Elizabeth W. Easton was asked at a Guggenheim Museum
symposium in 2005 why there were so few ways for curators to advance.
Specifically, why weren't more curators becoming directors?
Ms. Easton, who was the chairwoman of European
painting and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art at the time and the
president of the Association of Art Museum Curators, took the issue to
heart. "I began asking questions about the field and my profession that
were larger than my immediate circumstances," she said. "Out of that
came a realization that there was a need for a program to help curators
embrace leadership positions."
Leaving the Brooklyn Museum in 2006, Ms. Easton started the Center for
Curatorial Leadership, a fellowship program meant to provide American
curators with the management skills, fund-raising tips and
administrative tools to become the next generation of museum directors.
In January it began training 10 curators, drawn from 51 applicants, in
the finer points of running cultural institutions. Among them were Gary
Tinterow, the head curator of 19th-century, Modern and contemporary art
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Colin B. Bailey, chief curator at the
Frick Collection; and Elizabeth N. Armstrong, chief curator at the
Orange County Museum of Art in California.
Curators have traditionally been recruited as museum directors — for
years they were pretty much the only candidates. But in recent times, as
museums have come under pressure to increase attendance, expand their
buildings and compete with one another for donors, their trustees and
boards have preferred to hire leaders with management or business acumen
rather than art training.
Now curators are fighting back, eager to avoid seeing more
businesspeople taking coveted directors' posts. "The principal job of a
museum director is to sustain and advance the central mission of the
institution — exhibiting, acquiring and displaying art, as well as
engaging with the community," Ms. Easton said. "Curators, with their
deep art training and a background in museums, are the best people to
carry that out."
Agnes Gund, the art patron and president emeritus of the Museum of
Modern Art, agrees. She is providing more than $500,000 a year to
operate the leadership center. The money pays for a six-month fellowship
that includes four weeks of intense instruction, a residency and a
mentorship. Many of the top museum directors in the nation have signed
on as mentors or agreed to provide residencies at their museums for the
"There was clearly a need for an organization to teach curators to
embrace the growing administrative demands at museums," Ms. Gund said.
"I have been on several selection committees for museum director jobs
where the committee would not consider curators for the position because
they had no management experience. They just didn't believe they had
the skill set to do the job."
The center's arrival in the art world is timely given the number of
vacancies for museum directors, as an older generation begins to retire.
In the last six months, there have been openings at more than 25
museums, including the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Minneapolis
Institute of Arts, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the
Phillips Collection in Washington. Now the Metropolitan Museum of Art is
also looking for a new director.
The premise of the fellowship program is that it is easier to teach a
passionate curator to be a leader than it is to teach a professional
manager to be passionate about the presentation and display of great
art, the assumption being that you need both to be a good director. To
this end, the inaugural fellows were also given an intensive two-week
training seminar in nonart issues relating to management, leadership,
business and accounting.
Each morning, the fellows attended lectures from faculty in the
executive education program at Columbia Business School. The subjects
included decision-making, endowment management and negotiation and
conflict resolution. In the afternoon, the group was introduced to art
museum trustees and directors, public officials and foundation heads,
all of whom were supportive of the program and its aims. Glenn D. Lowry,
director of the Museum of Modern Art, served as the host of a luncheon
for the fellows, as did Kate D. Levin, commissioner of the New York City
Department of Cultural Affairs. The group also met an executive search
firm specialist, the kind of person who might be able to help them get a
The program included a rigorous assessment of each fellow's leadership
style. Known as a "360," it involved soliciting detailed reports on each
person's strengths and weaknesses from those who work with them. "Its
basic assumption is that you can't lead an organization unless you have
an accurate assumption of how you are perceived by the people around
you," said Raymond D. Horton, a professor at Columbia Business School
and the architect of the academic component of the program.
He admitted that several fellows were taken aback by the process of
being evaluated by their colleagues and peers. "People were terrified
when they were given the results," Professor Horton said, but
eventually, "everyone thought it was the most fantastic thing." He
added: "I mean, it's so useful. It can be a real insight into your
strengths and weaknesses."
Still, many fellows said they were impressed with the program over all.
"It was a transformative two weeks," Mr. Tinterow said. "Coming in, I
thought I would acquire some business school terminology. I have indeed
acquired some new terminology, but I also have an appreciation that
fundamentals of business management are not inconsistent with the
purpose of a museum and in many ways can help further its mission."
Others said the program would have an immediate impact on them and the
museums they worked for. "What I have learned I can immediately put into
effect," said another fellow, Silvia Karman Cubiñá, a curator at the
Moore Space in Miami, a nonprofit with three employees and an annual
budget of $350,000. "Things like how you professionalize your operation,
or how you implement a system of responsibilities and delegation of
Mr. Bailey will do a weeklong residency with Henri Loyrette, president
and director of the Louvre. He said he felt that the overall program
gave fellows "a better opportunity to be part of the pool of candidates
for future directors' jobs."
"There still has to be that magical fit between the candidate and the
board that does the hiring," Mr. Bailey said. "Here, at least, we've got
good training to help find that fit."
By Benjamin Genocchio
For The New York Times