an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Leaderless In San Francisco, And The Ensuing Turmoil

It just keeps getting worse at the San Francisco Museums of Fine Arts. When the late director John Buchanan was alive (he died in December 2011), the museum fared well — by the numbers at least. He was somewhat controversial, having too much affinity for fashion and jewelry exhibitions, for example, and spending too freely, some people said. But he didn’t make a mess, there, as I recall.

LynnOrrNow there is a mess there — and people are wondering not only what’s up, but who’s in charge, and why — 14 months after Buchanan’s death — no director is in sight.

Last December, the museum terminated curator Lynn Orr, who specialized in European art, because of her performance; that followed the firing in November of the museum’s photographer Joe McDonald, who’d worked there for 27 years. Now, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the museum has dumped Bill White, the exhibition designer who has been there since 1977, and his assistant, Elizabeth Scott.

Orr’s case is amplified in this article:

“When I asked how my performance was deemed lacking, they refused to offer any specificity or further information,” Orr said in an e-mail.

“I have never received any indication of dissatisfaction with my performance, much less a degree of dissatisfaction that would warrant terminating me without any prior notice or even an explanation. The Museums’ refusal to provide any explanation or details, or even to give me an opportunity to respond, further confirm that my performance had nothing to do with the termination decision.”

She said, instead, that her behavior in support of union employees at the museum last fall during negotiations — she attended a rally but did not, as asked, carry a sign or speak out publicly — was the probable cause. She apparently alienated a trustee — or two. More juicy details at that link.

The last line of the story is important: it says the search to replace Buchanan continues.

I think these searches are getting ridiculously long. Why does it take more than a year to fill an executive position? A year is now the norm at art museums, and then there’s a lapse between appointment and taking the job. As a result museums are tossed around for, say, 18 months, leaderless. Can you imagine a company that would allow that?



  1. Regarding leaderless museums and the length of searches, museum boards must have a succession plan – with the “musical chairs” of America art museums, it is inevitable that some day, the Director will resign for another position (which will pay better) and the board will be faced with no leadership, an expensive search, a higher salary for the next director, and on and on. Judith asks, can you imagine a company that would allow that? Well, museums are companies, and most other different companies, in the US and abroad, have succession plans in place. A survey I conducted with the AAMD member museum directors and chairs in 1991 found that approximately 75% of the boards felt that succession planning was important but only 25% stated that they had a plan – I don’t think much has changed since then.

  2. Part of the problem may have to do with the nature of “headhunting.” In my experience there are no contractual incentives to find candidates on a “fast track,” as is often the case in museum (or other) major construction projects. That combined with outside consultants’ lack of solid knowledge (the gossip mill in museums is legendary) about who is doing what at which museum tends to drag searches out. Headhunters traditionally throw out a relatively narrow net and ask the same set of “insider” professionals for recommendations. And, to often Boards accept recommendations without doing their own due diligence, including rigorous in-house interviews with both the candidate(s) and her/his professional colleagues, especially the curators with whom a director has worked. Finally, search committees bring their own, usually business experience/baggage to the process–not necessarily a bad thing–but which can be limiting in terms of seeking leadership and skill sets to fill the unique needs of non-profits The most important of which are artistic vision and passion.

    • Chris, I am not sure what your experience is, but as a headhunter for 30 plus years, in the arts, it sounds like your experience may be narrow. Retained search consultants, and DHR International is a retained consultantcy, are compensated for the entire range of steps related to a search – working with the board to reach consensus on what is need (and the good one also know about museum so that they can help, rather than parrot, the board); spread the net broadly because most employed individuals will not respond to ads; evaluate candidates based on interviews, review of literature (990s), referencing, background checks, etc. Also the best recruiters build a rapport with candidates and provide them with unbiased opinions and advice. Finally, acting on behalf of the board, the recruiter should negotiate a fair and reasonable (and comprehensive) compensation package.For this, a fee is guaranteed and is paid usually by 90 days – incentvising the recruiter to finish the search expeditiously.

  3. I don’t know about succession plans but I think a museum with a clear (and updated) mission should have no trouble conveying it to a search team.

    Anyway, mission (or lack of) must be at work right now. For the first time ever, I am skipping San Francisco this month when I go to the Bay Area, there being not a show I wanted to see in the major museums.

    Instead I am stopping over in Berkeley to see Silence, in the UC Berkeley Art Museum. It starts with John Cage’s iconic music composition, 4′ 33″ of silence and going on to silence in art, from Duchamp to Salcedo, de Chirico to Magritte, all marked by stillness.

    I think university museums are becoming players and beginning to change the museum landscape with their clarity and vigor. Look at the new art spaces being built in Berkeley, Harvard… (All street friendly). And there is that ever daring MIT Museum, marrying art, science and technology.

    I do hope the San Francisco Museums of Fine Arts will get everything sorted soon. (Or where are we going to leave our collective heart?)

an ArtsJournal blog