Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Tag: nonprofit

Modern Views on Museum Leadership: The Case Against Visionary Leaders

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.

Fundraising Galas: Effective or Expensive?

As we enter another busy holiday season and close out 2022, many museums and non-profits are engaging in special fundraising projects to increase end-of-year giving. Among these development strategies is one that many museum professionals have come to know and even fear: the annual gala.

Fundraising galas, most popular during the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day, are one of the most popular and commonly used high-yield development projects. A well-executed gala not only brings in significant income—it also attracts media and drives public interest in the museum or charity hosting the event. Many of these events, such as the notorious Met Gala, are synonymous with wealth and popularity, but are they effective in creating economic stability for the host institution? It’s a complicated issue over which development and museum professionals are divided.

One could describe them the same way Winston Churchill famously described democracy: the worst option, except for all the other options that have been tried before.

Taylor Dafoe, ArtNET

Galas clearly create economic opportunities for those participating. During gala season, event planning agencies, furniture rentals, event venues, caterers, and entertainers experience a significance increase in business. Many museums and non-profits lack the operating capacity to achieve an event of such scope with their in-house resources, so they seek out community partners to pull of these fundraisers. This creates fantastic opportunities for collaboration, but often stretches the financial limits of the fundraising institution.

Best fundraising tactics stipulate that the cost for executing a gala should not exceed 30% of the income generated by the event; however, this is a budgeting goal that is oftentimes unrealistic, especially for nascent and small organizations. Galas come at a staggering cost to plan—a study for ArtNet reveals that some museums’ gala budgets exceed the total income brought in by their yearly admission sales. This ratchets pressure for museum staff to plan and execute an event that will surpass the steep investment.

Not only is the stress of planning a successful event a considerable burden for museum staff—it also often precludes them from completing their typical professional duties. This is especially true for smaller organizations, as development departments often cease other projects in the months leading up to the gala in order to complete the rigorous planning process. As seasoned fundraising professionals note, this can considerably negatively impact a museum’s overall fundraising success by derailing other significant revenue-generating projects.

In addition to apprehensions regarding the fundraising efficacy of galas, some professionals note the ethical dilemmas of such projects. Academics Philip Hackney and Brian Middendorf reveal that galas can potentially contradict the intentions and missions of the non-profit institution. Because these celebrations often focus on grand gestures of decadence, they may not represent the non-profit’s philanthropic values. This may be especially relevant for nonprofits dedicated to serving an economically disadvantaged population. 

In light of these arguments against the traditional gala fundraising model, some alternatives may point towards a more sustainable future. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many museums to forgo their annual in-person galas. Some institutions opted to host virtual events. While these events typically worked towards a reduced fundraising goal, the virtual nature also decreased overhead costs. Some nonprofits like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital also produce “no-go” galas, sponsored events with no in-person party. As fundraising professionals recognize, annual galas are attractive because of their abilities to drive large donations; however, museums can work towards this goal with other major gift campaigns that may require less investment of limited resources.

Overall, galas are a recognizable form of fundraising that increases visibility in the public eye and introduces museums to potential repeat donors. Museums should exercise caution, however, before pursuing such an event. Fundraising professionals recommend museums consult their boards and operations staff to determine feasibility and goals for such an involved project.


Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University

Spam prevention powered by Akismet