The search for the next director of the National Gallery of Art has revealed deep divisions within the federally funded institution, a palace of high art that is dogged by old-fashioned ideas about museum operations and staff claims of widespread mismanagement.
The leader chosen to succeed retiring Director Earl “Rusty” Powell III could signal a new chapter for one of the country’s premier art institutions. Established by Congress from a gift from Andrew W. Mellon, the National Gallery of Art has a patriotic heart that chooses consistency over flash and scholarship over blockbusters. With its federal charter — and sizable federal subsidy — the gallery is a Brooks Brothers suit in an Alexander McQueen world.
But with Powell’s 26-year tenure coming to an end, the museum has the opportunity to revitalize its programs and modernize its operation, according to interviews with 22 current and former employees and industry experts. The selection of its next leader — expected to be made next month — could determine whether it continues to hew to the past or emerges at the forefront of a quickly evolving museum industry.
“The National Gallery could be bigger in the sense of its national profile. I think of the era of [former director] J. Carter Brown — there was a certain amount of magic to some of the things they did,” said Kym Rice, assistant director for academic affairs at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at George Washington University. “It does hold a certain place, but it could be much more.”
A new leader can revitalize an institution, said Rice, who pointed to Melissa Chiu as an example. Since Chiu was appointed director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2014, the Smithsonian museum has increased its fundraising and presented highly acclaimed exhibitions that have attracted a younger audience.
“A lot of people thought she was a risky choice, but look at what she’s done to raise their profile. She’s brought in good people, put on great exhibitions,” Rice said.
The gallery’s next leader faces significant challenges. The museum’s digital strategy is undeveloped and trails its peer institutions. Poor management across multiple departments has caused high turnover and low staff morale, resulting in missed deadlines and budgets that waste taxpayer dollars, according to staff. Long-standing problems of sexual harassment, retaliation and favoritism persist because senior executives and personnel officers ignore or cover up complaints, according to seven current and former employees, most of whom requested anonymity because of fear of reprisal.
The National Gallery, with its two buildings and sculpture garden on the northeast corner of the Mall, houses a collection of 150,000 works of mostly American and European art. Tourists come for its renowned permanent galleries with works by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Matisse and Picasso, while smaller temporary exhibits highlight individual artists or themes, such as the current exhibition on marine paintings from the Dutch Golden Age and the recently closed look at Cezanne’s portraits. Its high-wire approach to balancing old masters with fresh faces comes into focus next month, when it opens three exhibitions: One spotlights contemporary British artist Rachel Whiteread, another focuses on 19th-century French painter Camille Corot’s portraits of women, and the last showcases the recent acquisitions acquisition of four large-scale photographs and a video by American photographer Dawoud Bey.
The National Gallery’s conventional approach stems from its unusual structure as a quasi-federal organization. Chartered by Congress and federally owned, the gallery is a nonprofit corporation that receives about 75 percent of its annual $190 million budget from taxpayers. Most of its 1,100 employees are federal workers and federal funds allow its 5 million annual visitors to enter free.
The pending announcement has many on the staff on edge. Officials with Phillips Oppenheim, the New York firm hired to conduct the job search, held large meetings with staff in April, at the start of the process, but the search is highly secretive and the focus of much speculation. Among the candidates rumored to be in contention are Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis in The Hague; Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth; Timothy Rub, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and C.D. Dickerson III, the National Gallery's curator of sculpture and decorative arts. Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is another name that's mentioned, perhaps because he and Powell both graduated from Williams College and he now has the job Powell held before coming to the National Gallery. Rub, Lee and Govan did not respond to messages, while Gordenker and Dickerson declined to comment.
Sharon Percy Rockefeller and Frederick W. Beinecke, two members of the gallery’s nine-member board, declined to comment through a spokeswoman. (The board has five general trustees serving staggered 10-year terms and four ex officio members: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution David J. Skorton.)
Dickerson is considered by many employees to be the front-runner, thanks to support from Powell and his senior team, and that has sparked pushback among some senior-level staff. These employees are pushing for someone with executive experience, something the 42-year-old Dickerson lacks. Dickerson was a curator at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth before Powell brought him to Washington in 2015. In department meetings and small groups, employees have discussed how to articulate to the search firm their wish for an agent of change, especially given the museum’s history of long-tenured leaders. Dickerson is Powell’s protege, and viewed as Rusty 2.0.
“There’s a moment for reinvention,” said Gail Anderson, a museum consultant, about replacing a veteran leader. “How do you change the culture of an institution, its position in the community? You have this moment to pivot.”
The job description posted in May says the museum seeks a “tested executive” but it does not specifically require candidates to have experience as a museum director. The language could be seen as an attempt to cast a wide net that might identify an outsider rather than someone in the leadership pipeline, said the Corcoran’s Rice. The posting’s stated priority of making “the National Gallery truly national . . . as broad and diverse as the country it serves” is evidence that it is open to change, she said.
