Philadelphia Museum of Art names new director: Sasha Suda, director of the National Gallery of Canada
PMA trustees say Suda's appointment marks a generational change at the museum.
She follows Timothy Rub, 69, whose difficult 12-year tenure was capped by a successful and transformative $500 million construction project. But he was also challenged by a months-long lockdown in the face of a global pandemic, widespread public concerns raised by reports of inappropriate abusive and sexual behavior on the part of museum managers, and the rise of a staff-wide union.
Despite the litany of recent problems, Suda said she was not daunted at taking over leadership of the museum.
“I feel very passionately that if one can create a safe and respectful workplace, with empathetic human-centered leadership, that museums can deliver on what they’re here to do, which is to connect with their communities and to tell stories that resonate,” said Suda in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Institutional “culture and personnel issues are incredibly important to engage with,” she said.
“I think that that’s what leadership is — it’s engaging with the people that make up the team, and I’m really excited to fulfill the mandate that’s given to me by the board, which is to help everyone who makes the PMA, the PMA see the value of the work and how it contributes to the institution’s vision.”
New generation of leadership
Museum officials said Suda’s appointment represented a “new generation [of] leadership.” When she was appointed in 2019, she was also the youngest director to run the National Gallery of Canada since the First World War. She is the third woman to head the PMA in its 145-year existence — following Jean Sutherland Boggs and Anne d’Harnoncourt.
Leslie Anne Miller, chair of PMA’s board of trustees, characterized the museum as being at a “pivotal time in its history.”
Suda, she said, “understands the moment ... and is ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work to shore up our position as the leader of the cultural community in Philadelphia.”
The pandemic has created “a new world,” said Miller, and Suda must “engage the community and welcome them back to the opportunities that arts and culture provide for us as a city and the region.”
Last year, the museum named a deputy director for diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, Alphonso Atkins Jr., to oversee development and implementation of oft-stated goals of institutional equity and diversification. At the time, Rub said the appointment came amid a year’s worth of “introspection, discussion, and staff training as we have sought to strengthen our own workplace culture and, at the same time, continue to build our capacity to engage and collaborate effectively with diverse communities.”
Miller reiterated these points Tuesday.
“We certainly understand addressing issues square on,” she said. “We believe that we have shored up our foundation such that Sasha can come in and stand on it to help lead the institution into its future. Are there challenges? To be sure. We are not looking at the situation through rose-colored glasses. But by the same token, we do know that there is just huge potential.”
Union talks a top priority
Miller said the museum is committed to the collective bargaining process with the employee union, formed at the end of the summer in 2020. The union, under the auspices of AFSCME District Council 47, has been engaged in unfruitful collective bargaining talks ever since.
“A new director isn’t going to magically resolve the labor issues at the museum,” said Adam Rizzo, president of the union, which covers employees from a variety of museum departments, including education, visitor services, conservation, retail, development, and curatorial. At about the same time the union was formed in 2020, the museum announced layoffs of about a quarter of its staff in the face of the pandemic-induced lockdown and attendant collapse of revenue.
A spokesperson said the museum staff is about 350, down about 80 from pre-pandemic levels. Rizzo said he hopes the new director will take the “responsibility seriously” and is “clear-eyed about the problems facing workers at the museum.” He cited “low pay, unaffordable health care, bad parental leave policies, harassment, and overuse of temporary and termed positions.”
“The staff unionized because we love the museum and want to see it live up to its values and mission.” Rizzo said. “We hope the new director does too.”
Museum trustees have “a commitment to a healthy union-management relationship,” Suda said. “Personally, I can attest to working in several unionized organizations, most recently at the National Gallery of Canada, where I worked really closely with union leadership over the last three years to get to a contract. ... So I think building on the good work that the board and interim leadership is doing getting to a place with the union — I’m excited to come and be part of that conversation moving forward.”
Who is Sasha Suda?
Suda has a doctorate in medieval manuscripts from New York University. She did her undergraduate work at Princeton University and received a master’s degree from Williams College. Between 2003 and 2011, she worked in the medieval department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, before returning to her native Toronto, to the Art Gallery of Ontario, becoming first an assistant curator of European art and then head of the department of prints and drawings.
There, she established a reputation with her 2016 show “Small Wonders,” which used digital imaging to show how Gothic boxwood miniatures were made. The exhibit was a hit. She also curated an early Rubens exhibition, building a large show around a single painting, The Massacre of the Innocents.
When she took the helm at the National Gallery of Art, one of her first orders of business was to energize the gallery’s public spaces with works from Àbadakone: Continuous Fire, a sprawling exhibition of Indigenous art from around the world.
In February of this year, she announced the creation of a department of Indigenous ways and decolonization. “This will build on the work of the Indigenous gallery staff who have brought to life historic exhibitions such as the Alex Janvier retrospective and Àbadakone, while building a rich collection of contemporary international Indigenous art,” Suda said at the time. She named Steven Loft, who is Kanien’kehá: ka (Mohawk), the head of the department.
During her time at the national gallery, Suda avoided any staff layoffs forced by the pandemic and sought to diversify the institution, bringing in Black administrative officers, encouraging the commissioning of artwork by Black artists, and pushing for increased engagement with Indigenous communities.
When she starts at the PMA on Sept. 21, Suda said, her immediate priority will be “listening really deeply to staff and all of the communities that the PMA exists to serve.”
“It’s going to be critical that I spend lots of time listening to everyone in the city who has a vested interest in success,” she continued. “My job isn’t to come in and sort of parachute in a new vision. My job is to come and see what the PMA does best, what it’s really [seeking] to do, to help give that shape and create the momentum that it needs to lead the institution and its teams into the future.”