Friday, May 14, 2021
68.8 F
Fort Worth

FWBP CEO: The business of museums

Buy a membership or a ticket and the museums of Fort Worth are open to you. But what goes into making that happen might surprise you.

We all know what CEOs do – sort of. They run corporations and companies, big and small.

But what we may not realize when we walk through doors of one of Fort Worth’s amazing museums is that we are walking into a business, a nonprofit one to be sure but one with challenges similar to those faced by a bank or a manufacturing company.

We asked the directors – the most common title although they vary – of seven museums how their jobs differ from that of CEOs in private or publicly traded enterprises.

The answer is … not much.

“Increasingly the distinctions between the for-profit and the nonprofit worlds are converging, particularly at the level of internal culture. The strongest organizations are successful when their vision aligns with the working processes that help materialize that vision. What is different is the reliance on charitable giving from the community,” said Andrew Walker, executive director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

“The critical difference is that executives of museums run mission-driven organizations,” said Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “Both types of executives must have a vision for their organization, manage and lead employees and departments, operate in a fiscally responsible manner, be spokespeople for their organizations and report to boards.”

The mission is similar across all museums, the directors say, and that is holding cultural treasures in trust for the public, developing educational programs for all age groups and managing resources to be able to keep the doors open.

Much of the focus, says Van Romans, president of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, is on financial stability. He’s been in both worlds.

“Nonprofits face challenges that are generally related to organizational capacity – financial, yes, but also human resources. When there are constraints on finances and on the number of employees, projects and the length of time it takes to accomplish them is impacted. I’ve found it is imperative to focus on what you can afford to do, do it as best you can, and always remember the staff is the key to the success of the organization,” he said.

“We don’t sell a product in a traditional way, but we do provide unique experiences,” Walker said. “Where we align with the for-profit world is how we build those experiences for our guests. People, process and product is the structural architecture that links us to the for-profit world.”

Mary Burke, director of the Sid Richardson Museum, said the role of nonprofit organizations is to address society’s needs, and, in the case of museums, to be good stewards of the cultural resources held in the public’s trust.

And there is a staffing issue involved. “Because the operating revenue of nonprofits typically is limited, volunteers are critical to supplementing the organization’s staff and fulfilling the organization’s needs,” she said.

That volunteer aspect is a critical part of the mission. In fact, Jim Hodgson, executive director of the Fort Worth Aviation Museum, said firing volunteers was the most difficult decision he’s had to make as a museum director.

“There is no ‘I want, you will’ capability,” Hodgson said. “I consider volunteers all discretionary. They will participate only in areas to their liking and only as much as they are willing to. This requires a shared vision that volunteers are willing to participate in.”

Museums exist to serve, educate, enlighten and entertain the public, said Marla Price, director of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. “We’re not trying to accumulate funds to distribute to shareholders or stakeholders. We spend the money we have every year for programming for the public of all ages, and lots of different kinds of programming,” she said. Of course, corporations have public interest as well, but it’s our mission.”

That’s why they need to stay in business.

“It’s important for the museum to remain financially healthy and secure. I feel a strong obligation to every guest who enters the museum and feel a responsibility to ensure they have a wonderful experience and walk away with priceless memories. This museum is so very important to our community,” said the science museum’s Romans.

CHALLENGES

Part of the challenge is keeping the experience fresh, says Patricia Riley, executive director of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.

“I think the most challenging thing about directing a museum is making sure the institution is staying current and an interesting, viable experience for the visitor. There is so much competition today for people’s disposable dollars and time that we are always having to work really hard to get people’s attention,” Riley said.

You may not think of museum directors as daredevils, but some of the decisions involve enormous risk. Lee faced one of those just after he started at the Kimbell – recommending the acquisition of Michelangelo’s Torment of Saint Anthony to the board. At the time, it was “an unvetted” rediscovery.

“I told myself that if the painting turned out to be by Michelangelo and the Kimbell did not acquire it, I would be regretful for the rest of my life. But how much worse if the Kimbell acquired the painting and it turned out not to be by Michelangelo,” he said.

