Increasingly, Women Are Running the World’s Great Museums
When Laurence des Cars was appointed president-director of the Louvre in 2021, it was a historic marker. The world’s most visited museum had a woman in charge for the first time since it was founded in 1793.
“Top jobs are symbols,” Ms. des Cars said recently in an interview. “And I take the symbol very seriously.”
At the time, she already held an important lead role at a major institution, running the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, but the reaction to the Louvre news surprised her for what she called the “intensity and worldwide echo of the announcement.”
Ms. des Cars was the highest-profile example in a wave of women taking the top jobs at some of the world’s biggest museums.
The last few years have seen women taking over from men to lead 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 many more. And it only seems to be accelerating.
The topic may come up at a panel discussion at the Art for Tomorrow conference, running from April 26 to 30 in Florence and Solomeo, in Italy. Speakers for the April 27 panel, “Gender and the Arts — Crises and Correctives,” include Dana Dajani, an actress and poet; Rachel Lehmann, a co-founder of Lehmann Maupin gallery; and Christian Levett, an art collector.
“I’m encouraged to see this field of women,” said Anne Pasternak, who was appointed director of the Brooklyn Museum in 2015. “Someone said recently we’re 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 comprise 51 percent of humanity, “The big question is why this didn’t happen until now.”
Ellen V. Futter, who in March stepped down 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 prevalent it has become, and the quality and success of what they have been doing,” Ms. Futter said. She added, “I’m a proud mama.”
Many in the art world agree that the surge 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 an appreciable difference in their achievements when compared to male directors?
Many of the women in the top jobs have established a camaraderie and think of themselves as a group.
“We’re all women of a particular generation, in our mid 50s,” said Maria Balshaw, who became director of Tate in 2017 (she oversees Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London; Tate Liverpool; and Tate St. Ives in Cornwall). “We have long track records of innovation and creative leadership. We all support each other through our careers.”