"Developing Pedagogical Tools For

More Effective Interim Museum Directorships"


Robert Goler

Arts Management Program

American University





This project seeks to increase the capacity of America's museums to effectively manage the role of interim directorships.  Its goal is to develop tools that will contribute to a new approach towards the interim directorship as a period of strategic self-assessment and to help boards and staff members anticipate the issues associated with executive transitions.  The project involves the development of case studies based on interim museum directorships, teaching notes to accompany the case studies, and outreach efforts to disseminate these materials to the museum profession.


Project Thesis


Interim directorships are a fact of life for America's museums.  Each year, scores of museum directors leave their posts - on average -- it takes nearly a year to find their replacements.  Those who run the museum during this period rarely have executive leadership training or experience.  With increasing pressures on museums to operate with fiscal responsibility, to expand their relevance to audiences, and to maintain (or acquire) collections and sophisticated environmental conditions in their buildings, few museums can afford to have a year of "down" time.


This is not a new phenomenon but the need to anticipate and plan for transitional leadership has taken on new importance in the museum field.  Two factors account for this urgency.  First, the average tenure of directorships in the nonprofit field is decreasing and now stands at just under six years (Wolford etal 1999).  This translates into an executive vacancy rate of approximately 17%, or to put it in more concrete terms, one out of every six organizations is between directors.   While the tenure rates in the museum field have not been examined closely in recent years, past studies of museum director tenure identified rates that were comparable to the nonprofit sector as a whole.


Second, museums are experiencing increasing financial pressures.  This phenomenon has a variety of contributing elements, ranging from increased competition for earned income by commercial enterprises, such as The Museum Store® franchises, and the sharp reduction of funding levels for the National Endowment for the Arts in 1995.  The lackluster economy over the past few years has seen many foundations reduce support for the arts and for many individual donors to postpone major gifts until the financial environment improves.  The end result of such factors is an increasing difficulty of museums to generate income and concomitant pressures on executive directors to manage under financial duress.


            In the face of these challenges it is critical that interim directorships be a time of continued progress and momentum at an institution. The interim directorship offers a unique period of self-assessment for a museum.  Rather than perceiving it as a gap that an institution needs to survive, boards and senior staff should begin to use this experience as a window of opportunity through which to examine organizational strengths and weaknesses.  Rather than being a traumatic gulf, the period between regular directors should be used as time of critical self-examination and evaluation.


            However the facts of interim directorships indicate that there is a significant gap in the continuity of leadership in America's museums.  In a study of 52 interim directorships, I found that:


-           1 out of every 7 interim directors had been at the museum less than one year before their "interim" appointment


-           1 out of every 5 interim directors left their museum within a year of completing their interim duties


-           1 out of every 3 individuals who served as an interim director went on to an executive museum position later in their careers


The overwhelming evidence from this study suggests that: (1) the interim directorship is a significant factor in career development, (2) those who are selected as interim directors often assume executive positions without sufficient preparation, and (3) that a significant number of museums end up losing not just the director, but also the interim director, as a result of the executive transition (Goler 2004).  While it may not be possible to change the rate of director turnover in the museum field, it certainly is possible to better prepare institutions and individuals for the interim directorship situation.  A review of the literature on museums indicates that surprisingly little has been written about this phenomenon.  It is expected that a body of case studies will help to increase awareness of this important phase of museum management.


Literature Review


The literature on interim leadership in the nonprofit sector draws on examinations of leadership succession and on role definition within organizations.  A brief sketch of these approaches offers background to the issues raised by interim museum directorships.

            Executive leadership turnover has received considerable attention from sociologists.  Among the first important studies of managerial succession was Gouldner's analysis of a mining bureaucracy.  Gouldner described the "Rebecca effect," a phenomenon named after the principal (but deceased) figure of Du Maurier's novel by the same name that concerns the "shadow" influence of a leader who has already departed (Gouldner 1954:79-83).  Grusky's landmark study of managerial change among major league baseball teams investigating the impact of transitions on performance and proposed a variety of theories, such as "scapegoating" and "ritual performance," to explain some of the data (Grusky 1963).

