Demoralization, Resentment, Anxiety, Stress

That is what curators are experiencing as they struggle to be heard among the many voices charting the future of their rapidly growing institutions. Now they are taking matters into their own hands.

Kirk Varnedoe, professor, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.


On a lecture tour through the Midwest not long ago, curator and scholar Kirk Varnedoe noticed that the office of every museum director he visited was festooned with drawings and models of the next great thing: a new wing or a new building designed by the architect du jour. The charts on the walls plotted a capital campaign to support the expansion, while the talk in the rooms was upbeat and energized; the new museum would revitalize a downtown, an economy, a community.

But arriving for each visit, Varnedoe would be met at the airport by a curator from the museum in question. And again and again, on the inevitable long drive into town, Varnedoe, the former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art and current professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, would hear the same story. Every one of these curators “was the embodiment of demoralization, resentment, anxiety, stress, and alienation over what was happening in his or her museum,” Varnedoe said in a recent talk at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Institute for Art and Culture.

Varnedoe’s is one among a mounting chorus of voices that is articulating this critical disconnect in art museums. The gap is not necessarily between curators and their directors—though in some institutions that exists as well. Mostly the conflict is between the dramatically changing role of the art museum and the mounting pressures imposed by those changes on the people who have traditionally been the custodians, students, and interpreters of the art objects inside their institutions.

“Museums are victims of our own success. There has been this tremendous increase in the institution’s sense of ambition and popularity, and once that happens it becomes an addiction,” says Ann Temkin, the Muriel and Philip Berman curator of modern and contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Whereas perhaps 20 years ago one would have thought more strictly of one’s art-historical interests as defining what a curator did, now we are part of a complex web of people and priorities within and without the museum that we simply could not have imagined then.”

As museums have grown, their budgets have burgeoned, and their funding base has grown broader and more corporate. Curators have less say among an increasing number of voices charting the future of their institutions. When Philippe de Montebello first became director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 25 years ago, he remembers, there were perhaps five or six people in the development department. Now there are 40.

Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, points to drastically changing relationships “within the ecosystem of our institutions: with directors, trustees, other departments,” such as the increasingly powerful areas of marketing and development. And as education departments grow in size and power, Barron notes, they expect their expertise to determine how an exhibition is presented in public programs. “With so many institutions putting so much increased emphasis on education, whose voice interprets the program?” asks Barron. “We have been behind the eight ball in getting together to share concerns.”

Now curators are taking matters into their own hands. All through last fall steps were being taken to create the legal and economic framework for the formation of a new organization, the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC). Its mandate is to set ethical and professional policy and take positions.

According to the certificate of incorporation filed with the state of Delaware, the AAMC’s purpose is “to promote the professional development and common interests of museum curators; to support the role of curators in shaping the missions of art museums in North America; to encourage scholarship; to serve as a forum for the exchange of information and ideas in all matters relating to museum curators and museum activities; to provide information and assistance to museum curators, and also to museum directors and administrators on matters of mutual concern.”

Interim AAMC president and a key founder of the AAMC is Gary Tinterow, Engelhard Curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “We want to promote the curatorial point of view within the decision-making administration of American museums,” says Tinterow. “One day we would like to be like the American Bar Association.”

To some extent, the AAMC grew out of the Metropolitan Museum’s internal Forum of Curators and Conservators, a vital force in the museum since the 1970s. The forum meets four to six times a year to discuss issues and make recommendations to the administration. It is an official body of the Met, with a representative on the board of trustees, and director de Montebello invites the forum’s head to his weekly executive meetings, which he characterizes as dealing “with the most dreary administrative and financial issues.” Such meetings “forestall the forming of discontent in its early stages,” he says.

In 2001 de Montebello invited curators to participate in the annual meeting of the national presidents’ conference of the big-eight museums—the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, LACMA, the Metropolitan, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, MoMA, the National Gallery of Art, and the Toledo Museum of Art. (“Oddly, while CFOs, COOs, and development officers” had been invited in the past, “curators never had,” de Montebello notes.) Galvanized by the gathering and acting on their Forum of Curators experience, Tinterow and two other Metropolitan Museum curators—Stefano Carboni, associate curator in the department of Islamic art, and Peter Kenny, curator of American decorative arts and administrator of the American wing—set about to form a national organization for curators.

