Need for leaders at D.C. arts institutions could be a golden opportunity or a squandered one

(Bill O'Leary/ Washington Post ) - A marble sculpture, \

(Bill O'Leary/ Washington Post ) - A marble sculpture, \"The Sons of God Saw the Daughters of Men That They Were Fair\", by Daniel Chester French, 1923, on the grand staircase of the 19th century Corcoran Gallery of Art building.

One down, so many, many more to go. The Kennedy Center recently announced that Deborah Rutter of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association will become its new president, but many high-profile Washington cultural and arts institutions are still searching for new leaders to fill their top posts.

The Smithsonian Institution announced in October that its secretary, Wayne Clough, would be stepping down next year. Richard Koshalek, the former director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, resigned in May after the demise of his seasonal inflatable structure project, dubbed “the Bubble.” The Corcoran Gallery of Art paused its search for a new director because of a planned merger with the University of Maryland after financial woes and leadership battles. And it seems as though the Obama administration has all but forgotten about the chairmanship vacancy at the National Endowment for the Arts since former chairman Rocco Landesman stepped down last December. In April, former U.S. representative Jim Leach of Iowa departed from the National Endowment for the Humanities, thereby leaving the two national grant-making agencies without appointed leaders.

Contrails from jet planes passing overhead intersect the National Museum of Art in Washington, Thursday morning, April 17, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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Never before in Washington have leading cultural institutions seen so much simultaneous vacancy and transition at the top. And for many, the vacancy is sheer coincidence, an alignment of slots in a city known for its turnover. But others ask a dreaded question, one that looms over federally funded institutions: In a time of government shutdowns and regular budget brawls, does top talent really want to deal with us?

“That’s a genuine concern,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums. “The tone and tenor in Washington after the government shutdown is something to consider. Candidates may have to ask, ‘Do I want to get into this?’ ”

The new year could usher in an arts renaissance in the nation’s capital. Or it could become a squandered opportunity. As always, it’s a question of leadership.

In with the new

Rutter will take the Kennedy Center helm in September, amid its first expansion project, which is expected to break ground late next year. She will succeed Michael Kaiser, who has been president since 2001. Upon hearing the announcement, many in the classical world praised Rutter for her management skills and collaborative spirit. She has been heralded for championing arts education in Chicago public schools, enlisting Yo-Yo Ma to consult on community engagement initiatives. As the first announcement in a class of new Washington arts leaders, her collaborative spirit could set the tone for new partnerships.

“I hope we can be a new class and work closely together,” Rutter said in an interview Tuesday. “One of the amazing things about this opportunity is the unparalleled richness of the cultural life here.” Collaboration, she said, will allow each institution to do bigger things.

The Smithsonian Institution is now the highest-profile vacancy up for grabs, with its $1 billion-budget, 19 museums and the National Zoo. A national or international leader could replace Wayne Clough by October. But the new leader will meet facilities and fundraising challenges that will require management prowess and political savvy.

The position operates “in the biggest of leagues,” said Richard Kurin, undersecretary for history, art and culture, noting that it’s a beloved institution with more than 30 million visitors annually. There are various institution boards, a local, national and even an international community. It requires a facility with media, art critics, science writers and national constituencies. Unlike high-profile cultural institutions elsewhere, “you have to be adept at dealing with Congress,” Kurin said.

A new leader, “will want to look under the hood” to become intimate with how the institution works and then to imagine greater possibilities, said Kurin, who won’t speculate on the candidate pool or whether he’s interested in the position.

A new director at the Hirshhorn is expected to be named by late February. The museum’s $50 million endowment and nearly 12,000-piece modern art collection make the director position a national draw, museum insiders say, despite the controversy over the ill-fated Bubble project.

“In some ways, the challenge for all these institutions is that they have to be thinking locally, nationally and globally,” said Daniel Sallick, treasurer of the Hirshhorn board of trustees and a member of the search committee. He calls the potential for collaborations with institutions around the world and other Smithsonian institutions a big selling point. “Everyone is struggling with the same issues, fundraising, increasing bandwidth, yet you’ve got all these institutions within a 1.5-mile radius of one another,” Sallick said. A skilled leader will find strategies to lift all these organizations up.

Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, echoes the broad-stroke themes of collaboration, intellectual heft and operational savvy, but says leadership is also about heart, passion and humility.

“If you’re at the Smithsonian, what you really need in a leadership role is to understand the power of human discovery,” she said. “It may sound too schmaltzy, to use a good Yiddish word, but there’s great power in being humble.”

