For the first time in its 77-year history, the National Gallery of Art has chosen a woman as its next director.
Kaywin Feldman, 52, who has been director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art since 2008, will succeed Earl “Rusty” Powell III, who is retiring after 26 years.
She is credited with doubling the Minneapolis museum’s attendance, improving its digital reach and strengthening its connection to the community through initiatives on equity and social justice.
The National Gallery’s fifth director, Feldman said she is honored to be the first woman to lead the institution. She starts March 11; Powell will stay on until then.
“I do believe it is indicative of a sea change, nationally and internationally,” Feldman said in an interview. “The trustees early on articulated their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s something I care about.”
Frederick W. Beinecke, president of the National Gallery and co-chairman of the search committee, said Feldman’s experience was impressive.
“She has led three different museums, of increasing size and each successfully,” he said.
Feldman’s track record of increasing visitors, both at the museum and online, also appealed to the search committee, Beinecke said, noting that the gallery would “like to be more effective” in that area.
“We are focused on being accessible both digitally and physically. That is the 21st-century objective of museums,” he said.
Beinecke announced the appointment in an email to the National Gallery’s staff, many of whom cheered. Feldman is well known as a strong director, said Mary Morton, the National Gallery’s curator and head of French paintings.
“She’s a brilliant choice,” Morton said. “She’s a forward-looking candidate. The guys with the accents and suits, that’s been the norm. It’s really great to be out of that model.”
In Minneapolis, Feldman’s staff gave her a standing ovation when they heard the news, said Matthew Welch, deputy director and chief curator, who described Feldman as “probably the best manager I ever had.”
“Everyone is sad to see her go, [but] it’s remarkable that this woman will be the director of the National Gallery,” Welch said. “There’s huge pride in that fact.”
Feldman is inheriting an institution facing major challenges. Although generously funded by the federal government, the National Gallery has been plagued by management troubles in its security department that have resulted in high turnover and low morale. Its digital strategy trails its peers, attendance is stagnant and employees have alleged sexual harassment, retaliation and favoritism.
Feldman said she will spend her first months on the job meeting with staff, the community, trustees and others to “understand the values of the institution.”
“I’m a really good listener,” she said. “I want to develop plans together.”
Beinecke declined to disclose the length of Feldman’s contract or salary. She earned $1,004,403 in salary and deferred compensation in 2016, according to the Minneapolis museum’s most recent tax returns.
Feldman has promoted programs that deepen the museum’s ties to the community.
“I have long believed in and advocated for the inspiring power of art, the ability of art to inspire wonder,” Feldman said, noting that she intends to continue that work in Washington. “[The National Gallery] has an incredible potential to do that on a large scale.”
Welch said that Feldman is committed to diversity and inclusion, both in staffing and audience. She has mentored young staff and launched programs targeting new visitors. Last year, the Minneapolis museum won a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts, which explores how art can foster empathy and spark social change.
“All of us on the leadership team feel strongly that a museum shouldn’t be a rarified place,” Welch said. “It should be part of the community’s everyday life, and everyone should feel comfortable here.”
Feldman oversaw exhibitions on the art of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and Chinese art designed by avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, and she launched a contemporary art department. She helped to expand the museum’s collection, including acquisitions by such acclaimed artists as Kehinde Wiley, Ai Wei Wei and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Before Minneapolis, Feldman was director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee for eight years, and she was 28 when she was named director of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and two master’s degrees — in archaeology and art history — from the University of London.
The Minneapolis Institute of Art is significantly smaller than the National Gallery. The Minneapolis museum has 440 employees, and in 2017 had about 900,000 visitors. The National Gallery has 1,100 employees, and it welcomed 5 million visitors last year.
Christine Anagnos, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, a group Feldman led in 2010, called the appointment “phenomenal.”
“She is thoughtful, approachable, collaborative, and I think the National Gallery is very lucky to have her,” Anagnos said.