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Design Museum Hopes 11th Director’s the Charm

Design Museum Hopes 11th Director’s the Charm
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Design Museum Hopes 11th Director’s the Charm

Design Museum Hopes 11th Director’s the Charm

Since 2013, directors have walked through the revolving door of the Museum of Arts and Design at 2 Columbus Circle with surprising vision and speed. One director lasted five months, suddenly resigning to pursue what he described as a commitment to “the fate of humanism and democracy.” His successor lasted for two years, pushing the museum towards what some employees called an “identity crisis” by emphasizing technology over design in the programming of exhibitions. Board members intervened after employees complained about his management style, and he resigned.

Enter Timothy R. Rodgers, the museum’s 11th director in eight years (including six acting). Trustees say they depend on Rodgers, a seasoned director who recently left the Phoenix Art Museum, to run the design museum after a turbulent year of pandemic cuts and executive resignations.

“We wanted someone who can truly be our future,” said Michael Dweck, the museum’s treasurer, who led the search for a new director. “I understand the stakes are high given the perceived churn rate we’ve had.”

Some employees said a carousel of different directors bringing in new approaches has drained staff, strained relationships with some artists, and damaged trust in the board. Former directors have described the institution’s woes as a reflection of poor board governance.

“The responsibility ends with the people who made these appointments,” said Holly Hotchner, director of the museum for nearly two decades, who left in 2013 and now heads the National Women’s History Museum in Washington, DC. have very little business and financial management experience.

Rodgers, who takes the helm in September, said in an interview that “the first thing I have to do is gain the trust of the staff. “

He added: “You have to be fair and consistent. You have to be clear. ”He expressed a desire to focus on contemporary artists, create a curatorial position for Indigenous arts, and diversify the predominantly white picture.

Founded in 1956 as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts on West 53rd Street, then renamed the American Craft Museum in 1979, the institution billed itself as the country’s first museum dedicated to crafts. Hotchner expanded its mission in 2002 to incorporate art and design, signaled by a name change to the Museum of Arts and Design, known as MAD. She moved the museum to Columbus Circle, adapting a 1963 building by famous architect Edward Durell Stone that had fallen into disuse. The new 54,000 square foot corporate headquarters, inlaid with clear and fritted glass and an enamelled terracotta facade, opened in 2008.

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The museum has built a reputation for exhibits acclaimed by curators like Lowery Stokes Sims and David Revere McFadden. There are over 3,000 objects in his collection of artists such as Faith Ringgold, Wendell Castle and Derrick Adams. Its gift shop and Skyline restaurant generate a combined turnover of $ 1.8 million, more than the museum generated admissions and membership fees in 2019.

But despite the accolades, MAD has had an unusually high turnover with directors, a trend that industry experts say is an aberration in an area where leaders often stay with their cultural institutions for many years.

Even during a pandemic where thousands of New York City cultural workers experienced layoffs and time off, executive turnover remained low, according to Christine Anagnos, director of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

The turmoil at MAD represents how a series of bad decisions can snowball into disaster, say board critics. Many say the problems began after the board replaced Hotchner in 2013 with an outspoken critic of his administration, curator Glenn Adamson, who joined in the vision of restoring the museum’s early commitment to the museum. ‘Arts and crafts. (When that word was deleted from the museum’s name in 2002, not everyone was happy.)

Hotchner described the transition as “unnecessarily thoughtless,” saying Adamson “was hired with no experience as a director,” and he struggled to grab the reins of the institution. By his own admission, Adamson said in an interview, he was more focused on leading the museum’s conservation efforts. “Frankly, fundraising hadn’t been one of my strengths before I worked,” said Adamson, whose former role as research director at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was not the usual experience of a manager.

Over the past decade, MAD has consistently posted annual deficits of up to $ 2.4 million on its federal disclosure forms. The board generally covered these shortcomings, and did so again during the pandemic, donating nearly $ 2 million. But attendance remains low, with around 33,000 visitors in the first six months of the year, a drop of nearly 75% in the number of museum visitors compared to the same pre-pandemic 2019 period.

