What does it take to run a museum? The job description is changing.
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What does it take to run a museum? The job description is changing.
Protesters against funding by the Sackler family at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Feb. 9, 2019. It’s not only about the art anymore: Today’s museum leaders must increasingly confront staff revolts and calls to return looted art while navigating labor unrest and social justice controversies. (The New York Times)

by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK, NY.- Art world luminaries gathered in the rotunda of the Guggenheim last month to nibble cauliflower shawarma, sip prosecco and bid farewell to Richard Armstrong, who this summer will conclude his 14-year tenure as the museum’s director.

The Guggenheim, which is expected to announce his successor soon, is the latest in a series of major museums around the country undergoing leadership changes at a moment when modern cultural institutions are demanding increasingly complicated skill sets. It is no longer only about the art.

“There is a generational shift that’s taking place at a moment of intense change in the field,” said András Szántó, a museum consultant whose book, “The Future of the Museum,” was published in 2020. “The traditional functions of the museum are being expanded very rapidly. In addition to collecting and preserving, now museums are expected to be community-facing, inclusive, engaged in the debates of our time.”

While museum directors in the past were largely judged on their scholarly bona fides — doctorates in art history were considered essential — and fundraising capacities, the job description has expanded dramatically in recent years.

The new generation of museum directors must face a dizzying array of issues: overdue efforts to diversify collections, curators and leadership teams; labor negotiations as more staffs unionize; restitution claims as governments and law-enforcement officials step up demands for the return of looted art; internal unrest that has seen staff revolts at major institutions; greater scrutiny of board members and the sources of their wealth; and protests over social justice, climate change and other issues that have spread from the streets to the museums themselves.

“You have to be an octopus, and the new generation of museum directors will have to be entrepreneurs,” said Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum. “The field is going through seismic change, and we need leaders who can stay grounded among the disruption. They need to be able to embrace all the issues that are erupting around them.”

The traditional image of an august, authoritative — even slightly aloof — museum director is not only on the wane but under attack as workers push for better pay and working conditions and a greater say in how museums are run.

Museums all over the country have recently had to confront contentious labor negotiations, including at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which had a 19-day strike last year, and at the Whitney, where in March the union ratified its first contract after more than a year of demonstrations at exhibition openings and fundraising galas. Climate activists announced plans to protest the Museum of Modern Art’s fundraiser on Tuesday to draw attention to its board’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. And museum staffs have not been shy about going public with criticisms of their own institutions.

Some institutions worry that it will become more difficult to attract potential leaders who increasingly see director positions less as a way for them to share their aesthetic tastes, and more as a path to no-win managerial headaches.

“The great decider museum model is giving way to someone more committed to building consensus and knowing how to deal with increasingly younger staff, who expect to have a voice,” said Arthur Cohen, who serves as a consultant and adviser to arts organizations.

There has been a great deal of turnover at major museums recently. New leaders have taken over at MoMA PS1, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. This fall, the Whitney Museum of American Art will have its first new leader in 20 years, while the contract of Glenn D. Lowry, the longtime director of MoMA, expires in 2025.

Most of the newly appointed leaders have been white, leading to frustration within the field that for all the talk about the importance of evolving with the culture and bringing in multiple perspectives, some museums have been slow to diversify.

While boards often make a show of seeking diverse candidates for museum director positions, some executive search experts say they don’t necessarily go the distance in actually appointing them. “We’re not always convinced that they see the value in having leaders of color,” said G. Angela Henry, who has been with the search firm Phillips Oppenheim for more than 20 years. “There is a pool now that’s ready and we’re not seeing them being snapped up. People hire people who look like them or people who have a lot in common with them. It’s inherent bias and racism.”

But others see signs of progress. The American Museum of Natural History recently appointed its first Black leader, Sean M. Decatur, and the Baltimore Museum of Art appointed as its new director Asma Naeem, who was born in Pakistan. Other museums are diversifying their curatorial ranks, creating new pipelines of talent for future leaders.

“There is no doubt that, after the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, museums took action — and some were not doing the smartest things; they were just reacting and hoping not to get canceled or called out,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. “Things are settling now. There is a transformation underway.”

Ford is one of four funding groups — including the Alice L. Walton Foundation, Mellon Foundation, and Pilot House Philanthropy — that last month established the Leadership in Art Museums initiative, which commits more than $11 million to museums to increase racial equity in leadership development.

And last August the International Council of Museums, which establishes world standards, redefined the term “museum” for the first time in 15 years to include that it should be “inclusive” as well as “foster diversity.”

Museums are under the microscope as never before over whether their artworks and antiquities were legally obtained or looted, and should be returned to their countries of origin.

The Met, in particular, has been so pummeled by seizures that Max Hollein, its director, announced a plan last month for the museum to essentially investigate itself — hiring a research team to explore the provenance of its works. And the Smithsonian Institution adopted a policy that formally authorized its constituent museums to return items from their collections that had been unethically acquired.

Many museums are also shifting their focus as they try to reach a broader audience. Several are beefing up their contemporary art holdings and exhibitions, since that is the area that drives the market and most excites young collectors who can then donate much-needed artworks and funds. The Met is investing in a new $500 million modern and contemporary wing and — unlike his predecessors — Hollein has become a fixture of the current scene, showing up at art fairs and gallery openings.

“The key attribute remains contemporary art market expertise — that’s a default requirement these days,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, who has served as director of the Dallas Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. “That’s where the money is. You can’t hire a decorative arts person or an old masters person.”

Some critics say the pace of change at major museums is still too slow. “Zero has changed structurally,” said Claire Bishop, an art history professor at the City University of New York’s graduate center. “The director’s job is to extract as much money as possible from the ultrawealthy, while reassuring them that their values and collection remain secure and unthreatened.”

Among the names widely believed to be in contention to lead the Guggenheim are Madeleine Grynsztejn of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Melissa Chiu, director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Franklin Sirmans, the director of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, and Jessica Morgan of the Dia Art Foundation.

Whoever gets the post will take the reins of a museum that, like many others, has had to navigate an unusual number of challenges in recent years; issuing a plan to diversify after a letter from “The Curatorial Department” decried what it called an “inequitable work environment that enables racism”; renaming an education center that had been named for the Sacklers after protesters called attention to the family’s ties to the opioid crisis, and negotiating with a staff that has moved to unionize.

At his farewell party, Armstrong thanked the museum’s staff and supporters for “everything good that’s happened at this museum.”

“So really I’m indebted to all of you,” he added. “I’m also tremendously hopeful for the future.”

The changing demands being placed on today’s museum leaders have not gone unnoticed by their predecessors.

“In my time there was less activism and scholarship, beauty and public education were the order of the day,” said Philippe de Montebello, who led the Met for more than 30 years. “Then this shifted for some years to demands for more contemporary art and technology. Today, it is social justice and so much more that seems to have taken center stage. Tomorrow there will be different pressures.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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