Wanted: Art Scholar, M.B.A. Required
When Jack Lane took over as director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art three years ago, one of the first things he did was shut his office door. “The previous director’s door was open to everyone who wanted to talk to him,” Mr. Lane explains. “That just seemed unworkable. I wanted to clarify the chain of command, so we divided the museum into four major areas, and the heads of those areas report directly to me.”
It was the kind of tough-minded decision the museum’s trustees had hired Mr. Lane, who holds a master’s degree in business from the University of Chicago as well as a Ph. D. from Harvard, to make. They wanted a director with a degree in business as well as art to lead the museum through a period of major expansion.
Their choice is representative of a growing perception that leadership at museums requires business acumen as well as connoisseurship. Although business management techniques have been used in museums for at least two decades, in the last few years those skills have been more heavily emphasized — to the dismay of some in the art world.
While many cultural institutions have long had business departments to take care of marketing, public relations and accounting functions, the emphasis at the top had been on scholarship. But now, at some major museums, even directors are being chosen for their business training as well as for their fine arts backgrounds.
Perhaps the most conspicuous, and controversial, appointment has been that of Thomas Krens at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The 43-year-old director, who has a master’s degree in business from the Yale School of Management, has come under criticism for his plans to create a multinational museum with branches in this country and abroad, and for selling paintings from the museum’s permanent collection to buy newer works.
Museums run by art historians are also making increasing use of modern management techniques. “You have to know how to negotiate with unions, hire contractors, run a restaurant and a bookstore,” says Patterson Sims, associate director of the Seattle Art Museum, who does not hold an M.B.A. “Those are not issues that connoisseurship prepares you for.
To help meet the demand, several of the country’s best business schools — Harvard, Yale, Stanford and the University of California at Los Angeles — offer courses in arts management. And the American Federation of Arts, a New York-based service organization that offers both exhibitions and professional training to 600 member museums, runs a summer program to train museum curators in business administration.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this mingling of art and business tends to polarize the museum world. “Administrative imperatives are taking precedence over artistic judgments,” says Hilton Kramer, art critic and editor of The New Criterion, a magazine of cultural criticism. Others disagree. “A well-run operation should free the curator,” counters Graham W. J. Beal, director of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, who made the jump from curator to administrator after participating in the American Federation of Arts’ training program.
Whether they see it as a blessing or a curse, there is widespread agreement that a business orientation in museums is here to stay. “It’s not a question of whether it will happen,” says Roger M. Berkowitz, deputy director of the Toledo Museum of Art. “It is happening.” The Changing Profile Of the Curator
According to museum professionals, the trend is linked to the increased size and complexity of many art institutions.
“Museums are demonstrably more complex,” says J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery in Washington and perhaps the first museum head to combine a joint M.B.A.-art history track as a calculated career strategy. He decided to take a business degree from Harvard while pursuing a master’s degree in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York. “When I became director in 1970,” says Mr. Brown, “we had 350 employees. Now we have 1,000. Back then the museum was all in one building; we have doubled the space. Our budget was $5.9 million in 1970; today it’s $53.9 million.
“My predecessor’s fund-raising activities were simple,” he continued. “He had lunch with Ailsa Mellon, and if he needed a Leonardo she would write the check.” During Mr. Brown’s tenure, the National Gallery has raised $40 million from 92 corporations.
As a result of such changes, the profile of the typical museum director has changed since the mid-70’s. Directors of the old school tended to be socially prominent connoisseurs, as knowledgeable in wooing wealthy collectors as in evaluating art. “It was a hobby,” says Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum from 1967 to 1977 and now editor in chief of Connoisseur magazine. “When I first got out of graduate school, people told me that the biggest prerequisite for becoming a curator was an outside income.”
Although Mr. Hoving has no degree in business (nor does his successor, Philippe de Montebello), many credit — or blame — him for starting the focus on business in museums. “It was during Hoving’s tenure at the Met that museums became broad, popular institutions, with blockbuster shows, expanded education programs, gift shops, bookstores and restaurants maximizing income,” says Mr. Lane, who has raised more than $65 million for the San Francisco museum and will double its exhibition space with a new building. The Blockbuster: A Catch-22
Many museums grew rapidly on a steady diet of big exhibitions and expanding staff, membership and budget. But in many ways, museums have become the victims of their own success. The cost of buying, insuring, shipping and storing art has lifted blockbusters beyond the means of most institutions. “The cost of some of these shows is mind-boggling,” says Steven A. Nash, associate director and chief curator of the De Young and Legion of Honor Museums in San Francisco, who spent a year at Stanford business school before getting his Ph. D. in art history. “In one recent exhibition I know of, it cost $100,000 just to insure one painting. We have had to say no to some blockbuster shows.”
