Meet the New Boss, in the Shadow of the Old Boss
By CAROL KINO, New York Times
FOR any museum director, the chance to lead a renowned institution is a career-defining moment – especially when his or her predecessor has run it for two decades or more. For Christoph Heinrich, now the director of the Denver Art Museum, the moment arrived in October 2008, when he was the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. He was driving to Aspen with Lewis Sharp, the museum’s longtime director, when Mr. Sharp suddenly asked if he would be interested in the top job.
Although Mr. Heinrich was surprised and elated, he had more immediate worries about the snowy mountain road, full of sheer drops and hairpin turns. “I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ” Mr. Heinrich recalled. “But then I really had to focus. The next day he asked me, ‘Did you really hear what I was saying?’ ”
More twists and turns followed, of the career sort. In January 2009, as part of a long accession process, Mr. Heinrich was named deputy director. Then followed “the most elaborate and exhaustive interview process I’ve ever heard of,” he said, including on-the-job observation by Mr. Sharp and lengthy, one-on-one interviews with all 35 trustees. In January 2010, he finally replaced the venerable director, who during his 20-year tenure had doubled the permanent collection, quadrupled the annual budget, presided over a $110 million expansion designed by the architect Daniel Libeskind and taken the museum from regional respect to national recognition.
“In some ways it’s so much easier when you come in and everything is a mess and you say: ‘I’m going to fix it. I will show you the light,’ ” said Mr. Heinrich.
While Mr. Heinrich’s hiring process was somewhat unusual, his situation is not. In recent years, a wave of retirements and untimely deaths has swept many new directors into positions formerly held by figures whose names had become synonymous with their institutions. In 2009, Thomas Campbell took over the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Philippe de Montebello, its director of 31 years; in 2010, Julián Zugazagoitia replaced Marc Wilson, a 28-year veteran of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City; and on Feb. 1, Gary Tinterow took the helm of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, steered by Peter C. Marzio from 1982 until his death from cancer in 2010.
A handful of the new directors, including Mr. Heinrich, were groomed by their predecessors. But more frequently, the new director is chosen by trustees and search firms and then left relatively free to determine his or her own way – but not necessarily with a sweeping mandate for change.
“For all of us, it’s daunting,” said Mr. Zugazagoitia. “Once you step into big shoes like that you want your trustees to give you a lifetime before judging you. But on the other hand, you have to start trusting yourself from Day 1.”
So how best to start? Most directors contacted for this article agreed that an intensive getting-to-know-you process was critical. Mr. Zugazagoitia said that his job for the first few months was “to put a human face to the intellectual knowledge I had of the Nelson and its collections,” one that involved “deep talks” with curators and gathering anecdotes from people with long ties to the institution, like the trustee who shared her childhood recollections of its original opening in 1933. “In an almost 80-year history, I am only the fifth director,” he said. “I wanted to know in a very emotional way people’s memories and then start building from there.”
Timothy Rub, the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, similarly referred to his first year as “a diagnostic period.” When he arrived at the museum in 2009, it had been without a director since the sudden death of Anne d’Harnoncourt the previous year. Yet it was also stable, he observed, owing to solid interim leadership and an institutional culture that Ms. d’Harnoncourt had carefully developed over 26 years.
“Learning to understand that culture and to do the things required to nurture and sustain it was very important,” Mr. Rub said. While his initial prescription was “do no harm,” he added, it was also clear that the institution needed to change and grow – especially as it had already embarked on a major expansion with Frank Gehry. The museum is now in the midst of a strategic planning process, deciding how to handle audience development and figuring out “our role and our responsibility as a great civic institution in Philadelphia,” Mr. Rub said.
Indeed, many directors in this position start with a strategic plan. Hope Alswang set hers in motion immediately after arriving at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., in April 2010. “It’s really about giving people a shared language, energizing them around the core values and understanding that we want to participate in a national discussion in art,” she said.
While her predecessor, Christina Orr-Cahall, had transformed the Norton from a charming Art Deco gallery into a full-fledged museum, more than quadrupling its size over 19 years, Ms. Alswang determined to move it to another level by giving her curators the freedom to create their own shows. “We had some very talented curators who were really chomping at the bit,” she said
One early project was the show “Now What?” curated from the 2010 Art Basel Miami Beach fair and its many satellites, which opened at the museum a week later. An exhibition series focusing on living women started last November; its first show, from the British artist Jenny Saville, travels to Modern Art Oxford in England in June. “We have gone from being an institution that rented a lot of exhibitions to being a museum that’s really committed to creating our own content,” Ms. Alswang said.
Some changes set in motion by this new crop of directors also represent a new phase in the evolution of museums themselves. While in the past it was easier to increase the size of the building and the permanent collection, today’s directors have inherited complex machinery from their forebears and must adapt it to leaner times.
“Financially we aren’t capable of doing a major blockbuster,” said Susan M. Taylor, director of the New Orleans Museum of Art. “Many museums aren’t. I think that is a generational definer.”
Ms. Taylor arrived at the museum in 2010, five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and two years after the 2008 financial crisis, replacing John Bullard, its leader for 37 years. “Thirty-seven years ago it was about building the collection, making sure it was housed properly,” the better to attract touring megashows like King Tut, which reached New Orleans in 1977, she said. But today’s directors, she added, “respond differently to defining what a program should be.”
For Ms. Taylor, as for many, the new focus is on expanding the audience, enhancing the visitor experience, developing educational programs and partnering with other arts organizations, transforming the museum into a civic gathering spot. And in New Orleans it has been an energizing project. “What better opportunity than to come into a museum when the city is re-examining its future?” she said. “The opportunity to re-present and reinterpret the collection here is significant.”
That sentiment was echoed by Mr. Heinrich, who has spent his first two years trying to capitalize on Mr. Sharp’s legacy, in particular the Daniel Libeskind building. Filled with sloping walls and extreme angles, the space was once regarded as hard to program. But Mr. Heinrich has made a point of encouraging projects where artists are invited to create site-specific installations, as with last summer’s museumwide “Marvelous Mud: Clay Around the World.”
“Our goal is to fill it up with energy and interaction and new ideas and new content,” he said. “Lewis built the building and now we get to play with it.”