The Metropolitan offered the AAMC organizers a temporary home. On April 2, 2001, the AAMC voted itself into existence. And on April 29, de Montebello announced the inception of the fledgling organization.

The occasion he chose was the inaugural meeting of another new curators’ group, the American Federation of Arts’ Curators Forum. Unlike the AAMC, the Curators Forum is not an advocacy organization. This forum’s intention is to address, through annual panels and workshops, “topical issues that come up each year within the profession,” as Thomas Padon, deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the American Federation of Arts, puts it. The Curators Forum grew out of the eight-year-old Directors Forum at the AFA and was a result of a survey that pointed to an intense need for collegial meetings and cooperation.

The new AAMC and the new Curators Forum are coordinating their upcoming meetings next June. This relieves the AAMC of the need to organize programs and panel discussions, and gives overlapping members an opportunity to work out policy for the hard professional issues raised.

Those involved in the fledgling initiatives agree that the issues are difficult. Neither de Montebello, in his inaugural address to the 2001 Curators Forum, nor Varnedoe, in his keynote speech at the forum last April, minced words.

“Market forces that are gaining ground rather alarmingly in the museum world do increasingly threaten the professional core of museums,” de Montebello said. He likened the “frenzied pace” not to “the glow of health but the flush of fever, and eventually to what we may have to characterize as the abuse of works of art.” He decried the “new entrepreneurial museum” and the “bottom-line
thinking” that have altered the collegiality among museums so that, increasingly, loans are made on a basis of “strict reciprocity.” More and more, museums are having to pay for their loans, pandering to “the frantic chase for popular exhibitions,” he says.

(Kathleen Flynn, director of exhibitions administration for the AFA, estimates that the cost of borrowing a single major painting for their exhibition “Degas and the Dance,” which opened at the Detroit Institute of Arts last fall, ranged between $10,000 and $20,000.)

One of de Montebello’s chief concerns is to develop curators who can be directors and thus “win the battle of the curator/director over the administrator/director.” It is his conviction that “a curator’s expertise is an art museum’s most valuable currency” but that curators are under pressure to “tend to budgets, fund-raising, and other administrative tasks that now include coping with a number of legal and ethical issues that, I must tell you, were practically unheard of, or distinctly marginal, when I was a curator.” The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) has had to evolve policies on how to deal with loans of art looted by the Nazis and determine whether to return ancient artifacts that other nations claim were looted from them, among other issues.

Varnedoe went even further in his concerns. “Perhaps the furious pace may in fact be masking a kind of fundamental galloping rot. Museums are involved in a new variant on the old idea that you can indeed gain the world but lose your soul,” he said. In the hands of “a new class of managerial directors and activist trustees, in a new climate of competition among—wonderful phrase—leisure institutions, the move has been to replace the traditional staffing of these jobs with higher-salaried, more ambitious professionals more often than not trained in for-profit spaces outside of museum culture and to set them goals that are often independent of what the curators are devising.” Curators, Varnedoe said, can spend “an increasingly crushing percentage of every day beating back wrongheaded initiatives and generally trying to re-elevate the dumbing down of the works of art you care about. Or you can just give up and let this go by. Will you yield or will you not yield? It is the sum of these small decisions, more than all the grand mission statements, that determines what the character and integrity of the museum will be.”

Varnedoe notes that curators feel compelled to get involved if artworks are used in undignified ways—as happened to John Elderfield at the end of MoMA’s Bonnard show, when a proposed ad reproduced one of the artist’s many paintings of his wife in the bathtub with the line “See it before we pull the plug!” Elderfield intervened, and the ad never ran.

Varnedoe was taken aback, on visiting the Philadelphia Museum’s shop during the “Van Gogh Face to Face” exhibition, to find finger puppets depicting members of the Roulin family, as well as a life-size bedroom suite in yellow, complete with double bed, to suggest van Gogh’s lonely rented room.

Varnedoe’s warnings may be more dire than most. But museum directors raise many of the same issues. Says Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, “I often envy [former Walker director] Martin Friedman when I see all the wonderful exhibitions he curated as director. I can hardly make time to find my way to the bathroom.”

