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The Art of the Search
Published Tuesday, January 17, 2017
by Erika Cohen

Marilyn Hoffman, right, principal of Museum Search & Reference, meets with search committee members Robin LeBuff and David J. Mallen to interview candidates for executive director at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art in Maine. Courtesy photo.

Marilyn Hoffman spent the first part of her career as a museum executive, and for the past 12 years, she has used that experience to recruit museum personnel.

The switch was accidental. She retired in 1996 as director of the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester to spend  more time with her high-school aged kids. Then a friend asked her to help find a new school superintendent, which led to her helping out on other searches.

Having learned the ins and outs of the process, Hoffman launched her own business in 2003 to find executives for museums, where she had many contacts. She recently started her 58th search. Of those, 30 have been for museum directors while others have been for positions such as curators and education directors.

“One thing I noticed in the school superintendent search business was almost all the search consultants were retired school superintendents. I looked at the museum field but there just weren’t any retired museum directors doing these searches. I felt that would give us a competitive edge,” says Hoffman, principal of Museum Search & Reference in Londonderry.

Her clients include the Wright Museum of World War II History in Wolfeboro, The Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, the Boston Children’s Museum in Massachusetts, The Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania and The Denver Art Museum in Colorado.

Business is picking up as more longtime directors are retiring. “I think this generational turnover is finally happening. It didn’t happen as fast as people thought because frankly a lot of people didn’t retire at 65. In the nonprofit world people are not wealthy, and they may not have had as much contributed to their retirement fund as in the corporate world,” Hoffman says.

Hoffman now conducts eight to 10 searches annually with a staff of five. The fifth employee was recently added to keep up with demand.

Hoffman points out that she is always busy because, when a director of one museum leaves for another, it creates a game of musical chairs with an empty chair left to fill. There are about 1,000 art museums in America, and Hoffman says there are 12 to 16 director openings at any time.

“At the beginning people said, ‘Can you have a  practice just working for museums?’ The answer is yes,” Hoffman says.

To learn more, visit museum-search.com.

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