Considering the evidence, Lee said, the only conclusion to be drawn was that the painting was authentic. So the museum rolled the dice. “As time revealed, the Kimbell was fortunate to acquire the painting,” he said. “The Torment of Saint Anthony stands as the only painting by Michelangelo in the Americas.”

For Walker, his most challenging time was guiding the museum through a major change after the death of the Amon Carter’s founder, Ruth Carter Stevenson, in 2013.

“For more than five decades, Mrs. Stevenson provided clear direction that resulted in the Amon Carter’s reputation as one of the most important American art museums in the country,” he said. “She valued excellence, which made the institution a destination for the city, the region and the nation.

“Her passing, however, necessitated an internal cultural change that affected both the board and the staff. Some staff reorganization and a renewed commitment to community impact required tough decisions from the board leadership and museum staff,” Walker said.

Much has changed at the Amon Carter and the leadership team is nearly all new. “Today you might see a yoga class on our front lawn or encounter an installation by a living Texas artist in our atrium, but we all remain committed to the value of excellence on which she insisted. It took nearly three years to establish a new way of doing business that does not rely on the steady guidance of a founder. The future is bright for this museum embedded in a city that is growing at lightning speed,” Walker said.

The mission modifies as the society changes.

“I think most museum directors would agree that, say in the last 25 years, one large change that has occurred is museums are picking up a lot more of the cultural arts education in communities,” the Modern’s Price said. “Schools are challenged; their budgets are challenged. They tend to cut art classes and cultural classes from their curriculum, so the museums have really been stepping up and taking on a lot more now.”

PERSONAL SATISFACTION

All of the museum directors draw personal satisfaction from their jobs, some of it scholarly and academic, but mostly from the patrons the museums attract.

For Walker, there is satisfaction in the quality and expanse of the museum’s collections and the fact that the Amon Carter is “a research center with a library and archives in which original scholarship on our nation’s story can flourish. Growing the collection and activating it with our many audiences – adults, children, teachers, scholars to name a few – is an awesome task.

“We also serve as a sanctuary of sorts where art collectors come to learn and be inspired. I am amazed by the measurable impact that this collection has to inspire the creativity of those who visit. But what I am most proud of is the commitment and joy that our staff demonstrates every day to make each visitor’s experience memorable,” Walker said.

For Lee, it’s directing “a museum that has a scholarly aspect but at the same time full engagement with the ‘real’ world.” But his personal reason for what he does? “Without question, because of my passion for works of art.”

For Burke at the Sid Richardson, “It is very satisfying to know that our guests feel welcome in the museum, and to see our guests’ responses in the gallery or classroom – whether that be enjoyment, learning, a sense of respite, questioning, personal meaning-making and especially in the case of children, excitement, discovery and/or awe.”

For Hodgson, whose Aviation Museum displays a number of military aircraft in what he calls a “petting zoo” that people can actually touch, it is “the gleam in a young person’s eyes when inspiration hits or the tears of old veterans being reunited with comrades or their warbirds.”

For Romans, “The best reward is watching the faces of our guests light up when they walk in the door. The families who visit are learning and having a wonderful time doing it.”

Riley says she is “fortunate in that there is a very human element to the Cowgirl Museum and we represent not only great women of history but also so many who are making history today. It is so satisfying to work with these women and be able to make their stories available to the visitor. They are real heroines and in so many cases their stories would be left untold if not for this museum.” As an aside, both the mother and the grandmother of her husband, Kelly Riley, are honorees in the Cowgirl Museum’s Hall of Fame.

For Price, “You get a warm response to what you’re doing. Everybody loves that. In museums, people vote with their feet. They come or they don’t. So it’s always nice to have the attendance and have the people and get comment cards and letters from people.”

MOST IMPORTANT

We asked the museum directors what they considered their single most important management obligation. Most mentioned public trust, protection of the collections and fulfillment of the organization’s vision.

For Lee, trusteeship of the iconic building figures in. His most important task is “protection of the works of art in the museum’s collection and the works on loan to the museum. Because of the importance of the Kimbell’s architecture, I consider the buildings as part of the museum’s collection,” Lee said.

