Art Museum Directors, Unite

The stodgy AAMD votes to reinvent itself with new initiatives on membership, deaccessioning, and other hot-button issues.

When the Association of Art Museum Directors assembled in Indianapolis for its semi-annual conference last June, one task before it was to formulate a “vision statement” to represent a new strategic plan. “Making art essential to everyone” was suggested. “It may not sound controversial, but there was much discussion,” says Kaywin Feldman, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, who had been anointed at the meeting’s end as president for the next year. The sticking points, say directors at the meeting, were the presence of “everyone”—too unrealistic, in some members’ opinion—and the absence of “museums”—a crucial component, according to others.

Art won, alone. “The board believes that ‘Making art essential’ is a more powerful breakthrough idea,” says Art Gallery of Ontario director Matthew Teitelbaum, who chaired the AAMD’s strategic-planning committee. “It’s a more activist position.”

“Activist” is not a word commonly associated with the 94-year-old group, which has been criticized for reacting after the fact, if at all, to crises in the field, like the proposed sell-off of Brandeis University’s art collection. The tone of the slogan, like the plan itself, shows that Teitelbaum, along with LACMA’s Michael Govan, the Walker Art Center’s Olga Viso, and a number of other directors, has achieved the first step in a campaign to make the organization relevant, proactive, meaningful, visible, and transparent, to cite terms that cropped up in interviews.

The debate over that vision statement echoed other sometimes painful moments of definition and soul-searching at the meeting, which was attended by 117 of the AAMD’s current 198 members. Many agree that its identity as a “private elite club is no longer tenable today,” as Feldman puts it. The question has been how the group should adapt. The strategic plan includes two major policy changes designed to transform the AAMD in terms of both perception and reality. One plan, sure to spark interest in the art community—though it’s also meant to foster a more general understanding of collections policy—will urge members to post “in a timely manner” lists of deaccessioned art. (Details of the policy—such as the ban on “fractional deaccessions” except to public entities—will be released on July 1.) And the second change will transform the very character of the group, by removing what some members saw as protection and others as an obstacle, including the long-standing membership cap of 200 and the annual budget requirement for member institutions of at least $2.3 million.

These changes, their authors hope, will help the AAMD play a more vital role in its field, as well as in local communities and in Congress, arenas where art museums have not been considered particularly relevant of late. Although the organization purports to represent America’s art-museum directors, right now many of America’s art-museum directors are not members. Excluded are directors of museums at historically black colleges; of many ethnically specific museums, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian; and of any museum at all from nine states, among them Alaska, Montana, and Vermont. Age, gender, educational background, and type of museum are also criteria for determining membership eligibility, Feldman says. The first year, up to 25 new AAMD openings will be filled—by invitation and application—with 25 more in each of the next two years before the policy is reassessed.

Though some directors, notably the Brooklyn Museum’s Arnold Lehman, have been advocating such a change for years, others have argued that enlarging the group would destroy its intimate feeling and would discourage the participation of certain members, particularly those from large museums. But the vast majority of art-museum directors cannot deny that their audiences lag way behind the general population in diversity—and their staffs further behind still. In addition, according to a recent survey, 66 percent of the current crop of mostly white, mostly male directors plan to retire in the next ten years. So a new infusion of energy is crucial, many directors argue, if the AAMD is going to connect with new audiences and replenish its own ranks.

“There’s a strong sense that we cannot wait any longer, we must move forward in finding ways of engaging with our colleagues at other institutions,” says Anthony Hirschel, director of the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago. “Their publics we hope will be our public.”

“There’s a sense,” echoes Julian Zugazagoitia, who is moving to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, from New York’s El Museo del Barrio, “that if we don’t do it now, it might be too late.”

At a time when some museums are closing, others are seriously considering selling art to raise money for operating expenses, all have cut staff, and new sources of funding remain a mystery, many in and out of the AAMD believe the organization has kept its head in the sand. “We weren’t having an impact on cultural policy,” says Lawrence Wheeler, director of the North Carolina Museum of Art. “It was the same old voices saying the same old things.” Recruiting new energy was sometimes difficult: some members of more cutting-edge institutions didn’t bother to join, left the group, or started skipping meetings, feeling that they weren’t worth the outlay of time and money.

The AAMD’s transitioning from service organization to industry leader is one mandate of Janet Landay, who was hired to replace longtime executive director Millicent Gaudieri in 2009. “We’re trying to lead the field in the future, to be out in front,” says Landay, a veteran of education, curatorial, and development departments of several museums across the country, among them the Brooklyn Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts. She maintains, though, that establishing standards and practices remains an essential aspect of the AAMD’s mission. Hence, after 18 months of consideration, the group is releasing deaccession guidelines reaffirming its traditional stance: that objects may be disposed of only to support new acquisitions, and not used for endowment or operating expenses.

Given the AAMD’s awkward past experience in imposing sanctions on New York’s National Academy of Design for its deaccessions in 2008, the question of how the association should treat scofflaws was much debated. The consensus, Landay says, is that there should be “a series of steps,” starting with “a meeting with the director of the offending museum. I should rush to say that what we really want to do is know well in advance. An active goal in our strategic plan is to reach out to museums in crisis.”

None of these changes can be formally implemented until the vote in January at the next AAMD conference, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, a location with fortuitous symbolism. Thinking about museums in the Caribbean, as well as Haiti, is one arena the AAMD should be exploring, Feldman says. Energy conservation is another.

As AAMD leaders review applications for membership and consider whom to reach out to, a more difficult challenge is finding and nurturing potential subsequent generations of museum directors. The hope is to create programs targeting everyone from senior staff to interns in an effort to secure a diverse base of candidates from which future headhunters can draw on, Landay says.

But good intentions will not work without significant funding, according to directors who work with diverse populations. “Instead of cutting programs, everyone has cut staff,” Bronx Museum of the Arts director Holly Block points out. “The way back is by supporting endowed positions—curatorial, management, deputy directors, internships. If there are no permanent positions, people go into different fields.”

How—and how quickly—the association is really going to change after years of debate and resistance are matters of speculation in the museum community. “The potential is to be quite transformative,” says Viso, “to help and shape public discourse. This sets the stage for that.” However, she acknowledges, “it’s going to take some time to reinvent the structure, change the culture.” Next on the agenda is deciding exactly how to restructure, raise funds, and expand the organization’s own staff so the goals expressed in the strategic plan can be realized.

“Does it really mean change in direction? That’s always the question with a strategic plan,” Govan says. “I do believe there is critical mass toward openness in changing the organization in its membership to respond to a changing world.”

“I’m convinced,” he adds, “we mean business.”

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.

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