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COMMENTARY : These Are the Only Women Running Major Art Museums in the United States. Can You Believe It? : Directing museums has always been a male-dominated occupation, and only three women head major art museums in the U.S. today. Despite the current rather high vacancy rate in directorships, the corporate Establishment can't seem to shake its anti-female bias in the arts field

March 27, 1994|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | 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?

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