April 19, 2024

At a time when cultural institutions all over the country are struggling to make a case for themselves in a digital world, and job descriptions for arts leaders have grown increasingly complex, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation on Monday announced that it had named Mariët Westermann director and chief executive of its museum group. Westermann, the vice chancellor of N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, will be the first woman to direct the museum group, overseeing the Foundation and its flagship institution in New York, as well as its global outposts in Venice, Bilbao and the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

“She has run a major operation in a foreign country,” said the museum’s chairman, J. Tomilson Hill. “She’s got great credibility in the art world, and she will be able to attract and retain extraordinary curators and other talented professionals.”

(The other female leader in the museum’s history was Hilla Rebay, one of its founders. She was the co-director of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, a forerunner of the Guggenheim, and left in 1952. The Guggenheim was built in 1959.)

The choice of Westermann, 61, to replace Richard Armstrong, who retired as director last summer, is something of a surprise, given that she is not a professional museum director and her name doesn’t typically appear on the list of candidates.

But she is familiar to many in the art world, having previously served as executive vice president at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supports cultural institutions; as former director of N.Y.U.’s Institute of Fine Arts, which has trained art historians, curators and future museum directors; and as associate director of research at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass. In 2019, she became vice chancellor at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi, where she is also the chief executive and a professor of arts and humanities.

“I know the clarity of her thinking, the care she has for art and artists, and her commitment to the field,” said Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art. “I think she’ll make an outstanding colleague.”

In choosing ​a university leader as a museum chief, the Guggenheim follows the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s choice of Daniel H. Weiss, president and chief executive, who stepped down earlier this year; the American Museum of Natural History, which last year named Sean M. Decatur as its new president; and the J. Paul Getty Trust, which last year appointed Katherine E. Fleming as its next president and chief executive.

A graduate of Williams College — where she was magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa — Westermann went on to earn a Ph.D. and master’s degree from N.Y.U.’s Institute of Fine Arts. Westermann is a historian of the art of the Netherlands, publishing books including “A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585—1718” and “Rembrandt—Art and Ideas.”

Starting June 1, Westermann will step into the role held for 14 years by Armstrong. She will move to Manhattan to run the Guggenheim, which now has three satellites in addition to New York: Bilbao, Venice and Abu Dhabi, on Saadiyat Island.

In the interim, the museum is being led by three of its deputy directors: Naomi Beckwith, the chief curator; Sarah Austrian, the general counsel and secretary; and Marcy Withington, the chief financial officer and acting chief operating officer.

Westermann will take over an institution still healing from a period of turmoil that included a 2020 letter from “The Curatorial Department” decrying what it called an “inequitable work environment that enables racism”; the departure of a top administrator, Nancy Spector, who was later cleared of charges of discrimination; removal of the Sackler name from an education center in 2022 after protesters called attention to that family’s ties to the opioid crisis; and more than two years of bargaining over a union contract that was finally ratified last August. Recently, the Guggenheim temporarily closed its entrance on Fifth Avenue after a protest inside the museum denouncing Israel’s military airstrikes in Gaza.

Moreover, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi — designed by Frank Gehry, who also did the museum’s Bilbao satellite in Spain — has been delayed, in part by protests over the plight of migrant workers on the project, but is now scheduled to open in 2026.

Westermann said it was too soon for her to say anything about Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, “except that I have been excited to see the building rising so near to me in a truly remarkable district of institutions of art, natural history, science and culture.”

She added that she was well aware of the hurdles involved in running “four very distinctive museums in four distinguished buildings in four very dynamic cities.”

“The demands on museum directors today are very complicated,” she said. “The skill set you need for a constellation like the Guggenheim is a challenge and opportunity that seems well mapped onto the kinds of experiences I’ve had.”

Westermann will have the daunting task of getting Guggenheim Abu Dhabi over the finish line and making that new location a destination at a time of turmoil in the Middle East.

Some in the art world will inevitably bemoan the Guggenheim appointment as yet another missed opportunity to appoint a person of color at a time when the world has grown more sensitive to the scarcity of Black and Latino museum chiefs.

But the Guggenheim has made some progress on diversity, appointing Ashley James as a full-time curator in 2019 and Beckwith as deputy director and chief curator in 2021.

And Hill said many of those considered during the Guggenheim’s search for a new director “were people of color,” adding that the museum had simply decided on “the best person for our needs.”

Mellon was one of four funding groups — including the Ford Foundation, the Alice L. Walton Foundation and Pilot House Philanthropy — that last May established the Leadership in Art Museums initiative, which committed more than $11 million to museums to increase racial equity in leadership development.

“Diversity, inclusion and equity are a core responsibility of any organization today,” Westermann said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a museum, a university, a corporation or a government agency.”

In conducting its search, the museum thoroughly examined “what the Guggenheim is, what the Guggenheim could be, what are our failings, what are our successes,” Hill said, likening that process to “having therapy.”

Hill said he personally had consulted eight people in the field whose opinions he values, including Nicholas Serota, the former director of the Tate in Britain; Laurence des Cars, the current director of the Louvre Museum in Paris; Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian; and the art dealer Larry Gagosian.

The Guggenheim determined its next director needed international experience but also had to be “someone sophisticated in dealing with governmental entities,” Hill added, “and able to not just be a spokesperson for our museum but to handle complex negotiations.

“You need leadership in the job,” he added, “but you also profoundly need strong management skills.”

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation who has worked closely with Westermann, brought up another qualification that he thought was vital for the job.

“It takes someone who has global management,” he continued, “which she does.”

Westermann said her experience with universities had prepared her well for overseeing a complex of four museums in which “the global is already local and the local affects the global.

“I look forward to bringing those locations together,” she added, “so you get a real sense of one Guggenheim.”

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