Without any major exhibitions in the last few years, the De Young and Legion of Honor have seen attendance drop from about 800,000 in 1988, the year of the Andrew Wyeth “Helga” show, to about 550,000 in 1989. “We have really had to streamline the institution, cut people by attrition and eliminate any redundancies,” says Mr. Nash.
The Toledo Museum of Art went through a similar drought, in which annual attendance dropped from 493,000 in 1983, when it put on a major El Greco show, to 280,000 last year. Along with a 15 percent budget cut, the Toledo Museum has devised another solution to its problems. Borrowing a concept from the business world, it has formed a “consortium” with museums in St. Louis, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, to mount a major Impressionist exhibition that none of them could have afforded otherwise. The show has broken attendance records at the museums.
Last year the Minneapolis Institute of Art hired Daniel E. O’Leary as deputy director, in part because of his experience in turning around a financially troubled museum. After earning a joint Ph. D. and M.B.A. at the University of Michigan, Mr. O’Leary became director of Artrain, a Michigan-based regional museum that presents traveling exhibitions in a railroad car. “I applied classical business school analysis,” he says. “We booked exhibitions of greater appeal, extended the touring schedule to create a greater economy of scale. We managed to more than double the revenues and cut expenses by a third, and the audience went from 40,000 annually to 130,000.”
One of the first things he did at Minneapolis was to conduct a market survey. “We live in a competitive world. We have to justify ourselves to government, to foundations, to corporations.”
Some critics of the trend toward a business mentality fear that museums’ preoccupation with attendance is inimical to their artistic purpose. “Museums are market-driven,” says Hilton Kramer. “Museum directors have become salesmen.”
Others insist that ignoring the bottom line can jeopardize a museum’s artistic mission.
“A number of museums have become more or less insolvent,” says Myrna Smoot, director of the American Federation of Arts. “They reduce their hours, they don’t change their collection, they reduce maintenance and security, stop paying to conserve the collection, in order to keep the doors open.” Does Thank You Mean Forever?
The problem of continual growth is one that preoccupies Mr. Krens at the Guggenheim, the most outspoken advocate of the so-called M.B.A. revolution, who has sought to challenge the assumptions on which museums have traditionally operated. “It’s increasingly expensive to store and preserve works of art,” he says. “When you accept an object into your collection, do you take on an obligation to preserve that work forever?” Older museums, he says, are at a critical juncture; they cannot continue indefinitely as both custodians of the past and purveyors of the new. “Do you go on collecting forever? And if not, where do you stop?”
Mr. Krens clearly answered his own question with his decision to sell a Kandinsky, a Modigliani and a Klee last year to pay for a major collection of Minimalist art from the Italian Count Giuseppe Panza.
Among Mr. Krens’s ambitions are to expand the New York Guggenheim building, push forward the on-again, off-again project to establish a contemporary art museum in North Adams, Mass., and to supervise international Guggenheim outposts, including one in the Panza villa near Milan. Mr. Krens even has a possible business solution for the spiraling cost of conserving works of art. “We have talked about selling the maintenance of works of art. Let donors select works of art they want to pay to maintain and we will put their name on the wall label. It introduces a certain shopping quality to it.”
Most M.B.A.-curators warn against taking the trend too far. “If M.B.A.’s are running museums without an art-history background, we’re in for a grim future,” says Mr. Nash. “You have to have people who can think with both sides of their brain.”
For the moment, anyway, the low wage scale of the not-for-profit world insures to some degree that the M.B.A.’s entering the museum world will have to be passionate about more than money. A Degree From Disneyworld
Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum, does not mind being seen as the harbinger of the current wave of M.B.A.’s in museums. “I didn’t just bring in one M.B.A.,” he said of his tenure at the Met. “I brought in about 25 M.B.A.’s. After I’d been director about a month, I realized that the curators knew absolutely nothing about administration. One department had more employees than 90 percent of all other museums in the United States.
Mr. Hoving has little regret for having disrupted the genteel, old-fashioned atmosphere that prevailed at the Met. “The good old days weren’t so marvelous at all,” he says. “Museums were run by badly paid lackeys of rich trustees.
In preparing the blockbuster shows that became his trademark, Mr. Hoving says he learned a great deal from the business world. “When we built a new wing for the museum, we spent a lot of time in airline terminals to study how to move crowds of people around. The first thing you see when you walk into the Met is not art but happy, smiling faces behind a brass information counter. We learned that from Disneyworld: they are masters in hospitality, in making people feel glad they came.
“Anybody in the museum world who hasn’t spent time at Disneyworld is making a big mistake.”
– January 13, 1991
As published in The New York Times