            More recent investigations have looked at the managerial styles of leaders.  In examining such criteria as IQ levels, social background and physical characteristics, researchers have identified specific characteristics of "emergent" leaders that are particularly pertinent to transitional management.  The appearance of dominance traits has been seen to be "consistently predictive of leadership" and may be an important factor in those interims who go on to become directors (House and Baetz 1979:351).  An extension of this approach has been the effort to identify different forms of institutional authority.  In distinguishing the authority of position from that of leadership, Barnard extended the categories Weber defined in "The Profession and Vocation of Politics" (Barnard 1938:72; Weber 1994).  In addition, his concept of a "zone of indifference" in which an executive's authority is acceptable to those s/he supervises is most useful in describing the limits of authority permitted to an interim director.


Applying a similar approach to the museum community, Cargo identified four types of executive authority that influence the effectiveness of museum directors: professional, organizational, executive and charismatic.  He articulated the conflict of values between those of art historical scholarship and those of professional managerialism, arguing that modern museum managers must embrace these contradictory priorities to ensure the success of their organizations (Cargo 1990).  Cargo's claim recalls Parsons' distinction between "incumbency" and "technical competence" as forms of authority (Henderson and Parsons 1947:59).  Similarly, Bonner interviewed 28 museum directors in New York City to identify common themes about the selection of museum directors.  She describes the growing importance of formal management training in the performance of their jobs (Bonner 1988).


The elucidation of the boundaries between these different forms of authority has brought into focus a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the roles that leaders occupy in organizations.  Van Mannen and Schein have written about the socialization process that occurs when individuals assume new roles, and the confidence and competence that subsequently emerge.  They identified a "level of inclusion" for the new leader that varies in accordance with the dynamics of the organization and that influences the degree to which s/he will be able to influence the organization (Van Mannen and Schein 1979).  Pitcher undertook a similar project in her exploration of executive succession at a Canadian bank, coming up with more complex and multi-faceted roles for the range of top managers and (corporate) directors (Pitcher 1997).  De Vries has explored the psychological dynamics that come into play with succession, suggesting that they often conflict with institutional priorities (de Vries 1988).  In addition, the process by which CEOs are selected, and whether they come from the ranks or from outside the organization, has symbolic importance that can substantially impact employee and organizational performance (Friedman and Saul 1991; Gifford 1997).


            Within the nonprofit sector a series of studies have drawn upon these scholarly traditions to examine executive turnover.  The high rate of director vacancies has attracted the attention of several observers who have given particular weight to the increasing pressures for fund-raising and marketing required by museums (Riley and Urice 1996, Schwarzer 2002).  Noble demonstrated that the turnover rate among museum directors, averaging every 7.3 years, was less than popularly believed and was consistent with other categories of professionals (Noble 1988).  His attempt to find a relation between director turnover and the rate of organizational innovation directors were able to effect, was inconclusive (Noble 1989).  A more recent study of executive leaders in Bay Area nonprofits found that average tenure rates had dropped to less than 6 years, a trend that seems consistent with anecdotal evidence from the museum community (Wolfred etal 1999).


Within this group, there are a small number of works that speak directly to the interim director experience.  Hall found that interim experiences had "profound psychological impact" on organizations, and that those who became interim leaders adopted new "subidentities" that enabled them to adapt to the new position (Hall 1995).  In a study of transitional leadership at legal service agencies, Farquhar found results that closely parallel those of the museum community. (Farquhar 1991, 1994).


There are a limited number of institutional profiles that do address change within museums but none fully explore the issues of interim leadership.  Gurian describes several different museum transitions, including one about the illness and death of a department head, but does not focus directly on the role of the interim leader per se (Gurian 1995).  Knauft etal have profiled some arts groups, but have primarily focused on the relationship between the executive and the board (Knaupt etal 1991).  However, as Schwarzer has pointed out, the museum field is limited in its efforts to nurture career development.  It is expected that greater awareness of the interim director phenomenon may help to better prepare individuals and institutions for transitional situations within museums.


Scope of Project


The project will develop materials that can be used in museums and in other settings to train trustees, museum professionals and graduate students.  It will build upon the major findings of this literature, as well as the research on interim directors I have previously conducted.  The final product will be a series of case studies accompanied by teaching notes.  To accomplish this I will conduct interviews with museum staff, trustees and professionals at museum associations; compile information on specific museum settings as background information for writing case studies; and, convene some focus groups to test the case studies prior to publication.


