Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Next Generation of Museum Directors

Front row, l. to r.: Elizabeth Finch, Thomas Denenberg, Andrea Bayer, Elizabeth Smith, Stanton Thomas. Back Row: Andrea Dickerman, John Ravenal, Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Paola Antonelli, Christa Clarke, Martha Tedeschi. Photograph by Amy C. Elliott.
Nurturing/Nourishing the Next Generation of Museum Directors
by Susan Sawyers


For two weeks in January, museum curators came from far and near for an intensive boot camp in leadership. The Art Institute of Chicago’s Martha Tedeschi, the Museum of Modern Art’s Paola Antonelli and Leah Dickerman were among this year’s participants. It’s a tricky time to be a curator or professional in just about any non-profit institution. But let’s face it; we could all do well with a smidge of leadership skills and the support of a community.

“We are trained to be very specialized,” said Christa Clarke, Newark Museum's Curator of Africa, the Americas and the Pacific. But with the Center for Curatorial Leadership, (CCL) “We are forced to think about the big picture.”

The first of a narrow set of stairs lead up to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's studio.
The top of the stairs twist to reveal Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's studio, now a room for New York Studio School gatherings.
This year’s group of 11 CCL fellows mixed “learning” and “doing” at institutions all over the city, including the Guggenheim and Gracie Mansion. Founded in 2006 by Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and Elizabeth (Buffy) Easton, former chair of European Painting and Sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum, CCL acknowledges the need for curators to develop 21st Century skills essential to an evolving museum climate.

The program consists of a blend of coursework led by faculty members from Columbia Business School together with practical exposure provided by the directors of other local arts, cultural, and other civic organizations.

Luckily for me, I was invited to join the group at the New York Studio School (NYSS) for dinner one night. (Disclosure: Since working with Buffy years ago, we have developed a friendship beyond the world of art.)

The Greenwich Village gathering brought the CCL Class of 2012 fellows together with curators from some of the city’s loftiest arts institutions. Hosted by NYSS Board Member Dita Amory, Acting Associate Curator-in-Charge-and-Administrator, Robert Lehman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, took place in the School’s architecturally quirky stretch of eight historic buildings.

The NYSS is a magical, rather mysterious place, with a history that has changed as the art world as changed. Large and small art studios connected by narrow staircases twist, turn and culminate in a large open space that was once horse stables.  

The school was founded in 1963 by Mercedes Matter, an artist in her own right, wife of the Yale Professor of Design Herbert Matter, and confidante of Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, and Hans Hoffman. “Like many art schools at the time,” Amory said, “the Studio School was founded in opposition to fashionable trends in art education of the 1960s. The fragmentation of the art curriculum and the frantic pace of training young artists” drove Ms. Matter to join forces with her own students to establish the school. Dating back to the first decades of the 20th century, the space at MacDougall and Eighth Street was the first site of the Whitney Museum of American Art, established by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
Robert Winthrop Chanler's molded plaster flame fireplace and the bas-relief ceiling are focal points of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's studio on MacDougal Alley in Greenwich Village.
The dinner guests included 2012 fellows Thomas Denenberg, director of The Shelburne Museum in Vermont; Andrea Bayer, curator of European Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, former fellow Colin B. Bailey, deputy director and Peter Jay Sharp, chief curator of The Frick Collection; and art world luminaries Emily Braun, curator of the Leonard Lauder Collection, Lowery Stokes Sims, curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, Chrissy Isles and Carter Foster, curators at The Whitney Museum.

After a winter meal of greens followed by lamb stew, prepared and served by students of the Studio School, Connie Evans, NYSS director of resource development, described the history of the room. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s (1875–1942) sculpture studio, with its fireplace with molded plaster flames blazing upward toward the celestial-impressioned ceiling was renovated by Robert Winthrop Chanler (1872–1930).