The casual vacancies

Some of this transition has been drawn out and, according to critics, is even endangering the nation’s top agencies.

When Landesman stepped down last December, the National Endowment for the Arts had a budget of $146 million, $9 million less in funding than it had in 2009. With sequestration, the budget decreased by another $8 million this year. The figures are down dramatically from the $170 million-plus levels two decades ago, before the agency became the epicenter of the 1990s culture wars. A year after Landesman’s departure, there’s still no appointed leader to defend its mission.

“There’s significant frustration in the arts community,” said E. Andrew Taylor, a professor of arts management at American University. “We can only guess why it’s been so slow,” for the NEA and NEH. “The implication is that the administration has a lot of priorities, but many expected that the arts, culture and humanities would be attended to.”

The vacancies are a surprise, in part, because of a common misconception that arts agencies fare better under Democratic presidents. Of course, budgets aren’t in the hands of presidents, with Congress ultimately voting on allocations. But arts experts note that appointments are in the hands of the executive branch.

“In my opinion, this is entirely an administration problem and not a candidate problem,” said Robert Lynch, president and chief executive of Americans for the Arts, which advocates for arts and art education. It’s “important to have a good, deliberative process in any search, but 13 months in a four-year term of a president is not productive,” he said of the challenge this second term appointee will face. “I think there is a need for there to be some fast action on NEA and NEH.”

Without a leader who can champion its initiatives — or defend its mere existence — the NEA flails and tends to lose funding, experts say. So why has the administration allowed the agency’s leadership post to remain vacant?

The White House declined to comment on the vacancies.

The NEA said this in a statement: “The White House is continuing to work diligently on a public nomination of a new NEA chairman. In the meantime, we continue to operate full speed ahead under the leadership of our senior deputy chairman, Joan Shigekawa.”

Shigekawa has received praise for steering the NEA in a difficult climate, and Lynch said both she and NEH Deputy Chairwoman Carole M. Watson are good and capable. But “what happens with permanence is the people who you are talking to understand there is a finality of vision in the conversation, not an interim view.” With temporary leadership, “the danger is stasis.”

“It’s clear that it’s not a priority; if it were, the chairmanships would be filled,” said Felicia Knight, president of the Knight Canney Group and a former public affairs director for the NEA. “Maybe [the administration] did have other priorities, such as health care, that took precedence, but positions like this need to be filled. There are excellent staff and career employees at these cultural agencies, but they’re not in the position to decide policy and enact a vision.”

In addition to the agency vacancies, the administration has dragged its feet in appointing patrons to coveted board assignments at the Kennedy Center, positions that are not confirmed by Congress and can yield big dollars for the country’s busiest performing arts center.

Last week, the White House appointed two board members to the vacant positions, but four remain open. Of 36 presidential appointments, it is unusual to have four vacancies go unfilled for months. The Kennedy Center confirmed that three board positions have remained vacant for nearly six months, and one slot has been vacant for a year.

“I’m a realist, so we deal with what we have,” Kaiser, the current Kennedy Center president, said. “But it’s easier to do fundraising when you have a full slate of board members.”

Maryland annexes Washington

In the absence of leadership at agencies and some museums, Wallace D. Loh president of the University of Maryland, has emerged as one of the more vocal proponents of the arts in the Washington area. In April, he rushed to the aid of the Corcoran Gallery of Art , forging a partnership that is still on hold. Peggy Loar is the Gallery’s interim president, but the search for a permanent leader is on pause until the institutions come to an agreement on details, a Corcoran spokeswoman said. Much of the hold-up comes from legal issues regarding merging the colleges, because the Corcoran functions as an art school and a gallery.

“The Corcoran is at a very important juncture in its history right now, where it must find a sustainable model,” Bell said. “How are they going to bring all these different pieces together? The fact that their visitation isn’t what they’d like is a challenge. This will be a very important hire.”

In an interview, Loh said that the Corcoran and Maryland are still “deep in the throes of making a partnership happen” and added that collaboration is “the new normal for public universities at a time of diminishing resources. We need to collaborate with other institutions that are complimentary.”

He’s already found another high-profile collaboration. Last month, the University of Maryland announced that the Kennedy Center’s president would join the campus as a professor, bringing his DeVos Institute of Arts Management with him. DeVos will become a degree granting institute under the auspices of the university, Kaiser said. The Institute has been a staple of his Kennedy Center work, nationally and internationally.

“Wallace Loh has made a major statement about what he desires for Maryland,” Kaiser said. “Maryland has made major moves. He is trying to build a portfolio of arts institutions, and he’s putting a lot of time and resources into it.”

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