Museum in for a fight: IMA one of at least 14 art institutions with top vacancies

Keywords Environment / Government
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Wanted: director of a major fine-art museum in the midst of a campaign to reposition itself in its market. Significant expansion recently completed, more to come. The ideal applicant will be part CEO, part art expert, part fund-raiser.

That could be the ad placed by the Indianapolis Museum of Art for a new director. Unfortunately for IMA, it could also be an ad placed by at least 14 other art museums nationwide.

With a $74 million expansion recently opened, IMA is sharpening its focus on the search for a new director to replace Anthony Hirschel, who resigned suddenly in November. As it does so, it joins other art museums nationwide looking for a new breed of museum director who’s equally comfortable with managing a staff of hundreds, raising millions of dollars, and discussing art collections with the chief curator.

If that sounds like a lot to ask for in one person, that’s because it is.

“It’s a highly competitive environment … for the best people,” said Ed Able, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Museums. “It’s very difficult for any museum that is searching [for a director] right now.”

The role of the museum director has changed significantly over the past two decades, Able said. Whether the museum’s focus is art, history, science or something else, directors are expected to act more like CEOs than curators. And the pressure to bring in money from corporate, philanthropic and government sources is immense and growing, he said.

Trouble is, few people in museum administration-the most likely pool of director candidates-have been formally trained to wear as many hats as major museums now demand, Able said. Coupled with an unprecedented number of job openings, demand for top candidates likely outstrips supply.

“I don’t think there’s been a time in history there’s been so many directorships open,” said Able, who’s been with the association for 19 years. “We don’t even have enough qualified search consultants to do all the work.”

In addition to IMA, art museums in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., are among those searching for directors. Names being mentioned to fill some of the vacancies come from museums in Cincinnati, New York and Texas.

No single factor has led to the large number of vacancies, Able believes. Several directors are retiring, some are changing fields, some are “forced departures,” he said. And once one position comes open and is subsequently filled, it sets off a chain reaction in an industry with only about 150 major players.

Enough time to be picky

Those leading the search for the IMA aren’t worried about the competition.

“It is very competitive,” acknowledged Myra Selby, who’s heading IMA’s executive search committee. “It’s also very exciting. It means that lots of people that might not have been identified as [director] candidates when it’s not such a vibrant market are coming to the forefront.”

IMA has hired New York-based search firm Phillips Oppenheim, which has a 15-year track record in the not-for-profit sector, to assist with the search. The search committee expects to receive names of some candidates in the coming weeks and hold the first round of interviews in early October, Selby said. Early 2006 is the soonest a new executive could be named.

That doesn’t mean one will be, though. IMA has the luxury of time on its side. Interim Director Lawrence A. O’Connor Jr., retired CEO of Bank One Indiana, has agreed to lead the museum until a replacement is found.

“We will not compromise,” said John Thompson, chairman of IMA’s board of governors and a member of the search committee. “You can bring us 10 of what you think are the best candidates out there, but if the search committee doesn’t think so, we’ll move on.”

In O’Connor, IMA has someone with many of the management skills IMA would like to find in a permanent director, Selby and Thompson said. Diane De Grazia, IMA’s deputy director, is also serving as interim art director to supply the art expertise O’Connor lacks.

The job description posted on Phillips Oppenheim’s Web site asks for candidates with senior-level administrative experience in a museum similar in size and complexity; or alternatively, corporate management experience with an extensive background in art and a track record in fund raising.

That’s an ideal, Selby and Thompson admit. It may not be possible to find someone with all those qualities, but the goal will be to find a person with as many of them as possible.

Academic vs. CEO

Former director Hirschel came to IMA in 2001 after running Emery University’s museum in Atlanta. He left, Thompson said, because he and the board mutually agreed the fit wasn’t right. Hirschel has since returned to the academic sector, running the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.

The search committee hasn’t ruled out hiring another director from a university museum, Thompson said. However, a candidate with upper-level experience at a major city art museum would likely be perceived as less risky, he said.

“Many major museum directors have collegiate museum leadership included in their resume,” he said. “The issue is always, how well will they do when they make the transition if given the opportunity to make it? That issue is not new.”

Because they operate under the wing of universities, academic museum directors typically have little involvement in fund raising and managing endowments. They also typically don’t manage staffs as large as IMA’s, which is now just over 300 employees strong, Thompson noted.

Even though IMA isn’t considered as prestigious as some other museums looking for directors, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Corcoran, it is considered one of the nation’s top full-service art museums. Its collections of European and post-Impressionist art, the Asian and African collections, and the Oldfields estate are particularly well-known nationally.

Indianapolis also isn’t as exotic as some of the coastal locales looking for museum directors. Nonetheless, IMA board members believe they are well-positioned to bring in a top director.

The new director will come into a financially strong museum with an experienced senior-level staff in place, they said. Also, the city itself continues to impress visitors with its vibrant downtown and neighborhoods and emerging cultural focus.

The museum’s expansion opened in early May, so the incoming director won’t have to oversee a large construction project. At the same time, IMA is just ramping up plans for the 100-acre Virginia Fairbanks Art and Nature Park.

“A new director can have a dynamic role,” Selby said. “IMA is in the process of change, but it’s change in a purposeful way. … The change isn’t happening to us; we’re driving it.”

In other words, IMA is looking for someone “to establish the newly multifaceted campus into an outstanding cultural destination of national prominence,” according to the Phillips Oppenheim listing.

Financial equation evolving

The incoming director will also oversee a $325 million endowment, one of the largest art museum endowments in the country. However, he or she will be charged with generating more income from other sources, Thompson said.

Currently, IMA receives about 70 percent of its $20 million operating budget from endowment income. Most major museums tap their endowments for 50 percent or less of their income, he said.

IMA doesn’t expect the expertise it’s looking for to come cheap. According to tax filings, IMA paid Hirschel $223,365 in 2003, the last year for which figures are available. That amount will surely rise for a new director, Thompson said.

“The way we as a board saw the museum director/CEO role was a $200,000-a-year kind of position,” he said. “We’ve done more research that helps us see that it is certainly more than a $250,000 position to get the right kind of candidate. There are museum directors out there making as much as $600,000 a year.

“It costs you more to try to operate on the low side of the compensation scale and make a mistake. Trying to split hairs over $25,000 or even $50,000 is not worth it. You’ve got to have the best.”

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