Their ages span four generations, and their careers follow no linear path. They have enough letters behind their names to form a small university. They’ve worked in Switzerland, Qatar, and too many small towns to count, hailing from regions as diverse as the Southern Hemisphere and the segregated South.
Above: Some of the women who direct prominent museums in the D.C. region gathered recently at the Museum of Women in the Arts. From left on the cover are Elizabeth Broun, Judy Greenberg, Kate Markert, Susan Fisher Sterling, Sara Bloomfield, Kim Sajet, Camille Giraud Akeju and Peggy Loar.
The 13 women who direct some of the region’s prominent museums are as different as the institutions they lead. But nine of them have at least one similarity: They succeeded men. Of the remaining four, two are in charge of museums they founded, while two succeeded a woman, including Susan Fisher Sterling, head of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, who says, “We’ve always had a woman director.”
For decades, women have held many positions in the museum field, working as curators, development specialists and press secretaries. But in recent years, women have assumed the director title in droves. As of 2012, 57 percent of museum directors in the United States are women, according to the American Alliance of Museums. In Washington, about 50 percent of museums and historical sites are now led by women, with many helming active, popular museums with regional and national appeal, such as the National Portrait Gallery, the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Phillips Collection. In the past six years, five of the region’s most prominent museums have gained a female director.
To have so many women directing major museums in Washington, the country’s museum hub, is surprising to many. In fact, many directors interviewed for this article were shocked that the number is in the double digits:
“Are there really that many now?” asked Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery.
Says Judy Greenberg, founding director of the Kreeger Museum: “I don’t think most people in Washington realize how many of us there are. It’s very important for the public to see it. I don’t know what other city has so many female museum directors.”
While these numbers sound promising, the problems that exist in the corporate world are mirrored in museum leadership. Although more women are leading museums, they often don’t command those with the largest budgets, the greatest foot traffic or the highest salaries.
“Of the 33 museums with $20 million or more in their [annual] budgets, only five are led by women,” says Johnnetta Cole, director the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. “Should we claim progress? Yes. Should we claim victory? No.”
Depictions of women in leadership roles are becoming more common, whether in business school case studies or stock photography on Getty Images. The increase in women directing museums preceded broader trends in American society in the corporate and political sectors, and their influence is being felt: Washington museums receive more than 35 million visitors a year, affecting the exhibitions and educational programs that large segments of American and global communities view.
Of course, the subject of gender is a personal one, and women span the spectrum of whether they view themselves as “female” directors. Some fought their way into board rooms in the 1980s, while others maintain that their sex has never been a barrier — or even something they have given much thought to. Some directors champion the term “woman leader,” while others note that sex has little bearing on subject-matter expertise, fundraising prowess or the ability to manage large institutions. Many recall how mentorship affected their careers and say that balancing family with career is still top of mind for women in any field. Each of these women took a unique path to leadership, and there are many views at the top on what’s left to be done.
Broun, 66, remembers interviewing for a high-profile directorship. In 1989, she became the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s first female director, making her the longest-serving director at the Smithsonian.
“There weren’t many of us then,” she says, noting that the Smithsonian had two other female directors when she assumed her post.
“I remember feeling prepared for the job, but it was still surprising to get it,” she says. “I was once told that even though I was a more qualified candidate, the man should get tenure because he had a family to support. That I should just accept the instructor role.”
Those familiar barriers in museums and academia started changing in the ’80s, when there was a push for more female directors at museums nationwide. Among art museums, there has been approximately a 250 percent increase in female directors in 25 years, according to membership data from the Association of Art Museum Directors. Forty-two percent of the organization’s members are now women.
“I spent most of my life as a curator and loved every bit, but after decades, I became more fascinated with the institutional challenges and meta problems,” says Dorothy Kosinski, 60, director of the Phillips Collection and a member of the executive board at the Association of Art Museum Directors. “I think, for both men or women, it really depends on personality. Some people want to run their own show and spread their wings.”
Many of the women noted Anne d’Harnoncourt, the trailblazing director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art who assumed the post in 1982. A celebrated art historian, she became chief executive of the institution in 1997, overseeing a $250 million capital campaign and major renovations until her death in 2008.
While her success affected many, some directors say their careers in museums began with impediments, particularly those who began in academia. Sterling, 58, says that during her graduate work at Princeton, she never wore her engagement ring for fear of being taken less seriously. Cole notes that as an African American born in the ’30s in Jacksonville, Fla., her path to leadership was always an uphill battle. And although women assumed the mantle of leadership 30 years ago, some directors sense that there has been a plateau.
“There was a huge push in the ’80s to bring more women,” Broun says. “But somehow, in the last 10 years, people have relaxed saying we don’t need to worry about. There’s some concern that women have hit a glass ceiling in terms of size and scale of museum for which they’re considered. We’re commonly chosen for small and mid-size museums, but it’s much more rare for premier museums in major cities.”
