Leadership Trends: An art or science?

Today both WHYY radio and The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that on Wednesday, the Academy of Natural Sciences board of trustees announced the appointment of George W. Gephart Jr., a regional business and nonprofit leader, as its president and chief executive officer. Mr. Gephart brings a financial background rather than that of a scientist. The Inquirer reached James Macaleer, chairman of the academy’s board of trustees, for a comment who said that solving the financial issues and raising the profile of the institution were the top priorities. Macaleer also said that this is not a new model for science museums for “the Field Museum in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Philadelphia Zoo had all recently opted to go with nonscientists for their top leadership.” Art museums too have tested the “business-man” model as well. After pinning high hopes on former corporate executive, Lawrence Small, to lead The Smithsonian Institution, the new Secretary not only put questionable buisness practices into place but ulimately ended his troubled tenure with a conviction for violating a federal endangered species law. In the end, Small would tout his 40 years of experience in large, complex institutions and the vantage point provided him by his position at the Smithsonian Institution when appealing to his probation officer to be a lobbyist to fulfill his community service obligation. (www.sfgate.com, 2008)

If the Smithsonian debacle didn’t yet signal a new trend, certainly the announcement of successors at two major art museums did. Back in September 2008, Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, announced the board’s selection of Thomas P. Campbell, a curator from within the museum, to succeed him on his retirement in January 2009. His announcement was in sharp contrast to a trend on the rise for more than a decade of seeing an increasing number of managers drafted from the private sector to head museums. Over the years, these individuals have brought to their position techniques—including a commercial approach and a willingness to accommodate donors—that at times have alarmed curatorial staffs.

As a result of this new development, two camps within the museum world emerged: one, a sort of hybrid promoted by the prominent Thomas Krens, most recently director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, who has both an MBA and an art history degree; and the other, with more traditional curators steadfast in seeing their role as a moral undertaking to illuminate art objects for their museum audiences. Just when it looked as though the latter group would go by the wayside in favor of people with business acumen, the Metropolitan’s choice symbolically and firmly established the role of curator as the museum’s “living” treasure. Likewise, less than two weeks later the Guggenheim named Mr. Krens’ successor, Richard Armstrong, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art with a long curatorial history. “We were looking for someone with a passion for art who understood that the New York museum is at the center of our universe,” said Jennifer Blei Stockman, president of the Guggenheim’s board. Similarly, the Met’s selection for the director of the most complex art museum in the Western Hemisphere implicitly criticizes current business leadership models that focus on notoriety and the bottom line over the character and integrity of the museum’s role to serve the public first and foremost.

For several years I have proposed that looking at what informs the leadership of a museum director who brings an art history degree to the position rather than an MBA could instruct on such needed qualities of leadership as stewardship and humanism. As business schools revamp their curricula this may be a worthwhile read.

Read more: Philly Inquirer http://bit.ly/cmRbEB

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