Is there a lack of transparency in the search for US museum directors?

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Is there a lack of transparency in the search for US museum directors?

The appointment of Scott Rothkopf as the next director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York was no surprise. The well-connected chief curator was a longtime protégé of outgoing director Adam Weinberg. As one colleague said over coffee: “‘The heir apparent becomes the heir apparent’ is not big news.”

But privately, many in the art world have expressed concern that Rothkopf was chosen without any formal search process. One former museum director called the move “deeply flawed.”

“By appointing Scott, we have ensured a seamless transition that is best for the future stability of the Whitney,” a museum spokesman said in a statement. “The appointment was carefully considered, unanimously supported by the board and enthusiastically endorsed by the current director.”

The search process for new directors — or, in the case of the Whitney, the lack of one — has come under increased scrutiny at a time when American museums are experiencing unprecedented leadership turnover and increased pressure to diversify their ranks. The economist reported in 2015 that more than one-third of American museum directors are of retirement age. By my count, a total of 22 vacancies have been filled in the past 12 months, ranging from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the Cincinnati Center for Contemporary Arts. More than two-thirds of this entering class is white; the majority (13) are women.

Museums may go through the process of making a search, but in the end it often comes down to which two or three people want it

Anonymous member of the museum board

More to come: In New York alone, the Jewish Museum and the Guggenheim are currently searching for a new director, while the contract of Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), expires in 2025. Rumor has it that Lisa Phillips could also be in the works to withdraw from the New Museum.

A mysterious process

The process of appointing a museum director in the US can seem so mysterious that it might as well involve cardinals blowing smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. While European museum directors are often chosen by the state’s ministry of culture after a call for applications, their American counterparts deal with a significantly more subjective gauntlet – one that can include anything – from a PowerPoint presentation laying out their vision of charming donors to cocktails. (One source recounted a story in which a candidate to lead a museum in the northeastern United States was nearly disqualified because a board member’s wife thought the candidate’s wife overreacted to the cold weather by hunching over too much.)

At best, a formal search process can force the museum to have important, difficult conversations in a way that could not be achieved with another leadership change.

Sarah Arison, who is leading the search for MoMA PS1’s director, says the museum is looking for a “transparent and inclusive process.” It began by conducting 35 one-on-one interviews with donors, board members and staff, as well as holding a series of meetings of all City Hall staff. His search firm, Russell Reynolds Associates, has set up a dedicated email address where employees can send feedback anonymously.

After the information-gathering period, Russell Reynolds presented PS1 with “dozens” of applicants, Arison says, which the museum narrows down to a smaller group for in-person interviews with the executive committee. To ensure that applicants were treated equally, the committee followed a strict script by asking them the same questions. The finalists were invited back for what Arison calls a “compatibility meeting” with senior staff. Ultimately, the museum chose Connie Butler, chief curator of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, to replace Kate Fowle, who left last summer after just three years in the role.

This kind of lengthy process comes with trade-offs. “The search for MoMA PS1 was the worst-kept secret in the art world,” admits Arison. Lauren Cornell, director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, and Paul Ha, director of the Visual Arts Center at MIT, are rumored to be among those being considered. An extended search also gives applicants more time to revise. Sources say Dia Art Foundation director Jessica Morgan, who was announced as a candidate for the Guggenheim director role, recently withdrew from the race.

The search is in many ways a microcosm of some of the larger tensions that play out in museums: between staff and board, populism and elitism, idealism and practicality, change and status quo.

Friendly variety

Sometimes museums say they want to hire women or people of color, but the interview process shows they are not prepared to prepare them for success. Verge, a start-up recruitment firm that specializes in placing global majority candidates in arts organizations, won’t even officially take on a client until it completes a culture check to ensure the organization can support people of color as employees .

“There are institutions where there is no real interest in what a leader of color brings to the table,” says Angela Henry of executive search firm Phillips Oppenheim. “We saw that the first time they make a mistake, hands go up and eyes roll.” It’s not just about the readiness of the candidate, it’s about the board as well.”

At the same time, the art world remains less open than other cultural sectors to seeking potential leaders beyond its own ranks, experts say. “Museums can go through the process of doing a search, but in the end it often comes down to who just two or three people want,” says one board member. “It’s about who makes them feel comfortable.”

The director search process will become even more critical and challenging. Recruiters note that while museum directors have spent 15 or 20 years in a role, their trajectory mirrors that of CEOs, who now have an average tenure of less than seven years. In addition, increasing job pressures—from restitution to unionization—are making museum directorships increasingly unattractive. As former MoMA deputy director Kathy Halbreich said recently on the podcast Art World: What if…?!“You couldn’t pay me enough money to be a museum director.”

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