Tuesday, October 07, 2008

What Makes for a Good Museum Director? Part XIII

Remember back, in 2000, when those in certain sectors of industry were so excited about the fact that George W. Bush would be the nation's first President with an MBA? Ahhh, the administrative and business sense he would bring to Washington. The bipartisan objectivity and bottom-line reasoning that would guide his deciding, reaching across the aisle, surrounding himself with competent and wise people. Solid business objectivity would, finally, be the principle guiding the nation. And why else would surrounding himself with competent and wise people matter unless of course he listened to them, unless he encouraged them to speak their minds, unless he welcomed dissent...[via Sullivan]

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.

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:

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.
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.

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.

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12 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed, Did you hear the Pope talking about the financial crisis?

I guess I'm odd - belief in God to me is so often a form of greed. I get Heaven, you get nada.

MBAs, journalism degrees, education degrees - aren't those simply ways of getting a degree without learning anything? (That at least was the joke when I was in college.)
ml

10/07/2008 09:42:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Did you hear the Pope talking about the financial crisis?

I didn't, no. But then I'm not Catholic, so anything the Pope says is interesting to me mostly for its entertainment value. The leaders of the church I grew up in, on the other hand, continue to horrify the hell out of me. If only that was intentional, I might respect it.

10/07/2008 10:00:00 AM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

I'm glad you brought this up, Ed, it's an important topic and I've been so caught up in everything else, the value of a tapestry scholar at the helm of the Met was swept under the rug.

I harp on the value of scholarship, and the scale of the Met demands it - that Turner show was beautifully installed, so well told with real visual and scholarly knowledge.

But I have found that the contemporary shows, and the hanging of those Picassos at the tale end of the 19th century, for ex., to be insensitive in comparison. And so I fear that scholarship and visual knowledge are privileged as "art history" in the mode of a certain kind of connaisseur, and that what it takes to exhibit strong modern and contemporary work will continue to be weak in comparison.

Another way of thinking about this is that contemporary art has become too associated with market values, and in the context of the museum a more rarefied scholarship can only locate itself in the past.

10/07/2008 11:06:00 AM  
Blogger lookinaroundbob said...

When I read about the budgets and expenses and successes and plans of my local museum (Philadelphia) and those of our corresponding public school system...something seems out of skew, which may be a another glaring example of the rich vs. the not so.

10/07/2008 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

museums are nobliesse oblige - and as such we are lucky to get what we got, but im not exactly gonna cry if rome burns - it;s all archived on computor disks - i mean i hope the library at bagdhad was archived? I dunno, its like you can;t take it with you and in a million years it will all turn to dust anyways. Whats the big deal? People die. Stuff rots. How do people in the jungle survive without a variety of durable goods to choose from? I bet they are very unhappy. And when the meteor hits, well all be like, seeya in our shiny spaceship to mars, which has real snow. Imagine, real snow!

10/07/2008 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Whats the big deal? People die. Stuff rots.

From Today's New York Times:

They are not really scrolls. They are scraps — darkened, cracked fragments of parchment. Yet the faded ink strokes of Aramaic or ancient Hebrew refer to epic incantations: to trumpets blowing in battle, to praise of the righteous and condemnation of the wicked, to “the heavens, the earth and all its thinking creatures.”

Go see these six encased bits of ancient text at the Jewish Museum’s new exhibition, “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Mysteries of the Ancient World,” before it closes on Jan. 4. Go, but not because these scraps are themselves new to our understanding. [...]

Go...because there is something rarely felt in exhibitions, and which the critic Walter Benjamin argued was heading toward extinction. In the 1930s he suggested that art objects were now so easily reproduced that they were being stripped of their “aura.” Aura, he suggested, is connected with uniqueness, but it also involves a sense of distance. An object possessing aura stands at a distance from us, no matter how near we get to it.

