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The Search for Museum Directors

The Museum of the City of New York named a new Director and according to Judith Dobrinski, the announcement, (and other recent director announcements), ‘was curious and left people wondering’, because the new Director had no directorial experience. As an executive recruiter of some 30 plus years working in the nonprofit sector, recruiting a dozen or so museum directors, I too wondered. I am not one of the three firms that are conducting most of the executive searches for museums these days, so I was reluctant to comment for fear of sounding like sour grapes. With Judith’s commentary, I now shall comment.

For museums, as with many other cultural institutions in this country, there is a large gap between the need for leadership and the supply of leaders. The average age of US art museum directors is high than in other professions and rising, there is little if any internal succession planning and for many potentially qualified candidates, and for some qualified candidates the director’s position is less appealing because it takes them away from the “stuff'” of the museum, the curatorial, scholarly work. The results are that some directors who are ineffective continue to be recycled, some remain in their position well past their time and many museums are turning to unlikely, unprepared choices for the position.

As Dobinski notes, there is a big difference between management and leadership. Managers seek to control the future, leaders create a vision for the future; managers strive for sustainability of the institution, leaders see a sustainable institution as a means to an end; leaders create institutions that change how we understand the world. As co-founder of the Institute for Ethical Leadership at Rutgers Business School, over the last ten yeas, I ponder the subject as we attempt to train a generation of leaders.

But museums are very complicated institutions (even the smaller ones) and require both sustainability and vision, which is difficult to find and even more difficult to recognize. For some search committees, the personality of the candidate, not the behavioral skills, is the attraction (“she presents well”).  For some it is the promise of the director as a fundraiser (he has a huge Rolodex) but board members should know that it is their Rolodex that is important. For some, it is the dearth of choices either because the recruiter has not actively recruited (“no one is raising his hand”) or the firm is blocked from recruiting from their list of existing clients.

Any hire is a risk, but there is no better predictor of future performance than past experience. In the two cases mention in the blog, there is no related past experience to help ensure future success. The leadership issue is certainly real; the solutions clearly complicated.

James Abruzzo, Consultant, Consulting, Executive Search, Nonprofit Compensation, Expert Witness, Museum Directors

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