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by Amy Fusselman

A mysterious woman holds untold influence over the future of our museums. She's the number one headhunter in the museum world, with as many as 75 percent of the top jobs in her database. When museum boards need a new director, they turn to her.

Her m.o. is top secrecy -- no staff awareness -- and she likes surprise candidates. The first response: "I never heard of her!"

Meet Nancy Nichols, partner in the New York offices of the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles International.

Yet her placement record is a Who's Who of the nation's museum directors. Her latest triumph is scooping up the Art Gallery of Ontario's Maxwell Anderson to head the Whitney Museum, over museum insiders' moans that the job would be impossible to fill. (The Whitney board reportedly wants to increase attendance by mounting scholarly shows of American art -- good luck!)

In June, Nichols shocked the museum world by placing Robert Fitzpatrick -- a museum virgin whose previous job was as president of Euro Disney -- at the helm of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. She also led the searches that resulted in Arnold Lehman's leaving the Baltimore Museum for the Brooklyn Museum of Art; Samuel Sachs flying from the Detroit Institute to the Frick Collection in New York; and George King ditching the Katonah Museum for the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

Her current gig? Working with the Metropolitan Museum to find a new president willing to report to director Phillipe de Montebello. Nichols has repeatedly shown that she likes surprise candidates, having made her mark in 1994 by filling the vacant directorship of the Museum of Modern Art with dark-horse candidate Glenn Lowry, a Harvard Ph.D in Islamic Studies. At the time museum insiders complained that MoMA had passed over more obvious choices for the job -- candidates with top-level museum experience such as Anne d'Harnoncourt of the Philadelphia Museum, or Nicholas Serota from London's Tate Gallery.

With the art press on the case, time is always a factor in finding museum directors. The average is six months, Nichols said. The Whitney search took three months, Brooklyn took seven and MoMA took six weeks -- after another firm had the job for a year and a half.

Reached by phone, the kingmaker sounds a bit like a therapist. She defines a museum's search for a director as "a unique opportunity for the board to take a fresh look at the institution" and notes that she starts a search spending "a great deal of time getting board members on the same page."

Nichols says that museum boards today "need to seek a new generation of leadership" by expanding the pool of qualified candidates. "Hiring a scholar alone is not enough," she says. Boards need to "think strategically" to determine "what region they belong to, what their marketplace is." Perhaps with her task at the Met in mind, she adds, "no museum can any longer be all things to all people."

Asked about her career path, she says wryly, "When I was a little girl I didn't want to grow up to be a headhunter." After receiving her Ph.D in art history from Harvard in 1980 and starting a career in higher education -- she was a vice-president at the American University in Beirut -- Nichols was called by a British search firm that was looking for a university president. By the end of the interview, they had a job for her -- working for them. She took it, and thanks in part to her art history background was able to gain the confidence of museum boards, eventually making museum searches her specialty.

Casualties of the take-no-prisoners ethos of executive searches note that the situation seems to have an inherent conflict of interest. How can one firm do the same service for competing institutions?

At any rate, Nichols has shown that she has a way with museum boards: "It's not infrequent," she adds, "that search committees ask if I can be a candidate."

AMY FUSSELMAN is a New York poet and writer.