Get ready for a great read! Katie Glaser Getchell is an independent consultant, bringing her experience of playing a leadership role in one of the world’s largest museums for over 20 years to help arts, culture and non-profit organizations prepare for success in tomorrow’s world. Katie proudly and energetically served as Deputy Director at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for two decades, with responsibility for a wide and regularly expanding range of functions, and is known for leading change and seeking out new business and partnership models for a civic organization to thrive in today’s world. Throughout decades of transformation under two Directors, she championed a consistent mission to change the way people see the world through works of art and the stories they tell. A passionate advocate, Katie worked tirelessly to promote a sense of community partnership – indeed ownership – which is critical for any museum or civic organization as it looks to the future. Please enjoy this Frank Talk with Katie!
What was your first job in the Arts?
The summer between my junior and senior years at Boston University, I was fortunate enough to land an internship at the Guggenheim that combined my major (Art History) and minor (Russian language). As the ten-week internship came to an end, a member of the team announced she was leaving to pursue her PhD and I (still without an undergraduate degree) offered to stay on – which turned into my first paid job in the arts, as a Curatorial Assistant on the exhibition The Great Utopia.
What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?
I feel compelled to share two: first, that it never hurts to put yourself out there with a willingness to take on something that appears to be above your level. Second, that there are jobs other than curators in museums. My eyes were opened to that during my internship at the Guggenheim, and I decided to pursue a career in museum administration. I am eternally grateful for both lessons, which have guided me ever since.
Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?
When I was an intern at the Guggenheim, I was part of a curatorial team working on an exhibition. This gave me a window into the project management roles required to bring the exhibition to life, and I chose to follow that interest as Department Assistant in the Exhibitions department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
What do you do now?
Until March, I was Deputy Director at the MFA, Boston. One of my favorite quotes is “Luck is when opportunity meets preparation”, which was the mantra of my time at the MFA. I was promoted to Director of Exhibitions and then Deputy Director within 5 years and enjoyed 20 years as Deputy Director, where I had a wide purview and was able to lead teams across the Museum to achieve wonderful things.
Recently, I formed an LLC so that I could take on consulting projects. My first clients are bearing out what I had hoped – that consulting would enable me to use my experience and expertise to help other organizations while continuing to learn and grow, myself. It is very satisfying to experience the transferability of my skills into new environments. And I love being my own boss.
Where are you from?
I was born in Washington DC, but my family moved to the Portland, Maine area when I was 11, so I identify more with Maine (though am very aware that I am not native!).
What is the arts community like there?
Maine has a very vibrant art and maker scene. Having spent the last six months in rural western Maine, I am stunned by the number of creative endeavors I keep uncovering. From my neighbor throwing pots in his barn, to a local art studio offering their space for micro-schooling, to our town movie theater being repurposed into an art studio for its owner to continue his work on a major public commission, to a presidential inaugural poet living a few miles away. It is truly remarkable the way this beautiful landscape attracts and sustains creatives of all kinds.
Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?
For me it isn’t geographical, it is biographical. I lead, and I see leadership as influence, not authority. I lead to translate vision into reality. I think I learned that from my parents who showed me the power of influence earned through hard work and taught me that I could be the difference I wanted to see in the world.
What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?
Keep an open mind – about art, people, and opportunities to make a difference.
What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?
Building and owning the relationship with our sister museum in Nagoya, Japan. On my very first day at the MFA I was typing the letter of intent and 25 years later I was inaugurating the final exhibition after the successful completion of a 20-year agreement. This involved a great deal of travel to Japan, building cross-cultural relationships, negotiation, navigation, and creativity. It also enabled many early-career curators at the MFA to publish their work, thousands of objects in the collection to be conserved and provided significant operating support to the MFA. A real win-win!
What has been a challenge for you?
Two stand out.
1. Working with such a dedicated and ambitious staff is never short of ideas. It is hard not having the resources or structure to pursue them. Risk tolerance is low and expectations are very high. This meant that new ventures that were successful were some of the most celebrated – our overnight parties bringing art, artists and community together, our provenance research and claims resolution, our program offering new citizens a free first year membership…which was great. But there are so many good ideas from staff at all levels that never see the light of day – it was frustrating to staff and a great loss to the Museum and its audiences.