“Things are much different in museums now. God knows how I would function if I were doing that line of work today,” says Friedman, who estimates that he curated a show every year and a half during his 30 years as Walker director. He retired in 1990.

It is out of the sense of shared pressures between curators and directors that the AAMC begins with the ambition to become what founding president Tinterow calls “a sister organization” to the AAMD, formed in 1916.

“The AAMD has guidelines—both to remind museum directors of their culture and their heritage and to inform trustees, who may come from different domains, what you can ask a museum director to do and what you should never compel them to do,” Tinterow says. “One day I hope we will have similar guidelines regarding the role of the curator.”

The AAMD supplied AAMC organizers with its bylaws and other organizational information as well as moral support. But more to the point, the curators’ association would like the 180 AAMD member institutions to pay dues, on a sliding scale according to size, for their members in AAMC as they do for the directors’ association. Funding is essential to pay for an office—in the Kress Foundation building in New York—and a paid administrator. Tinterow estimates the first year’s budget at $100,000, of which $30,000 had been raised by late fall. So far, the AAMD has agreed to encourage but not to compel its member institutions to pay dues to the AAMC, and even that charge is subject to annual review.

“Look, we are eager to see the AAMC work, and we want to support it,” says Maxwell Anderson, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art and this year’s president of the AAMD. “But to be responsible we need to see every year how it’s doing.”

Personally, he was rather taken aback by some of the questions put to him at the AAMC’s first meeting, at the Metropolitan Museum, last June. “It was turning into a gripe session, in my opinion: why don’t we get sabbaticals and that sort of thing,” Anderson says. “They were putting museum directors on the spot, which I found inappropriate. I would think if that kind of session continues, we would reconsider our support.”

Nevertheless, Millicent Gaudieri, executive director of the AAMD, hopes that “any policies AAMC signs onto we would sign onto as well, so that we are speaking with one voice.”

Curators who prefer to remain nameless wondered whether the new AAMC would put its full institutional authority behind a letter of protest if there were another “Boston Massacre.” They were referring to the abrupt 1999 firing of 18 staff members, including curators, at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. And, the curators asked, would the new AAMC take public issue with a situation like the elimination of photography curator Tom Bamberger’s position at the Milwaukee Art Museum last spring, after the cost of its eye-stopping Santiago Calatrava–designed addition topped $122 million, nearly four times the $35 million budget?

“I don’t think our organization would ever intervene between a beleaguered curator and his or her director,” Tinterow says. “What we can do is to understand among ourselves what is important to us in our work and what are the best conditions for that work within a modern museum. Then I think we can begin to work on guidelines. But it will take a few years to get that up and running. One thing we don’t want to do is shoot from the hip.”

In the meantime, AAMC can serve curators the way Linda Shearer, director of the Williams College Museum of Art, says that the directors’ association serves her: “I feel I could call up just about anybody who is an AAMD member with any kind of question or problem about curatorial, philosophical, financial issues—the whole gamut of what you are dealing with day-to-day on your own.”

In the past, curators got to see one another mostly on National Endowment for the Arts panels or on trips to international biennials and art fairs, where they were encumbered by the necessity of shepherding collectors and trustees. The Peter Norton Family Foundation initiated another model in 1997, when it took the recipients of its contemporary curators awards to the Johannesburg Biennial. Curators of contemporary art have continued to meet, under the egis of different funding organizations. Next summer the contemporary curators organization, now called the Summer Curators Conference, will meet at the Walker Art Center
. For many ye
rs the College Art Association has had a curatorial committee, though many curators consider that forum to be more academic than object-driven. Now all species of art-museum curators can find one another, trade concerns, and create guidelines at the new AFA Curators Forum and the new AAMC.

“The cultural changes that have made museums a prominent piece of the whole cultural pie in the United States have brought mixed blessings,” says the Philadelphia Museum’s Temkin. “But the AAMC and the Curators Forum weren’t just born of crisis. If you were a car salesman you’d have occasions to get together with your fellow car salesmen. Or a dentist. Right now, curators feel a desire for solidarity.”

Amei Wallach is president of the International Art Critics Association/USA.

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