Art World Scoop from Industry Expert Geri Thomas

by Paddy Johnson on September 29, 2014 · 1 comment Interview

Geri Thomas of Thomas & Associates

Geri Thomas of Thomas & Associates

I first heard of Thomas & Associates in 2001. I had just finished grad school and was looking for work. A professor who was friends with the company’s current president, Geri Thomas, told me I should check out the art recruiting and consulting firm. I sent out a resume to them and never heard back.

I now see that as a sign of a good recruiter. I had no experience or particular aptitude for commercial arts administration, and that would have been clear from even a quick look at my resume.

Founded in 1999—just two years prior to my own discovery of the firm—Thomas & Associates provides staffing, consulting and professional development seminars exclusively for arts and culture. The company has taken on top-tier clients like the Studio Museum, James Cohan Gallery, and Sean Kelly. Thomas herself has taught arts administration at NYU since 2002, and helped to create a certificate program at the university in Art Collections Management and Display. Prior to that time, Thomas owned a gallery, worked in PR for Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum, and held the Director of Exhibitions and Collections position at the Jewish Museum.

13 years after my original application, I reached out to her again. I wanted to know what recruiting firms do, between fielding grad student resumes and helping museums put on major exhibitions. Now that I’m a blogger, I finally get to find out what happens behind the scenes at the offices of Thomas & Associates.

Tell me about the recruiting and consulting work the firm does. What do your clients and job candidates need help with?

We never charge to place people in jobs, and any agency that does that you shouldn’t be working with. But people come in who need help with their resumes or they want to work on a career strategy, and for that, we have a range of fees. There is always something interesting to do in our industry and many projects, but people aren’t strategic enough about their careers.  It’s one thing to be in your twenties and gaining experience as you go, and another to have spent decades in the field and land in my office not knowing what to do next.

We help people and organizations strategize so they can do the work they love and get what they need, whether it’s on the for-profit side, like how to bring resources and business development for our corporate and gallery clients, or the non-profit side—building fundraising skills for our museum and non-profit clients.

And what kind of consulting does your firm offer and to who?

We work primarily in organizational development and in planning for new facilities.  I also work with directors and curators on logistics, which usually means telling them, “Well, you can’t have 400 objects in the show, but we can maybe have 250.”

On your website, you published a paper where you cited a limited supply of senior staff in all sectors. Does that mean there is a shortage of those people, or is that a result of fewer senior staff?

There is always a shortage of really skilled and experienced people for any position. This is true even in New York,  the heart of the industry, so the problem is even more acute elsewhere.

There are a lot of professionals from outside the field coming in [to the arts], and that can both help solve issues and create them. In the beginning of my business, many boards thought that they should be hiring corporate types to run their museum, because the museum needed to run more like a business. And that’s still true for many museums, but in the last twenty years, museums have become much more savvy about those types of skills on an internal level; for instance, there’s more training available for those skills such as budgeting; project and time management; decision making; how to manage up, down and across the organization.

Look at a person like Larry Small, who came from Citibank and went to head up the Smithsonian—that didn’t work at all. It is public knowledge that he was trading somewhat inappropriately in Native American material. If you don’t have the background and the commitment, no matter how good you are as a business person, you can’t run one of those institutions. You need experience and training.

It used to be lawyers who wanted to be museum directors, because they had “transferable skills.” I still get those calls! “Hi. I’m a lawyer, and I’m tired of litigating, and I think I should be a museum director.” That’s mostly the conversation. And I’ll say—and now I have it down pat— “Well, what makes you think that?” And they say, “Well, I work with high-net worth individuals.” That’s the first thing they say, so “My skills are transferable.” And they go on about these ‘transferable skills’. And I say, “If that was true, then I could be a lawyer on Monday.” And then, of course, the telephone conversation ends because they always say you need training for that, and I say, “Well, you really have to be trained to work in a museum. So go to NYU, take our classes there, and talk to me later.”

I get the impression you need more than an arts admin course to become a director, though.

Well, yes. There was a spate of these corporate types when Larry Smalls became a director at the Smithsonian; I think somebody from Bayer Aspirin headed up the Carnegie Museums. But I’ve only seen one person from outside the field “make it.” That was Gary T. Johnson at the Chicago History Museum; he’s a Chicagoan and a lawyer, but history was his passion. He researched history, he wrote about it, it was his love and pastime, he volunteered in museums, he might even have been on the board of a museum. He’s still there. The other directors I mentioned have all fallen away.

