After an exceptionally long tenure of nearly 30 years as president of the American Museum of Natural History, Ellen V. Futter informed the board of trustees on Wednesday that she will be stepping down next March, following the planned opening of the institution’s new Richard Gilder Center for Science. Education and innovation.
“It was an amazing race and I feel so proud and grateful for my time,” Futter, 72, said in a phone interview. “The opening of the Gilder Center marks the completion of my work and a good time for the museum under new management.”
The board will immediately begin looking for Futter’s replacement. “These are huge shoes to fill, there’s no doubt about it,” museum president Scott Bok said in an interview. “But she leaves us in a position to find someone good.”
As to whether the board would seek to appoint a person of color, given the current emphasis on diversity in the museum world, Bok said an outside executive search firm — which does not has not yet been hired – “will be responsible for bringing us a diverse slate of candidates.”
Given the size of the museum – it has an operating budget of approximately $178 million and more than 1,000 full and part-time staff – and its public role as an institution that occupies a city-owned building and land, the position will require an experienced steward of stature, Bok added.
“We want someone who is a great leader, who is collaborative, who is collegial and an effective liaison with key constituencies, including New York City,” he said. “We want someone who’s a good fundraiser, because we can’t do everything we want just with the revenue from admissions and the support we get from the city. It’s a big job.
For the past three decades, Futter has presided over a museum that seems both frozen in time and propelled by change. On the one hand, the dioramas – some of which depict indigenous tribes – with which the museum is closely associated have persisted, reliable for frequent visitors and at the same time a symbol of the slowness of the institution to evolve, in particular in a world newly sensitive to cultural stereotypes and inaccuracies. (The scenes were finally changed in 2019.) Last month, Northwest Coast Hall reopened with a new focus on the lives of Indigenous people.
At the same time, the museum experienced several major new developments, namely the opening of the new Rose Center for Earth and Space in 2000 and its Gilder Center.
In carrying out these projects, Futter had to navigate often thorny municipal politics. With its glass dome rising among the Upper West Side’s antebellum buildings, the Rose Center for Earth and Space was initially considered sacrilege by some locals. But in the end, it was widely acclaimed by critics and well received by the community.
“Here is that rare example where a time, a place, a function, an architect and a client (the heroic Ellen V. Futter, president of the museum) have perfectly aligned to produce an intelligent design that will also appeal to a wide audience. public taste,” architectural critic Herbert Muschamp wrote in the New York Times in 2000. “It’s like finding another world.
When the museum announced plans to build the Gilder Center in 2015, a neighborhood contingent objected to the project’s foray into adjacent city-owned Theodore Roosevelt Park. In response to these concerns, the museum decided to demolish three of its existing buildings to make way for the six-story addition, rather than move further into the tree-lined space along Columbus Avenue. And the curvilinear stone and glass addition – designed by architect Jeanne Gang – is nearing completion.
Adrian Benepe, president of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, said that during his years as the city’s parks commissioner, he was impressed with Futter’s ability to balance such “city” tensions without imperiousness. “She’s always been very clear, ‘This park doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to New York City,'” he said, adding that his board meetings, which he attends as as an ex-officio, were “a master class”. in how you run a major cultural institution in New York.
In 2020, the museum announced that its bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt, on horseback and flanked by a Native American and an African – who had presided over the entrance since 1940 and had come to symbolize a painful legacy of colonial expansion and racial discrimination – would come down. After years of objections from activists, the decision, proposed by the museum and accepted by the city, came amid the racial reckoning sparked by the killing of George Floyd.
Futter also had to deal with traumatic world events that had a financial impact on cultural institutions across the country, such as the September 11 attacks, the economic downturn of 2008 and the coronavirus pandemic.
And Futter reflected on the museum’s potentially important role as an educator in a time of growing concern about climate change. Since 2008, the museum, through its Richard Gilder Graduate School, has offered a Ph.D. in Comparative Biology, and in 2011 the museum established a separate master’s program in science education.
Currently in New York City, half of the public school teachers hired each year with a primary earth science certification graduate from the master’s program, the museum said.
The integrity of the museum’s stance on science as paramount was tested by protests in 2017 against one of its board members, Rebekah Mercer. Mercer had used her family’s millions to fund organizations that challenged climate change, a cornerstone of the conservative agenda she advanced as an influential member of President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition team.
After coming under pressure from scientists and other academics, Mercer quietly resigned in 2019.
Futter came to the museum after 13 years as president of Barnard College, where, at 29, she was the youngest person to serve as president of a major American college. When she was named museum president in 1993, she was the first woman to lead a major New York-based museum.
With a pragmatic manner, Futter has been a solid and deliberate steward, managing to run the institution without fireworks or showmanship. She has also largely avoided controversy, surviving, for example, the 2010 revelations that she was living rent-free in a $5 million East Side apartment that the museum bought when it first started (she will move out when she will leave the museum).
Some may inevitably fault Futter for doing too little too slowly. But in the end, others say, she pushed a legendary museum forward as fast as she could.
“How many millions of children have gone to class and watched a giant buffalo or this herd of elephants?” said Benepe. “Museums today probably wouldn’t have stuffed animals as their star attraction, but she understood that it was an essential part of the history of this museum and they enjoyed coming to see it. Ellen understood the need to maintain certain things that are completely associated with the museum in people’s minds, but also the need to modernize and address social issues.
Futter, for her part, said she was very aware of having to find a balance between preserving the past, responding to the present and preparing for the future. “When I came here, people told me it was their favorite place, but nothing ever changes,” she said. “I’m proud that they still happily say it’s their favorite place, but things have changed. Not the core mission of science and education, which is the foundation for us, but how we deliver it.