What Makes for a Good Museum Director? Part XIII
OK, so that didn't work out exactly as planned. Still, not all that long ago, we heard similar expectations and excitement about museum directors. Having a background in business administration, and especially fund-raising, was seen as much more important for an institution than a focus on some antiquated art of another era. Movers and shakers only need apply. Just as in politics, attitudes in the museum world seem to be shifting though. The ArtNewspaper's Anna Somers Cocks explains:
According to senior administration officials who learned of the encounter soon after it happened, President Bush looked at the man. "I don't ever want to hear you use those words in my presence again," he said.
"What words, Mr. President?"
"Bad policy," President Bush said. "If I decide to do it, by definition it's good policy. I thought you got that."
The advisor was dismissed. The meeting was over.
Anna points out this trend to highlight why curators make good museum directors, but I want take advantage of her observations to step back just a bit further and look at why MBAs don't necessarily make good museum directors, again. Of course some museum directors with business backgrounds are doing very fine jobs. But I think that's because they also saw clearly the mission of their institutions, and most definitely not because all lessons taught at Wharton are universally applicable.
It must be so tiring, just standing around all day, and having to wear a horrid hat,” someone said to me at quite a sophisticated dinner party shortly after I became a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I realised then that lots of people did not have the faintest idea of what a curator does all day long, and, despite the huge rise in the popularity of museums over the last 30 years, they still don’t.This was clear from the general surprise at the news last month that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had appointed its curator of tapestries to succeed Philippe de Montebello as director — surprise that was immediately qualified, it has to be said, by respectful remarks about Thomas Campbell’s scholarly achievements and his popularity with his peers, yet astonishment at the unfashionableness of his subject area, and that the job had not gone to someone with a proven record for virile management and fund-raising, or, alternatively, to some modernist who would “drag the museum into the 21st century”.
This appointment comes a few months after another scholar was appointed to a top job, Nicholas Penny to the National Gallery in London. He knows about old masters, rarely in the media now that contemporary art commands the big bucks, and sculpture, even less in the public eye.
Two swallows don’t make a summer, of course, so it would be premature to say that this proves there is a widespread reaction against the last two decades’ obsession with an MBA vision of museums.
Indeed, the fundamental problem, whether in the halls of government or galleries of arts institutions, of letting business principles guide decisions boils down to a fundamental difference in mission. The ultimate mission of any commercial enterprise is profit. But the ultimate mission of government is to serve and protect the people. The primary mission of arts institutions is to educate and/or preserve society's treasures. Profit is simply not a fundamental part of their central missions.
It requires extreme focus and discipline to charter the waters of business and consistently bring in profit for a business. It also requires an equally clear focus to keep an arts institution on course in its mission as the world around it changes. I've yet to meet the person capable of sustained and clear focus on two such divergent goals, though. By mixing those goals, as some have attempted, both will always be watered down eventually. More than that, however, there is no conceivable way for such twin goals to remain on the same track indefinitely. The factors impacting them operate on very different cycles. Furthermore, the underlying philosophies that drive them evolve at different rates. Anna puts it perfectly:
[The strength of the museum] is built up over generations because museums are in it for the long haul, independent of boom and bust in the art market.Many MBA's right now are clearly (and understandably) re-evaluating what it is they thought they knew about how business works. The decisions they'll need to make over the next few years, adjusting to a different sense of the limits of the free market system and what role regulation should play within one, will require some serious soul searching I would imagine. Not so for museum directors, though. Yes, less donor money may be heading their way than it was a year ago and that may lead to temporary cut-backs, but little else has changed in their central concept of what it is they do or how to go about it.