“My most important obligation is to ensure that the museum’s vision manifests in our operations and programming, as well as to balance creative ideas with our fiduciary responsibility,” Walker said. “The ingenuity in this institution abounds. I am amazed every day by the ideas the staff devise to connect to the community, advance scholarship and provide unique experiences to our visitors.”

Burke cited the mission and the staff responsibility to “fulfill our museum’s mission: to educate, engage and inspire visitors to find meaning, value and enjoyment in Sid W. Richardson’s collection of paintings of the American West.” She added, “Every member of the museum team should understand they have a meaningful role, a shared sense of purpose, in fulfilling that mission.”

For Hodgson, it is to “serve the public trust.”

Staff figures into Riley’s obligation as a manager. “My single most important management obligation is making sure my staff is well taken care of and they have an enjoyable working environment that allows them to be productive and feel appreciated.”

Price cited the obligation to see that “what we do really does serve the public. We’re very aware of offering programs aimed at different age groups, different levels of school children all the way up through college and beyond. We train volunteers in what is essentially a master’s level program. I think managing the program offerings and managing the staff would be the things I would say.”

AHA MOMENTS

There are almost always moments of surprise when moving into a new job or position, and there are tasks and obligations that people on the outside do not recognize and possibly cannot understand.

Lee said that he was surprised at “the importance of diplomacy in a museum director’s job.” And the role has other obligations. “I think that the general public has very little awareness of what a museum director actually does [and] would be surprised by how much time I spend on matters that have little to do with art,” Lee said.

There were fewer surprises for Burke, who had worked for 15 years in a different capacity for the Sid Richardson Museum before she became the director. “I missed engaging regularly and substantively with our wonderful docents and visitors – a primary component of my former role as director of education,” she said. What is not easily visible are the duties of “representing the museum to other organizations and the public, professional development and keeping abreast of the museum field, and the preservation, storage and security of the artwork.”

Walker came to the Amon Carter from a senior management position at the St. Louis Art Museum, where he oversaw the curatorial division.

“What I learned after joining the Amon Carter is that each institutional environment is different, from the internal organization to the external governing body. I had to adapt, listen and realize that change, though inevitable, takes time and must be done with care,” Walker said. “That has led the institution to become more flat, deemphasizing the authority structure and developing a model that insists upon shared responsibility. That type of structure is relatively new to the art museum world, which has traditionally been more top down in its structure.”

Outsiders might not understand the time spent connecting one-on-one with supporters at meetings and other functions, Walker said. “Much of my time is spent building relationships with individuals that align or may align with the mission of the museum,” he said.

And people may not understand fully the role museums play in the growth and development of Fort Worth. “I spend hours each week talking with city government, developers and my fellow museum directors to make certain that we positively influence the growth of the Cultural District,” Walker said.

The amount of time required was surprising to Hodgson. “It is a constant struggle to acquire needed resources to provide a valuable service to a community, while at the same time attracting and keeping volunteers to pursue a vision,” he said. “If you build it they will come” is a fantasy, he said. “Once you build it, it requires promotion, promotion, promotion, just to get a one-time visitor to spend one hour in your facility and then hopefully tell others,” Hodgson said.

What visitors may not understand is that a vision is necessary to establish and maintain a museum. “I have met very few people who have the ability to see what is possible and then be able to make that happen,” he said.

“I think most people just see museums as institutions that have some type of magical civic or philanthropic support and are just there for a family outing and diversion. I don’t think most people see museums as the single best source of informal education available to the general public,” Hodgson said.

“Before coming to Fort Worth, I worked as a corporate leader in the cultural affairs community and worked closely with museums for many years,” Romans said. “Being familiar with the business of the museum world, what surprised me the most was the dedication of the staff here at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. We have professionals who’ve devoted their lives to this museum, working here for more than 30 years. They are here because they believe in our mission and the day-to-day opportunities we provide our community. Their love of the institution and the families of Fort Worth inspires them on a daily basis. It really is quite amazing.”

