Mimi Gardner Gates PhD ’81 Shares Lessons From Museum Management

When Mimi Gardner Gates PhD ’81 moved from art curating into museum management, she had to take a long, hard look at her skillset and reach out for the help she needed.

“I had a tremendous amount to learn in terms of budget and finance,” she said. “I hadn’t had to deal with that. One thing I’ve realized is that it’s important to know what your own weakness are. I needed a really strong CFO, and that’s what I made sure I had.”

Gates, director emerita of the Seattle Art Museum and former director of the Yale University Art Gallery, spoke at the Yale School of Management on April 14 as part of SOM’s Leaders Forum lecture series.

In a broad discussion hosted by Sharon Oster, the Frederic D. Wolfe Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship, Gates shared her experiences transitioning into museum management, as well as the challenges and benefits of running a great art institution.

Gates was the curator of Asian art at the Yale Art Gallery when she was tapped to become director. At first, she said, she resisted the transition, because she loved curating. But the move into management gave her new insights into herself and the institution that employed her.

“I did discover that I had good people skills and I had to think strategically how to use those,” she said. “I had to learn to work with the university, how to be an advocate for the museum but also to understand the other challenges facing the university, how to really integrate the museum into the infrastructure of the university, into its intellectual fabric. That inspired me.”

Leaders need to define an organization’s values and mission, and then find the people who can achieve them. “Hiring a senior team, whether it’s for a for-profit or a not-for-profit, is really critical because those are the people you’re going to work most closely with,” she said. “You need to know how to hire people who are knowledgeable, who are intelligent, who you want to be part of your team, and also who shore up your weaknesses.”

Watch the discussion: 



View photos from the event.