This article is part of our special coverage of the Art for Tomorrow conference in the Italian cities of Florence and Solomeo.
When Laurence des Cars was named president of the Louvre in 2021, it was a historic milestone. The most visited museum in the world was headed by a woman for the first time since its foundation in 1793.
“Top jobs are symbols,” Ms. des Cars recently said in an interview. “And I take the symbol very seriously.”
She already had a major lead role at a major institution, running the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, but the reaction to the Louvre news surprised her because of what she called the “intensity and global echo of the announcement.”
Ms. des Cars was the most prominent example in a wave of women taking on top positions at some of the world’s greatest museums.
In recent years, women have taken over from men to run Tate, comprising four British museums; the Vatican Museums; the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Saint Louis Art Museum and much more. And it only seems to be accelerating.
The topic may come up during a panel discussion at the Art for Tomorrow conference, taking place April 26-30 in Florence and Solomeo, Italy. Speakers for the April 27 panel, “Gender and the Arts – Crises and Correctives,” include Dana Dajani, an actress and poet; Rachel Lehmann, co-founder of the Lehmann Maupin Gallery; and Christian Levett, an art collector.
“I’ve been encouraged to see this field of women,” said Anne Pasternak, who was named director of the Brooklyn Museum in 2015. “Someone recently said we are becoming a ‘pink collar’ profession.”
Sasha Suda, who took over from Timothy Rub as director of the Philadelphia Museum last year, said that given that women make up 51 percent of humanity, “the big question is why this hasn’t happened until now.”
Ellen V. Futter, who stepped down in March after nearly 30 years as president of the American Museum of Natural History, was the rare exception in a sea of male directors when she got her job.
“I feel great joy at how much more common it has become, and the quality and success of what they’ve done,” Ms Futter said. She added, “I’m a proud mama.”
Many in the art world agree that the wave is long overdue. But now that they have some of the top jobs, what are female leaders doing with their power, what has the experience been like for them – and what are the reactions to their positions? And is there a noticeable difference in their performance compared to male drivers?
Many of the women in top positions have built a camaraderie and see themselves as a group.
“We are all women of a certain generation, in our mid-50s,” says Maria Balshaw, who became a director of Tate in 2017 (she oversees Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London; Tate Liverpool; and Tate St. Ives in Cornwall) . “We have a long track record of innovation and creative leadership. We all support each other in our careers.”
Ms Balshaw warned that despite progress, museum directors are still overwhelmingly male.
“I was on a Zoom recently with international museum directors, and it was still 75 per cent men,” Ms Balshaw said. “There’s still a long way to go.”
Kaywin Feldman — who succeeded Earl A. Powell II in 2019 as director of the National Gallery in Washington, making her the museum’s first female leader — pointed to the existence of an affinity group for women within the Association of Art Museum Directors , which meets periodically.
“For the past 10 years, the question has been, ‘Should we still meet?’ said Ms Feldman, referring to the progress made. “Someone’s answer was, ‘If the men have their own affinity group, we can stop.'”
Museums often have many women in deputy director positions, especially among curators. “At my institution, 67 percent of the workforce is women,” said Ms. Balshaw. “Until recently, that did not flow to the top of the organization.”
Ms Balshaw added: ‘History is catching up with the museum. You can’t have so much female talent and not let it seep into leadership roles.”
According to a 2022 study by the nonprofit research group Ithaka S+R, in the North American museums they surveyed, “female employees make up a vast majority, more than 75 percent.”
The report also noted, “Female employee representation in museum leadership has increased significantly, from 58 percent in 2015 to 66 percent in 2022.” The research was conducted in collaboration with the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors and was funded by the Mellon Foundation.
That gives female leaders a pool of talent to draw from when it comes to staffing decisions, and many of them said elevating other women internally was a priority.
“I’m not just hiring women, I’m promoting women’s predominance,” said Marcelle Polednik, the director of the Milwaukee Art Museum since 2016 and the first female leader in its history.
Acceptance decisions are important, but not always immediately visible to museum visitors who come for the art.
“It’s faster to change the program than anything else,” Ms Balshaw said of the impact a director can make with exhibitions. “We just now expect our program to be gender balanced.”
But she pointed out that success on that point depended on the era in question: “You never get gender balance in the 17th century.”
