during Scoates’ tenure, and following an inquiry by the board into the director’s management, he resigned. “It wasn’t a good fit and there was a mutual decision for him to seek employment elsewhere,” Michele Cohen, the board chair, said.

Scoates declined to comment. His departure shook the institution, forcing the board to reconsider its relationship with its staff, according to Cohen, who served as interim director. “We became better listeners,” she said.

For the next executive search, trustees agreed to include an outside museum executive, James S. Snyder, executive chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation. The museum said Rodgers fit its new criteria: a proven manager with at least a decade of experience and knowledge of the craft world.

Rodgers, who spent only a year at the Phoenix Art Museum before taking this job, was not asked to commit to a specific number of years at MAD, but Dweck said that they have an “understanding.” “He is certainly not looking to hop around at this stage in his career,” Dweck said, adding that he and the museum are “looking forward to a long, successful tenure.”

But executive churn “could negatively impact an institution’s reputation,” said Gregory Stevens, director of the Institute for Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University. “When you Google the museum, it’s all articles about the directors coming and going,” he pointed out, adding that the perception of crisis could be a serious liability for the museum’s ability to raise funds or attract new visitors. “Something is either not right about the decision-making of the board or they are not being transparent with their candidate,” he said. “It doesn’t show that the organization has its act together.”

Rodgers said he understands the stakes of his appointment and is already working on plans to make the museum more financially stable. “The museum has sources of income that others would die for,” Rodgers said, citing its gift shop and restaurant. “There is value in its location. I think it has all the right ingredients.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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