From the Field

Art Museum Director Survey

November 11, 2020

The Ithaka S+R Art Museum Director Survey 2020 examines strategy and leadership issues from the perspective of the directors of art museums across the United States. This project aims to provide leaders in the cultural sector with a rich and comprehensive view into directors' visions and the opportunities and challenges they face in leading their organizations. It will also provide a baseline of data which will allow us to measure change over time.

In winter 2020, Ithaka S+R invited art museum directors at 303 municipal and academic museums in the United States to complete the survey with 149 doing so for a response rate of 50 percent. This survey was in the field prior to the pandemic, and closed March 30 when it became clear that the pandemic posed an urgent emergency for museums.

We are grateful to the Kress Foundation for their support of this research.

Key Findings

Leadership and Strategy
Prior to the pandemic, art museum directors viewed education and public programming as top priorities for fully realizing their organizational missions. Social justice programming was not seen as a high priority, though directors strongly agreed that internal changes—such as diversifying the board of trustees, ensuring pay equity among staff, and improving accessibility—are necessary to make their institutions more equitable. Fundraising and communication skills, along with an ability to manage change, are seen as the most critical skills for the job of an art museum leader.

Budget and Staffing
The vast majority of museum expenses are allocated toward personnel, which has since been significantly impacted by the pandemic as museums have furloughed and laid off staff in anticipation of major losses in income. Endowment income and private philanthropy are the largest components of museum revenue. Earned income also composes a significant portion of revenue, highlighting the financial vulnerability museums face during physical closure.

Visitors and the Public
Museums have strong on- and off-site programs, particularly for K-12 education, as well as partnerships with local cultural organizations. They do not view each other as competitors, but are more concerned about the collective perspective of the public towards the museum field.

Most museum directors would like for it to be easier to deaccession works that do not fit strategically in the collection. They estimate that such works constitute roughly one tenth of their collections on average. Diversifying collections based on artist identity (i.e. race, ethnicity, gender) is seen as a priority in acquisition strategies.