            The Smithsonian Institution is an ideal setting in which to pursue this project.  In the past few years there have been a significant number of interim directors at its museums.  Indeed, all but three of the Smithsonian's museums have experienced leadership changes since 1999 and, looking back a little longer, there have been a total of 22 director "turnovers" since the beginning of Robert McCormick Adams' tenure as Secretary in 1984.  These circumstances allow for discussions with stakeholders from multiple perspectives and offer the possibility of exploring a range of organizational cultures.  Those who have served as interim directors at the Smithsonian will be contacted as will those who succeeded these individuals as directors.  Other staff members who worked through these interim situations will be approached to gain their insights into the effect of the interim directorship on the museum.  Finally, former Smithsonian staff with significant involvement in the selection and evaluation of interim directors will be contacted.  My intent is to develop a 360-degree perspective of the interim directorship experience.


In addition to interviewing those at the Smithsonian, I plan to supplement these conversations with interviews of key individuals in the nonprofit sector located in the Washington area.  Those at the American Association of Museum, Aspen Institute, BoardSource, and Museum Trustee Association are of particular importance as well those individuals who have served as interim directors at other museums.  Finally, conversations with representatives of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and The Alban Institute will help me to learn about the issues of "institutionalizing" the process of executive transitions, as these groups have helped to develop groups of experienced college presidents and clergy, respectively, to serve as interim directors.   Their approaches offer two models of interim leadership that have proven successful in the nonprofit community.


Presentation Format


The final products of this project are designed to promote awareness and pro-active planning for effective interim museum directorships.  They consist of case studies and seminars for the museum profession.  One of the primary goals of increasing awareness of the positive possibilities of the interim directorship is to build leadership capacity within the museum profession.  Every effort will be made to have these materials available for use by the museum and academic communities.


            The case study method, long used in business schools and in the corporate world, has begun to take shape in the field of nonprofit management.   Specific cases on cultural organizations, however, have lagged behind.  Chandler identified the enthusiasm of graduate students to engage in case studies about arts organizations (Chandler 2000).  The lack of available cases on museums, then, is one of supply rather than demand.


Case Studies


These case studies will be prepared to promote greater understanding and discussion of the dynamics of the interim directorship.  They will be based on the past research that I have conducted, combined with interviews at the Smithsonian (and institutional data drawn from the Smithsonian Archives) and with leaders in the museum field.  It is hoped that different case studies can be developed to examine the situation of interim directors who (a) come from within the museum staff, (b) come from the museum's board, or (c) come from outside the museum.


It also is important to recognize that not all museums are the same, or in more colloquial terms: "one size does not fit all."  Each institution has its own specific culture and different discipline museums - - from art to history, natural history to childrens' - - have different characteristics.  Through in the factors of institutional age, budget size, endowment or funding patterns, and governance and you can quickly see that transitions can take radically different shapes.  Even within the Smithsonian there are significant differences between museums: in addition to divergent collections, each appears to have a distinctive organizational culture, and those with legislatively-mandated boards have a more complex governance structure that do those solely overseen by "the Castle."


Yet, the common elements of the interim directorship are such that a handful of case studies should be sufficient to address the major elements of transitional leadership within museums.  To facilitate the application of these case studies to different settings, each will be accompanied by teaching notes and they will be made available for others both in hardcopy and electronically through an existing case study resource or electronic portal.




As the development of case studies progress, I will offer to conduct seminars on effective interim directorships.  These programs will use the case studies as the basis of discussion and will be made available to groups of museum professionals at the Smithsonian Institution as well as at regional museum associations and mid-career training programs.  The Museum Trustee Association and the New England Museum Association have each expressed interest in incorporating this topic into one of their upcoming meetings. 




The phenomenon of interim museum directorships is a national one with common characteristics across each region of the country.  Indeed, the approaches of museums to this transitional period are generally consistent across all disciplines and budget sizes (Ferrin 2002, Goler 2003).  Over 90% of all interim appointees are chosen from within the museum itself, with small percentages of interim directorships being filled by those outside in the institution ("deliberate" interims) or by a member of the museum's board of trustees.  Thus the lessons derived from these case studies have the potential of being applied in a wide range of museum settings.


Interestingly, the experience of the museum profession is not unique and the possibility of disseminating these case studies outside the museum community may have value.  Studies of interim leadership in other nonprofit disciplines have identified characteristics that are nearly identical to those of the museum community (Farquhar 1991, Thibodeau 2002).  These similarities suggest that those lessons learned from the museum community's response to interim directorships may well also benefit other nonprofit disciplines. 




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