The staff works hard to maintain what he calls “show-quality standards,” something the public would only notice in its absence. “It’s important that the museum remain in A-plus condition for the families who visit. That’s a very big task,” Romans said. “I believe the public appreciates the time and effort we devote to the facility environment. All goes to enhance the experience.”

For Riley, the surprise in her new job was a pleasant one. “My prior job was as a documentary film and television producer. I was surprised at how transferable my basic skill set was to being a museum director, but I started with the Cowgirl Museum at a time when the museum had just moved here and was being established so everything had to be created,” Riley said. “I had to put together a staff, capital campaign, oversee the building process and create all the museum programs, procedures, et cetera. So for me, in the beginning it was very similar to a film or television project and all that was necessary to put a program together.”

Price had been the Modern’s curator – the No. 2 position in a museum – before becoming its director. She had been involved in departmental and programming budgeting, but not budgeting for the overall museum. “I’d never seen the entire financial structure of the museum and how it all interrelated, so that was an exciting discovery, a steep learning curve,” she said. “It turned out, in a funny way, to be a part of my job that I particularly love. … It’s a surprise to me that I enjoy it as much as I do.”

“The visiting public may not realize the academic aspects of a museum. What we’re doing is not that different in a way from what college professors do, but we’re doing it to the public,” Price said. “We’re not teaching small classes of students, we’re teaching the public.”

MENTORS

Mentors are important to our museum directors, and two of them mentioned another local museum director who filled that role for them.

Both Riley at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame and Hodgson at the Fort Worth Aviation Museum named Van Romans of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History among those they consider mentors.

“When I started this job, I had no museum background,” Riley said, “and my first phone call was to Van Romans, who was at the time at Disney Imagineering. Kit Moncrief had met him and was interested in the work Disney had done for the Autry Museum [of the American West] in Los Angeles. From that first phone call, Van was my mentor, guide and lifeline through the entire building process for the Cowgirl. He was patient and generous and kind and allowed me to learn and grow in a way that would have not been possible without his help.”

Hodgson named several mentors, but mentioned Romans first. “He told me to pursue everything as professionally as possible,” Hodgson said. He also cited Knox Bishop, former curator and a current member of the Leadership Council of the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, who “introduced me to the great aviation history of the area and all the wonder and achievements of the area.”

Hodgson also cited the U.S. Martine Corps, whose adage of the men, the mission, the Marine Corps “can be modified to suit any organization and has never failed me. And somewhere along the line, I learned that you must have a close group of team members with passion who share your vision. Going it alone is a long, lonely road,” he said.

Romans himself named Marty Sklar, the vice chairman of Walt Disney Imagineering, as the most important of many mentors. Sklar, who died this year, “had worked directly with Walt Disney and became a trusted 50-year veteran for all the parks created over that time period.” Romans reported to Sklar when he worked for Disney.

“He never gushed at what I accomplished. Rather, he asked how I could have made it better,” Romans said. “He allowed me to ‘work the world of museums’ to advance Epcot Center and the Disney collections and, as a result, I acquired a large portfolio working with cultural institutions and science museums.”

The Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s Walker named Brent Benjamin, the Barbara Taylor Director at the St. Louis Art Museum. “Brent taught me the ups and downs of management and to realize that the most common thing you can expect is that situations with staff, donors and visitors will constantly change,” Walker said. “Live in the now, but do not get wedded to any specific result. Brent taught me that a museum is a unique community that evolves and adapts to changing circumstances. Be prepared and check your ego at the door.”

Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, cited two among a number of mentors – Duncan Robinson, who was director of the Yale Center for British Art, and David Boren, a former U.S. senator from Oklahoma and now president of the University of Oklahoma. As a coincidence, the Yale Center, like the Kimbell, was designed by Louis Kahn. “From Duncan Robinson I learned how to run a museum, and from David Boren I was able to learn from a master of diplomacy, politics, fundraising and leadership,” Lee said.

