What makes a good museum director?

As a new generation of gallery leaders arrives, Art Fund chairman Chris Smith analyses the necessary qualities.

There’s a real sense of change in the leadership of many of our great museums and galleries at the moment. Nicholas Cullinan and Gabriele Finaldi are now well ensconced in their new roles at the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery respectively. Hartwig Fischer is becoming the new director of the British Museum, stepping into the almost-impossible-to-fill shoes of Neil MacGregor. Alex Farquharson has been appointed director of Tate Britain, with Sam Thorne replacing him at Nottingham Contemporary. Frances Morris has been announced as the forthcoming director of Tate Modern, and Kathryn Thomson is the new chief executive of National Museums Northern Ireland, two of the few women at the top of our national institutions. The torch is indeed being passed to a new generation.

This sense of change has prompted me to think afresh about the importance of real leadership in our museums and galleries. Any cultural organisation needs, of course, to be excellent artistically and aesthetically. It needs to be at the top of its cultural game. But it also needs to be effectively and brilliantly led, because only then will it make the most of what it has to offer for the sake of its audience and its visitors. This was the thought that led me – with the strong backing of Dame Vivien Duffield – to set up the Clore Leadership Programme 12 years ago. We felt then that we had some terrific leaders in the arts and culture here in Britain, but they tended to happen by accident rather than by design. We wanted to put a bit of the ‘design’ in place, to help to develop the potential, the skills, and the leadership ability of young up-and-coming stars of the future.

And I do think we were able to make a difference. Look around the museum landscape today, and you will see former Fellows from the Clore Leadership Programme leading significant institutions, and doing so really well: Tony Butler at the Derby Museums Trust, Paul Kirkman at the National Railway Museum, Nick Merriman at the Manchester Museum, Axel Rüger at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and Maria Balshaw at the Whitworth in Manchester, which won the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year last year.

So as we look ahead to announcing our 2016 finalists for the prize this spring, and our judges consider who has best demonstrated the exceptional achievement and innovation worthy of the prestigious £100,000 award, what is it, then, that makes for great leadership in a museum or gallery? It’s certainly about vision, about being able to see the big picture, and tell the story of what the museum is all about, to staff and potential visitors alike. It’s about the ability to innovate and find new ways of doing old things, as well as new things that no one has thought of before. It’s about having real passion for the purpose and content of what the museum does. It’s about having a true sense of determination to persevere when things, inevitably, turn out to be far more difficult to achieve than you first imagined. It means being able to keep your head and your calm when everything seems to be disintegrating around you, and being able to take tough and difficult decisions even when you’d rather not have to do so.

But there are two things above all that matter. The first is to realise that being a leader means building relationships with those around you, the staff, the team, the people without whom the museum can’t function. True leadership comes from drawing people around you, bringing them on a common journey. I remember when Neil MacGregor was director of the National Gallery and I would visit him as Secretary of State in the early morning. As we walked through the galleries he would greet all the cleaners and security staff by name. That was truly effective leadership.

And the other crucial thing is simple but hugely difficult. It’s to know yourself. To know who you are, what makes you tick, what your fundamental values are. Because if you don’t know yourself, you shouldn’t be daring to try to lead others. If this new inspiring generation of museum leaders remembers these two cardinal things, we are – all of us – in good hands.

Lord Smith of Finsbury is chairman of the Art Fund.

This article appears in Art Quarterly's spring 2016 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass.

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