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Boot Camp for Curators Who Want the Top Job

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

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 fellows.

"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 job.

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 duties."

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

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