Are Museum Trustees Out of Step?

For all the talk about educating museum directors in the new challenges of the job, many say board members could use some training as well.

“I don’t want to be an art museum director again,” a former museum director recently told me. “It’s an interesting job but it’s too much grief.”

“I’ve heard of several candidates for the top job at a top museum say that they wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole,” said the director of an important museum. “In another time, they would have killed for the job, but now they say, ‘No thanks.’”

As ARTnewswent to press, 19 museums were looking for leaders, according to the Association of Art Museum Directors. The list includes the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Kimbell Art Museum, the Montclair Art Museum, the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Seattle Art Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art just filled the opening left by Philippe de Montebello’s retirement.

Twenty years ago there were also lots of HELP WANTED signs, but the average tenure of museum directors is shrinking. Today it’s under five years.

What’s going on? Museum directors have to be different than they used to be. They have to wear many hats. They must know about art but, as one director said, they’re spending more than half their time “chasing money.” The work with community organizations, schools, and libraries has grown, as has the drive for greater attendance. They have to smile at people they’d rather not smile at. They have to be labor negotiators, diplomats, construction managers, and public relations experts. “I learned my politics at the Museum of Modern Art,” Nelson Rockefeller once said.

But perhaps the least-known problem of many museum directors is the people who hire them—the trustees. That’s what I heard from museum directors and former museum directors, trustees and former trustees, curators, and headhunters throughout the country. In many cases, they would speak only on condition of anonymity.

There are museum directors who should not be museum directors as well as trustees who should not be trustees.

Many years ago, John Henry Merryman, Sweitzer Professor of Law Emeritus at Stanford University, wrote an article in ARTnewsabout “real or alleged museum trustee dereliction.” In the United States, he commented, “The tradition of public benefaction through private giving is very strong… and accounts for the existence of private universities, foundations and museums on a scale unimaginable in other nations.”

What is unimaginable these days is that there are in some museums influential, wealthy, and socially prominent people who create what one museum director described this way: “The longer I’m in this business, the more I realize how museums are burdened with strings.”

Here are “strings” that some directors cited:

  • “I’ll give this if you do this.”
  • “Looking over the director’s shoulder.”
  • “They interfere with everything from how work is installed to marketing.”
  • “They try to get curatorial control.”
  • “Making decisions over exhibitions.”
  • “Wanting to come to staff meetings.”
  • “Allowing an artist’s dealer to pay for part of a museum exhibition, which can—but not always—be a conflict of interest.”
  • “Insisting that the donated works have to be all together.”
  • “Pressure to exhibit artists whose works they collect.”

One curator told me, “A museum had a chairman who was so controlling that the director had to call him or fax him every day at the end of the day to tell him what he did that day. The director is no longer there.”

Trustees are often thinking about their own interests rather than the institution they’re governing.

“You get boards who begin to think they are the management of the place,” said one director. “They’re not. There was a chairman who set up an office in the museum but he gave it up after a while when he was told to move.”

The arrival of hedge fund managers on boards has not always been welcomed. “They say there has to be a reciprocity of benefits,” said a museum director. “If they’re giving money and time, they think they deserve something. It might be advice on the art market or advance word on exhibitions where artists’ reputations are catapulted. It’s a climate that borders on self-dealing in a way Wall Street insiders would understand. It’s a subtle minuet played out with squeezes around the arm rather than around the throat.”

There are trustees who have been successful in running a business who think they know how to run a museum. “In the 1990s trustees from the corporate sector were urging directors to adopt a more corporate mind-set,” said another museum director. “That’s been accomplished in many places to the detriment of institutions that are focused on income generation instead of educational and artistic purposes.

“Trustees are saying, ‘What’s the next big show, what will bring in the people?’ But it’s the quality of the experience that should be at the core of what we’re doing. There’s a blurring of the lines between the director’s responsibility and the responsibility of the trustee.”

One director agreed but pointed out: “Some of the problems have been brought on by museum staffs. It’s us who conceived those megashows that draw enormous crowds and huge revenue. If you become dependent on huge paid exhibitions you set up a situation that is tenuous and is not always in the best interest of your mission.”

Some tycoons use the museum boardroom for social climbing. “Some people lobby to be on a board,” a former museum director said. “You have people working their way up through boards. They start, for example, at level three, which is important but not really prestigious. They’ll then go to level two. Then they’ll make it to the big leagues where they want to be. Boards have always been that way.”

One former trustee told me that many trustees are not generous: “A handful of trustees provide most of the funding in so many institutions. And people on a majority of boards do not give much,” he said. “They sometimes put museums on a course that spends more money than they can contribute. Many museums are not endowed properly. They get to be in debt for many years because of building programs. They’ve overreached and overspent. Museums are hopelessly underendowed and overprogrammed. Most people don’t want to put money in endowment. They’d rather put it into new projects.

“Also, some boards are unwieldy. It’s harder to get a consensus. They should have smaller boards. You should be going onto a board to accept responsibility, not to put a feather in your cap.”

Malcolm MacKay, a partner at the executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, is one of the country’s most prominent headhunters. He has found directors for many leading museums.

“When trustees evaluate directors’ performances, they tend to put fund-raising and attendance figures above other legitimate concerns,” he said. “There’s an overwhelming focus on raising money, and directors tire of that. In a way, we’re asking too much of a director. The job has to be redefined in a more reasonable way.

“A real effort has to be made to educate trustees. The criteria used to select trustees for an art museum all involve money. I think boards can become one-sided in terms of their understanding of the world. There are other things that are important to a museum, such as the quality of their exhibitions.”

One of the few dissenters about trustees and museum directors is Peter Marzio, one of the country’s most distinguished directors, who has been head of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts since 1978.

“I think it’s the best job in the world,” he said. “When I talk positively people think I’m kissing ass. I mean, what could be a better job? Part of the problem is that some museum directors don’t know the history of museums and develop an imaginary form in their minds that never existed. I think they believe that that commercial world never impinged on its boundaries and that now there has been a great sea change. I think it’s a misreading of museums.

“There isn’t a major museum that wasn’t built by collectors. If you’re fortunate, they are your trustees. They have a point of view and it may not agree with yours, and that’s what’s fun. As to complaints, all of that may be true in individual cases. But this is the real world. What makes a great director, compared to an also-ran, is how you balance all those interests.

“I hear complaining about trustees all the time. No trustee is going to get rich by showing their collection. I’m sure there are bad trustees, but take any human category and you’ll find bad ones. I’m much more impressed by the number of trustees who are selfless and are participating because they think they’re doing something good.”

Marzio added, “I’m one of the oldest of museum directors in terms of service. The danger in quoting me is I guess I’m sort of out of fashion.”

Despite all the problems, there is some optimism. “There’s a new generation of trustees who will someday be at the helm of museums,” a director said. “They can have a fresh attitude and create an environment encouraging to people who want to lead museums. I do have some hope.”

Meanwhile, if, as Marzio says, “balancing the interests” is difficult, perhaps the solution is more training for museum directors in the care and feeding of trustees—while trustees seek lessons on the care and feeding of museum directors.

Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.

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