How to become an art museum director

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Art museum director. If it means working in a monumental building and holding office amidst the best paintings in the world, I’d sign up for it. How great to know everything about art and be around people who know even more. Facilitate the world’s most impressive exhibitions. And, let’s be honest, earn some good dimes while you’re at it. My ultimate dream career, yours too?

I researched the careers of art museum directors of the largest and best known art museums around the world, from the Louvre to the Guggenheim to the Hermitage. And I found out that there are clear similarities between the directors’ careers. Knowledge is power, so do you one day want to become an art museum’s big shot? Knowing the following things will help you get there! 

Spotify tip while reading this post: On the frame by Beta Radio

Do you have to study art history?

Alright, so if you want to become an art museum director, it comes in handy to know a thing or two about art. Indeed, 99% of the directors I tracked started their careers studying art history. And they were probably very good at it, seeing the answer to the next question. A famous exception is Jean-Luc Martinez, director of the largest of them all: the Louvre. Martinez majored in archaeology. But before you get too excited, let us add that he specialized in ancient Greek sculpture, which overlaps with the field of art. So yes, study art history and ace it if you want to call Martinez your colleague.

How about studying museology instead? Great, because it prepares you for being a curator (see the next paragraph). But if you don’t get an indisputable reputation in the world of art museums, you might just as well become director of a museum of maritime history. Which seems pretty awesome too, but has little to do with art.

Do you have to start careers in a museum?

That’d be nice. Most of the art museum directors have started there and never left the field. There are examples of museum directors who worked out of the museum world like Wim Pijbes, now the director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. He started out curating on a freelance basis and soon started his own exhibition company called Art Support. But honest as we are, yes, he too started working with museums right away. It gains you knowledge, experience, and a unmissable network to draw from. If you manage to gain a reputation too, that’s the start to becoming an art museum director one day.

Almost all the directors whose careers I studied, started out as a curator. Either as an intern or an assistant. Some of the biggest prodigies started as a curator right away. The thing is, those are the sons of previous curators, who reign the museum like a kingdom and pass it on to posterity. A good example is the director of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in Russia and some directors in Asia. Nevertheless, being a curator sets you up for the straight line towards art museum directory.

And while you’re at it, try to begin in the largest museum you can get to. None of the directors of famous museums started in the local art gallery.

Times change, though. Talent and willpower go a long way, so never give up your dreams because it hasn’t been done before. However, custom changes slowly in most museums (sorry, but it’s true) so be aware of that when you make your choices and you really wish to conquer the museum world.

Should I stick with museums in my own country?

Here, times are changing, too. Directors on the highest level travel and take office in foreign countries these days. But tradition has it that you make the best chances in your own country. Most large museums never hired foreign directors and it makes sense. These museums are often national treasures operating on the highest levels of tourism. They are like ambassadors to the country. The Louvre is totally wired with French history. So wouldn’t it be counter intuitive to have a foreign director manage the place? This motive is especially strong in countries with a nationalist tendency. Whoops! But it’s true! France, USA, Russia, most Asian countries: they have strong governments, strong sentiments, and strong government influence over the election of museum directors. Just saying.

But there are exceptions, of course! Not in the least in Italy, quite a nationalist country itself. The Uffizi has chosen Eike Schmidt as the director for the museum. A German art museum professional. Perhaps they feel that the art collection is more universal to western society than it is Italian. And I agree. But to put it in perspective: Schmidt is the first non-Italian director there, ever, and he has strong relations with Italy through his specialization. He studied in Bologna and Florence. And his middle name seems to be ‘traveling’ as he was curator in the National Art Gallery in Washington and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles before.

So, unless you make it a habit like Schmidt did, just start out in your own country, gain a reputation and experience there. It most likely brings you further than going international.

Wim Pijbes, director of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Photo taken by Vincent Mentzel.

How about gender?

Damn, almost all of the art museum directors are male. For whatever reason, none of the least being it has always been this way. So if you’re not a man, make yourself count as one. Sometimes I wonder whether the world has changed at all since the Mona Lisa was painted.

From what age can you be a museum director?

Moving on to something else you can’t really influence. Time. The youngest art museum director I tracked was about 37 years old, which was Gabriele Finaldi of the National Gallery in London. That’s when he started, he is now 52. And Miguel Zugaza of the Prado in Madrid was 38 when he became director. But most of them well passed their 40’s before leading a museum. So do have patience and keep working on it.

Good to see you! I'm Yvette, founder & editor at Museologue. This place serves you stories on cool careers, bold life choices, mind buzzing art, personal leadership, travel, and all the other inspiring things people do and create!
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Need to be a geek to become art museum director?

Well, ehm, yes. Tweed suits, horn glasses, deep frown, a full time focus on art. Super talented and smart, but mostly not the most happening people on any party. Or it’d be an art salon discussion party. Of course this is just an assumption based on presentation videos (intonation, directors, please!), looks, and press coverage. And it makes sense: any top professional, artist or sportsman has some crazy geekness going on. If you don’t totally, intensely immerse yourself in your field of geekness, how do you motivate yourself to become the very very best at it?

Art museum director vs manager

The exception to the dusty kind of geekdom is Wim Pijbes of the Rijksmuseum. He is more like an entrepreneur, a modern day manager. Someone who thinks out of the box and loves new ideas. He looks more like a business CEO in a grey suit than that he resembles the typical art museum director. Most directors are a little more conservative and behave more like strong-willed directors than managers.

I don’t know how this can help you become a director. You are the way you are and that’s your strength. Yet awareness of the status quo will bring you a long way. If a museum’s aim is not to be the most innovative museum around, they are not looking for a super innovative director either. So as with any vacancy, there has to be a perfect match. And that depends on luck and being in the right place at the right time.

Can I be an art museum director?

I really believe you need talent, experience, a strong sense of networking, and luck to become an art museum director. And did I mention persistence? There are only a few who really make it to the top. But don’t be put down. Aim high. But it’s my philosophy to always try to be happy as you try to get there. If you’re on the way chances are you do what you love, and it doesn’t matter if you ever get there. It’s the path and not the destination, that kind of thinking.

In my case, I really love to write and organize stuff. It’s a big part of being a curator. But I don’t have the focus or the right career start (I studied history and started in history museums) to become a museum director. It’s fine, I am totally happy writing texts in a very different field, where I can use my creative skills and manage projects more complex than any art exhibition I have seen. And being a lady boss, well, I can do that anytime, anywhere. Or at the very least in my own mind 🙂 And there I work among the greatest art in the world, all collected and archived during my countless art expeditions. Besides, I always have Museologue to go crazy on the topic of art.

I’m just saying: create your life, it’s all about being happy. And you can be, even if you skip on becoming the best art museum director of the greatest art museum in the world. Have a great day!

Jean-Luc Martinez, director of the Louvre. Photo by Bloomberg
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