David Zwirner recently told the New Yorker he hired a consulting firm in the early 2000s so he could scale his business. That was drawing from the business world in a way that I thought made sense.

A lot of the major galleries and museums are structuring better internally. Nonprofits have a better understanding that they can’t take a million dollar gift if they’re still on Quickbooks! They have to have the capacity to manage the gift.

It’s a common view that there’s a creative side and a business side to organizations. Those two sides are working together more [in the arts], because they have much to learn from one another.

Is there greater movement between the for-profit and nonprofit world?

Now there is. Some of my gallery clients are really looking for former museum curators, who perhaps have never sold a thing, but bring scholarship, contacts and other desirable skills to these positions. They, too, have worked with donors, and they can contextualize the work of the moment. These senior curatorial positions in galleries give gravitas to their artists.

Their training enables one to speak in full sentences and write intellectually about a work of art. Galerie Lelong hired Dede Young from the Aldrich Museum, and it’s working out perfectly. They are a wonderful client of mine. I guess the best example is Gagosian with John Elderfield.

My gallery clients still prefer registrars who have gallery experience. Because the goal of museum registrars is not to touch it, move it, breathe on it. Whereas the gallery is constantly shipping artwork and going to art fairs and all of that.

Do galleries and museums hire senior level positions just as often from the art world as from outside it?

We have very little succession planning within our arts organizations. People are frequently hired from the outside—why not advance people internally so they at least have a pathway forward? We’re starting to see more of that now. Human Resources (HR) handles performance reviews, so people know how they are doing and so they can advance within an organization. There are now a number of large organizations where their head of HR comes from corporate life —financial institutions like Chase or Goldman Sachs. And that’s because we are only now coming to terms with caring about our employees, our most important asset.

Would you consider this a good economic time?

I think in arts and culture, we’re really high at the moment, especially in this town. Anyone who’s selling something in the millions is making millions. But we’re due for a correction.

I’ve been in this business a long time, so I’ve seen resources dwindle and the market go up and down. And that has affected the industry in very different ways.

When I came to New York in the 70s, it wasn’t so serious. It was kind of wild and fun. And there was no money. Things open up in times like this. For example, we saw the Met, in its need to draw in higher audience numbers, come up with more inclusive programming. Thomas Hoving launched “Harlem On My Mind” [in 1969], and that was the first time anybody there saw African-Americans  at the museum. “King Tut” [1972] was the most popular traveling exhibition of all time! As controversial as Hoving was, he really expanded the field by focusing on new audiences.

Museums were very sleepy places, and the people who worked in them were usually daughters and wives of the founders, and most of the directors were men.  Which is also part of the reason that, historically, this field has been populated almost 80 percent by women—and therefore, compensation for core staff is low. (This year I gave my 10th lecture at Christie’s on careers—I had three men in that class.)

Selling is different, because when you sell, you make a commission, and you get a good salary. These days people are doing well. Only recently have I seen really good salaries at museums, but you have to rise to senior management. The admins are in line with other industries. So, like everywhere else, it’s the middle class that’s getting squeezed. They have terribly low salaries.

How has your business changed? Has the Internet changed what you do?

We have some growing pains about all this. We still believe we are a “people business” and that people have to speak to and and look at each other. But, the decision makers are younger now and are less inclined to want to talk with us about the candidates we bring to them. That’s a problem, because we need to know the client to make the better match. And to let qualified candidates know reasons why they were not considered.  

Do you have a facebook page?

No. We have a linkedin page for me and the company, and that’s successful.

The art world is known for attracting people who are difficult to work with. How do you deal with those clients? Clients who you know create dysfunctional work environments?

I have a client like that, and I fired them twice in the last five years and I’m firing them again. Top candidates who are informed, savvy, and really strategic about their careers will say “I don’t want to work there”. You don’t want to work with screamers, nor with people who are abusive. The other thing, though, is that people, in general, like to hire people just like themselves. No matter what they tell me.

I have some clients who really care about their people. Michael Rosenfeld and Sean Kelly, for instance, care about their people and pay them well. We have such a great relationship with them. Galerie Lelong– they are fabulous to work with, and I do a retreat for Mary Sabbatino and the staff now and then.  Jim Cohan– another one. He’s a sweetheart.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Today? It’s trying to keep clients and candidates happy and well served. That’s the hardest part. I always say management would be easy, but people get in the way.

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