“Hire Who’s Best at Raising Money, Not Running Shops”

The Art Newspaper

October 2007
by Maxwell L. Anderson

There is a startling number of open directorships at major art museums in the United States—as of this writing, some two dozen. This impressive vacancy rate is a function of a graying workforce, impatient boards of trustees, and position-hopping, in about that order. The positions will, of course, all be filled within a few months (in some cases resulting in other vacancies), but the question keeping search committees up at night is: should we hire an erudite curator or a corporate chieftain?

Sitting art museum directors sympathize with the plight of search committees—no one wants to take a risk on an art scholar lacking experience with fundraising, board governance, and management, not to mention turnstiles, stores and restaurants.

Or perhaps it’s exactly the last unmentionable category that most consumes those responsible for hiring a professional leader. The 21st century museum, it is reasoned, is more of a business than its predecessor, and it needs an executive director skilled in earning income. Which explains why, although the majority of new hires continue to be art historians who have shouldered administrative burdens, there is a nagging tendency to assume that those from the corporate sector are better prepared to run multimillion-dollar cultural organizations.

While non-American museums rely on state support, most U.S. museums (with the exception of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery) rely on self-generated revenue.

Those search committees imagining that corporate credentials trump art smarts should pause and consider where that self-generated revenue comes from before rushing a businessperson to the altar. In the U.S., the vast majority of revenue is contributed, not earned through commercial activities. According to an unpublished statistical survey of the Association of Art Museum Directors, the combined operating budgets of the largest 100 art museums in the States (leaving the outsized Metropolitan Museum and Museum of Modern Art out of the calculation) totaled $1.5 billion in 2006. The combined total of ticket sales? $67 million.

The math is clear: it’s not commercial experience that’s needed, it’s the ability to attract millions of dollars from potentially generous patrons who populate boards of trustees, foundations, and the museum’s membership. Notwithstanding the 90s infatuation with the “Bilbao effect”, leading to some ill-considered expansions hoping to repeat that convergence of tourism and branding, philanthropy is the future of American art museums. The future, that is, if they can contain themselves from further mission-contorting commercial ventures that tempt lawmakers to ratchet back the extent of their tax-exempt status, like the for-profit Tutankhamun exhibition on offer at present, exorbitant admissions fees, or dubious licensing schemes.

Curators need to be trained to run art museums in a business-like manner—but not to run them as businesses. The challenges facing art museums demand innovative solutions to chronic underfunding, careful management of new energy-draining expansions, nimble relations with myriad stakeholders outside the museum, and skill in getting the best out of staff.

Programs like the UK’s Clore Fellowships, the Getty’s Museum Leadership Institute, and perhaps New York’s new Center for Curatorial Leadership, are one way to provide art scholars with administrative insight, and some on-the-job experience.

The choice of who to hire should turn, therefore, on who is best equipped to raise money, not who is best equipped to run the shop, gate, and restaurants. These necessary but peripheral functions should be run by a chief operating officer or chief financial officer reporting to the director. A widespread experiment in the 1980s with dual leadership (administrative head and artistic head) at many of America’s leading art museums, including the Metropolitan, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, all ended, in most cases with a thud, and in all cases the incumbents today are art experts who are business-like but not business-oriented.

When considering hiring a new director, search committees on both sides of the Atlantic should pause before offering the post to business leaders unlikely to quicken the pulse of patrons when speaking about a proposed acquisition, exhibition theme, or scholarly breakthrough. It is more likely art scholars who are better equipped—once fluent in spreadsheets, budgeting, and marketing—to make a compelling case to well-to-do patrons and governments alike that their museum is an indispensable community asset.

Maxwell L. Anderson is The Melvin and Bren Simon Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art