“When I started at the Kreeger in 1994, I felt I was entering an old-boy network,” said Judy Greenberg, who helped set up Washington’s Kreeger Museum and was appointed its first director. “Now I feel differently.”
Ms. Greenberg was referring to the fact that running an art museum is no longer an exclusively male pursuit. Over the past two decades, the number of women in such jobs has risen and now accounts for 45 percent of the 242-member Association of Art Museum Directors.
Nowhere is the shift more evident than in the nation’s capital, where nine art museums have female directors, including Ms. Greenberg; Dorothy Kosinski, who was appointed to the Phillips Collection in 2008; Kim Sajet’s move to the top job at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in 2013; and Melissa Chiu, who last year took over at the Hirshhorn Museum.
“The appointment of women directors is an evolving shift within the [Association of Art Museum Directors] membership, and it’s very visible, especially in university museums and smaller institutions,” said Ms. Chiu, from Shanghai, where she was visiting Chinese artists. However, she added, “It’s one thing to think of numbers and another to think in terms of the size of the institutions they are heading.”
Ms. Chiu cited an Association of Art Museum Directors study last year that found there are still no women running museums with budgets of $20 million or more, such as the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The report also points to a gender gap in compensation: The pay of female museum directors averages 70 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts.
Many of the male directors of national art museums are retiring, including the head of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Detroit’s art museum, which Ms. Chiu said will allow fresh opportunities for women to break through that barrier.
“There are certainly enough women in the pipeline from smaller institutions” to merit consideration, she said, including “a couple with greater confidence to fill these leadership positions.”
“It’s worth looking into the decision-making process. Leadership positions are decided by boards of trustees.”
In a sense, closing the gender gap in art museums, and in cultural institutions generally, is part of the larger demographic shift in the business community. But with financing a constant challenge, a proven ability to raise funds is a definite bonus.
After Michael Kaiser’s retirement as president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the institution hired Deborah Rutter, a reputed marvel at fundraising who nursed back to financial health the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, of which she was president. Now Ms. Rutter oversees a cultural melange of programs such as opera and the long-running farce “Shear Madness,” plus the multimillion-dollar, 65,000 square-foot Kennedy Center expansion.
With Ms. Rutter’s appointment, the country’s largest cultural complex became an arts matriarchy. Francesca Zambello is artistic director at the Washington Opera, the most recent addition to the Kennedy Center group of organizations. Former star ballerina Suzanne Farrell’s eponymous ballet company is based there. Rita Shapiro is executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra, and Jennifer Bifield is president and CEO of Washington Performing Arts, which also has headquarters at the Kennedy Center. Ms. Bifield came from running campus-based cultural programs at Stanford, where she was responsible for the planning and construction of the university’s Bing Concert Hall.
What remains open to debate is what this changing of the guard could mean to the institutions and the city’s cultural life. Part of the challenge is managing the change forced upon museums even as the taste of the public changes. All the female directors interviewed agreed that there was an identifiable female leadership style, but there were differences in identifying it.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about women leaders being more attuned to consensus-building rather than the top-down approach,” said Ms. Chiu, “but the impact is probably greater internally in terms of management style.”
Ms. Greenberg finds that, “things do seem to be changing — more thinking outside the box, more cutting-edge, getting away from exhibitions done because they will prove to be popular exhibitions.” However, she said with a shrug, “I don’t know if that has to do with gender [or] more a matter of personality rather than male or female.”
The persona of the Phillips Collection has changed its whole persona since Dorothy Kosinski took over. Ms. Kosinski has concentrated on better use of the institution’s core collection in thoughtfully crafted, sometimes controversial exhibitions.
Running a museum today “is a very tough field in a very tough time,” said Ms. Kosinski, and women “are good at doing more with less.” Her aim, she said, is to make the Phillips “more transparent, to re-embrace what excited Duncan Phillips and think more about that core mission.”
The National Portrait Gallery’s Ms. Sajet said she had “mixed feelings about the manner in which [women] lead differently,” but “I get the sense that all of us want to break the mold, and we really need to let it be known that Washington has these dynamic institutions.”
As Ms. Bifield put it, “Women are more collaborative. Strategic alliance sounds like a male thing, but a creative partnership becomes a female thing.” She described herself as “very collaborative and very competitive. There is that sense of wanting to be the best and successful as a complement to being collaborative.”
Ms. Bifield and Ms. Rutter got together to launch Shift, which each year brings to Washington five orchestras from across the country to perform in venues in various communities.
“I take my role as a mentor very seriously,” Ms. Sajet said about serving as a role model for younger women.
“I wouldn’t know what makes me different from Michael Kaiser, except that I bring a feminine touch, and he didn’t,” Ms. Rutter said in her Kennedy Center office overlooking the Potomac. “He probably didn’t have plants in his office, and I do.”