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Kaywin’s Win: Feldman to Direct the National Gallery UPDATED

When museum trustees set out to hire a new director, they tend to seek someone very different from the current one, a prominent art museum director once told me. They want change.

That certainly seems to be the case with the National Gallery of Art’s (NGA’s) choice of Kaywin Feldman, director since 2008 of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA), to lead the most prominent art museum in our nation’s capital. As announced today, she will on Mar. 11 succeed Earl “Rusty” Powell III, the NGA’s director for 25 years.

Kaywin Feldman, National Gallery’s director-designate

UPDATE: After I posted this, I came upon Adam Platt‘s Q&A with Feldman, published last February in the MinnPost, which included a potshot at the National Gallery’s curators.

Here’s Kaywin’s quote:

“In the last 15 years, the biggest change in museums is this move to being more visitor-centered. We used to do things more because a curator wanted to present an exhibition that would make a contribution to scholarship. The labels were written in case a curator from the National Gallery came to town.” [emphasis added].

I’m guessing she might wish to rescind that. Whatever you think of Powell’s stewardship, the quality of the NGA’s collections, exhibitions and scholarship has been exemplary. Enabling curators to do their best work should be a primary mission of any art museum director, particularly at a national institution with such a distinguished roster of experts. As I wrote here, that was Powell’s guiding principle.

Downplaying serious scholarship as being insufficiently “visitor-centered” is an insult not only to curators but to the museum’s public.

Punching above her weight, as she did when she moved to the MIA, Feldman will be the NGA’s fifth director and the first woman to assume that post. She has been outspoken about the need to reinvigorate museums with “new ideas, drive, and enthusiasm for the future.” And she doesn’t shy away from tough issues, as evidenced in her May 2018 think piece for Apollo magazine on Museum Leadership in a Time of Crisis.

Feldman then wrote:

Art museums are intensely political organizations—political with a small ‘p.’… A concerned trustee at the Minneapolis Institute of Art…recently asked me if we would ever be the focus of protest. I assured him that we would, and urged him to walk around the galleries if he wanted to find offense.

We have it all on our walls: imperialism, colonialism, war, oppression, discrimination, slavery, misogyny, rape, and more. Artists reflect our beautiful and horrific world back to us.

By contrast, Rusty Powell, during his long, distinguished tenure, avoided political provocation, focusing on the old-fashioned core values of museum stewardship: excellence in collections, exhibitions, education and scholarship.

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

It bears remembering (as I wrote here) that in the job description for Powell’s successor, the NGA stated it was looking for someone who would “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 [emphasis added].”

Last July, when I compared the NGA’s job description with that used for the Metropolitan Museum’s director’s search, I observed:

Overall, the Met seems to have been looking for someone who might shake things up—a “bold” and “innovative” leader, which [Max] Hollein [Tom Campbell‘s successor] seems poised to be. By contrast, the National Gallery seems to favor someone who will follow in the footsteps of its current director.

That’s not what happened: At the beginning of her Apollo piece, Kaywin ventured into dangerous territory for someone with aspirations to direct a federally subsidized museum under the nose of the President and Congress: “Every day,” she wrote, “we are battered with, among other things, unpresidential tweets from the American president.”

True enough, but not a prudent opening gambit for a newcomer to museum politics on the National Mall.

It’s not in Feldman’s nature to stay aloof from hot-button issues. Two years ago, MIA launched MASS Action: Museum as Site for Social Action, a self-described “platform for public dialogues on a variety of topics and issues affecting our communities locally and globally, leading to actionable practices for greater equity and inclusion in our institutions.”

A recent example of how Kaywin’s socially conscious leadership can play out on museum walls is MIA’s Art and Healing: In the Moment show, which featured works by area artists responding to the fatal police shooting (captured in a shocking, widely circulated video) of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, MN.

For a Minneapolis StarTribune article on that show, Feldman commented: “Younger audiences are really demanding that their local museums stand up to contemporary relevance—and walk the walk. To do that, you’ve got to do projects like this, that really reflect the community at large…all the good and the bad and the beauty and the trauma.”

Feldman noted, in the words of the StarTribune, that such projects “sometimes receive pushback from more traditionally minded museumgoers.”

She added:

I completely understand their perspective. But I always try to say that there’s a 500,000-square-foot building here where, if you want to look at French Impressionism [or, as below, Post-Impressionism], you can…

…even more gloriously amidst the stellar standouts in the National Gallery:

Mary Morton, curator and head of department of French paintings, with two of her favorite Cézannes
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The big question is whether Feldman’s penchant for politics will prove too impolitic for Congressional art critics. And running a much larger institution than she’s accustomed to involves a learning curve.

That said, the NGA’s august but somewhat stodgy image could use a 21st-century makeover. Kaywin’s talent for outreach and inclusiveness could impart a more youthful glow.

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