PEIKEN: Cincinnati Art Museum leaders off to a wrong start in search for new director

They should behave like stewards of a public trust

CINCINNATI -- Board members with the Cincinnati Art Museum should treat the resignation of director Aaron Betsky as an opportunity to engage the public.

It may seem like a no-brainer—what better way for one of the city’s bellwether institutions to boost community buy-in than by finding out what people want and need in a leader? Instead, from all appearances, board members are doing what most nonprofit arts boards do in times of transition. Beyond a Jan. 2 press announcement about Betsky’s resignation, they’re clamming up about the whole affair. 

Many art museums behave this way, but it isn’t how nonprofit arts institutions should act. This isn’t how they develop devoted audiences. This isn’t how they build an authentic public stake and ownership. This isn’t how they cultivate the committed donors of tomorrow.

This is, sadly and predictably, how major arts institutions perpetuate the worst stereotypes: Insularity and elitism.

I haven’t been around Cincinnati long enough for personal insight into the seven years of Betsky’s tenure. What I’ve read and heard indicates the news of Betsky’s pending departure couldn’t have caught many by surprise (Betsky is leaving as soon as the board names his replacement).

I wanted to speak with Betsky and key board members about what they believe worked and what didn’t over the past seven years, how the museum has evolved during that span and their thoughts on the museum’s next steps. Through email, the museum’s communications director told me “Aaron is not doing any more interviews” and that the board “is not answering any questions about the selection process.”

How wrong is this? Let me count the ways.

First, let’s disabuse the board and management of one myth. The Cincinnati Art Museum isn’t theirs—it’s ours. Yes, it’s a private nonprofit organization, but board members aren’t guarding trade secrets. Like other large arts entities, the museum is wholly dependent on the financial and familial goodwill of the public. It needs thousands of people to care with passion and energy about its programs, exhibitions and ambitions. Transparency breeds buy-in. 

People commit a lot of money and promise to bring in more people with money for the privilege of joining the Cincinnati Museum Association, the museum’s board. But nonprofit boards can be way too clubby, and this board should do some outreach of its own before hiring a search committee to do the detail work of interviewing stakeholders and vetting potential candidates.

There are important people left on the other side of the boardroom’s closed door: Hundreds of museum members at varied levels of giving, along with City of Cincinnati taxpayers and Ohio taxpayers at large, whose contributions through the Ohio Arts Council ($163,000 in 2014) likely account for three or four fulltime staffers at the museum.

I don’t expect the board to rent US Bank Arena to host a community forum, but leaders should schedule and invite museum members to open discussions and forums to discuss what they like about the museum and what turns them off or leaves them feeling detached. They should do the same with artists, educators and others with deeper involvement in the arts. This would foster a deeper loyalty and investment in both the museum and whomever the museum eventually hires.

While arts organizations rarely involve a larger public in major decisions, other local leaders are turning to community engagement as a matter of course. The Greater Cincinnati Foundation and the Haile Foundation recently created an independent community task force to guide decisions about the future care and operations of Cincinnati’s Union Terminal and Music Hall. Also, as part of the city’s comprehensive “Plan Cincinnati,” 30 people from across neighborhood and community groups formed last year as the Citizen Action Engagement Team. Its existence is all about citizen engagement in city governance. 

This is particularly important for the museum because, it seems, the board’s leadership and Betsky were ill-matched.

Last May, Cincinnati Magazine published an illuminating and foreshadowing feature article by R.J. Smith about the friction between Betsky and the museum’s board. In short, according to Smith's article: Betsky proved too contemporary for the board’s tastes. The unanswered question: Was Betsky doing right by the museum membership, at large?

Board leaders need to be honest with themselves about core criteria of any candidate they would consider. At the same time, as a matter of responsible nonprofit stewardship—and cultivating the big-dollar donors of tomorrow—they should give deep consideration to who and what the larger museum membership wants and is ready for. I wouldn't be surprised if the pictures emerging from the two camps look entirely different.

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