As Richmond says goodbye to Katharine Lee, how will the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts replace its formative and formidable director? 

Who's Next?

If what most distinguishes human beings from other species is that hazy crescent in which art and ultimately religion alight, then the selection of a major museum's director can properly be said to approach cardinal importance, to be a kind of secular ordination. Then it is not merely the filling of a position but the fulfillment of a mandate: Tend the flame. Spread the word. Keep the faith.

Katharine Lee is going along with all of this; for now; just barely. "That's a bit much," she finally says, after another all-too-odious comparison (cultural conservatories to cathedrals). And yet: "Fundamentally I like the analogy."

The departing director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts allows that there is an area of "spiritual" overlap in the roles of curators and curates. There is that sense of high purpose and privilege she has felt walking the quiet galleries alone in the early morning.

And always there is the dilemma, the one faced by art museum directors and archbishops alike: How to market the institution without marginalizing it - relegating it to just another bin along the culture buffet? And can what should hold the highest and most self-evident value be, in fact, sold - and without cheapening it in the eyes of the unconverted?

How to preach beyond the choir?

Who can do that?

The consensus is that Lee is one who can, and has. Ask around - former employers, the heads of art associations, The New York Times, industry professionals, the top-10 museum to which she is now headed - and the hymns of praise arise virtually unbidden. But now the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is obliged to find her successor.

This may take a while.

"They're not exactly the easiest positions to fill," says Nicole Schultz, a spokesman for the American Association of Museums. Edward Abel, president of the association, explains that "it's very challenging to find people who are both willing and capable."

That is because the modern director of a major fine arts museum is like a CEO without "Chairman and" before the title: more responsibility than authority. And while there are substantial perks - expense accounts for entertaining donors, homes such as the one in Windsor Farms the Virginia museum provides - salaries (Lee's here is just shy of $100,000) are hardly commensurate. No stockholders to satisfy, perhaps, but plenty of stake holders; and of course, no options.

But it is not a job people seek for the money, everyone agrees. Nor for the exhausting gantlet of fund-raising, personnel, promotional and, for largely state-funded museums such as Virginia's, political duties. The job's many demands in fact leave "little time for content," the real reason, Abel says: building and arranging collections, hosting exhibitions, opening eyes.

Abel and others also wonder whether there is, as The New York Times reported not long ago, something of a shortage in the number of candidates available to fill directorships. "I think a lot of it is people not wanting to take it on," he concludes.

Fortunately that may not matter as much for Virginia. "The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a fine, fine institution," he says. "Certainly under Katharine's leadership it went many next steps ahead ... and that will help attract candidates." During Lee's nine-year tenure, the Association of American Art Museum Directors consistently has ranked the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts among the top 20. Lee has been tapped to serve as president of the association next year.

As is customary, the Virginia Museum will retain a consultant to advise it in the search, a process Abel says averages six months to a year in length. (It took about seven months for both the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and now the Cleveland Museum of Art, which Lee's father directed for 25 years, to acquire her.)

Jane Spilman, who heads the Virginia Museum's board of trustees, says above all the search for a successor will be a "thoughtful and thorough process."

"We're not going to feel pressured" by artificial deadlines, she adds. "The search committee is in the process now of drawing up a profile of our new director. It's very important that everyone is in agreement of the attributes."

Spilman says some of the more obvious key qualities will be a strong arts background, good administrative skills and the "team" philosophy needed to work effectively with the trustees, state, patrons, staff and volunteers.

But beyond those common-sense characteristics, she adds, trustees are open to offering the directorship to somebody currently heading a smaller institution or serving in a lesser capacity at a larger institution — "depending on the individual." (Lee was deputy director of the Art Institute of Chicago before coming here in 1991.)

"I think they are taking the right tack," Abel says of the trustees' approach. Amanda Ohlke of the Museum Trustee Association adds the VMFA's board should expect "a good consultant ... to heavily interview the trustees ... [and] talk to key personnel, maybe even community representatives."

"They want to find someone who's going to be able to take the vision forward with ... enthusiasm and energy," Ohlke says. "It's a very large bill to fill."

Lee, who is serving as a consultant to the museum through next month, will assist this process as much as time and appropriateness permit. But, she says, "It isn't appropriate for me to say what the next person should do."

She has a few ideas, however, about the kind of person she would like to see succeed her: "Somebody who is really community-oriented. ...To love art and the relationship of art to people. ... Having a spiritual connection with these works of art."

And she worries little about the museum's ability to find the right next person among the candidates it will review.

"It's like anything else," Lee says. "All it takes is one."

E-mail Rob Morano at rmorano@richmond.com.

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