In the past decade, salaries at the largest museums have doubled in some cases, and most often go to men. Top salaries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the National Gallery of Art now exceed $1 million.
“If you made a pyramid, with the higher salaries at the top, it would be heavily weighted toward men at the top,” says Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums. “There has been change in that direction, with women breaking into higher ranks at prominent museums, but it is still heavily weighted toward men.”
Of the 20 arts, natural history and science museums with the largest budgets in the United States, only two are led by women. The most-visited art museums are in a similar position: Of the 17 with the highest foot traffic, only three have female chief executives. There’s also a question of prestige. The most iconic museums, from the National Gallery to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Art Institute of Chicago, have not been led by women.
But there are outliers. Ellen V. Futter, director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is one of the few women to break the $1 million salary threshold. The other prominent example is Emily Rafferty, who serves as president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, although the museum has not had a female director.
Says Merritt: “I can tell you from speaking with women directors in the field that there’s a broad perception that there is gender bias in hiring that may arise from the fact that, traditionally, boards have been older white men. You hire people who fit image of self.”
Kim Sajet, 47, director of the National Portrait Gallery, agrees that museum boards, which often oversee hiring and financial issues, need more women.
“All the management boards I’ve worked with have been very male-dominated,” she says. “If there’s one thing we need to change, we have to attract more diversity and cultural perspectives to boards.”
Women of color in leadership
Cole was the first woman on the board of Coca-Cola and the first African American woman to become president of Spelman College. She cautions that the numbers look hopeful for some women, but not all.
“Before we start to jump for joy, we better look at which women we are talking about,” she says. “In the Association of Art Museum Directors, there are only five women of color. We have to acknowledge that while women have perhaps more of a presence in art and cultural institutions now, we have not finished this work.”
Cole, 77, has focused much of her career on addressing disparities in race and gender, and commends the Smithsonian Institution and the AAMD for their efforts to increase diversity at museums. Museums suffer from the same equity issues that affect universities, she says.
“Go into many departments on college or university campuses, and you’ll find women. But check out the tenure,” she says. “Are women being tenured at equal rates? Are women being paid for doing equal work? Many of the same questions exist at museums.”
Another similar question is how greater diversity in leadership positions could affect the curriculum or in the case of museums, exhibitions and community outreach programs. Some in the museum field argue that greater diversity among leaders can add to the diversity of the culture they showcase.
“It would be a rare day when any individual entered a situation or job and leaves behind her experiences and sensibilities,” Cole says. “I’m not leaving behind my experiences as an African American who grew up in the segregated South. We are who we are. The more diverse a set of folk, the more diverse the experience is.”
Camille Giraud Akeju, the director of the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, notes that she has noticed women’s leadership affecting more than exhibitions; it affects educational and outreach programs, as well.
“I do think we approach community outreach differently,” she says. “Women often have a nurturing mindset, so engaging the community comes easier.”
But Kosinski cautions that gender and personal experience shouldn’t have to affect one’s perspective on exhibitions or priorities. She also notes that because curators organize exhibitions and wield immense power at many larger art museums, the director isn’t necessarily planning the work the public engages with most.
“We’ve focused on the art of Latin America, of Africa. As much of a dyed-in-the-wool feminist as I am, it would be unfortunate if a woman were to become a single-issue director,” Kosinski says.
Achieving work-life balance
Much of the national conversation about women’s advancement has centered on work-life balance, a central theme of Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller “Lean In” and a host of related books by female leaders in the nonprofit and corporate worlds. But one of Sandberg’s most controversial tenets — that a woman’s partner is among the most important decisions she’ll make — does not apply to single working mothers in the United States.
Giraud Akeju, 63, is one of them, and rose to be chief executive officer of the Harlem School of the Arts in New York before becoming director of the Anacostia Museum, all while raising two children as a single mom.
“I was lucky enough to be in an environment where I could bring them to work,” she says “My children were 13 months apart and my son didn’t speak for a long time because my daughter would always speak for him. One day I was viewing a slide presentation and it had our logo on it and he said, ‘ACBAW,’ the acronym for where I worked. It was his first word. I thought ‘Oh, they’re spending way too much time with me here.’ ”
Sajet, though, who has two teenage sons, says the challenge of raising children and leading museums has always been a tough balance, not unlike chief executive positions in the corporate world. Museum directors must manage big staffs and oversee large budgets, all while planning exhibitions years in advance.
“I lucked out and married an incredible man, and we talked a lot about gender roles before having children,” she says. “But when I get home, it’s second shift, so I end up making a lot of casseroles. You have to always be thinking a couple of steps ahead.”