by Daniel Brown
Aaron Betsky’s imminent departure as Director of The Cincinnati Art Museum brings up questions, in my mind, that have less to do with the pros and cons of his directorship, than of the methods by which directors are hired here in the first place. I believe that the processes have been flawed in the past 20 years or so, and that a disconnect may exist between what trustees of our major arts institutions want, and what art museum directors expect and or hope to do. I am thinking, primarily, of the Art Museum, The Contemporary Arts Center, and The Taft Museum of Art, as I write this.
Sometimes, each institution uses the services of a national search firm, who specialize in finding candidates for museum directorships, and the candidates generally come through their offices. At other times, as with the current crop of directors, each institution decided to save the often six-figure fee of these search firms, and utilize their own board members in particular, with a couple of other local arts specialists on the committees. I believe that the utilization of search firms is the wiser option, and that our institutions may get better and more worthy candidates coming to them this way. Relying on inner resources and/or random contacts that these people may have may well end up costing an institution far more money than utilizing this search firm would. For example, rumors about Betsky’s possible departure have been floating around for years, which I am certain he knew. It has generally been alleged that Betsky has long been on a month by month contract, rather than on a multi-year one, and that the board has been mixed about his performance, hesitant to fire, but also hesitant to rally behind him. Betsky also faced a chronic insurrection from several shareholders, who probably have had less legal power than they thought, all along, but let us remember that Aaron Betsky is, first and foremost, a human being, and that feeling attacked can never possibly help the cause of any directorship. In this case, for example, the board has the authority to have removed the shares from the difficult shareholders, but not only chose not to, but left its own director in a kind of psychological limbo, while adding a year onto several terms for the officers, which was foolishly blamed on Betsky, who has no authority whatsoever on board policy or election of officers.
We have been sold on the idea that art institutions have to be run like businesses, without any clear delineation of what that means. There was a time when some institutions ran annual deficits, and nobody really cared, and then they were informed that all budgets had to be balanced annually, as if the corporations were doing the same thing, which they were not, unless they were using creative accounting, before such practices were weeded out legally and certain accounting firms went out of business. The advent of the MBA degree, which is worshipped, reified, and adored in America, made things significantly worse (the MBA attitude, which may worst be represented by the Harvard Business School, can partly be blamed for ruining the world’s economy in 2008, but the type of corporate person who took over our art boards, often has such a degree, or combination of an MBA and a law degree, or some such). The worldview of the MBA would tell us that any superior business person is capable of running any business, whether or not he or she has any expertise at all in what the business may make, market, sell. Thus, museum trustees have been coming from the ranks of area corporations, along with the much mandated constant of diversity, leaving little or no room for art experts, collectors, academics, and other interested parties whose skills have been utterly marginalized by corporate culture. I would like to meet the MBA who can analyze a painting rather than an annual report, and maintain that the former is far more difficult, and that the latter is packed with the same platitudes and public relations that have pervaded arts institutions. A major distortion of core values thus began to occur in the mid to late 1980’s. Concurrently, boards of trustees, who used to be these institutions’ fundraisers, decided that they no longer wished to do this, and they began to hire development directors as well as to dump fundraising on the shoulders of their directors: this has been a profound error, leaving directors in the position of listening to corporate claptrap and MBA-ese from some board members, which has nothing to do with running a museum. I firmly believe that development needs to go back into the hands of board members nearly exclusively. The likelihood of development directors knowing rich donors is highly unlikely, and rich donors generally know museum trustees, many of whom come from the ranks of the aforementioned rich donors. The amount of time that a new director has to spend meeting the money is astonishing: when Betsky got here, for example, he was given a list of names of people that he would meet in his first 90 days here, by the museum board. Every name on the list was someone with money, corporate donors, and/or foundation executives, none of whom really represent the core membership of a museum, creating a schizophrenic environment for new directors.
Every new director and every new curator tells the media in their first interview how much they are looking forward to meeting and working with area artists: some of them actually are, and a few will, but artists, whose work is the reason museums exists are never on the 90 people in 90 day list, and by the time a new director can get out and meet them, it may be time for their exit interview. I am not suggesting that directors need to meet every local artist, or pander to their wish to show their wares at the museum, but I am suggesting an imbalance in what we expect of our directors, and what they actually should be doing. If boards go back to raising money, with occasional meetings between the director and key donors, then the director can be left to direct the institution, help think of exhibitions, travel to see art, even beef up the scholarly parts of museum work, most of which will be biting the dust in favor of the chase for “young movers and shakers”, and the world of Facebook, even if a smart director may know how to delegate such matters, and even to determine whether they are worth pursuing. A museum director’s attitude towards cutting edge contemporary art, for example, should be an important criteria when hiring him or her. I cannot believe that the trustees of the Art Museum who hired Betsky did not know of his strong love of contemporary art, and of his intentions to exhibit it. If things like this do not come up in job interviews, then the questions asked at such interviews need to be revised. I am convinced that too many things go wrong in the hiring process itself, with the board’s emphasis on fundraising at the expense of programming and the use of permanent collections. Add to these pressures demands from ArtsWave, for example, to prove that collaborations are taking place, that board diversity is in play, and other such tertiary phenomena leaves directors with so little time to pursue their own artistic interests that we end up, often since the mid 80’s, with unhappy board members and unhappy directors, with curatorial staff often angry and frightened about the use of their creativity, and whether their jobs are even safe. I believe that we have been on this treadmill far too long, and that one way to redress these issues would be to include a broader spectrum of the museum’s real audiences on the search committees, right from the beginning. A larger group of community leaders will enrich the committee itself, and help review resumes, and these people can be eliminated when final resumes are being discussed, for the sake of privacy and to avoid leakages outside the institution.
We have heard much about the excellence of Timothy Rub’s tenure as director of the museum, and these kudos are much deserved, but looking at the history of our directors, in general, since the advent of the corporatization of the arts, we note that Rub is the aberration, not the norm, that his tenure, although brief, was the extraordinary, and that the tenure of other directors at all three institutions, have generally been unhappy ones: I cannot remember the last director of the CAC who wasn’t fired, for example, and one directorship at The Taft was truly explosive.
I make these recommendations, which may seem radical today, in order to begin to move away from the obsession with fundraising on the part of the director, and in the hopes that what is meant by “running a museum like a business”, may be better defined, and also limited. Procter and Gamble knows how to market, say, Pampers, because the product is always the same, and their job, then, is to find new markets for it. Such is not the same for an art show or a museum itself: an exhibition of paintings by Gainsborogh, for example, is not the same as a box of Pampers, so that the corporate model of marketing does not entirely apply in an arts setting—marketing is important, but is not the be all and end all of a museum, some of whose exhibitions and lectures and adjunct programming may appeal to limited audiences, but passionate ones. I do not have to be passionate to buy Pampers, just to have a baby, but I do need to feel interested, and if possible, passionate about the art shows that I choose to see. Marketing may help to determine whether or not I go, but marketing cannot persuade me of the value of an art show.
I hope that we can move some of these issues off base, as I fear that we are about to go through another round of hiring, with the same radical differences between board expectations and the hopes of potential candidates. We need to let our directors exercise some of their own creativity and leadership skills without having budget issues constantly constraining them.