Here, you can feel the essence of this idea. Even though you can lean over these cases, even though there seems nothing intrinsically remarkable about these bits of parchment, they stand alien and apart; their history and their significance make them seem immeasurably remote.

10/07/2008 12:18:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

I saw the Dead Sea Scrolls years ago in a little Ohio roadside church - the Mormons (lots of young men in black and white standing guard of models of archaelogical digs) were exhibiting the Scrolls with their own book of "origin", unearthed in the Adirondacks by Joseph Smith in the 1820's. I think it was the strangest exhibition that I have ever been to, these beautiful sentries providing all the context and authority. They didn't have the real book on display (it's made of gold), but a copy showing the unreadable pseudo-"Egyptian" heiroglyphs that Smith later transcribed as the Book of Mormon. A quote:

"For those who shall be destroyed shall speak unto them out of the ground, and their speech shall be low out of the dust, and their voice shall be as one that hath a familiar spirit; for the Lord God will give unto him power, that he may whisper concerning them, even as it were out of the ground: and their speech shall whisper out of the dust." (2 Ne. 26:16ff).

10/07/2008 01:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I saw the Dead Scrolls here at homes. I think digitlization is a great human invention and because of the Alexandria library tragedy, books and art should be kept safe in a virtual format, across many servers (this is how it's going to be some day). But the major problem about aura is you are never sure with the copy if it is exactly a copy of the original, or if it missed information because the digital transfer was not good enough, or perhaps too good. Baudrillard predicted that copies would one day look so good that they would win our perceptual heart. You would see a Dead Scroll and its replica, and you would be sure tha the replica is the original, because it looks way better and more convincing. This is what really interest me, because in post-conceptualism, the aura is very important. A Damien Hirst is defined by the fact that a real animal is in formaldehyde, or that real diamonds are involved. But what assures me that the animal is really an animal in formaldehyde? The catalog mention? The smell? One day you won't be able to tell the difference, and people will become indifferent to the question of wrether an animal in a Damien Hirst or a body in Gunther Von Hagens is real or not. Why make it real, if you can do it way better artificially?


Cedric Caspesyan

PS: Dead Scroll is important in re-establishing how books like the Bible and Qu'Ran were assembled years after oral tradition, and are nowhere near the sacred books of God that people believe they are. The Dead Scrolls is an ancient form of the Bible, that is different because oral culture shifts. If there were ever godly sayings, it was lost to oral tradition, or maybe Moises's stone tablets are buried somewhere.

So you see, the Bible, it takes the place of another aura, which are the words of the people. And because this media seems trustable to most human beings, it has created a fallacious simulacrum
that people follow like in a cult. So the dangers of reproduction media started even when we began to trust books as safe transfers for knowledge. And when Gutenberg arrived that sacred book was sealed forever.

10/07/2008 06:25:00 PM  
Blogger Balhatain said...

Ed, I realize that you don't like Bush, but I don't think all the problems with the economy can be pinned on him alone. I mean... if one President can cause so much damage to the economy perhaps we should think about the system all together. Plus you have to remember that Congress has failed us as well. People are getting their fill of Democrats and Republicans and the inability for either side to admit their wrong doings. They are like two kids fighting in a sandbox. I think new political parties will eventually gain ground.

10/07/2008 07:17:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

I like going to the museum.

10/07/2008 10:54:00 PM  
Blogger The Last Assyrian said...

I wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

10/08/2008 09:07:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Ed, I realize that you don't like Bush, but I don't think all the problems with the economy can be pinned on him alone.

Of course not, but he could have done so much more than he did, and let's face it, not only does the fish stinks from the head down, but he set the agenda that contributed significantly to the crisis: shop as a response to 9/11, the "Ownership Society," the "Productive Class," and the notion that both Social Security and health care could be entrusted to the free market. These ideas most definitely contributed significantly to the crisis and you can indeed pin the blame for them on Bush.

10/08/2008 09:19:00 AM  

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