“Early in my career, when I was an educator in an art museum, before coming to the Sid Richardson Museum, my mentors were Harriet Hayward, who was an artist – a painter – and Nancy Berry, a professor in graduate school in museum studies in the college of visual arts and design at the University of North Texas,” said Burke, director of the Sid Richardson Museum. “In my tenure at the Sid Richardson Museum, I have been fortunate to have Dr. Rick Stewart, former director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, as well as Pete Geren, president of the Sid Richardson Foundation, as mentors. All were and are great listeners and great teachers, passionate about their professions and generous in sharing their knowledge and experience.”

The Modern Art Museum’s Price has an unusual mentor. She took a break from graduate school to work for Joseph Alsop, a legendary political columnist in Washington until he retired from writing the column in 1974. He died in 1989.

The New York Times said in his obituary that Alsop’s column, which ultimately appeared under the title Matter of Fact, was believed to be the longest-running nationally syndicated column of its kind, appearing three times a week in 300 newspapers.

Price said Alsop was writing an art history book and wanted someone’s help with research.

“I was as wet behind the ears as they get, and so I went and worked for him for two years,” she said. “He was just an incredibly learned, terrific guy. I made a deal with him that we would never talk about the Vietnam War [The Times called him “a fierce supporter”] because we had differing positions on it. We shook hands on it, actually.”

She believes he was largely responsible for her getting a job at the National Gallery because of his letter of recommendation.

“Joe had the most breadth of learning of anybody I’ve ever come across. He could have a conversation about the minute issues with the political scene or ancient Egypt or other ancient cultures, the politics of France in the 17th century,” she said. “There just wasn’t any limit to him. He spoke fluent French and traveled many, many times around the world. I remember he used to have all these friends that would call sometimes and they said, ‘This is so-and-so calling,’ and I remember I would think, ‘Is that the so-and-so?’ It always was.”

ON THE CHANGING FACE OF PHILANTHROPY

“The traditional pathways of philanthropic support are changing,” Walker said. “The generation that will inherit the art museums operating today approaches engagement differently. At the Amon Carter, we are committed to building relationships that align with a person, a family, a corporation – anyone who believes in our mission. My feeling is that the future is about new audiences giving to art museums in smaller but more meaningful ways. For now, our challenge is to build fresh patterns of engagement within groups of art enthusiasts.”

Lee has seen what he calls a generational shift since he arrived in Fort Worth in 2009, including the deaths of Ruth Carter Stevenson and other cultural leaders. “This generational shift is not just limited to Fort Worth but is national. In Fort Worth, the next generation is doing an outstanding job taking the reins,” Lee said, “but one of the greatest challenges facing museums and the arts will be finding and cultivating new leaders who will carry on the great work done by their predecessors.”

Burke noted that her museum is funded by the Sid Richardson Foundation and does not feel the general impact of changing philanthropy. “But the future is challenging for all museums as they find themselves competing with alternative options for education, entertainment and experiences,” she said. “Donors want to see impact from their investments, and visitors want to find value, meaning and enjoyment in their leisure time, and museums must continually reinvent themselves to stay relevant.”

Hodgson is concerned about the future support for museums in general and thinks the “old-style museum business model of a big facility with lots of things to see” may be outdated.

“Facilities need to be sized properly with multiple streams of income,” he said. “They have to strive to be self-sufficient in as many ways as possible and not rely on a benefactor who could lose interest and go away.” He believes a new business model needs to include rental space, experiential exhibits, an outreach that brings income and collaboration with other community organizations.

Romans says philanthropy is changing, but Fort Worth is lucky to have older generations of philanthropists who are bringing their children, and even their grandchildren, into the decision-making process.

“But it’s our job to help them by making sure they know and understand us, and that we keep them updated about what we’re doing and where we’re going. We welcome the opportunity to work with them,” he said.

Romans is more excited than concerned about the future. “Our long-range strategic plan includes embracing integrated technology in the [Science and History] Museum with the development of what we call the Academy of Digital Learning, or ADL. This new transformational initiative will include educational technology that will make us, and Fort Worth, a national leader. Our advisers from MIT, Harvard, the California Academy of Science and the Lucas Educational Foundation are helping us achieve what will be a truly remarkable museum dedicated to learning in the 21st century.”

