Leaders and Their Hats

Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in downtown Los Angeles

In the Los Angeles Times recently, art critic Christopher Knight writes “For art museums, is there a director’s gene? A distinctive bit of DNA material that distinguishes between a successful museum director and a successful curator?

As someone who developed that director’s gene during side-by-side careers as a founder of a non-profit arts organization, executive director, musician and educator, I am encouraged by the questions posed in this insightful article. MOCA, and many other arts institutions, have histories of revolving leadership doors. Once again at MOCA, we are watching another detrimental exit of their managing director which ultimately erodes public support and trust.

I do not know the board members or insider politics at MOCA. I watch this situation as a colleague in the arts, distressed at another institutional failure to properly manage both artistic and administrative functions. However, after 32 years of experience, I would like to offer some observations of the difficulties of finding a leader with all the proper DNA who can both inspire and manage.

Wearing only one of my hats!

What is essential for any leader is the ability to wear hats, many hats, reflecting the components of institutional management. Over the past three decades, my colleagues and I agree that although it may be DNA or genes, it is the ability to juggle each component of the tasks at hand that results in a successful leader. There isn’t a formula to follow — leadership development has numerous paths.

Whatever the title, the leader of any institution needs knowledge that is broad: artistic, financial, marketing, fundraising, and educational, combined with outstanding people skills. There is no school for executive directors. Despite studying arts management, fine arts or finance, the fact is that experience counts. Even as a young leader, broad knowledge in many areas will support leadership development.

I look at the parade of leaders at MOCA and it is easy to identify their lack of experience. A gallery owner probably has little experience with non-profit management. Someone leading a family museum on the east coast may have challenges in a different fundraising environment on the west coast. An exciting curator may not understand the difficulties of raising money for cutting edge art. No one person has strengths in all areas, but broad experience and willingness to take on new challenges are key.

CTG/Ahmanson Theatre
Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles (Photo by Ryan Miller)

As one example, Charles Dillingham, former managing director of the Center Theatre Group, has degrees and extensive experience in the theatre. When he was hired many years ago to lead the American Ballet Theatre, he realized that he did not have enough knowledge of dance and proceeded to spend months learning as much as possible to become conversant in the ballet environment. He knew the administrative portion of his job, but not the artistic side, despite being trained in theatre. This ability to recognize what he needed to learn resulted in his successes as one of our country’s leading arts leaders.

The overwhelming challenge faced by most institutions is how to find the right person. As a founding executive director, one of my first tasks was forming a board of directors to support our vision, something that is mandated by law for all non-profit entities. My role as founder came first, and the leadership of the board developed over time. This is backwards to how most institutions are run today, but this is how most organizations develop at the beginning.

In established institutions where the founders are long gone, the board (or a board selected committee, with or without a search consultant), hires the executive or managing director.  However, most board members, although well-intentioned, rarely have the many-hatted DNA themselves to be able to recognize a strong leader. If they run a company, they may not be an art expert. If they are an artist, he or she may not have run an organization. Non-profits may have large budgets but they are different than for-profit businesses. And, I don’t think we would want an amateur surgeon to perform surgery, but that is what we are experiencing with volunteer boards choosing leaders.

Mr. Knight, rare amongst critics in his concern for larger issues in the arts, points out these important structural concerns in his article. “As the point of intersection between amateur enthusiasts in the boardroom and museum pros on the staff, any museum director is in a decidedly complex spot. Some people thrive on it, others do not.”

The primary challenge in having the board hire its leader is that the new executive director is often put in the position of trying to lead while second-guessing their own decisions, worried about being terminated, and subject to politics or hidden agendas by the board. Especially in the visual arts, board members are wealthy art collectors, friends with the artists they collect, and establish their own museums. And, if there are artist members of the board, it is difficult for them to refrain from promoting their colleagues.

Each time there is a change, the public grows wary of supporting and attending an institution that is obviously not being well managed. At small art museums, it is also difficult to attract committed leaders because the pay is less because of smaller budgets. Many times the new executive at a small museum is working their way up the leadership ladder, or is a curator trying to transition to a higher paying administrative position.

The number one job of the institution’s administrative leader is to manage the board. Despite being time-consuming, this is crucial to the management of any organization. For success between administration and board members, communication is key. I have spoken with too many executive colleagues who are literally frightened of talking to board members after too many “personal agenda” conversations. However, even a difficult board member appreciates a private lunch with the managing director. Without good people skills, the day-to-day work will not receive its necessary support from the board on both the personal and financial level. It must always be a partnership rather than an adversarial relationship.

My board management skills came from a theatre directing degree. Although I ultimately went down a musical path, learning to direct plays taught me many important people skills. I certainly made my share of mistakes over time, but overall, every board member conversation was more positive than negative. Perhaps when choosing their next executive, the museum should also interview the board chair at the current candidate’s present job to inquire about their board management style.

This also applies to leadership skills for inspiring and managing staff. There are never enough hours in the day, but constructive staff meetings, planning updates, and open doors inspire and motivate staff. And, if the incoming executive director is lacking in budgeting and marketing skills, good hiring can fill these teachable gaps. Good attitude, inspirational character, and willingness to learn can be assessed with some effort.

But, effective leaders also must have the ability to make unpopular decisions such as guiding unproductive board members to step down, confronting difficult artists, firing incompetent staff or reducing the budget. These difficult situations, effectively managed, are what makes someone a leader — being able to always do what is best for the institution no matter how challenging.

The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (Photo courtesy of Marissa Roth)

There are many effective and successful arts leaders in Los Angeles and throughout the country who have the DNA and genes that can provide examples and advice to MOCA in their search for strong candidates. I encourage the MOCA board to reach out and move slowly to learn what they need to look for. They have certainly discovered what their institution does not need from their past choices. Understanding their previous decisions can help lead to employing the best person in the future.

The number one job of the board is guaranteeing the financial health of the institution. This will include financial oversight, refreshing board membership, or developing board-generated fundraising. It does not include hiring, firing, or managing the staff. That is the managing director’s job, which is why the board members’ focus is hiring the administrative leader to perform those duties. However, in the case of MOCA, the board of directors needs to examine their role in the choices they have previously made. If they do not, it is likely they will continue on the same path. The board members need to exhibit the same leadership they want in an executive with their only goal of strengthening MOCA. The museum exists for the Los Angeles community, not for them personally.

I wish the best for MOCA. As one of the leading global cities for contemporary art, Los Angeles deserves an internationally respected and well-run institution for 21st century visual art that inspires the community. The structural flaws inherent in all boards of directors can be overcome to encourage good decisions. Communication between all parties is key to ensuring that MOCA has the leadership it deserves. I hope the board members will purchase some new hats and wear them while you discuss which hats are most important for your next director!

For more details, please read Christopher Knight, “MOCA has lacked an effective director for nearly 20 years. It’s time for change,” Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2018.

One comment

  1. A great breakdown of the elements for running an arts institution. I had no idea that MOCA was, once again, in search for a director. Why such an established museum is in flux? Granted with Los Angeles being the hottest visual arts city the country, located in the epicenter of film & T.V production, does indeed present some challenges other cities won’t experience. All the best to MOCA.


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