Museums
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Museums

Why a growing number of museum veterans are crossing over to the commercial sector

Boundaries are not what they used to be, as the former director of the Andy Warhol Museum heads to Sotheby’s

by Julia Halperin, Melanie Gerlis  |  7 September 2016
Why a growing number of museum veterans are crossing over to the commercial sector
“Nobody cares about the boundaries any more,” says Lisa Dennison (right), who left the Guggenheim for Sotheby’s in 2007. Photo: Joe Schildhorn/BFA/REX/Shutterstock
As the director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh for the past five years, Eric Shiner worked to expose the broadest possible public to the Pop artist’s work. Now, instead of showing Warhols, he is selling them.  

Shiner starts his new job in September as a senior vice president of Sotheby’s Fine Art division, focusing on private sales of 20th- and 21st-century art. He is one of a growing cadre of museum veterans who have crossed over to the commercial sector. In April, Jason Busch left his job at the Saint Louis Art Museum to join the decorative arts department at Sotheby’s. Last year, Phillips hired Arnold Lehman, the former director of the Brooklyn Museum in New York, as a senior advisor.

The traffic is not one-way. Derek Gillman, the former director of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, joined Christie’s Impressionist and Modern department in January 2015 after nearly 35 years working in museums. But he left the auction house 15 months later to move into academia. He is now a professor of art history in the museum leadership faculty at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Blurred boundaries

Many see these personnel shuffles as symbolic of a broader blurring of boundaries between the commercial and non-profit sectors. In today’s art world, private collectors build world-class museums, galleries mount shows where nothing is for sale and museum directors organise sections at art fairs. In August, Sotheby’s launched an online channel that combines original videos produced by the auction house with syndicated content from leading institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Tate Modern in London.

Such moves are “becoming more and more accepted”, says Amin Jaffer, who joined Christie’s Asian art department in 2007 after 12 years at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Although high-profile museum leaders have been trickling into the auction world since the 1970s, what has changed is the visibility of such assignments, says Maxwell Anderson, the former director of the Dallas Museum of Art.

Attitudes have also evolved considerably since Lisa Dennison left the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2007 to become the chairman of Sotheby’s Americas. At that time, the Wall Street Journal devoted an entire op-ed to the significance of her move. Now, “nobody cares about the boundaries any more”, she says. She estimates she gets a call “once or twice a year” from a headhunter trying to recruit her to lead a US museum.

Shiner, meanwhile, says he views his transition to Sotheby’s as “a natural fit” and hopes that “Warhol’s ethos of blending art and business—a prime driver in my approach to my work at the museum—will serve me equally well in my new role.”

Bringing something to the table

Both sides have something to offer one another. Museum veterans bring a network of contacts and art historical chops that help auction houses identify bodies of work that are poised to take off—and who owns them. Furthermore, in a bullish market, “people with this kind of scholarship record can provide integrity to back up the incredible prices and volume of sales”, says Mary Ceruti, the director of SculptureCenter in New York.

For their part, auction house experts know how to entice private spenders and have a second-nature ability to seal a deal—valuable skills for an underfunded museum.

Auction house jobs are also, not surprisingly, considerably better paid than most museum posts. The median salary for museum directors in the Americas last year was around $230,000, according to an annual survey by the Association of Art Museum Directors. The median salary for chief curators was around $100,000. (Shiner made just over $200,000 in 2014 as the director of the Warhol museum, according to the institution’s tax returns.) Meanwhile, auction house rainmakers can make as much as seven figures per year.

Preserving firewalls

Jonathan Binstock, who left the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC to join Citi Private Bank’s global art advisory and finance group, says his seven-year stint in the market allowed him to refine his management skills and travel the world. “What was interesting… for me was the opportunity to transcend place and suddenly to become a global art professional,” says Binstock, now the director of the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York. “It’s a totally different kind of life.”

Some maintain that the traditional firewall between museums and the market is important to preserve curatorial independence. “The trouble is when the public perception is that there is a revolving door between the commercial side and the institutional side,” says Robert Storr, the former dean of the Yale University School of Art. “You can’t persuade people that it’s not a rigged game. And if the public thinks that the art system is inherently rigged, then it’s almost impossible to get public support when you need it in emergencies.” (The Detroit Institute of Arts, for example, required heavy investment from the state and national foundations to protect its collection during the city’s bankruptcy proceedings.)

Conflicts of interest?

Certain institutions have strict rules to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. When she was the director of Tate Britain, Penelope Curtis says staff were not permitted to write catalogue essays or organise shows for commercial galleries. But as the director of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, a non-collecting institution, she has agreed to organise a special section at Tefaf Maastricht that examines the recumbent figure in art. “All these cases are different and you need to think it through to make sure that there isn’t a conflict,” she says.

Some museum experts who took the plunge found the old-school distinctions hard to shake. “Christie’s is a great place, a terrific company, but it wasn’t for me,” says Gillman, whose first art-world job was a stint in Christie’s Chinese art department in 1977. “I wasn’t one of those people who can look at art principally in terms of market value then—and I’m still the same now.”

For his part, Lehman says he keeps the selling process at arm’s length, focusing his attention on supporting exhibitions at US museums and advising on the expansion of Phillips’ brand. “I’ve never manned the phones,” he says.

But such lines are easy to cross. “You come in as a museum director saying, ‘I’m not here for transactional reasons—I’m here for relationships’,” Dennison says. “But relationships lead to transactions, and you are kind of kidding yourself if you don’t think that’s the ultimate goal.”

Hammer time: a brief history of museum directors crossing over


Perry Rathbone: senior vice-president, director of museum services and consultant for Christie’s (1973-93)
Museum origins: director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1955-72)

Richard Oldenburg: chairman of Sotheby’s Americas (1995-2000); Sotheby’s honorary chairman (2001-06)
Museum origins: director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1972-93)

Charles Moffett: Sotheby’s vice-chairman of Impressionist, Modern and contemporary art (1998-2014)
Museum origins: director of the
Phillips Collection in Washington, DC (1992-98)

Everett Fahy: senior consultant to Christie’s Old Masters and 19th-century art department (2010-present)
Museum origins: director of the Frick Collection, New York (1973-86)

Guillaume Cerutti: former chief executive of Sotheby’s France (2007-15); Christie’s president for London, Continental Europe, the Middle East, India and Russia later this year
Museum origins: chief executive of the Centre Pompidou, Paris (1996-2001)

Lisa Dennison: chairman of Sotheby’s Americas (2007-present)
Museum origins: director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2005-7)

Arnold Lehman: senior adviser to Phillips (2015-present)
Museum origins: director of the Brooklyn Museum, New York (1997-2015)

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