Price recalls the advice from a consultant when the Modern was beginning the fundraising for the current building. “One of the first things she said is, ‘Never make the mistake that because someone has a lot of money, they’re going to give you some of it.’ There has to be a connection. There has to be a communication. There has to be an interest.

“We have very generous supporters and they’re passionately interested in what we do, and what’s the next show, and what’s the next painting that we’re going to buy, so I think cultivating interest among your supporters is very important,” Price said.

“The wealth profile of this community, it seems to me, has increased enormously, and I think very generously, but it is a question of finding that supporter who is really interested in what you’re doing and really wants to be a part of it.”

Director Bios

Mary Burke has been director of the Sid Richardson Museum, 309 Main St. in Sundance Square, for five years. In 1996, she was hired as the museum’s first fulltime educator, serving as director of education until 2006. From 2006 to early 2007, she was an education specialist for the National Archives and Records Administration-Southwest in Fort Worth, but she rejoined the museum in 2007 and was promoted to director in January 2012. She earned her master’s degree in art education with museum education certification in 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in all-level art education from Texas Christian University.

Jim Hodgson, executive director of the Fort Worth Aviation Museum, is from Chicago and graduated in 1971 from the University of Illinois as an industrial engineer. He earned his naval aviator wings with the U.S. Marine Corps in 1972 and a master’s degree in management in 1976. He became a pilot for Continental Airlines in 1978 and retired in 2013 with more than 28,000 flight hours. In 1997, he helped found the OV-10 Bronco Association as a nonprofit corporation that operates the Fort Worth Aviation Museum.

Eric M. Lee became the fourth director of the Kimbell Art Museum in March 2009. Lee previously was director of the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati. During his tenure, the Kimbell added a new pavilion designed by Renzo Piano, which opened in late 2013 and complements Louis Kahn’s original landmark structure of 1972. Lee was born in North Carolina and received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, all in art history, from Yale University. Between college and graduate school, Lee worked at the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in Washington for Oklahoma Sen. David L. Boren, who later recruited him to be director of the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

Marla Price joined the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth as chief curator in 1986. She was appointed acting director of the museum in April 1991 and named director in January 1992. She is a native of Richmond, Virginia. She received a bachelor’s degree from Mary Washington College and a doctorate in art history from the University of Virginia. She previously served as deputy information officer and then associate curator of 20th century art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Patricia Riley was appointed executive director of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in 1996 after its move from Hereford, Texas, to Fort Worth. She piloted the planning, design, fundraising and opening of the current museum, which debuted in June 2002. In 2002, Riley was also named executive director of the Cattle Raisers Museum. The culmination of her work was the opening of the Cattle Raisers Museum inside the new Fort Worth Museum of Science and History complex, which opened in November 2009. Riley was a television producer and documentary filmmaker prior to moving to Fort Worth.

Van Romans became president of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in 2004. He was previously the longtime executive director/cultural affairs for Walt Disney Imagineering, in Glendale, California. He holds a master of fine arts in three dimensional and environmental design from the University of Southern California; a bachelor degree in fine arts, design from the University of California; and an associate in arts from Southwestern College. He also holds certification in the Harvard University Museum Studies-Leadership Sessions program.

Andrew Walker became executive director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in January 2011. Previous experience includes assistant director for curatorial affairs and curator of American art at the Saint Louis Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, work at the Missouri Historical Society, also in St. Louis, and positions with the Art Institute of Chicago. He received a doctorate in the history of art from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a bachelor’s degree in art history from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

Would you like the option to login with your social media account?
Login using Facebook, Google, or LinkedIn instead of having to create a FWBP account?

Get our email updates

Paul Harral
Paul is a lifelong journalist with experience in wire service, newspaper, magazine, local and network television and digital media. He was vice president and editor of the editorial page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine before joining the Business Press. What he likes best is writing about people in detail and introducing them to others in the community. Specific areas of passion are homelessness, human trafficking, health care and aerospace.

Related Articles

Our Digital Sponsors

Stay Connected

7,457FansLike
1,942FollowersFollow
11,841FollowersFollow
93SubscribersSubscribe

Join Our Newsletter

Latest Articles