Museums around the country are grappling with diversity and inclusion in staffing, especially at senior levels. A 2015 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation report found that only 16 percent of museum leaders were people of color. The American Alliance of Museums highlighted diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion as a top priority in a 2017 report titled "Facing Change."
In the National Gallery’s 77-year history, four white men have been directors. “I think it would be great if they hired a woman,” Rice said. “It would be breaking the glass ceiling and be really inspiring to other museums.”
The National Gallery’s job description also highlights the need for a digital strategy, another hot-button issue in the museum world and an area where the museum has fallen behind. The museum recorded 8.2 million visitors to its website last year, according to the Web-traffic monitor SimilarWeb. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had 38.3 million visitors, the Museum of Modern Art 27.7 million visitors and the Getty Museum 14.7 million.
Digital is the future because it can be the first interaction that people have with a museum, said Sree Sreenivasan, former chief digital officer at the Met and a social media consultant.
“It’s been set up as a contest between having visitors online . . . or serving your mission. There’s no reason you can’t do both,” Sreenivasan said. “We have an opportunity here to find leaders who want to make us relevant in a world where millennials have a different take on life. Museums should have WiFi and places to charge their phones because they’ll stay longer. They should feel like it’s a place that’s welcoming.”
The museum has lots of catching up to do. In the NGA’s 2017 annual report, it highlighted its first strategic plan for social media, a move many years behind other institutions. As a result, the museum pales in comparison to its peers. It has about 1.3 million followers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, compared with MoMA’s 11 million and the Met’s 8.8 million.
Being that far behind represents missed opportunities, Sreenivasan said. “You make a funnel as big as possible to touch as many people in the world. Some will become visitors, members, trustees, or leave you their collection,” he said. “A digital transformation has to happen.”
The gallery's next director will inherit serious management problems. A Washington Post report in March detailed long-simmering issues with the museum's security force, where harassment and retaliation are common, leading to costly turnover among its staff. The same problems exist in other departments, including retail, archives, art and publications, according to interviews with current and former staff.
“I used to describe it as in need of an exorcism,” said Maria Aragon, who worked in the museum’s shops for 14 years before leaving earlier this year.
Employees describe a top-down work environment that ignores complaints by prematurely closing investigations, according to several workers who described their struggles with supervisors and personnel officials assigned to address the complaints. Whistleblowers are reprimanded and favorites are promoted to positions they are unqualified to hold. The problems result in missed deadlines, error-ridden publications, including the catalogue that accompanied the recent Michel Sittow exhibition, and overbudget exhibitions. And the cost is borne by taxpayers, who contribute three of every four dollars required to run the museum.
These problems can in turn affect visitors’ experiences.
“Have you gone into a museum where it feels electric? That’s because staff are energized, they are empowered and the visitor totally benefits,” Anderson said.
Current and former employees say the problems persist because the gallery’s haphazard handling of complaints. Colleagues in one department, for example, said they described the same problems at their exit interviews, and yet the personnel officer acted as if the complaints were new. Curator Andrew Robison was allowed to retire in 2016 following multiple sexual harassment complaints, according to three employees. The gallery spokeswoman said it cannot comment on personnel matters.
Robison said a complaint was filed after he criticized “a female staff member because of her deportment toward others.” He denied there were previous complaints.
“It had nothing to do with sexual aggressiveness or anything like that,” he said. “She was a troublemaker. This was long before the #MeToo stuff.”
Robison, who was senior curator of prints and drawings, still returns to the museum to work on his own projects. “He was allowed back in the department, around the women who accused him,” said Sarah Holley, who retired in January after 17 years in various departments, including communications. “Things like that make you feel small.”
Robison said he gets no special access but works in the library and print study room, which are open to the public by appointment.
Holley is among several insiders who say the new director must advocate for an inspector general, as is common with many federal agencies, including the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives and the National Endowment for the Arts. An inspector general would provide oversight, protect the gallery from fraud and other abuses, and ensure uniform handling of personnel issues, they say. Employees of the National Gallery have pushed for this office for decades, to no avail.
No matter who gets the nod, the next leader of Washington’s premier art museum takes the helm at a time of major change in the cultural world. Museums, even ones that have significant government support, are complex organizations that require fundraising prowess, artful management and a vision for the future. Executives must navigate changing visitor tastes and increased competition for their attention, while simultaneously preserving an institution’s mission and engaging its strongest supporters.
“There’s change coming. Who is going to set you up for the next 10 years? Who is out there who can really connect with our public? The public is who we answer to, not to other museums or other journals that seven people read. That’s not what is sparking the imagination,” Sreenivasan said.
The job is made more difficult if the staff needs a morale boost, say the experts.
“This is a healing process, and that kind of change takes time,” Anderson said. “If there is somebody who is leading the change at all levels, the payoff is the public goes, ‘Hey there is something new going on over there.’ ”