To address budget challenges, Adamson, who resigned in March 2016, said the institution’s Columbus Circle location was expensive to operate, even though the board partially covered the losses. “It is more difficult to raise funds for the costs of the installations than a programming budget,” he added. “There is a good sizing that the next leader of the institution has yet to do.”

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Adamson’s resignation sparked another executive search, which ended with the September appointment of Jorge Daniel Veneciano, former director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem. But it only lasted five months, leaving behind a cloud of accusations from staff that they were not engaged in the mission.

“It was a bad cultural fit,” Veneciano said in an interview earlier this month, explaining that he had joined the museum with the vision of exploring themes of social justice through the globalization of the arts and of design. “But ultimately, the excitement between me and the board was not enough to solidify our partnership.”

When Veneciano left, several managers asked to participate in the upcoming board director search, but said they had been turned down. Christopher Scoates joined MAD in 2018 from the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum near Detroit, promising to lead the design museum into the 21st century and “to question the way we think about the future.”

But employees said Scoates was too focused on the future, urging the conservation department to look to exhibits devoted to technology rather than crafts. Staff members complained to the board that he was disruptive, often breaking protocols and over-promising to artists. He resigned in August 2020.

“Chris made a hiring decision and decided to create contracts for my department without even letting me know,” said Shannon Stratton, the museum’s chief curator, who resigned in 2019 due to disagreements with her. leadership style.

During her administration, an artist participating in the museum’s residency program, Emma Sulkowicz, complained to an official that she did not feel safe working in an on-site studio, informally referred to as “the zoo” by the staff because it was accessible to visitors.

In a letter of resignation from the program, provided to the New York Times, Sulkowicz expressed frustration that a security guard saw a museum visitor repeatedly brush against her in what she described as a “molestation.” She said Scoates had met her and promised that a guard would be posted outside the studio, but the visitor had returned and the harassment continued.

“I’m not going to sit in this torture chamber,” Sulkowicz wrote to the museum’s education manager, Cathleen Lewis, in her November 2018 resignation letter. Sulkowicz said she never had received a response to his letter. Wendi Parson, spokesperson for the museum, said last week that the museum had made efforts to implement “reasonable measures” to protect the “personal safety” of the artist.

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Other issues were raised at the museum during Scoates’ tenure, and following an investigation by the board of directors into the director’s management, he resigned. “It was not a good fit and there was a mutual decision for him to seek employment elsewhere,” said Michele Cohen, the chairman of the board.

Scoates declined to comment. His departure rocked the institution, forcing the board to reconsider its relationship with its staff, according to Cohen, who served as interim director. “We have become better listeners,” she said.

For the next executive search, the trustees have agreed to include an employee representing the interests of staff and an executive outside the museum, James S. Snyder, executive chairman of the Jerusalem Foundation. The museum said Rodgers fits his new criteria: a proven manager with at least a decade of experience and knowledge of the craft world.

Rodgers, who only spent a year at the Phoenix Art Museum before taking that position, was not asked to commit to a specific number of years at MAD, but Dweck, the administrator responsible for research, said they had an “understanding”. “He’s certainly not looking to jump at this point in his career,” Dweck said, adding that he and the museum “were looking forward to a long and successful tenure.”

But executive churn “could negatively impact an institution’s reputation,” said Gregory Stevens, director of the Institute for Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University. “When you google the museum, it’s just articles about the directors coming and going,” he stressed, adding that the perception of the crisis could be a serious handicap for the museum’s ability to lift. funds or to attract new visitors. “Something is wrong with the decision making of the board or they are not transparent with their candidate,” he said. “It does not show that the organization is acting together.”

Rodgers said he understands the stakes of his appointment and is already working on plans to make the museum more financially stable. “The museum has sources of income that others would die for,” Rodgers said, citing his gift shop and restaurant. “There is value in its location. I think it has all the right ingredients.

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