Picking a new museum director is more art than science, says Malcolm MacKay, the New York consultant whose recommendations have filled the top spots at many of the country's leading museums.
MacKay is advising both Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in director searches that are expected to conclude this fall. Among his previous clients are the National Gallery of Art in Wash- ington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, the Frick Collection in New York and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.
He also advised the Minneapolis Institute two years ago when it hired its present director, William Griswold, who is leaving early next year to be director of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Walker director Kathy Halbreich announced this past spring that she wants a new challenge and will depart Oct. 31.
Although it is unusual to have two top jobs open simultaneously in the same town, MacKay said he doesn't anticipate problems. Both museums are internationally known and have new buildings, generous boards and strong endowments to recommend them. Plus, "Minneapolis has a very good reputation as a place to live and a place to work," MacKay (rhymes with "sky") said recently by phone.
Nevertheless, competition for the best directors is especially stiff now. At least two dozen art museums are leaderless, including such plum traditional institutions as the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the National Portrait Gallery and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Among modern-art museums, director chairs are empty in Houston, Chicago and at New York's Guggenheim.
While there are many perks to running an art museum -- glamorous parties, extensive travel, attractive surroundings, great cafeteria food -- the demands are high. Directors of traditional museums are expected to have doctorates in art history, sharp financial and managerial skills, a hefty list of published work, political and social savvy, and the ability to attract millions from rich collectors. Heads of contemporary museums may dispense with the doctorate, but have to compensate with street smarts and, in the Walker's case, knowledge of film, dance, music and theater as well as gallery art.Walker: 'An exciting vision'
The Walker already has interviewed several candidates from a short list of about 10 names said Michael Peel, who co-chairs the 13-member search committee of board members. The list consists of people suggested by board members, major patrons, MacKay and candidates who tossed their résumés into the ring. It includes men and women, domestic and international candidates.
"We've been excited by a couple of the candidates we've seen already but don't want to act prematurely," said Peel, a senior vice president of human resources at General Mills. Noting that Halbreich had been at the museum for 16 years and her predecessor, Martin Friedman, for 31, Peel said, "It's the most important decision the board will make for a long time."
The successful candidate must be an articulate spokesperson, effective in community outreach, a good manager and strategist, and have "an exciting vision for the Walker that will build on the legacy of former directors," Peel said.
The Walker board is known to go for charismatic visionaries rather than seasoned veterans; Halbreich and Friedman were both curators with limited management experience. It also prizes international sizzle, so the successful candidate may well be a young European curator.
Challenges facing the Walker's new leader include raising money to build a sculpture garden on the site of the old Guthrie Theater; refining plans for the garden and a new entrance off Vineland Place; increasing attendance and membership, which have plateaued, and focusing an exhibition program that is currently juggling modernist masters (Warhol, Frida Kahlo) with lesser-known contemporary artists. The $100 million new wing that opened in 2005 is also problematic, with a confusing layout and an underutilized Hennepin Avenue entrance.
MacKay agreed that the challenges are significant, but said: "Who doesn't have these issues? The Walker has an endowment of over $200 million, a strong staff and a tradition of quality. It's all relative. There are museums of similar missions with equal reputations that have a set of problems that are every bit as big as the Walker's."Institute: A super-connoisseur
The institute's 10-member committee is still gathering suggestions and refining its list of candidates, said board president Brian Palmer, a retired lawyer who devotes at least 20 hours a week to museum business. It is open to American and international candidates and is looking for a connoisseur with artistic and intellectual acumen, personal charisma, proven managerial skills, business judgment and fund-raising experience.
"It's extraordinarily important to me and the board that it's someone who believes in making art accessible, who believes in keeping admission free," Palmer said.
Staffing appears to be the first order of business at the Art Institute, where a raft of top jobs are empty. It needs curators in contemporary art, photography, prints and drawings, African art, decorative art and sculpture.
While those vacancies stress the museum's remaining staff, they may be attractive to a new leader who will have the opportunity to shape a new team, MacKay said.
Asked if he knew who the new directors would be, he hesitated a moment and then said, "No. It's not my decision; it's the committees' decision."
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431