Museum as Tool: Directors on How They Run Their Art Institutions

The SCAD museum directors' panel; from left to right: Thelma Golden, Michael Govan, Defne Ayas, Linda Yablonsky (Photo by author)
The SCAD museum directors’ panel; from left to right: Thelma Golden, Michael Govan, Defne Ayas, Linda Yablonsky (Photo by author)

SAVANNAH, Georgia — Curators organize groups of art objects into exhibitions. Might it be said that museum directors organize groups of exhibitions into an identity or an institution? The highlight of Savannah College of Art and Design’s deFINE Art conference last week came for me in the form of a panel gathering some of the most interesting art museums directors working today discussing how they thought about their jobs and responsibilities.

The Studio Museum in Harlem (Image via
The Studio Museum in Harlem (Image via

The panel featured Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan; Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem; and Defne Ayas, the director of the Witte de With Rotterdam. The trio of directors were moderated by veteran culture journalist Linda Yablonsky, who did an excellent job of keeping the conversation moving at a brisk pace.

The panel’s three directors come from very different museums. Govan’s LACMA is an encyclopedia institution, bringing together art and artists from every area of the globe and era of history. Golden’s Harlem museum actively engages artists, with studio space, education programs, and fellowships. The Witte de With, in comparison, changes directors every three to six years, and acts as a kind of urban lab for visual art and creative thinking.

Govan thinks of LACMA as a “civic museum,” an institution that “can impact a city.” He wants to adapt the form of the encyclopedic museum into a new era, emphasizing multiculturalism and forming a “contemporary point of view,” connecting with the city of Los Angeles. It’s a revision of the encyclopedic museum’s history. “Universal museums were the result of colonialism,” Govan explained. “The Metropolitan Museum’s narrative is false. It’s a creative act to assemble the narrative of the past.”

LACMA (Image via
LACMA (Image via

Golden also sees her museum as a reflection of its home. As Harlem changes, so does the institution. It becomes a space “in which the idea of change can be experienced” for a wide-ranging group of audiences. She is surprised by the diversity of the museum’s international audience and works to make the space’s specific programming universally applicable.

Ayas’s Witte de With exists in a relentlessly dynamic, international context. She noted that Rotterdam isn’t exactly nice to look at, but said that the city is “either the future or the collapse of Europe.” Bombed during World War II, Rotterdam has become a center for contemporary architecture. Inspired by the city, Ayas’s ethos is to “build a spirit, not a temple,” she said (the director arrived in Rotterdam from Istanbul via a lengthy detour in Shanghai). Rather than getting caught up in delivering a perfect canon, Witte de With embraces the “tension of the white cube versus the street.”

Witte de With Rotterdam (Image courtesy Witte de With)
Witte de With Rotterdam (Image courtesy Witte de With)

Though only Ayas specifically stated that she works with a “platform-driven art ecology,” it’s an attitude that Govan and Golden also use. Museums are no longer discrete spaces simply for the displaying of art. They are businesses, brands, party-hosts, caretakers, and archaeologists. Institutions exist in their buildings, online, in satellite locations, and in pop-ups. “Offsite can be as important as in the museum,” Govan said, noting LACMA’s taking on of the Watts Towers as a community landmark and work of public art.

The final theme of the panel was the “artist-citizen,” both the artist and the museum as activist entities engaged in reshaping their social, cultural, and political environments. Golden brings artists into the museum for residencies and professional training programs, turning the institutional space into a social arena for artistic production and learning. Her method of including artists into the museum’s programming also reflects on a comment Govan made that “art and artists are not contained by museums.”

We have moved far past the idea of the encyclopedic museum as the final arbiter of history, and the critical, reflective attitudes of the assembled directors at SCAD’s panel showed they understood that fact. Instead, the museum, as Ayas explained, is “a tool rather than a vessel.”

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