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The LMN Roving Reporter


You never know where Executive Director Christine Jeffers will pop up and seek the answers to the most pressing questions for museum leaders today. Keep an eye out, you might be next!

Karen Kienzle HeadshotI recently asked Executive Director Karen Kienzle of the Palo Alto Art Center, in Palo Alto, California, to share her thoughts with me on these topics.

Christine Jeffers: What traits do you think are most important for arts leaders today?

Karen Kienzle: Flexibility is critical to success in a field that constantly changes. Our audiences are changing, their demographics and needs are changing, and donors’ interests are changing too. Increasingly, I look for staff and colleagues that demonstrate comfort with ambiguity and a willingness to be flexible. The arts and museums are no place for people who expect rigid roles, a pristine road map, or a crystal-clear and fixed set of job duties. This is a great place for current and emerging leaders who can transform their positions to meet the needs of the community, the institution, and to leverage their greatest skills and assets.

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What does adaptive change mean to you and your organization?

Ultimately, adaptive change reinforces the need to be flexible and to find comfort in the unknown. Change is the only thing that is constant and when we are unable to respond to it, our institutions wither and suffer, and we become irrelevant as leaders.

During your tenure at the Palo Alto Art Center what has been your biggest management challenge?
Transforming the culture. After five years, we are a highly functioning team of dedicated, passionate and committed arts professionals, who are deeply collaborating in unprecedented ways. They say that culture takes years to build and I can attest to that. It also takes only seconds to destroy, so we see our culture as a critical and very vulnerable aspect of our success.

What do you see as the future for the arts in our nation?
Expanding relevance to the community, and therefore greater investment.

What is your secret power?

Not sure about a secret power, but I have some great secret weapons. I can run a great meeting to discuss team norms, I have lots of great tools like RASCI charts and process documents that help to slay my opponents and empower my team.

Why do you value your AAM membership?

Connection to a strong and vital community of professionals in the field, discounted access to an amazing and inspiring annual conference, outstanding publications and resources.

In her current position as Director of the Palo Alto Art Center, Karen Kienzle oversees a vibrant organization that inspires the artist in everyone through a diverse range of exhibitions, public programs, educational events, and art classes for adults and children. She manages the Art Center staff, administers the budget, oversees marketing and outreach, and interfaces with our supporting Palo Alto Art Center Foundation (a private nonprofit that supports the Art Center through fundraising and advocacy). Kienzle has continued the Palo Alto Art Center’s tradition of excellence in all aspects of its programming. Contributing her experience in and passion for audience development, community outreach, collaboration and marketing, Kienzle has expanded the Art Center’s impact in the community, overseeing the successful On the Road program during the Art Center’s renovation and subsequent move back into its transformed facility.

Kienzle also worked as Assistant Curator and Curatorial Assistant at the San Jose Museum of Art. Kienzle held curatorial intern positions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Oakland Museum of California, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. She received her B.A. in the history of art from U.C. Berkeley and her M.A. in museum studies from San Francisco State University. She is a graduate of the Getty Museum Leadership Institute at the Claremont Graduate University and is a lecturer at San Francisco State’s museum studies graduate program. In 2012, Kienzle received the Silicon Valley NextGen Emerging Leader award.

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