COMMENTARY : These Are the...

Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

In January, the Seattle Art Museum made a shocking announcement. Mary Gardner Neill had accepted the board of trustees' invitation to become director of the museum, a post she will assume in May.

What was shocking was not the nature of Neill's qualifications for so demanding a job. A respected scholar of Asian art, she has been director since 1987 of the Yale University Art Gallery, one of the foremost university museums in the country. Furthermore, she has worked in the museum field for nearly 20 years.

No, what took observers by stunned surprise was far simpler: Mary Gardner Neill is a woman. With her appointment in Seattle, she becomes one of just three women currently holding the job of director in a major art museum in the United States.

The glass in the glass ceiling for women in the museum profession remains stubbornly thick. Today, only two other women--Anne d'Harnoncourt at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Kathy Halbreich at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center--hold directorships at museums that rank among what are generally considered the largest or most significant in the United States.

Opinions might of course vary as to which American museums should be described as major. Furthermore, a small number of women have directed significant museums in the past; Grace McCann Morley, for example, was the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 1935 to 1958.

Nonetheless, when considering the field as a whole, women are clearly anomalies as museum directors.

Approximately 40 women currently direct smaller or more specialized institutions, including university galleries. That compares with about 120 males, who are at the helm of museums of all shapes and sizes. The New York-based Assn. of Art Museum Directors, a professional organization that represents the leaders of art institutions with annual operating budgets of at least $1.4 million, says that roughly 75% of its 160 current members are men.

That high figure is in fact down substantially from as recently as 15 years ago, when virtually every art museum in the United States, large or small, had a male director. As in the business world, the trend is moving in a more equitable direction.

Yet, plainly, it isn't moving very fast. It might even be said to be moving very slowly--at least as slowly as in other sectors of American corporate culture, where as recently as 1993 a single woman headed a Fortune 500 company. The arts might have a muzzy reputation for progressive innovation, but the profile is based on the creative work of individual artists, not on the institutional branch of the art world.

In fact, most art museums in the United States are essentially conservative in their programming and operation, or else they tend toward a centrist middle ground. Because the political center of the United States shifted sharply rightward in the 1980s, even those museums that claim a centrist commitment are today noticeably more conservative than hitherto might have been expected.

To some degree, museums are conservative simply because they are also corporations--nonprofit corporations, to be sure, but corporations nonetheless. Institutions of any kind usually play it safe, which means they are reluctant to disturb the status quo. Don't expect them to take the lead in social movements, including movements toward social equity.

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The corporate Establishment also dominates the boardrooms of our cultural institutions, and it is a museum's board that hires the director. Surely the glass ceiling for women in art museums is composed of many of the same stubborn ingredients as the one that intrudes in business.

Countless business studies have shown that, in order to advance, women managers are expected to have more strengths and fewer faults than their male counterparts. (The expectations are often unconsciously held.) They also must be tough without appearing macho. Overall, women are held back by a corporate Establishment that is simply not yet comfortable with their presence.

Some differences in the ceiling seem specific to museums. For instance, length of service is often cited in the business world as an explanation for why professional women do not now occupy more corner suites; however, that reasoning doesn't fit art museums.

On average, it takes about 35 years after college to become a corporate chief executive officer, and few women were in business school in 1959. Museum directors, by contrast, often move into the job while in their 40s. For years, at least as many women as men have been in the curatorial, administrative or even academic realms, from which museums traditionally recruit directors.

So it must be asked: If it is understandable (if unsatisfactory) that art museums are not in the forefront of corporate or institutional change, specifically in the matter of women occupying the top chairs, why do they actually seem to languish somewhere in the rear of the pack?

An answer to this paradox will be found in one peculiar feature of the discomfort felt by a corporate Establishment already uneasy with women as peers. The explanation lies in the specific place occupied by art in American culture: Generally, Americans consider the arts to be a feminine activity, not a masculine one.

Think of the familiar comic image of the reluctant husband being dragged to an art museum--or to an opera, a symphony, the theater or a ballet--by his insistent (if slightly silly) wife. The image is a staple of our modern folklore. Therein lies the obstacle.

In her dazzling 1977 book "The Feminization of American Culture," historian Ann Douglas persuasively located the source of this routine perception in a profound sociological transformation in American life. (Her focus was on literature, but it applies to the arts altogether.) In the second half of the 19th Century, galloping industrialization dramatically transformed the historic roles of women and men, while it also shaped the role of art.

Traditionally, women and men had been domestic co-producers within the home. The Industrial Revolution changed all that. Household tasks were definitively split. Men went into factories to produce goods, while women came to be consumers of those products.

Simultaneously, art was becoming a form of consumable leisure. Educated women, in their new role as consumer, began to emerge as the prime consumers of American culture.

Often with the encouragement of the clergy, which also slid into insignificance in the male-dominated industrial society that arose in the late 1800s, women had an increasingly pronounced effect on the only areas still open to their influence. Thus was drawn a loose equation between the arts and femininity.

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This equation is a core reason for the low station long since accorded the arts in American life. Our devaluation of the arts parallels our habitual devaluation of women's interests. It is largely why the arts fare so poorly in our public school curriculum, why our federal appropriation for the arts is the lowest in the developed world and why Americans typically see the arts as a social trophy, rather than as integral to a pleasurable life.

The equation between the arts and femininity is also an unacknowledged factor in the dearth of women among American museum directors.

Women might seem to be likely, even inevitable, candidates for a job associated with an activity Americans regard as feminine. The truth is quite the contrary. For in order to be taken seriously, the institutions of art have reacted to the feminization of culture by placing an outsize emphasis on masculinity. They overcompensate.

Art museums typically yearn to be a community's leading trophy case, in a society that privileges the productive work of men. However, they suffer in fulfilling that aspiration because the arts are an activity associated with the leisure pastime of women. The director, as an art institution's individual public face, can compensate--if it's a man, preferably one with a wife and kids.

Women are welcome in the lower professional levels and certainly in the essential ranks of volunteers, where they in fact keep museums afloat. But the directorship is unique. A business might put a woman at the top, but it's still a business: She's succeeded in "a man's world." If a museum puts a woman at the top, however, culture's feminine aura is visibly--and unproductively--emphasized.

At least that's how the usually unconscious social dynamic seems to have worked to date. Perhaps, on the evidence of Philadelphia, Minneapolis and now Seattle, the repressive structure is finally beginning to change.

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The explosion in the number and prominence of art museums in the United States since the 1960s has coincided with the slowly changing status of women in American society. Maybe the two tributaries are starting to flow together.

At present, the Assn. of Art Museum Directors lists a whopping 20 eligible member institutions in the United States that are in the market for directors. Many are smaller, but some are among the largest and most prestigious around. These include New York's eminent Museum of Modern Art, Boston's venerable Museum of Fine Arts and Baltimore's important Walters Art Gallery. It also includes the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which may have had its share of woes in the last 18 months or so but nonetheless ranks among the most important venues anywhere.

The high vacancy rate is explained in many ways, most commonly by the degree to which the job has become a grueling and unenviable task of nonstop fundraising, which wears directors down. Meanwhile, many grumble about a dearth of fresh talent available for the post.

Surely one reason for the perception that the talent pool is small and hard to fill is that, when the all-important search for a director is launched, a significant proportion of potentially outstanding candidates just don't come to mind as viable.

The art museum's glass ceiling slides quietly into place.

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