New York’s gain is London’s loss

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While a US study highlights the gender gap among museum directors, better pay and greater opportunities for experts in America sparks fear of “brain drain” from Britain

By Cristina Ruiz. Museums, Issue 255, March 2014
Published online: 12 March 2014

The Met’s director has enticed five British curators to join him in New York

For the past decade, Mark McDonald has worked as a curator of Old Master prints and Spanish drawings at the British Museum in London, winning prizes for his publications and acclaim for his exhibitions. This month, he begins a new job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, a move that will see him increase his salary from around £42,000 ($69,000) in Britain to about twice that amount in the US.

McDonald is not alone. Higher salaries in North America are attracting an increasing number of British curators, and insiders warn that poor pay in London will lead to a “brain drain” from the city’s museums unless conditions improve. Salaries for entry-level curators at the national museums in the British capital start from around £23,360 ($38,320) at the Tate to £24,619 ($40,385) at the National Gallery and £26,820 ($43,995) at the British Museum, according to figures provided by the institutions. Although the Met would not disclose its salaries, sources say that pay at the institution is around double what London museums offer. (The Met’s tax filings list salaries of key senior individuals who are paid between two to three times what their counterparts in Britain earn.)

Pay is “derisory”

“Salaries in London museums are derisory,” says George Goldner, the chairman of the department of drawings and prints at the Met, who hired ­McDonald from the British Museum. “London is an expensive city… it’s not like living in Mongolia.” This is “a major, major issue”, says another senior art world source who asks not to be named. “The British government will need to look at pay scales if there isn’t to be a brain drain.”

Although British curators have been moving to the US for decades—the Met’s director, Thomas Campbell, a tapestry expert, arrived at the institution from London as an assistant curator in 1995—the trend has accelerated in the past two years. There have been a number of departures from key positions. The Met alone has hired five curators from London museums. And the Tate has lost four specialists. The latest departure, Irish-born Gavin Delahunty, is leaving Tate Liverpool for the Dallas Museum of Art in May.

But larger salaries alone do not ­account for the recent spate of curatorial moves. US museums also offer “greater professional opportunities” to their ­curators than museums in Britain, Goldner says. Because museums in the US are richer than their British counter­parts, “there are many more opportunities [here] to do loan exhibitions and to buy works. These seem to be harder and harder to come by in the UK.”

Let curators be curators

Some say there is also less bureaucracy in American museums and more freedom for curators to focus on their specialism. Giles Waterfield, who was the director of Dulwich Picture Gallery in London for 17 years, says: “We’ve had so much nonsense in Britain about project-led enterprises. For example, a lot of curators at the V&A have been told they have to work for five years on various initiatives” that have nothing to do with their area of expertise. Meanwhile, “in the United States there has been strong, continuous respect for the role of curator”, he says.

“I’m afraid bureaucracy is alive and well in the United States,” counters Phillip Prodger, a British-born photography curator who is leaving the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts in June to become the head of the photography collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London. “The biggest difference is that many of the best American museums are private and that means it is easier to make big administrative decisions without obtaining external approval. So that part is true… I’m not sure this equates to more freedom though, since the role of the curator is defined a little differently [in the US]. Fundraising, patron relations, and community outreach are a huge part of what curators do [there].”

Curators as fundraisers

Paul Thompson, who was the director of London’s Design Museum for eight years before taking up the same position at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York, acknowledges that curators in the US are expected to raise funds more than their colleagues in Britain—“Curators at the Cooper-Hewitt spend about 30% of their time fundraising,” he says—but he believes that this trend is coming to Britain too as government subsidies for museums are cut. For Thompson, who is back in London as the rector of the Royal College of Art, one of the advantages of working in New York was the support for the shows he wanted to stage. “In New York, there is a much, much greater degree of appetite for scholarly shows that aren’t necessarily going to be huge blockbusters. Trustees at museums like the Cooper-Hewitt or the Frick are incredibly supportive of such ideas and will say: ‘This is what we’re here for and we’re going to plan and fundraise accordingly.’”

Art and commerce

At larger institutions, such as the Met, blockbuster exhibitions subsidise more scholarly ones, but Prodger warns that “exhibitions in the United States are much more bottom-line driven, there is pressure that acquisitions should perform in the galleries, status objects are valued more highly and patrons and gallerists have more influence on what goes on display. The sort of support one receives in American museums is not necessarily liberating, since art and commerce in the States are much more entwined.”

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