‘Too Often, BIPOC Candidates Are Asked to Come with Capes on for Rescue Missions’: Museum Directors Reflect on an Evolving Profession

Perhaps the most pressing topic in the world of art and culture in the United States these days is the question of who will run the country’s museums. Between the financial constraints brought on by the pandemic and urgent matters of social justice, museums are in a tough spot: struggling to stay alive at the same time that they are thrust onto the front lines of current events. And so a panel discussion devoted to the subject at Art Basel Miami Beach on Wednesday—under the title “Re-inventing the Institution? New Museum Leaders”—drew a crowd while offering some hints as to what the future might hold.

The panel featured three leaders who are relatively new at their institutions: Isolde Brielmaier, who has been deputy director of the New Museum for three months; Johanna Burton, who has been director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles for 30 days; and Alison Gass, who has spent the past 18 months raising $2.5 million to start the Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco, where she is director of an enterprise slated to open next fall.

The panelists and the moderator, longtime cultural advisor (and recent author of a book on museum directors) Andras Szanto, agreed that the question mark in the event’s title was doing a lot of work. “I’m glad it was posed as a question and not a statement,” Brielmaier said, “so we can all brainstorm together.” No one has all the answers at the moment; it’s more of a conversation that at some point might lead to next moves. Here are some key takeaways from the talk.

Johanna Burton: I think the crew [of museum directors] that is going to emerge in this next moment are directors of education or people who have been involved in education in experimental ways and I think that’s a shift … I believe education is one of the central tenets of what museums do.

Isolde Brielmaier: People have called me a bit of a polymath … I’ve worked in a range of different capacities [inside and outside of museums] … but always center artists in everything I do … It’s going to take polymaths—people with a broad range of experience—to tackle these jobs … It’s going to take some creativity to think about how we move forward.

Brielmaier: Audience is everything … It’s my job … to figure out how many points of entry we can create to artists work and the institution to allow for as many diverse people [as possible] to come through and engage and share their ideas and voices.

Brielmaier: I’m really interested in how to bring about a culture of care in museums, and I think it starts at home … You can work at a very high level and do so with joy … It starts with the staff and the teams. How, as a leader, can I partner with them to create a different workplace? … When you create a culture of care behind the scenes, it trickles out, and your visitors feel that.

Brielmaier: [We need to look at] other sectors [where] they are thinking about leadership in an innovative way and on a high level. How do we be collaborative, intentional and inclusive?

Alison Gass: This can be a moment of hopefulness [even though] it is a moment of crisis in the cultural sector.

Gass: I use the word nimble a lot. And the word responsiveness, and the idea of relevance. The space between art and life getting narrowed feels important.

Burton: Museums have been set up in such a way that the class-based, gender-based, race-based priorities that were invisible are now visible so there is a kind of corrective that has to happen … I’ve been asking my staff and board and audiences to think about what it looks like to have something that looks the same on the outside as it does on the inside. We’ve rendered the vessel transparent.

Gass: Museums have to be direct about [things] … The structure of the art world [has been such that for] careers in museums … there have been barriers to equitable access. You have to have privilege to even have the opportunity to go get a graduate degree in the arts, to be able to have these positions that pay so little … And to have access and comfort [once you are in them]. The disparities between those at the decision making table on the board and others … these are the basics.

Brielmaier: Artists [are now] saying: now you all [in museums] have to step up to the plate. We need seismic shifts, structural shifts, maybe even flat-out paradigm shifts. For a lot of people who have been working inside museums this is coming as a shock, and that may split along generational lines. For me, it’s people over projects, people over profits. You have to start with the people that make these museums what they are. That’s the team members, from the front house staff, security guards, curators … I’ve been interested in … doing a lot of one on ones … retreats with departments to whiteboard out: How do you see your role? Timelines? work flow? That’s about the culture in which each team member comes to work to do the work. If that culture of work is broken, and most of the time it is … I’m trying to collaboratively come up with collaborative solutions and ideas to make the workplace better so people can not only function but thrive.

Brielmaier: There was no way I was going to step into a leadership role unless I really understood that I was set up for success. Too often, specifically with BIPOC candidates, we are asked to come in with our capes on for these rescue missions but there is there is nothing there to ground us when we land, and usually the cape flies off. My wonderful boss [New Museum director] Lisa Phillips had so much patience with the interview process because I came back with the most minute questions. I wanted to be sure that I … was going to be able to fly.

Brielmaier: Retention is an issue. Some of it has to do with culture. The new [generation], the students I teach at NYU, will tell you that the whole “grind” thing [my generation does] is not [for them]. They will say: we want to work three days a week, we need a new computer … They are very up-front and clear about what they need to do their jobs … We need to move away from this mantra of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If you do what you’ve always done, you are going to get what you’ve always gotten.

Gass: Museums shouldn’t just be places where you have to stand at a quiet remove and be cerebral. Sometimes they are for that … [but they should also] be a place where you should be able to be free and feel joy. To yell to a friend or laugh if that’s what the spirit moves you to do. That is my hope. There is still this perception that [museums are] a serious, elitist experience. All of us have to do what we can to undo that … It has everything to do with taking education or engagement or public practice and put those things together and make sure everyone has access points.

Brielmaier: The key is to know your audiences—plural.