Before moving uptown in 1954, Mrs. Whitney established the Whitney Studio Club and showed the work of Edward Hopper, William Glackens, Alfred Sloan and Stuart Davis, the foundation of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s historical collection.
Thomas Denenberg, Paola Antonelli, and Martha Tedeschi  in front of Chanler sculpted fireplace.
Judith Dolkart, Leah Dickerman, Andrea Bayer, and Colin Bailey sip and smile before dinner.
In the same vein as Mercedes Matter and Mrs. Whitney, before her, worked with 20th century artists to develop their creative talent and expand their reach, Agnes Gund and Buffy Easton are strengthening curators’ practical knowledge and institutional roles in the 21st century. To date, of the 41 Center for Curatorial Leadership graduates, five are now museum directors.

“The first week of the program emphasizes the soft skills of negotiation, strategy, and managing change. The second week has to do with managing money,” says Buffy. The rest is bringing in people who are either the most influential leaders in the civic or cultural world, including Kate Levin, Commissioner of Cultural Affairs of the City of New York and Michael Govan, CEO and Wallis Annenberg Director, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Social entrepreneurship and mentorship were added this year to show how curators can be driving forces beyond their department. This has to do with concerns of the museum and extends to larger issues in culture and society,” says Buffy.
Sally Block, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Curators, Elizabeth Finch, curator of American Art at Colby College Museum of Art, and Dita Amory, associate curator, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and board member of New York Studio School.
NY Studio School Board Member Dita Amory, Art Gallery of Ontario's Elizabeth Smith, and Museum of Arts and Design's Lowery Stokes Sims.
As a group, the fellows identified institutional challenges that need to be addressed and began to gather the tools they would need to solve them. Over lunch one day at the Blackstone Group’s Park Avenue headquarters, Amy Stursberg, Blackstone Foundation executive director, invited heads and program officers from the Ford, Mellon, Doris Duke, Bloomberg, Pew, and Kress Foundations among others, to join the curators in a discussion on innovation. “It’s no longer business as usual,” Stursberg told me. “Foundations’ missions are changing.” As with any entrepreneurial effort, “curators need to think strategically. Not only do curators and museums have to think about explaining themselves [when seeking foundation funding],” but she encourages institutions to “not be exclusive or elitist. When you think about audience, tell us what your museum does for the community. How does that fit into the potential funder’s mission?”

That said, “it is our job to give museum-goers and funders reason to want to have the experience. That takes some innovation,” said Thomas Denenberg, director of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont since November 2011. When he thinks about his community, and Gen Xers like himself, he says, they aren’t collectors of objects. Instead, they collect experiences.”
Student sketches and sculpture at the New York Studio School.
A work in progress.
In an afternoon session at the Museum of Modern Art, the director, “Glenn Lowry raised the biggest question of all,” said Martha Tedeschi. That is, “whether our museums are financially sustainable and whether the philanthropy model on which we depend is sustainable,” said Tedeschi. “He thinks it is not.”

So, what’s a curator to do? “There are so many conversations about the direction of museums as directors change, as museums change,” said Michelle Joan Wilkinson, director of collections and exhibitions, Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture (for starters maybe they create shorter titles). “We were encouraged [in a session led by John Rice, founder of Management Leadership for Tomorrow] to think about what our director and board members are dreaming about.”

In sum, said CCL’s Easton, the trick for curators and any institutional staff member is to think about what the institution hopes to become and help it get there. 
Student sketches at the New York Studio School.
To that end, like so many things in the working world, much of the time, decisions are made around a table. Be it over dinner or in a boardroom. “I think about what I learned in these classes everyday, whether it’s a way of approaching a problem or a technique to handle something I was concerned about,” said former CCL fellow Colin Bailey. “I needed to make sure my concerns were listened to and responded to. Prior to the course, I wouldn’t have known how to get them [stakeholders] around the table.” Now he does!

Here is more information about the Center for Curatorial Leadership and the New York Studio School from around the web:

The Art Newspaper on How to Get Ahead in U.S. Museums and CCL
The New York Sun on the history of the New York Studio School
The New York Sun on the history of the Whitney Museum