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Thankless Jobs
Even if you do it well, running the modern arts organization is no guarantee of success

By Jack Miles & Douglas McLennan

Who would want to be head of an arts institution?

 Do the job badly and you’ve got press hounding you and nervous board members second-guessing your every move. The end - when it comes – is dissected in public, but since institutions usually prefer not to speak ill of the dead (at least on the record), it’s difficult to defend yourself [Irish Times].

  • Australia’s National Gallery director Brian Kennedy was recently hauled up before a government committee [Sydney Morning Herald] to explain his controversial management style.

  • The chorus of discontent [NYTimes] last fall coming from the ranks of Carnegie Hall complaining about director Xaver Ohnesorg got so loud that the newspapers picked it up and, almost before the stories could sink in, Ohnesorg accepted a job running the Berlin Philharmonic (the orchestra counted the appointment as a coup [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung]).

  • Last month, Maina Gielgud, who hadn’t even officially taken up her new job running Boston Ballet, quit after decisions attributed to her (firing dancers) were made public. [Boston Herald].

Do the job too well, and it can almost be worse.

  • Is there anyone in the art world looked upon with more suspicion [Forbes] than the Guggenheim Museum’s Thomas Krens? Krens makes no secret of his ambitions for a global museum, and he’s been remarkably successful at dotting the planet with Goog outposts.  But instead of admiring profiles of the likes that (until recently) accompanied Jeff Bezos’ empire-building, Krens is most often depicted as a megalomaniacal sellout with a world-domination complex [The Guardian] who’s not serving the cause of art. [The Scotsman]

  • Or David Ross, [Los Angeles Times] who, while running the Whitney Museum, rarely saw his name in print without being described as “embattled” (now he’s doing much better, thank you very much running San Francisco MOMA).

  • Or Trevor Nunn, the pilot of London’s National Theatre, who has, by all accounts, whipped his theatre into a real going concern. Yet he’s been taken to task in recent months for “artistic incompetence, [The Telegraph] overspending, pandering to white middle-aged audiences, sticking to the boring programming of safe, well-tried classics or musicals at the expense of cutting-edge contemporary drama and, last but not least, of arrogance for trying to run the ship himself and not appointing associate directors to help him pick plays for the National's three stages.” Most recently, he’s been attacked [The Observer] for handsomely profiting both himself and the National by sending a hugely successful production of “My Fair Lady” to the commercial West End. Though the theatre is prospering, Nunn has now said he won't renew his contract.

  • Or perhaps the New York Philharmonic’s Kurt Masur. Masur (now in his 70s) is generally acknowledged by everyone in the music world for rebuilding the notoriously unruly Phil [NYTimes] and has the orchestra playing better than it has for a long time. But after 11 years, his board saw him as old and too conservative, so fresh blood was called for – in the person of 70-year-old Lorin Maazel. That’s okay. Masur isn’t hurting for new jobs. He’s taking over leadership of the London Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France [San Francisco Chronicle] in Paris.

The directors’ dance has been whirling uptempo in the past few years. Four of America’s Big Five orchestras have spent a good part of the last couple years looking for new music directors – the NY Phil took three years and was publicly rejected by Riccardo Muti [Dallas Morning News], its top candidate.

In the past year Lincoln Center [NYTimes] and the Kennedy Center [Washington Post] both got new top executives. The Australian Ballet contributed its artistic director to London's Royal Ballet, and after a massive search at the end of a very bad few years, London’s Royal Opera House hired someone from the BBC to run it.

Smaller companies have fared no better. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet has had three artistic directors in eight years[National Post]. In Lyon, France, last year 12 heads of cultural institutions – including from the Opéra de Lyon, Orchestre National de Lyon and several museums, left their companies.


Why the turnover? Top cultural jobs might seem glamorous but that's increasingly not the reality [Chicago Tribune]. Directors complain of successions of 18-hour days and unrelenting pressure in balancing artistic mission with financial constraints. The top jobs have become less and less about art [The Independent] and more about sweet-talking patrons, fund-raising, balancing budgets and looking after institutional public relations.

Being an artist doesn’t qualify you to run an arts institution these days (if it ever did). Now you need to be a CEO first in order to make the necessary business decisions. Yet given the precarious financial nature of most institutions (and the public scrutiny), who would want the job? If you’re a good manager, there’s a lot more money running a corporation. Executive directors of arts companies are substantially underpaid compared to the corporate world.

And you can’t escape the pressure as artistic director either – increasingly in all fields, success even in the non-profit world is defined by how many customers you bring through the doors. While artistic vision plays an important role, it is financial models that wag the modern arts organization’s tail.

The growing undesirability of such jobs was recently put on public display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum has been going through a rough patch [The Art Newspaper] – a couple of decades of declining attendance and rising debt – and it is increasingly falling behind its more-glamorous London cousins like the Tate.

The museum reportedly offered its top job to several international candidates last year, but was repeatedly turned down [The Independent]. The V&A’s eventual choice was tepidly received in the press:

"Mark Jones may not be an entirely unknown quantity - he has been running the National Museums of Scotland since 1992 - but he is untested [Sunday Times] at the highest level and was certainly the darkest of the three horses in the race."

Even if Jones restores the V&A fortunes [Glasgow Herald], there’s no guarantee it will be appreciated.

Boston's Museum of Fine Art, one of America’s great encyclopedic art institutions, spent a couple of years in the early-90s looking for a new director. The museum had worked itself into a crisis of monumental proportions, with a $34 million accumulated deficit and an operating deficit of $4 million a year. There weren’t a lot of qualified takers for the job. Anyone taking it had to know he would be spending all of his time fundraising, with little energy left over for the art.

But five years after Malcolm Rogers took the job, he had helped the museum [Boston Globe] complete a $137 million capital campaign and set an annual attendance record of 1.7 million visitors. Membership nearly doubled in his first five years. And he managed it all while turning out a $437,000 annual surplus.[NYTimes]

Were museum supporters thrilled? Not exactly [Boston Globe]. His detractors are legion: Last year the New York Times quoted one of them: "his acquisitions, his exhibition policies, everything that has to do with art is a disaster."

The modern museum/theatre/orchestra/ballet company director is expected to pull in the crowds, balance the budget and turn out a credible artistic product. These days it’s difficult to define what mix of those three constitutes a success. Clearly the latter can’t be accomplished without the two former. But perhaps the turmoil over directors is an indication of the struggle the art world is having in defining what success looks like.

Additional Reading: Our Arts Directors archives

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