WHAT'S THE STRATEGY?
The New Year has started with a spate of news about comings and goings in the executive suites of some of our beloved museums. The Albright-Knox, in Buffalo, imported new blood from longitudinally appropriate Finland. The evocatively named MAD (Museum of Art and Design), in New York, just lost its director of sixteen years. And with news of the changes in leadership comes the predictable soul searching about what kind of a person is suited to run a museum.
The question is the most pressing for mid-size institutions, those with quirky collecting mandates and inconvenient locations at a remove from the big money-making centers—museums without a huge supply of benefactors, tourism-magnet brands, or vast staffs ready to handle every management need.
These institutions ask of their directors to become a kind of one-man band, a multitasking academic-manager-fundraiser-technogeek-impresario par excellence. The wish list of desired qualities in the headhunter briefs will make you smile: What kind of genetic engineering could produce a superhero like this?
For years, the panel discussions have pitched the same questions about whether we might be better off with CEO directors, steeped in business school voodoo, or if we should stick to putting curators in the oak panel board rooms of our collecting institutions, to keep them on the narrow path of cultural probity. Having met directors of every stripe and conviction, I have lately come to believe this is a total red herring.
The simple truth is that good leadership comes in museums from the same source as anywhere else – the deeply human and profession-neutral qualities of fairness, curiosity, courage, consistency, sound judgment, and independence of mind. Rather than fret about where museum directors come from, we would be better off worrying about where they are trying to go.