"Who should run a big art museum? Executives with corporate skills that could help them manage these multimillion-dollar institutions through major expansions? Or leaders with traditional art-world credentials?
With 15 art museums across the U.S. simultaneously searching for new directors, it's not an academic question.
Chiefs of major art institutions are now responsible for everything from acquisitions and exhibitions to overseeing fund raising and the increasingly complex laws that surround art purchases from abroad. Beyond the prestige factor, directorships are plum positions in the nonprofit sector: The average salary nationwide is nearly $200,000, with those at top institutions often earning closer to $400,000, according to numbers gathered by the Association of Art Museum Directors.
The current empty posts -- as well as the evolving director's role -- put many high-profile institutions at a crossroads. To be sure, any candidate considered at a top museum will have at least some experience in both management and art scholarship, but the museum world remains divided over the appropriate balance.
Unlike the tradition of decades ago, museum boards are often controlled not by wealthy art collectors but by businesspeople who demand savvier financial management. Miami Art Museum board Chairman Aaron Podhurst, for instance, says he wants his museum's new director to be able to rally everyone from trustees to local residents, someone who can be a "CEO for unification." He adds that an art curatorial background, beyond general familiarity with the art world, is not a requirement for the post.
And yet if directors are too focused on income and spending, they face criticism from art-world veterans, who believe that crowd-pleasing exhibitions and lavish retail facilities may detract from a museum's purpose.
Some art-world veterans insist that running museums is not like running for-profit businesses. Museums have long been accustomed to covering their operating costs through their endowments rather than through retail operations or ticket sales. According to Mr. Anderson, currently a principal in cultural consultancy AEA Consulting, the average visitor costs a museum about $80, substantially more than the typical price of a ticket -- meaning that museum directors must spend energy raising funds to support a business premised on losing money.