What Do We Expect from Museum Directors?

March 25th, 2014  |  Published in *, Features, March 2014  |  2 Comments

by Daniel Brown

As the search for a new director of the Art Museum continues, we have been made aware that the museum board places high priority on the director being part of the international art scene, known internationally.  I wish that the board would be more specific in telling us why that is a primary need for our next director, because I sometimes fear that there is a split between the ways in which we view ourselves and our city, and the ways in which others view us.  The cities which seem most like Cincinnati are Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Columbus, Indianapolis, possibly Denver, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee.  Realistically, all are provincial cities, and all in their ways are looking to attract so-called Young Professionals to live and work in them in newly renovated areas in or near the downtowns of each of these cities (ours is Over the Rhine).  We are not New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, and we may not want to be.  A realistic assessment of Cincinnati’s pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, should help us define what we want in and from an art museum director.  For example, as excellent as The Cincinnati Wing is, many have argued that its existence re-regionalized our museum, removing it from national/international status, and put us back into regionalism/provincialism.  We need to decide who we are and where we fit as an urban center and a cultural hub.

Cincinnati is not known for its art collections.  How to get people to collect art is a major background issue in defining who we are culturally.  In the past 35 years, various directors of the Art Museum and the Contemporary Arts Center have complained to me privately about the lack of collections to show to visiting directors and curators from other cities, as they are commonly shown collections when they travel around America.  We could probably count the number of dedicated collectors on less than two hands.  Collectors set the tone for what ends up in permanent collections of art museums, which have long counted on collections “going public” upon the death of the collector.  A major hurdle was crossed when former museum Director Millard Rogers managed to work out an arraignment with Alice and Harris Weston to bequeath their excellent collection of contemporary art to the museum.  The acquisition of the RSM collection was not a happy affair.  One of the best collections in town, which started in Germany, bypassed the museum when its owner died two years ago: it consisted of great modern and contemporary art.  Without a collector base, no museum can afford to purchase art on the open market with the possible exception of museums in Texas, Dubai, that of the Walmart heirs, and other occasional aberrations.  At the current time, our museum can count on neither significant gifts of art, nor significant gifts of money.  Thus, the pressure on any new director to focus primarily on fund raising is nearly a setup for failure, unless the board actively kicks in to raise the majority of the funds, as I have argued in the other two columns in this series.

The board needs to determine, clearly, how much cutting edge contemporary art it wants a new director to show.  Although I may be wrong, I believe that the decline in attendance at the museum in 2013 by 50 percent over 2012, may well be traced to the exhibition of more contemporary art than the members are interested in, and in contemporary art theory, under which the current “Crown” exhibit actually falls.  Museum directors have been creating exhibitions which deal with the institution of the museum itself, which includes a postmodern undermining of the status of the museum as institution, just as the contemporary arts centers of the world have been mounting shows both inside and outside of the walls of the building itself.  I wonder whether The Art Museum board understood this aspect of this exhibition, rather than trying to spin the show away from the firing of a gun within the institution itself.  This raises the question of whether museum boards know enough about the exhibits displayed within them.  This is an important question, as the replacement of collectors and intellectuals by corporate marketing experts changed the dynamic of the museum itself, leading to either more “safe” shows, which corporations prefer to sponsor, or to exhibitions of contemporary art which may not be understood by anyone but the director and one curator.  I am in no way opposed to our museum exhibiting some contemporary art, particularly when the exhibition can be linked to art in the permanent collections, a highly important educational mission.  Collaborative work between and amongst our visual arts institutions can also enrich and educate, but a few of last year’s contemporary shows at the museum seemed without context, and when people don’t understand art, they feel threatened and seem to attack the person of the director, rather than his ideas.

The boards need to educate themselves about the shows that will be displayed.  When I was on the CAC board, the senior curator always gave a slide presentation of upcoming shows, and board members were free to pursue their own education, but they always had a base of understanding which also made fund raising easier: it’s much easier to raise money about a show that someone understands and can transmit to someone else.  I am not in favor of blind support by board members in crisis, when remarks seem to be manufactured by public relations experts.

The Cincinnati Art Museum may be considered less prestigious than that in Indianapolis at the current time.  Cleveland’s museum is much, much bigger and has significantly more money than our museum does.  But if we are to stay amongst the more important second tier museums, then we need to know what this museum is supposed to be, what its goals are and what its aesthetic missions are.  From the 1960’s through the 90’s, The Cincinnati Art Museum was internationally known for its Near Eastern collections: where is all that art?  Why was so much of it relegated to the basement?  Why do so few people know about it and its importance?  All general museums tend to have a specialty or two, and ours was this collection.  It is interesting to speculate what might happen if that collection was reinvigorated and collaborations created with Hebrew Union College, its museum, rare book room and world famous collections of Judaica.  We also have one of the best collection of prints of any museum in America, which should be more widely showcased.

Let’s play to our strengths and not to some vague wish to be part of some amorphous “international scene” as we look to the future of our truly superb art museum.


  1. Mary Ran says:

    March 25th, 2014at 12:07 pm(#)

    Well said Danny! I couldn’t agree with you more.

  2. Mary Woodworth says:

    April 4th, 2014at 6:36 pm(#)

    Thank you for your clarity, Danny. As a printmaker I ask, where are the prints?