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A Recipe For Trouble At New York City Museum

When more than a half dozen people shake their heads in disbelief at a museum announcement, and make a point of asking me what I think, I’d say it was time to weigh in publicly.

The announcement that is raising questions came last Tuesday from the Museum of the City of New York. The board announced, in a press release sent to donors and The New York Times, but not to a wide circle of reporters and not easily discovered on its website (it does not come up in Search), that it had hired Whitney W. Donhauser as its new director. She replaces Susan Henshaw Jones. Here is the description of her experience in the words of an email signed by James Dinan, the board chair:

Whitney is a 23-year veteran of The Metropolitan Museum of Art where she has served in various capacities including development, administration, and external affairs. She has spent the last 10 years as senior advisor to the Met’s President.

The release sent to donors continued, after a quote from Dinan:

At the Metropolitan Museum, Whitney Donhauser has had leadership responsibility overseeing major museum functions and projects, collaborating with development, facilities, security, visitor services and capital projects. She has also been involved with coordinating exhibition planning and implementation, marketing and government relations. She worked on the trustee committee on the design selection for the David H. Koch Plaza and played a role in managing its construction. In addition, she supervised the early phase of planning for the Metropolitan Museum’s upcoming use of the Breuer Building, former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art on 75th Street and Madison Avenue.

In other words, Donhauser–whom I have met once or twice and have nothing against–has had no real management experience. She has no direct experience with collections or with exhibitions. She has been part of various teams, been a liaison among groups, has supervised or been “involved” with the work of others. But she has never actually “led” anything substantial at the Met. She has a B.A. from Vassar–the release does not say in what. Was it relevant? Who knows. We also don’t know what, if anything, she knows about New York City history–the subject of the museum, after all.

Leading a museum takes leadership skills that have been tested, somewhere. Equally important, it takes a vision. If Donhauser has a vision for the museum, it would have behooved the board chair to give the public (and donors) a hint about that. Jones has done many good things during her tenure, but the museum lacks a deep curatorial bench, a deep curatorial sense.

What this appointment seems to be about is money. Donhauser has had access to Emily Rafferty’s voluminous Rolodex. Trustees must have thought or bought the line that she can turn them into donors to the Museum of the City of New York–at least that’s my guess.

That key word “leadership” modifying “responsibility” in the release indicates to me that the museum knew the announcement would elicit skepticism. Why not try a preemptive strike?

As one former Met employee–who likewise has nothing against Donhauser–told me, “she presents well.” Other than that, he is mystified by the choice.

Worse, this mismatch of job and expertise is far from unique lately. Many eyebrows in the museum world were raised last May when the Brooklyn Museum* appointed Anne Pasternak as its director. She knows contemporary art and artists, but has had no previous museum experience. Brooklyn is a big, universal museum.

Another example: The World Monuments Fund recently chose Joshua David, formerly president of the High Line, as its new director. I have by way of second hand information–I am acquainted with David, whom I like, but have not had a chance to discuss his move with him–that he admits to knowing little or nothing about heritage preservation.

There are other examples.

I hope these and those other examples prove me wrong. I want these organizations to succeed. For now, I remain a skeptic.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the NYT

*I consult to a foundation that supports the Brooklyn Museum.

Comments

  1. David Dixit says

    Many museums are becoming entertainment centers for the largest possible audience, rather than concerning themselves with the protection and understanding of art and cultural artifacts.

    More restaurants, cafés and gift shops, childrens activities, family and social evenings and less concentration of the objects themselves.

    Consequently a different type of leadership is being sought.

    Museums are changing, and many are not changing for the better.

  2. Thank you, Judith, for raising the topic. As a headhunter of some 30 plus years working in the nonprofit sector ( have recruited a dozen or so museum directors but I am not one of the three firms that are conducting all of the executive searches for art museums these days), I too wonder about the placements but was reluctant to comment. Until now.

    For museums, like many other cultural institutions in this country, there is a large gap between the need for leadership and the supply of leaders. (See my “The art Museum Leadership Gap”). The average age of the leading art museum director is high and rising, there is little if any internal succession planning and for many potentially qualified candidates, the director’s position takes them away from the “stuff'” of the museum, the curatorial, scholarly work. The results are that some directors who are ineffective continue to be recycled, some remain in their position well past their time and many museums are turning to unlikely, unprepared choices for the position.

