Who wants to be an art museum director?
The list of major museums searching for new heads is growing, with the news that one of the leaders whom I’ve most admired over the years—Timothy Rub of the Philadelphia Museum of Art—is packing it in, effective “early 2022,” according to the museum’s press release. He’s 69 and it’s a self-styled “retirement,” but I wonder if he might have stayed longer were it not for the pressures from aggrieved staffers and their artworld sympathizers that he and other longtime museum directors have recently been experiencing.
Navigating museums in today’s choppy waters has become a precarious occupation:
It’s no secret (as recounted on Friday by Stephan Salisbury in his Philadelphia Inquirer article) that Rub had recently been battered by attacks on several fronts—most notably by workers who have now formed a new Philadelphia Museum of Art union. After reading Allison Steele‘s February 2020 report in the Inquirer about the museum’s sluggish response to allegations of abusive behavior by two of the institution’s officials (not Rub), I had reluctantly suggested on Twitter that it might be time for Rub to resign:
As reported by Salisbury, Gail Harrity, PMA’s president and COO, and Alice Beamesderfer, its deputy director of collections and exhibitions, have already left the building. Stephan termed this “a changing of the guard.” Just how much of a change this represents will depend on the practices and priorities of Rub’s successor. His impressive legacy, as detailed in the press release about his planned departure (effective Jan. 30) includes the recent opening of the museum’s Frank Gehry-designed renovation, initiated under the directorship of the late Anne d’Harnoncourt, Rub’s predecessor. (I have not yet resumed traveling, post-Covid, and so I have not yet set eyes on Gehry’s praised capital project.)
Notwithstanding the recent discord, Tim has always expressed enthusiastic support for his curators’ visions, unfailingly praising them for the high quality of their exhibitions, which I have greatly admired over the years. I don’t know how he operated behind-the-scenes, but he has always seemed deeply knowledgeable and on the right side of controversial issues. At first, I had thought that Rub might try to stick it out, in the hope that the attacks might subside. But as I suggested almost a year ago about Keith Christiansen‘s plans to retire from his department chairmanship at the Metropolitan Museum (now effectuated), the hostile sniping might have tipped the balance in favor of a decision to move on.
Here’s what I then wrote:
We can only hope that his recent clubbing by the thought-police didn’t drive his [Christiansen’s] decision to step aside. At this late stage in his career, he may have had little appetite for defending himself against the darts of detractors. (I’m guessing that a similar distaste for sparring with late-career detractors might have also impelled Gary Garrels to call it quits at SFMOMA.)
Speaking of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, that museum’s director, Neal Benezra, in February announced his own plan to leave his 20-year directorship, once a successor had been found. Here he is, in less contentious and challenging times, chatting with Garrels when I saw them at a press preview in New York:
Also leaving SFMOMA is Chad Coerver, Chief Education and Community Engagement Officer, who is moving across the street to become director of San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. (He had told me that his original area of art-historical expertise was Renaissance art.) CultureGrrl readers met Chad here five years ago, while I was writing about SFMOMA’s robust, well-functioning app for the Wall Street Journal‘s “Arts in Review” page. I had then zapped the app for its “offbeat audio tours seem geared to those who rarely, if ever, set foot in a museum, underestimating much of SFMOMA’S audience.” Coerver politely explained to me that I was “not the target audience” for the app, adding:
As long as we still make Gary [Garrels] happy with very large, beautiful catalogues that speak to the scholarly community, he’ll let us invite a few crazy people to talk about art on the app. The audience for the app and that for the Bruce Conner catalogue are not the same, but we need to serve them both.”
On July 23, SFMOMA announced that it would work to “reactivate the museum’s strategic goals while achieving long-term financial stability.” This “strategic refresh,” according to the euphemistic description, “reflects the need to shift current capacity and resources towards programs and activities that will engage a broader range of audiences. Achieving this requires a holistic visitor experience that attracts larger, more diverse audiences.”
This apparently translates into “investing in programs and exhibits that drive visitors to the museum” and “enhancing programs at the museum that deepen our commitment to local artists,” while “sunsetting programs that do not drive attendance at the museum [emphasis added], including [most controversially] the Film Program (fall 2021) and Artists Gallery (December 2021).”
Another recently announced departure of an art-museum veteran—the planned retirement of James Cuno, 70, after a decade as president and CEO of the Getty Trust (preceded by his directorship of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he oversaw the opening of the Modern Wing)—insures that museum search firms will have a busy summer and fall. An outspoken (and sometimes controversial) figure, Cuno repeatedly took a hard-line stance against relinquishing antiquities to their source countries. As the Getty’s president emeritus, he will “continue to work on projects related to the greater understanding and conservation of the world’s cultural heritage,” according to the Trust’s press release. He intends to “remain in his role until his successor is selected and in place.”
I had posted a harsh appraisal of Cuno when he was named to the Getty post, stating that his “intemperate rhetoric, presuming to tell other countries that they have no ‘right’ to enact their own cultural-property laws and suggesting that they also have no right to derive a sense of national identity and self-esteem from the rich cultures that historically flourished in their lands, is waving a red flag in front of archaeologists and officials from the source countries for antiquities—the very people with whom the Getty [under prior director Michael Brand] has been conscientiously trying to reach a rapprochement.”
That said, Cuno has been a steady hand in guiding the Getty, strengthening its ties with local and regional institutions, and forging a productive partnership with another veteran museum official—Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum.
The press release’s account of Cuno’s impressive accomplishments and future plans includes his ongoing work on “co-editing a book on cultural heritage and mass atrocities that will publish next year. The book includes contributions from 32 authors, prompted by destruction of cultural heritage in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the world from China to Afghanistan and Guatemala.”
A summary of the scope of that upcoming book—“Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities: Human and Security Costs” (Getty Publications)—can be found in the Foreward to its 82-page precursor, published last year—Cultural Heritage Under Siege (Getty Publications). Notably missing from the list of those who contributed essays to the free online edition (see pp. 79-81) are representatives from the countries whose cultural heritage is thought to be threatened.
From what I know about the arguments in the never-ending debate about “who owns antiquity” (the title of another Cuno book, which I criticized here), I’m guessing that the subtext of his upcoming compilation may be the inability of some besieged countries to effectively protect their holdings, supporting the notion that some of their cultural riches should be preserved for posterity in museums located in more stable political climates. (I prefer Rub’s creative suggestion of mutually agreed upon shared stewardship.)
Let’s end with another museum director on the brink of retirement who had (to the best of my knowledge) a run that was not only successful but also relatively unmarred by controversy: Of the recently announced executive exits, only Dorothy Kosinski, 15-year director of The Phillips Collection (now celebrating its centennial year) appears to be leaving on a ringing high note, with plans to become “director emerita” toward the end of 2022.
Tell me, art-lings: Have I inadvertently omitted other luminaries from my retiree countdown?
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