Museum Directors: The Manager vs the Art Historian

Having just completed the executive search for the Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, I was struck by the various responses we received when Colin Bailey of the Frick Collection was selected for the position. Beyond the very evident high regard in which Colin is held, there was a certain relief among professionals in the field that a talented curator and art historian was selected… as opposed to someone viewed primarily as a manager.

This juxtaposition of manager vs curator (or their equivalents in diverse organizations), finds its way into a range of discussions when we conduct searches for chief executives. In the performing arts there is a similar dynamic between people who drive production or presentation vs the managerial talent that focuses on operations, revenue and finances.

We feel that it’s short sighted to make this the essential choice. Different organizations face different challenges and operate in different communities under different circumstances. A particular leader is going to lead their organization at a particular point in time. An organization in startup has different needs than a mature organization with a strong board and staff.

Art historians wishing to be directors of museums requiring strong executives need to hone their management skills.  Curators wishing to lead museums with funding challenges must understand how to maximize earned and contributed revenue.  Those whose primarily talent is in building institutions, must also be recognized for their knowledge of museology, art history and exhibitions if they are to become museum directors.  Whether they came by that knowledge through a doctoral program or in some other way is less important than that other experts accept that they have serious depth and a commitment to the profession.  

If the question posed by museum Director searches is whether art historical or management credentials should drive Board decision making, then the answer is often:  BOTH.

What do you think?

To learn more about the nonprofit organizations mentioned, please follow the links below to:

Art, Media and Culture, Finance & Operations, Funding - Earned & Contributed, Management, Marketing & Communications, Programs & Policy