Leadership and Followership in the Fine Arts

In the old days, museum directors ran museums. Along with their boards, of course, and other top administrators, they were responsible for running the entire operation and for setting the museum’s strategic direction.

That was then. Now things are different, very different. Just like other American leaders, leaders of America’s museums no longer have a choice but to follow the leads of their followers. Museums are not, in other words, immune from the trend that a decade ago I labeled, “the end of leadership.” Or at least, the end of leadership as we knew it.

The pressures from below – especially from those whose voices previously were muted – are simply too great now to resist. Social and political contexts have changed. People’s expectations and, therefore, their demands have changed. So those in charge of America’s museums – and indeed its arts institutions more generally – have had no choice but to change with the changing times.

  • New York City’s Guggenheim Museum made it a point recently to reach out in new ways to people with disabilities.
  • In April, the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY, opened a major exhibition dedicated to the memory of Breonna Taylor, who was shot dead in her bed by local police.
  • In Washington, the National Gallery of Art announced changes that included transforming a leadership team that only recently was 100 percent white into one that was now more than half people of color.
  • Though the Denver Art Museum has a history of showing Indigenous work, its strength in this area was recently further expanded. Its Indigenous collection now comprises the museum’s largest single block of works, about 20 percent of its total holdings. Denver currently has a major show featuring two Indigenous artists, one part Seneca, the other part Lakota.
  • New York City’s Queens Museum has developed year-round community partnerships with organizations devoted to criminal injustice, or racial equality, or environmental advocacy that involve all parts of the museum.  
  • Los Angeles’s world class Broad Museum chose to reopen after the pandemic by featuring world class artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat, who died in 1988 at age at 27, is widely regarded as one of the few black artists to have become a superstar. (In March, one of his paintings fetched $41.9 million at an auction in Hong Kong.)
  • The Philadelphia Museum of Art just underwent a significant expansion and restoration. Along with the structural changes are ones in emphasis and tone. Timothy Rub, the museum’s director, and chief executive, said the new design “opens up the heart of the very center of the museum in a way that will make it even more inviting and engaging for our community to become part of the museum and for the museum to become an even more integral part of the community it serves.” One of the museum’s current exhibits, “New Grit,” is illustrative. The show’s lead curator, Erika Battle, said that when people walk into “New Grit,” they’re going to see works that talk about “Confederate monuments, they’re going to see works about immigration, incarceration and re-entry.”
  • Adam Levine, the recently appointed director of the Toledo Museum of Fine Arts announced that a total overall of the institution’s strategic plan is now underway. His roadmap is for the museum is to be “one whose collection represents the demographic makeup of the country,” and where people feel a “sense of comfort and psychological safety in every interaction with the institution’s brand on-site and off-site.”
  • In keeping with the nation’s newfound attention to the Tulsa Massacre, which happened a hundred years ago this year, the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa is currently featuring an exploration of artistic responses to racial violence in the United States. The exhibition is accompanied by a constellation of community engagement projects with, among others, Black-led organizations.      

Again, this shift in the arts from away from the elite and toward the communities they are now expected to serve is not confined to museums of fine art. It is in all the arts. As Salamishah Tillet wrote in the New York Times, “I saw black artists, filmmakers, fashion designers, musicians and poets take on the white gatekeepers in their industries and institutional homes. I identified the new conversations Black artists are having with one another across generations and disciplines. I wanted my own writing to match the immediacy with which these artists shared messages of rejecting white privilege, recentering our collective humanity and demanding a world in which Black people are truly free.”

Certainly since the murder of George Floyd, Americans like Tillet will accept no less than full participation in the system – in every one of its numberless facets and aspects. Leaders of arts institutions across the spectrum are, then, doing no more than, and also no less than, responding to what has become popular demand.

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