In her article for Hyperallergic, Chazen Art Museum director Amy Gilman precautions museum professionals against falling into the “cult of the visionary museum director,” the idea that museum leaders should aspire to grand visions for the future of the institution.[1] She argues that this perspective is shortsighted and does not account for the short-term and long-term steps and strategies required to realize a museum’s mission: “As directors we must keep envisioning at the 1000-foot view, but unless we can ground that view in pragmatic examples that help our teams link aspiration to action, the 1000-foot view remains an elusive and frustrating dream.”[2] While Gilman’s argument against the visionary director is controversial, the evidence she provides to support this argument proves that she herself is an effective leader whose career could be interpreted by some to be visionary. For this reason, this article and the topic of effective museum leadership in general allude to the ideological shift modern museums experience to meet the changing needs of their communities.

The job should be less about fantastical visions and more about defining practical objectives for the entire institution and its constituents.

Amy GIlman, HyperallergiC (2021)

Museums are facing increasing public scrutiny about their missions and purpose in their respective communities. To maintain relevancy, museums must meet the complex needs of their communities, and museums are therefore experiencing great changes. It is more important now than ever that museum leaders be intuitive, dynamic, and competent to facilitate this institutional reinvention.[3] Now that museums are increasingly more active in their communities, directors have an even greater need to have experience in public relations, business management, finance, and marketing. While curatorial skills are an advantage, some high-level museum director job advertisements do not require experience in non-profits.[4] As scholar Willard Boyd asserts, the director must understand the mission and culture of the museum. Directors must have an aspirational vision of the museum grounded in reality, and the director must have the means through which to achieve the vision.[5] Boyd agrees with Gilman about the need for a pragmatic, rather than visionary, director: “To be effective, the director must be able to figure out what the right things are and then be able to get them done.”[6] For the role of the director, imagination must be accompanied by sound judgement.[7]

Additionally, Sherene Suchy reminds museum professionals of the importance of strong emotional intelligence. Effective leaders should communicate their passion for their institution to others, including potential funders and trustees.[8] Emotionally intelligent directors are likely to practice cohesive leadership, meaning responsibility is shared and staff training and development are prioritized. Cohesive leaders exemplify the behaviors they expect from their staff.[9] Emotionally intelligent leaders often lean into empathy, a trait critical to modern leadership. It is a driver of change, and leaders who practice empathy may be able to understand the pressures facing underpaid staff. For this reason, empathy is the foundation of diversity, inclusion, and pay equity.[10]

In the study of leadership in museums, it is apparent that there are many ideas about the qualities and skills an effective director should possess. Just as institutions have unique needs and missions, there can be no definitive model of a director that could efficiently serve any museum. Willard Boyd reminds the museum field that a perfect director does not exist. Instead, trustees should search for an effective leader who can grow as he or she gains institutional knowledge.[11] The ideal values of leadership, namely pragmatism and emotional intelligence, are not quantifiable and are challenging to identify in the candidate search process. Board members should therefore be prepared to assess candidates not just on their exciting ideas for the position, but also on their commitment to their current posts.


Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University


[1] Amy Gilman, “The Era of the Visionary Museum Director Is Over … or It Should Be,” Hyperallergic, July 27, 2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gail Anderson, Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2012): 1.

[4] Willard L. Boyd. “Wanted: An Effective Director.” Curator 38, no. 3 (1995): 171-172.

[5] Ibid., 177-178.

[6] Ibid.,177.

[7] Ibid., 178.

[8] Sherene Suchy, “Emotional Intelligence, Passion and Museum Leadership,” Museum Management and Curatorship 18, no. 1 (1999): 60.

[9] Des Griffin and Morris Abraham, “The Effective Management of Museums: Cohesive Leadership and Visitor-Focused Public Programming,” Museum Management and Curatorship 18, no. 4 (June 2000): 335-368.

[10] Amy Whitaker, “Reconsidering People as the Institution: Empathy, Pay, Equity, and Deaccessioning as Key Leadership Strategies in Art Museums,” Organizational Leadership 64, no. 2 (April 2021): 257.

[11] Boyd, 177.