Kaywin Feldman Becomes the First Woman to Direct the National Gallery of Art in Washington

Feldman is the fifth director to lead the venerable 77-year old institution.

Kaywin Feldman. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, has named Kaywin Feldman as its new director. She will be the fifth director—and the first ever female director—of the venerable 77-year-old institution. Feldman, who has been director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) since 2008, will take up the new position in March 2019.

The seasoned museum administrator takes the helm from longtime director Earl “Rusty” Powell III, who has led the National Gallery since 1992 and who announced his retirement in November 2017. This past April, a committee of board members, assisted by recruiting firm Phillips Oppenheim, embarked on a search for a new leader.

Feldman, 52, will now oversee an institution with more than 5.2 million annual visitors, a staff of 1,100, and an operating budget of $167.8 million ($129.5 million of which comes from the federal government). It is a significant step up from the scale of Minneapolis, which had 900,000 visitors last year and maintains a full-time staff of 265 and an operating budget of $35 million.

Feldman has been a prominent figure in the museum world for years. She previously served as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and chair of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). Before the took the job in Minneapolis, she served as director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee. She was just 28 years old when she took her first museum director gig at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art and Science.

Under her leadership, attendance at Mia has nearly doubled, from around 450,000 in 2009 to more than 700,000 in 2018 to date. She has also expanded the museum’s digital presence—something the NGA has been conspicuously slow to invest in—and championed equity and social justice in the museum’s program. Earlier this year, the museum announced the launch of its Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts, a think tank dedicated to exploring how museums can build a more just society.

She is also not afraid of experimentation. Last year, for example, the Mia unveiled an unorthodox overhaul of six of its 17 period rooms designed to highlight the power structures behind them. (The fact that one of the room’s previous inhabitants was a slave owner was made explicit, as were his ties to the local Native American community.)

During Feldman’s time in Minneapolis, the museum also acquired works by Kehinde Wiley, Ai Weiwei, James McNeill Whistler, Edgar Degas, and Georgia O’Keeffe, among others. The Japanese art collection more than doubled in size.

Feldman joins the National Gallery at a critical moment. In recent years, the institution has been dogged by complaints about poor management, low staff morale, retaliation, and sexual harassment, all of which have been chronicled by the Washington Post.

Her peers believe she is up to the task. “Kaywin Feldman will bring a fresh perspective to the National Gallery, and is sure to inspire us all,” Maxwell Anderson, the president of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation and a fellow past president of the AAMD, told artnet News. “She has long been a bold and principled leader in the museum profession, who has introduced innovative thinking about how institutions connect with audiences, while maintaining the highest standards in research and scholarship. The NGA’s trustees have made a brilliant choice.”

Feldman will have to contend with the politics of leading an institution in DC that is largely federally funded. In an essay for Apollo magazine published earlier this year, she wrote:

Art museums are intensely political organizations—political with a small ‘p’. Art is political because it is an expression of lived human experience; identity, love, sex, religion, death, home, happiness, and trauma have always been subjects for artists. A concerned trustee at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where I am the director, recently asked me if we would ever be the focus of protest. I assured him that we would, and urged him to walk around the galleries if he wanted to find offense. We have it all on our walls: imperialism, colonialism, war, oppression, discrimination, slavery, misogyny, rape, and more.

In a statement provided by the NGA, Feldman said the museum is “arguably America’s greatest treasure. To be chosen to lead it into its next decades is a profound honor. As I prepare to take on the responsibility for this magnificent institution, I want to express my gratitude to the trustees for putting their faith in me, and to Rusty Powell for the example of his years of enlightened stewardship. I am eager to work with the talented team at the Gallery in taking the institution to even greater heights.”

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