2. The lack of opportunities for upward mobility to reward and recognize deserving staff and to create a pipeline for a diverse workforce is a real challenge. When I couldn’t provide it, I worked hard to find leadership roles on projects to give the most diverse group of staff opportunities for personal growth and collegial recognition. But it was not sustainable, which was demoralizing to all.
What is something you do every day at the office (or your current home office)?
Check my to do list and organize my desk at the end of each day. It makes me feel centered, no matter what happens between the time I leave my desk and when I get back to it.
What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?
Act as a security guard when the Boston Celtics came to the MFA and did a meet and greet (with a basketball!) with President Obama in a ceramics gallery. Telling those giants (literally and figuratively) they couldn’t dribble took great courage on my part. But I was clear that the objects came first!
What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?
The most important thing for both is to be clear about the values of the organization and what it means to live by them in their respective roles. A good employee shows their commitment by being punctual and engaged, asking thoughtful questions, doing their work well and consistently, and offering of themselves. A good boss gives clear and consistent feedback and provides opportunities for growth, allowing for thoughtful experimentation and, therefore, the occasional failure.
What do you think makes a person hirable?
I have seen so many hirable people I didn’t have jobs for! For me it is more about fit and potential than about credentials or experience.
What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace? Any good tips for a giving a great interview?
Aside from the obvious basics (accuracy, preparedness, thoroughness), have a sense of humor. Not that you should be cracking jokes, but find ways to show that you are human, and that you know your prospective boss and colleagues are too.
Is there any advice you would like to give people entering the art world?
Be patient. Be creative. Be open.
Any other anecdotes about your working experience that you would like to share?
I was regularly asked to take responsibility for areas in which I had no formal training or experience. While I never tried to be an expert in any (HVAC, retail, security, film, for example), I made it my business to walk in my staff’s shoes so that I could speak their language and make responsible decisions about their operations. This leadership style became intertwined with my proclivity for life-long learning and embracing change – and made for strong, respectful, and reciprocal relationships that went far beyond the org chart.
What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?
Hew Locke: Here’s the Thing at the Colby College Museum of Art. I didn’t know the artist previously, so it was a revelation to me. His work wrestles with so many relevant concerns – colonialism, post-colonialism, globalism, migration, trade and capital, nationalism, climate change, monuments – and it barely opened before COVID shut the museum down. The museum’s website has some great digital content including a video tour (which captures its dynamic installation), a conversation with the artist and one between the exhibition curator and a professor of history which explores a figurehead of Queen Victoria in the collection and its connection to Hew Locke’s work – I highly recommend it. The exhibition is a perfect example of how long-range exhibition planning tries to anticipate issues that will be of concern to audiences of the future – in this case, the Colby team struck it just right. I do hope it will be able to remain on view when the museum opens so that more people have the opportunity to experience it.
If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?
Hiroshi Sugimoto – one of his photographs where land and sea merge in an abstract landscape
LaToya Ruby Frazier – her photographs combine fine art, documentary storytelling, and social justice in a very powerful way
Christo – a drawing for Floating Piers, which I was lucky enough to experience
Jennifer Steinkamp – I love her quiet but powerful vegetal video works
Nick Cave – his joyous sculptures belie their powerful racial commentary
How do you think art can play a fundamental role in the world’s recovery?
While I got into my career via art history, art has been always been the vehicle, not the end game. Art has a unique ability to help us see ourselves and our world in a new way. That makes art an extremely powerful tool for understanding and appreciating both difference and commonality – for creating community. I have seen artwork be the impetus for some of the most challenging conversations about issues of our times – art can open things up in a non-threatening way. We need all the tools we can get in order to improve discourse and understanding. Art — of all forms —should always be at the ready in the toolbelt.
And finally, do you think the art world should be more transparent?
Absolutely. One of the projects I am most proud of is putting the MFA’s collection, including provenance, on line in 2000. Many curators were aghast…the research wasn’t complete, we would receive more claims, our peers would have access to information…but we did it. And we did receive more claims, and that was the point. Exposing the stories of objects before they end up in museums is just one form of transparency. Funding sources and their impact on programming, the effect of white privilege on the art market, the lack of representation in most collections, the lack of diversity in most professional roles…I could go on. Like my experience with sharing provenance, rather than being afraid of the response to transparency, the art world should embrace it. After all, art is created in conversation with a time and place. It is only with a full understanding of the realities of those times and places that we can truly appreciate the voice of the artist and the meaning of their production.