The announcement last week that Andrea Rich would resign after 10 years as head of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art underscores the often tumultuous relationships between boards and executives of arts institutions.
While Rich's leadership was credited by many as helping revive the museum both financially and culturally, she has acknowledged that her differences with key board members contributed to her departure.
She's far from the only executive to leave an arts institution after clashing with a board.
"One of the major issues facing the entire non-profit community is one of proper appropriate board behavior and fulfillment of responsibilities," said Edward Able, head of the American Association of Museums in Washington, D.C., the trade group representing 3,000 museums in the United States. "It's an issue that is seriously diminishing the ability of non-profits to focus on accomplishing their mission."
At the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Anthony Hirschel unexpectedly announced in January that he would step down as chief executive as the museum nears completion of a $74- million renovation and expansion.
Hirschel, who was recently named director of the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, said that financial, organizational and program-related pressures were compounded by managing the construction.
"Any major building project involves not just a lot of energy, but emotion, and it often creates a source of friction and reasonable people can disagree," he said. "At a certain point it suddenly became clear that the board and I were no longer the best match."
Rich's departure also drew comparisons with the abrupt resignation of Deborah Gribbon, director of the Getty Museum. However, Getty Trust Chief Executive Barry Munitz maintains that Gribbon left because of differences between the two of them.
Still, the boards of leading art institutions are generally lined with high-powered corporate and civic leaders. And while their fundraising abilities and personal donations are core to an institution's success, they also are people accustomed to getting their way.
That leads to inevitable friction.
"You need some tension," Munitz said. "Absence of tension is not a sign of a healthy institution. If we've gone through an entire year and every major decision was made unanimously, I wouldn't see that as a sign of success. It means we don't have the quality and level of discussion around the board table."
Scope of authority
Among most museums and other non-profit arts institutions, the general role of a board is hiring and evaluating the executive, assuring the institution's financial viability, and determining overall direction.
But when boards are passionate and opinionated, as they frequently are, it's easy to slip into the micromanaging of day-to-day operations. An even greater source of friction: decisions involving big amounts of money, such as major acquisitions and building expansions.
"A board has to clearly demarcate the work of the board and the staff, and be serious about it. It must be committed to writing. It's an insult to the role of a board not to do so," Able said.
In Rich's case, such demarcations appear to have been blurred.
Billionaire board member Eli Broad donated $60 million to the museum for a new contemporary art building that will bear his name and display his large collection of art.
Rich had already ceded to Broad the right to choose the architect and oversee construction of the project, but then she clashed with him over how to fill a position for a deputy director who would manage the museum.
Rich has said publicly that the clash did not prompt her departure but she acknowledged that her power struggles with some trustees had been a factor.
Rich and Broad did not respond to calls for comment, but LACMA board chairman Wally Weismann downplayed the tensions Rich alluded to even as he, too, conceded there were moments of disagreement.
"Our board has been typified by a great interest in the museum, but it hasn't intruded in the operation of the museum. Do we at times disagree? Sure. But it's extraordinarily congenial," said Weisman, who praised Rich as bringing "a fresh new vision to the museum, and that was enormously helpful."
The departure comes just as the museum is starting a $200- million reconstruction and renovation project (which includes Broad's museum) designed by noted Italian architect Renzo Piano that would have been Rich's crowning achievement had she stayed.
Hirschel said that tensions often occur when a museum undergoes some sort of expansion or overhaul. "Everyone in the art world has observed that phenomenon," he said. "People want and expect a great many things with these projects. People disagree about whether the most important objectives are being met and their finances. They are enormous projects for everyone involved."
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