The White House isn't the only American institution about to change hands. In an unprecedented wave of turnovers at the top, several of the country's most prominent museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, are looking for new directors. "We are facing a generational shift right now," says Millicent Gaudieri, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors. "It's been 15 years since we've had this many openings."
Twenty U.S. art museums are without directors. That's a lot of shoes to fill, considering the demands of running a modern museum. Art institutions today function much like corporations, with huge staffs and budgets, satellite museums scattered around the world, retail divisions and, of course, the constant pressure to generate revenue by securing private donations and attracting foot traffic to their "blockbuster" exhibits. The Guggenheim is scheduled to open a branch in Abu Dhabi in 2012, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art is undergoing a $590 million expansion. Trustees want a museum director who can collect like a connoisseur but compete like a CEO. "Ideally a candidate has a Ph.D. in art history but also an M.B.A.," says Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums.
But traditionalists question the importance of a business background. "Art is very much still at the core of the job description," says Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. "A business degree is not necessary, just some good business sense." In 2006, Elizabeth Easton, former president of the Association of Art Museum Curators, started the Center for Curatorial Leadership, a fellowship program where Columbia Business School professors train qualified curators in the administrative skills they need. One of the program's fellows is currently in the running for the top job at the Met. "We don't want museums to become entertainment centers with art as the byproduct," says Easton.
Finding a director who can walk the line between art and commerce is like finding a lost Leonardo. Everybody wants one, and good luck with the search.