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Committee narrows museum director search

A search committee for the new director of the Nasher Museum of Art has winnowed down a large initial pool of candidates to a list to seven semifinalists.

The committee will conclude its work in early March, when it presents three finalists to President Nan Keohane, Provost Peter Lange and President-elect Richard Brodhead, who will decide on a new director by the end of the academic year. The search has been delayed by weather complications and the sheer number of candidates considered, said search committee chair and professor of economics Neil De Marchi. The finalists were originally supposed to be identified by this month. While he said he could not reveal the names of the semifinalists, De Marchi said he was happy with the results. Lange said early in the process that this search would aim to bring in a director who could match the ambition of the new Nasher facility, currently under construction.

"We're collectively pleased. We have found some really attractive people," De Marchi said. "I can't wait to present the names [of the finalists]."

He said some--but not all--of the semifinalists have experience with university museums. University museums tend to operate with a somewhat different set of criteria for success and a different set of resources than do freestanding museums, and De Marchi acknowledged that the ability to work with the various constituencies unique to a university would be a "must" for the new director.

In addition to the goals of preservation, acquisition, exhibition and interpretation, a university museum must support the teaching and research of the academic enterprise, said Jerry Bolas, director of the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Others in the semifinalist pool are comparatively inexperienced in running a university art museum but are considered "rising stars" in the art world, De Marchi said. All are employed in high-commitment positions.

"The people we're looking at are busy folks. They can't just get away at a moment's notice," De Marchi said. "That tells you we're dealing with people who have real responsibility."

When the search began, Lange identified a strong background in the arts, understanding of the academic enterprise and management skills as key qualifications.

"[Strong candidates] have to have a good sense of museums, knowledge of art and the arts, and how they can be affected by museums," he said. "They need to be sensitive to the academic role that a museum would have at Duke, and they need to be able to think strategically and manage an enterprise of the kind we're creating."

De Marchi said each semifinalist offers a unique set of skills and experiences, with a very few bringing the whole package. "Of the things we were originally looking for, I guess we found candidates with real strengths in some areas and real strengths in other areas--and one or two with universal strengths," he said.

While this phase of the selection process is concentrated with the search committee, others inside and outside the University community have contributed opinions to the process. Alumni, faculty members, well-wishers and others submitted names in the early stages of the search, as is common for wide-ranging administrative searches.

In an unusual step, however, the search committee enlisted the aid of an executive search firm, Russell Reynolds Associates, to help identify under-the-radar candidates. The firm sent the committee a preliminary short list of candidates in December.

De Marchi said former Duke University Art Museum Director Michael Mezzatesta, whose unexpected release this summer prompted the search for a new director, has not been involved in the process of identifying his successor. Interim Director Sarah Schroth, however, has been working very closely with the committee, he said.

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