Two of the most powerful people in the museum world
right now are not museum directors, or curators, or wealthy donors. They
didn't even major in art history. Still, Sarah James and Laurie Nash,
two principals at the executive search firm Phillips Oppenheim, are
playing a crucial role in two decisions that will shape the New York art
world for years to come: the selection of the future directors of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and
Virtually all museum boards today, when faced
with the task of replacing a director, hire a search firm. The firm will
generally begin by interviewing people at all levels of the museum to
get their feelings about what is needed in the new leader. After making
sure the board's search committee knows what it is looking for, the
headhunters, drawing on their large network of connections and a good
deal of additional research, will offer a list of names. They schedule
the interviews, prep the candidates, and remind the board to stay
focused on its criteria, in order to make the best possible match
between a museum and a director.
There are only a handful of individuals and firms who are major players
in the museum world. Malcolm MacKay, at Russell Reynolds Associates, has
placed some of the most prominent directors, including James Cuno at
the Art Institute of Chicago, Anne Poulet at the Frick Collection, and
Lisa Phillips at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Nancy Nichols, at
the firm Heidrick & Struggles, was also at the top of the field,
when she became ill and died in 2002 of Lou Gehrig's disease.
Phillips Oppenheim, which was founded in 1976, is much smaller than
these firms and works exclusively with not-for-profits. Before the
Guggenheim hired Ms. James and Ms. Nash last summer — at that point, to
conduct a search for a director of the New York museum, who would serve
under the Guggenheim Foundation director, Thomas Krens — the highest
profile search they had conducted was for the Indianapolis Museum of
Art, where in 2006 they placed Maxwell Anderson, a former director of
the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Now that they are running both the Met's search and the Guggenheim's —
which became much bigger after the announcement last week that Mr. Krens
would resign — Ms. James and Ms. Nash have gone from being relative
underdogs to being at the head of the pack.
"I think the [Met's] search committee was probably surprised to find
themselves seeing the value of a small firm," an individual in the
museum world who asked not to be named said. The choice, he suggested,
"speaks to the Met's interest in turning a page and thinking freshly
about their leadership challenge."
Ms. James and Ms. Nash, who are both in their early 40s, were described
by people who have worked with them as having complementary
personalities, which enable them to connect with a wide range of people.
(Ms. James and Ms. Nash declined to comment for this article. ) Ms.
James, who is from California, attended the University of California at
Berkeley, and served in the Peace Corps in Mauritania, is the effusive
"front woman," while Ms. Nash, who is from the East Coast, attended
Yale, and coached sports at secondary schools, is more detailed and
"Sarah was more the high-profile personality type. Laurie was very
concrete, very thorough," a vice chairman of the board of the Parrish
Art Museum, which worked with Phillips Oppenheim to find a new director,
Susan Griffin, said. "They bounce off each other very well."
People who have worked with them as job candidates described them as
honest and supportive about the search process, and sincerely interested
in finding the right fit for both parties.
"I felt like I was talking to somebody who genuinely cared about me, and
was really working with me to envision my future," the director
designate at the Parrish, Terrie Sultan, said. "At the end of every
conversation, [Laurie] would say, 'What else do you need from me?'"
The director of arts at the Smithsonian Institution, Susan Talbott, whom
the pair recently placed as the new director of the Wadsworth Atheneum
in Hartford, Conn., said that Ms. James was very forthcoming "about the
positives and the negatives of the institution. She wasn't painting an
unrealistic picture." Ms. James also gave her helpful advice about how
to present herself to the board, she said.
From the other side, trustees said that Ms. James and Ms. Nash forced
them to spend a significant amount of time, before they saw any
candidates or résumés, articulating what the institution needed in a
That discussion could be frustrating, one of the co-chairmen of the
Wadsworth Atheneum search, Susan Rottner, acknowledged. "The committee
would say, 'Just give us the names.' And they said: 'We have names, but
if you haven't convinced yourselves of what are the key competencies
you're looking for, then it's going to be hard to evaluate the people we
bring to you.'"
The process of deciding what the institution needs will be critical for
the Met's board members, many of whom probably can't imagine the museum
without its director of 30 years, Philippe de Montebello. In the case of
the Guggenheim, the museum-world insider who didn't want to be named
said it was probably the headhunters' candid advice about the difficulty
of finding someone for a no. 2 job that convinced the board to let Mr.
"Most headhunters are always thinking about their next job, so they're
loath to come across to a normally very powerful and self-regarding
group of trustees as telling them how the world should be," the insider
said. "Sarah in particular is very blunt about the competitive
environment, the other searches that are going on, and the reservations
candidates might have based on an institution's past experience with
That straight-shooting style is reassuring to both trustees and
candidates, he said. With many headhunters, he explained, "there's a
degree of calculation in each discussion, a kind of minuet. With Sarah
you always feel like you're getting the straight stuff."
By Kate Taylor
For The New York Sun