Two years after publicly confronting sexual harassment, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has selected its new leader: Sasha Suda, the current director and chief executive of the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, Ontario.
Praising her educational and work experience, Leslie Anne Miller, the museum’s chairwoman, said in an interview on Tuesday that Suda was “the right person for the institution at this time in its history.”
“We hope that her gender will be seen through our lens, which is emblematic of the institution’s ongoing commitment of furthering DEI in everything we do,” Miller continued, referring to the museum’s attention to diversity, equity and inclusion. “Sasha understands the critical importance of building on our efforts to date to reach out to the community, to engage through the exhibitions.”
Suda, 41, who starts in September as the 14th director and chief executive, will take over a 145-year-old institution still healing from controversy. In 2020, a New York Times report revealed that a young male manager had been accused of mistreating several women on the staff. Government officials criticized the museum; employees unionized, citing gender and equity issues; and the museum’s former director, Timothy Rub, apologized to his staff. Rub ultimately announced his resignation last summer, having served for 13 years.
At the National Gallery, where she was appointed in February 2019, Suda focused on justice and equity with a commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
“I am passionate about human-centered leadership and really interested in building that strength, so people can see the value of the work they do and the value of their own lived experience — where managers and leaders are holding space for discomfort and very necessary conversations ,” Suda said in a telephone interview.
“That’s really what this moment is about for me as a leader,” she continued, “coming into those conversations with a willingness to make space and be there for them and have eyes wide open.”
She added that the Philadelphia Museum — known for its collection of about 240,000 art works, including those by Brancusi, Duchamp, Rodin and Jasper Johns (as well as its signature front steps, featured in the film “Rocky”) — had long been one of her favorites. “I used to find myself lost in the galleries,” Suda said. “It’s just one of the rare places where you could just turn off and enjoy art in a museum in the best way.”
At a time when cultural institutions are trying to diversify their staffs, boards, collections and programming, some will undoubtedly question the museum’s decision not to appoint a person of color. In February, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art replaced its longtime leader, Neal Benezra, with Christopher Bedford, the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, who is white.
But Miller said Suda was the best qualified person, adding that the museum had cast “the widest possible net to attract the most diverse pool of candidates.”
Miller also cited Suda’s communication skills as of paramount importance to the institution. The Philadelphia Museum of Art was widely faulted by current and former staff members for failing to openly deal with the problems involving a former education manager, Joshua Helmer, who resurfaced as the director of the Erie Art Museum before being forced out of his job there following the New York Times report.
Helmer has declined to discuss accounts of his treatment of women or his relationships with them, though he said he always followed museum policy.
Born in Toronto to Czech parents, Suda earned her bachelor’s degree at Princeton University, her Master’s degree in art history at Williams College and her Ph.D. at New York University. She began her career in the medieval department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she worked in various roles between 2003 and 2011.
She later returned to Canada as an assistant curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, eventually becoming its curator of European Art and then chairwoman of prints and drawings.
Suda is the museum’s third female director. Anne d’Harnoncourt was director and chief executive from 1982 until her death in 2008, and Jean Sutherland Boggs led the museum from 1978 to 1982.
Like cultural institutions around the world, the Philadelphia Museum has been struggling to recover from the pandemic, which required staff and budget cuts. The museum currently has an operating budget of $62 million and is close to completing a fund-raising drive that brings its endowment to $560 million.
Last year, the museum completed the first part of a Frank Gehry-designed renovation and expansion.
But its main priority seems to be repairing its public structure as well as its internal health; after a 2020 “cultural assessment,” the museum committed additional resources to key areas in need of redress. “The institution has not run away from its problems; we have confronted them head on,” Miller said. “We are working on efforts to improve communication and transparency.
“Have we solved the problems? Absolutely not,” she added. “Are we committed to working on them? Absolutely.
“This is a new chapter in a new world,” she continued. “We have to begin to think outside the box. We can’t return to what was then. This is now.”