    There is a big difference between management and leadership. Managers seek to control the future, leaders create a vision for the future; managers strive for sustainability of the institution, leaders see a sustainable institution as a means to an end; leaders create institutions that how we see the world. As co-founder of the Institute for Ethical Leadership at Rutgers Business School I have, over the last ten yeas, tried to build a generation of leaders (who can also manage).

    But museums are very complicated institutions (even the smaller ones) and require both sustainability and vision and that is difficult to find and sometimes difficult to recognize. For some search committees, the personality of the candidate, not the behavioral skills, is the attraction (“she presents well”). For some it is the promise of the director as a fundraiser (he has a huge Rolodex) but boards should know that it is their Rolodex that is important. For some, it is the dearth of choices either because the recruiter has not actively recruited (“no one is raising his hand”) or the firm is blocked from recruiting from their list of existing clients,

    Any hire is a risk but there is no better predictor of future performance than past experience. In the two cases mention in the blog, there is no related past experience to help insure future success. The leadership issue is certainly real, the solutions clearly complicated.

    • You are dead right on the board members’ Rolodexes. What is motivating some of these poor choices is that board members have given a certain amount (perhaps to a capital campaign), and they don’t want to keep giving big gifts. But if they are on a board, it’s their obligation. The executive directors find it hard to “enforce” the “get or give” requirements, and frankly that is not their job–that is the job of the board chair and the executive committee or governance committee.

  3. Brian Allen says

    Great comments. Judy, I admire you a lot but think you’re wrong on Whitney Donhauser. She’s a solid choice. Many Manhattan museums, aside from the Met, the Frick, MoMA, and a few others, are so badly managed. Often, the directors are desperately running after each dime. Martinet trustees dole out the dimes and think they own the place. Gimmicks and games abound. Internal fiefdoms and personality cults rear their heads and toss their curls. Lots of junk follows. Whitney Donhauser knows quality. She is not a self promoter but an institution-builder. She is a substance person. She knows how to get people excited about art, and with good curators, she’ll be fine. Brian

    • She may surprise and she may be a good manager, as I believe I indicated, Brian. But to me a museum director must be the intellectual leader of the museum–not just the manager, as you suggest. She or he must have the vision, the intellectual heft and the knowledge of art.

      But, as I also said, I blame the trustees here, not her. They want a fund-raiser, which is, like it or not, part of the job. But it should not be the whole job.

      And btw, the MoCNY is woefully lacking in curatorial depth.

    • Interestingly, I just turned up this comment from Michael Govan in a different context (about one of LACMA’s curators taking the director’s job at PAMM in Miami), but it’s on the same subject:

      “No one wants to hire a fundraiser as a director because the most important aspect of being a director of an institution is to have a sense of vision and passion about where programs, collecting, and community all intersect. That is the first and primary responsibility he’ll have. He’ll have to add fundraising to that, which is integral. Museums have tried to separate the administration and the artistic direction, and it doesn’t work well. The two have to exist together.”

  4. I worked with Whitney Donhauser across two decades at the Met and think the breadth of her experience is actually perfect for MOCNY. She is a terrific collaborator, knows how to manage buildings (not unimportant, to say the least), was a tested fundraiser, has worked as a partner in any number of museum departments, and is a charmer to boot (also important). Just because she never took credit, or co-credit, on projects or in areas in which she worked, doesn’t mean she doesn’t share responsibility for a whole litany of complex achievements. Modesty is another gift in short supply…nice to see it recognizxd and acclaimed. With respect, on this one my friend Judy and i don’t agree.

  5. Chris Crosman says

    Govan is absolutely on the mark. As most seasoned professional understand, fundraising success depends on building strong personal relationships with donors over time. The learning curve is high for directors who have no prior experience as they move from one institution to another, often arriving from far-flung locales, including a recent tendency to recruit internationally. With little knowledge of the lay of the land, new directors necessarily depend on trustees and existing donor relations–who are often the sources that failed the previous administration and are often clueless about their own fundraising responsibilities. Even the most talented director is going to need several years and a talented staff (curators, development professionals, educators, et.al.), requisite to substantive fundraising. Moreover, and as Govan states, this will ultimately come from vision, artistic and educational programming and empathy for its own constituency and community. It cannot be overstated that knowing and defining what makes a museum truly unique and special to its community and beyond is at the heart of institutional excellence.

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