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Art museum directorships are still a boys' club

Sonnet Stanfill, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, has written an op-ed for the New York Times about some major art museum directorship vacancies that she hopes may go to women. She points out the V&A, where she works, as well as Nicholas Serota’s Tate position, which are vacant. Also vacant but smaller beans is Stephan Kalmar’s executive director and chief curator position at Artists Space. Read Stanfill in partial below, in full via New York Times.

LONDON — The directors of two of the world’s most popular art museums recently announced their resignations. Martin Roth, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, will step down this year, and Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate museums, both in Britain, will depart next year. These job vacancies, which search committees are now working to fill, offer an opportunity to correct the gender imbalance in art museum leadership in Britain, America and beyond.

In 2015, the world’s top 12 art museums as based on attendance — what I call the “directors’ dozen” — were all led by men. When Frances Morris became the director of the Tate Modern in April, she became the first woman to join the club. This gender gap extends from Europe to North America, where only five of the 33 directors of the most prominent museums (those with operating budgets of more than $20 million) are women, including Kaywin Feldman of the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Nathalie Bondil of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It’s the leaders of those big-budget institutions who set the tone for all.

The top three art museums have never been run by a woman. The Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are treasure-filled, international destinations. They are also big businesses, together attracting more than 20 million people a year. A large portion of these visitors are tourists who spend money at hotels and shops along the way to contemplating the Rosetta Stone or taking selfies with the Mona Lisa. Museums directly contribute $21 billion a year to the American economy alone, and far more thanks to the indirect spending of their visitors.

Many women work as curators. In American art museums, about 70 percent of curators are women; where I work, at the Victoria and Albert, also known as the V&A, the figure is about 75 percent.

Yet women remain scarce in the directorial roles. A 2014 report released by the Association of Art Museum Directors suggested that gender might not matter in selecting the best candidates, but that museum boards and their search committees, still predominantly male, may be appointing in their own image.

The report also asked whether some women simply aren’t applying for the top jobs. As a curator at the V&A for 18 years, and not on an executive shortlist, I’ve seen firsthand that for the women who aim to balance an arts career with a life outside the institution, reluctance to throw their hats into the ring may be linked to the international travel and all-consuming nature of a directors’ dozen role. For many, the most productive work years coincide with child-rearing years.

Much is at stake, and not just for museums. Last year, 62 million people visited the world’s top dozen art museums. In Britain, there are an estimated 97,000 jobs in museums, galleries and libraries, while 400,000 people are employed in American museums. Executive recruitment at these institutions matters because the cultural sector has such influence. Museums and galleries frame the world for us: Senior managers decide what goes on the walls, and this in turn shapes what the public values and remembers. The male dominance in leadership at the directors’ dozen helps to explain why so much of what’s on display is man-made, rather than work by female artists.

*Image of Tate Modern via the Tate