While most female museum leaders are white, there are notable exceptions. Black women’s leaders include one of the longer-serving female directors, Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Brooke A. Minto, who was recently appointed to lead the Columbus Museum of Art.
Earlier this year, Pakistan-born Asma Naeem became director of the Baltimore Museum of Art and Min Jung Kim, born and raised in South Korea, will take over the Saint Louis Art Museum in 2021.
Diversification of programming is a clear priority for female directors.
At the National Gallery of Art, the annual number of artworks purchased by female and non-binary artists has increased 150 percent since 2018, and the presence of works by artists of color has increased 405 percent over the same period.
“The more diverse we are, the stronger we are,” Ms. Feldman said.
She added that the percentage of shows with significant female representation has risen from 4 percent in the past 22 years to 13 percent in scheduled shows for the next four years — which she said sounded low. “Change is gradual,” she said.
One topic not all executives agree on is whether women inherently add something special to leadership roles simply based on their gender – a theory sometimes referred to as essentialism.
Mrs. Feldman thinks so. “There are many studies, books and articles about the difference in leadership styles of men and women,” she said. “I do think that you see in women that they have a greater tendency to reach consensus. More collaboration. Humbler, more empathetic and self-deprecating.”
Raphaela Platow, the director of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky., said her approach focused on “caring and befriending, whereas for men it’s often fight or flight.”
Ms. Platow noted that she grew up in Germany and had wanted to work in art since high school. But role models were scarce. “When I started, there were almost no women in museums in Germany,” she said.
Some place themselves somewhere in the middle on the scale of essentialism. “I’m halfway there,” Mrs. Balshaw said. “What I think is that through training and acculturation, most women have progressed by working together rather than competing.”
Joanne Heyler, the founder and director of the Broad museum in Los Angeles, was skeptical. “Beware of the essentialism trap,” she said.
She noted that many of Los Angeles’ major art institutions had women at the helm, including the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hammer Museum. “It’s more than critical mass,” she said. “LA is a little more open to exploration and there’s a sense that not every rule has to be followed.”
Madame des Cars of the Louvre said she was “cautious” when it came to essentialism, adding: “Women can be terrible directors too. I’ve seen a few.”
But again, she also noted that at the Louvre, she’s made listening to the staff a top priority. “I openly answer questions at least twice a year,” she said at a gathering of more than 2,000 people, some of whom attended via video calls.
Ms des Cars added: “I’m not sure a man would do that.”
Some institutions had an edge in empowering women because they were more likely to be led by them. Last year, Mrs. Suda took over the helm of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but it was led by Anne d’Harnoncourt for more than 25 years, beginning in 1982, a storied tenure.
When considering the job, Ms. Suda said, “Several of my colleagues said, ‘Philadelphia is great, women have already run it and been successful.’ It was a heartwarming reason to come here, if not the only one.”
When Ms. Pasternak arrived at the Brooklyn Museum, having previously run the non-profit arts organization Creative Time, it already housed the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. “Equality is part of our DNA,” said Ms Pasternak. “I’m in a privileged position.”
For her part, Ms. Pasternak said that since she got the director’s chair she has not experienced any sexist backlash, but others have.
Ms. Polednik from Milwaukee recalled that when she arrived at the museum she had a 3-year-old and was excited about the idea of special stroller rides for parents of young children. “People are afraid to bring kids to the museum,” she said.
Ms. Polednik told a male donor. His response, she said, was, “You don’t really want those kids in the museum, do you?” They should be at home with their mothers who take care of them.’”
It’s not always so overt, she added. “It happens in all sorts of subtle ways.”
Raising money from donors is an important part of most museum directors’ agendas, unless they have primary funding from the government.
“Women need to prove themselves more,” Ms. Pasternak said, noting that Brooklyn’s endowment has nearly doubled during her tenure. “People don’t trust their possessions to women the way they do to men. It’s very unconscious.”
She said the process has become easier with the arrival of more female patrons. “Increasingly, we’re seeing more inheritance gifts from women,” she said. “Women put their names on buildings. They step up.” Recently, Brooklyn received a $3 million gift from Iris Cantor to refresh its outdoor plaza.
Ms. Futter said that looking back at her long tenure, she was especially aware of the need for talent, regardless of gender. “I hope there are great opportunities for men as well,” she said. “We need everyone in the orchestra.”