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Curators vs. Managers: Succession planning in Museums

The New York Times opinion page featured a piece called Why the Met Should Appoint a Female Director in response to the resignation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current Director Thomas Campbell. Based on pure probability, I agree: women make up the majority of the workforce in museums both in the US and UK. However, there are some more subtle issues around museum succession planning that need unpacking. Understanding the root cause of the way museum leaders are selected might lead to more women being appointed to top positions and more resilient leadership generally.

It is reported that Campbell’s resignation was not voluntary, but forced by the Board of Trustees in the face of the Met’s spiralling financial deficit (but not his inappropriate relationship with a female colleague, which I won’t go into here). Under his leadership the annual deficit rose from $8.4 million to $15 million, with signals it could hit $40 million.

There were clues that something like this might happen the start. At the press conference in which Campbell’s appointment was announced, his selection was “billed as a triumph of scholarship over the more philistine skills of management and fundraising.”  While I find this statement shocking, it is all too familiar. Many museum boards seem to think curatorial expertise and management capability are mutually exclusive.

Over the years, as the remit of museums has grown to encompass learning and participation, PR and marketing, and commercial enterprise, the primacy of the curator role has diminished. It is no longer enough for museums to produce exhibitions and catalogues for the highly educated and culturally engaged. Museums must now educate school children, work with diverse communities to create more accessible public programmes, and develop slick and professional communications strategies that reach new audiences. Museums must also be financially savvy, balancing public service with income generation that extends beyond traditional fundraising. In short, it takes a range of skills and capabilities to make museums operate these days.

However, museum succession planning (if there is any at all), has not caught up. Generally, an individual with a curatorial background will be promoted to director at the world’s top museums. I can think of exceedingly few directors of major museums who came from non-curatorial functional areas. Coincidentally, most other museum functions (marketing, learning, fundraising, etc.) are led and predominantly carried out by women. When an organisation is in a particularly tough financial position, a board will bring in an outside business person to clean things up. However, in many instances there is a culture clash that makes it difficult for the outsider to prosper.

Thomas Campbell was a tapestry curator at the Met for 14 years before being appointed Director. It is rumoured that the Met board is planning to install the current COO Daniel Weiss, former university president, as the new Director. Weiss was hired two years ago as a way “to bring in an experienced administrator to compensate for Mr. Campbell’s managerial inexperience.” If true, they will be following the standard script.

Am I saying the Met’s head of learning or chief fundraiser should be considered for the role? On one level, yes. However, what the Met really needs is a succession planning process that moves high potential senior staff across the organisation. This idea is not new in the corporate world. Large organisations looking to cultivate the next generation of leaders will identify top performers in functional areas and give them the opportunity to lead in other areas. A star salesman may be asked to lead a product development project or a top marketer might be asked to open a new international office. This exposes the individual to different ways of thinking, different workflows and help him or her develop a general understanding of how the organisation works. The Harvard Business Review article ‘How Managers Become Leaders’ identifies ‘seven seismic shifts’ a functional manager must make in order to be a successful leader, the first of which is to move from being a specialist to a generalist.

An offhanded remark by Campbell in an early interview is revealing on this point: “I spent 14 years as a curator here keeping my schedule as empty as possible so that I could write and research [and] two days after my appointment, my diary was taken over by the director’s office and now my time is scheduled in 30-minute increments.” Had Campbell worked in other departments or led a major non-curatorial project, the change in working style might not have been so dramatic.

With a $350 million budget, 2,200 employees and over 6 million visitors per year, the Met is a big institution that needs strong succession planning. It is not about scholarship over management, but about identifying high potential staff and giving them the experience and skills to balance these requirements. Furthermore, recognising the value of the skills of functional areas outside the curatorial department will also likely result in more women candidates being considered and appointed to top jobs in museums.

Tonya Nelson @museumhunter

About the author – Tonya Nelson

Tonya Nelson, Head of UCL Museums and Collections

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