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Wanna Direct the National Gallery of Art? (Job Description Below)

When Earl (Rusty) Powell III announced his intention to retire in early 2019 from the directorship of the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, I wrote that our country’s “two preeminent [art] institutions could be going head-to-head for top candidates.”

Earl (Rusty) Powell III, speaking at the Sept. 27, 2016 preview for the renovation and expansion of the East Building
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

With the vacant Metropolitan Museum directorship’s chair soon to be occupied by Max Hollein (after what turned out to be his brief transitional gig at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), the NGA’s top spot stands alone as this country’s biggest prize for a distinguished art-museum leader.

Much of the NGA’s job description (posted on the website of Phillips Oppenheim, a leading headhunting firm for major museums) closely tracks the Met director’s job description. But there are crucial differences that seem to reflect contrasts between the NGA’s mission as a federally supported institution in the nation’s capital and the Met’s international ambitions. (My emphases, below, highlight the differences in their job descriptions.):

The Met wanted “a leader, with the knowledge, gravitas, integrity, and ability to motivate and inspire a highly skilled professional staff and shape the field on the world stage. The NGA wants someone to “lead with the knowledge, presence [as distinguished from “gravitas”], integrity, and ability to motivate and manage an accomplished professional staff and affirmatively influence institutional art collecting in the country” [as distinguished from “the world stage”].

The Met wanted someone to “be a compelling spokesperson adept at inspiring widely divergent audiences.” The NGA wants someone to “be committed to the mission and mandate of a truly national gallery that engages America’s rich diversity.”

The Met wanted someone who would “understand fiscal and operational constraints in order to be a persuasive partner with the President [Daniel Weiss, who will be Hollein’s boss] and advocate in the context of competing priorities.” The NGA (federally supported and in close proximity to Congress and the President) wants someone who will “understand fiscal and operational constraints including certain Federal requirements; be a persuasive partner with Congress and the Administration and advocate among competing priorities; be adept in government engagement and professionally apolitical [at a time when the pressure to take political sides has never been greater].

The Met wanted someone to “be bold; innovative; self-confident; resilient; decisive; and deeply thoughtful while focusing on the greater good for The Met.” The NGA wants someone to “be self-confident, resilient, decisive, and enthusiastic on behalf of the greater good and for the National Gallery.

Overall, the Met seems to have been looking for someone who might shake things up—a “bold” and “innovative” leader, which Hollein seems poised to be. By contrast, the National Gallery seems to favor someone who will follow in the footsteps of its current director, who has served for 25 years. Such was the case at the Met, when Tom Campbell‘s predecessor, Philippe de Montebello, announced that he would step down after a 31-year reign.

When I asked a National Gallery spokesperson about the current status of its director’s search (including whether there is a shortlist), she replied:

We have no new information at this time.

The search continues…

For those with a more contemporary focus, here’s the job description for the directorship of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, which is characterized as “a flag-flying champion for The New, eager and ready to chart a dynamic course for the arts internationally yet committed to rendering it relevant to the local community.” I guess that quest may wind up going head-to-head with the director’s search at another “champion for The New,” which recently announced the planned departure of its current head.

For aspirants seeking guidance on the going rates for museum directors, here are the figures, relative to operating budgets, reported by the Association of Art Museum Directors in its recently released 2018 Salary Survey (p. 19):

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