What The Art World Is Missing In Its Leadership Crisis

This article was originally published on HK art media CoBo Social on 17 September 2020.

Leadership has always been a hot button issue in the art world, especially with museums. It was just last year Whitney Museum of American Art Vice-Chairman Warren Kanders came under fire for his nefarious corporate ties and stepped down. However, this year the art world has a full-blown leadership crisis on its hands.

What constitutes leadership has come to mean something very different in our time, often associated with management skills and administrative abilities. In the case of the art world, it is also linked with immense creative talent or academic acumen. Unfortunately, none of the abovementioned qualities on their own make a good leader, let alone a great one. To be brutally clear, we are living in a time of crisis on multiple fronts and in such periods, even good leaders no longer suffice. Only great leaders have what it takes to spearhead transformation and foster stability during periods of crisis. Unfortunately, most of the art world lacks such leadership today. Majority of the people running the art world typically engender racism, tokenism, toxic organizational practices, misogyny, socioeconomic immobility, pay inequity and so much more.

A slew of social media accounts and online platforms such as A Better GuggenheimxSFM0MA Workers and ChangeTheMuseum are now on the forefront of this crisis, triggered by the recent Black Lives Matter protests and push for inclusion. Often run by current and former staff, these platforms detail verifiable first-person accounts of the abovementioned issues in various established museums and arts organizations in the US and beyond, calling to task leadership on all levels, from directors and board members to senior staff.

In July, prominent chief curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gary Garrels resigned following an online petition by former staff and a widely shared incendiary ChangeTheMuseum Instagram post. In the post, an employee recounted that at a meeting Garrels said the museum could not avoid collecting the work of white men, which would amount to “reverse discrimination.”

Most recently, in a series of Instagram posts from 22 August, A Better Guggenheim questioned the recruitment of two senior staff including new deputy director of global public affairs and communications, Ben Rawlingson Plant, in April 2020, the same week 92 employees were furloughed. Ironically, the new senior hire, a white man, was announced by Director Richard Armstrong around the same time Guggenheim introduced their highly publicized two-year Diversity, Equity, Access and Inclusion Plan, an effort to “center the voices of our BIPOC communities” and “reflect the plurality of our culture and our global audience.”

This is the crux of the ongoing leadership crisis and the reason why nothing really changes in the art world. Even when there are visible efforts by museums and institutions to engage and listen to criticism, the actions and plans are almost always taken in a bid to save face and boost their public image. It is as if the people who run the art world function on a single premise: it does not matter who you are, all that counts is who people think you are. That is definitely not a mindset that engenders stability and trust during a crisis, let alone pioneers change. In contrast, a great leader instinctively understands their role is not about them and the stakes are much higher than one’s own paycheck, ego or social status.

There is also the problem that beyond certain sectors or geographical regions in the art world, there is very little fact-based, on-the-record public discourse about issues with directors, board members and senior staff. If there is talk, it rarely goes beyond petty gossip. The leadership crisis may seem largely focused on the museum sector, but this is only because public facing or publicly funded institutions can be made accountable on some level. Let’s not forget those who run private entities such as art galleries, art fairs, auction houses and art media. Who dares speak out about these leaders and the organizational cultures they create?

Moreover, the US does not have a monopoly on leadership troubles. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is currently embroiled in a messy firing of their director Nathalie Bondil due to an alleged toxic work culture, with museum staff releasing a new open letter in August to push back against petitions circulating in support of Bondil. The Ministry of Culture is even investigating the matter. Closer to home, the Singapore art scene has been facing various challenges on the leadership front for a while now including a “serious talent crunch,” the need to play it safe and an overall dismissiveness towards the topic as a whole.

Yet, for most part, the recent discourse on leadership is focused mostly on course correction such as firings, resignations or specific plans. These are all requisite, but it is not enough. Managers and creative geniuses no longer suffice either. On an individual and organizational level, we deserve great leaders with authenticity, courage and vision. We need to either step up to be such trailblazers or support those who have the capacity for empathetic and honest leadership, something the art world so desperately needs right now.

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