When travelling in Eastern Europe recently a friend of ours was offered a free coffee in a sidewalk café. Before she had finished sipping she felt very dizzy and next thing she knew she woke up in a hotel room covered in ice with a note on the side table. It told her to ring a phone number urgently. She did and a couple of paramedics turned up to announce that one of their kidneys had been removed. That is, of course, an urban legend that started circulating sometime in 1997. Another legend that had its beginnings sometime in the late 1970s, told how the director of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery could only stay in the job for an unnegotiable five-year term.
The idea certainly took hold as part of the avant-garde, we-do-things-differently-here brand of the Govett-Brewster. Turns out though that it was only ever a suggestion following the departure of the first director John Maynard (who was not appointed to a fixed term and stayed in the job just under five years) that was never tested: the first seven directors only stayed for an average of four and a half years. The first to buck the trend was Greg Burke who was appointed for a 5 year term, which was subsequently extended by 2 years and then extended indefinitely as has been the case with the current director Rhana Devenport.
Until the last decade most directors of smaller art museums did around five to seven years apiece (with the glorious exception of Whanganui’s Bill Milbank and Nelson’s Austin Davies). Even the first seven professional directors of the Auckland Art Gallery, for example, stayed on average just under six years each.
Why the change? It's probably due to increased professionalism and salary hikes as directors' conditions have been aligned with other senior local body officers. And then there's the merry-go-round effect. In a small country with a limited number of jobs, a couple of people staying longer in the same job quickly slows the turnover to a crawl. In the end it’s always going to be a toss up between the benefits of continuity and the potential of having regular injections of new energy.
Image: a kidney of the type taken from our friend