Alumni Spotlight on Gail Harrity '69: Mastering the Fine Art of Museum Management

Kristina M. Jenkins
The passionate President and Chief Operating Officer of the world-renowned Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gail Harrity ’69, has enjoyed an incredible, decades-long career working as an administrator for some of the most prestigious art museums in the country.

“Shipley definitely nurtured my passion for the arts,” says Harrity, recalling both an innate love of culture and a consistent encouragement of her interest during her tenure at Shipley, which was then an all-girls institution.

From studying the poetry of Robert Frost on the occasion of his visit to Shipley’s Lower School, to developing an appreciation for art and architecture via a visit to the Wharton Esherick Museum, Harrity appreciates the imaginative thinking that was instilled in Shipley students. “Shipley encouraged creativity and a sense of intellectual curiosity in all aspects,” she says.

Harrity took that lesson of intellectual curiosity to heart, and has held fast to a deep fascination with and appreciation for art and learning throughout her formidable career.

After graduating from Shipley in 1969, Harrity graduated from Boston University with a degree in sociology after taking many courses in art history and political science, and then began her working life, accepting a position in the United States Senate in Washington, D.C.

After six years in Washington, and plenty of experience developing diplomatic skills, Harrity left for what, in hindsight, was a remarkable adventure. The twenty-something Harrity traveled around the world on a shoestring budget with a friend, which was quite unorthodox at the time. “I traveled overland for a year on a budget of less than $2,000 to Iran and Afghanistan, over the Khyber Pass and into India and beyond, which whet my appetite and deepened my understanding of the art and architecture of countries around the world,” she says.

The experience was hugely influential, but once she returned from her year abroad, Harrity was faced with the ultimate question of her next career step. With strong mathematical skills, plus an interest in international work as well as the non-profit sector, Harrity was led to the Yale School of Management to pursue an MBA in public/private management. “Yale was and continues to be a school that is entrepreneurial, forging a curriculum that made the most of using skills that would be valuable in the public-private or non-profit sectors,” she says.

With a program that allowed her to explore multiple avenues, including an internship in Somalia connecting marginalized refugee children with the therapeutic benefits of art, the question of just what path to follow remained until a key speaker visited Yale.

“I was extremely fortunate that the Chief Operating Officer from Metropolitan Museum of Art came to Yale, and I approached him to see if there was a career for someone with a passion for art and strong business acumen,” she says. “That led to what’s now been a 30-year career in museum management.”

After earning her MBA from Yale, Harrity accepted a position with the illustrious Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where she began her museum career and worked for seven years, until the opportunity arose in 1989 to move to the also-celebrated Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where Harrity would become the Deputy Director.

At the Guggenheim, Harrity’s international experience proved to be an immense asset when a team was assembled to develop the Frank O. Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a project that was launched in 1991 and completed in 1997.

Harrity was tapped to be the Deputy Director of Project Administration for the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and was instrumental in building and executing the strategic plan to construct the landmark institution that has become an architectural icon of the 20th century.  “The idea for any strategic plan is to look and build upon the strength and history of the organization, and develop a vision which balances continuity and change,” she says.

From its inception, Harrity explains, the Bilbao project strived to build on the existing strengths of the Guggenheim in New York: its 20th century art collection, extraordinary architecture, and international presence, which the museum already had via managing the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice.

In addition to the arts organization, the Guggenheim Bilbao worked directly with the Basque government in Spain, which was also developing a plan of how to transform the region. “It pulled together my international experience, cultural diplomacy, passion for the arts, and sensitivity to differing cultural perspectives and language. It was an extraordinary time,” she says.

Once that project was wrapping up, Harrity fortuitously received an intriguing call from Anne d’Harnoncourt, the then-director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who recruited Harrity to join her in Philadelphia.

“I had no intention of leaving New York,” says Harrity, “and she had no knowledge that I had Philadelphia roots.” Harrity was drawn to consider the move, though, by both her family ties and because of the museum itself. “I think because the collection is so extraordinary, really one of the finest in the United States, it was immediately appealing from that perspective. The thought of working with one of the United States’ finest art museum directors was appealing, too.”

After joining the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1997 as Chief Operating Officer, Harrity assumed the additional responsibility of becoming President in 2009. “While my career has been non-linear, it has also been superb and excellent training for the diverse set of skills that are required for my current responsibilities,” she says. 

In her current role, Harrity oversees a vast range of the Museum’s administrative functions, including finance, marketing and communications, external relations, facilities management, membership, and development. She also works actively with the Director and Board of Trustees on strategic planning. “It’s similar to operating a number of small businesses, really,” she says of her diverse, day-to-day roles. “I think my skill in the job goes back to the educational training received from Shipley on through Yale, along with that commitment to community and entrepreneurial spirit.”

At the core of her work is a dedication to the institution itself, and its development for the future. Harrity has played a central role in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s strategic planning and the development of a facilities master plan—in which she enlisted her former colleague Frank Gehry.

“Over the course of the past decade we have been thoughtfully planning, and through the collective effort of many, we have been skillfully addressing a series of improvements and additions to the facilities,” she says. “First and foremost, the facilities should serve the collections and visitors for future generations.”

A boundless undertaking, Harrity knows that her dedication to the museum’s future merely builds on the foundation of past Philadelphia arts and culture leaders. “When I think back to what the civic and museum leaders did at the turn of the last century, and their bold vision for the future of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it’s inspirational,” she says. “To stand on the shoulders of giants and look to the future is what excites me every day. It sparks in me the energy and passion to sustain that kind of excellence.”

But no matter how far into the future Harrity gazes, she never fails to both appreciate her present, and nod to her past.

“I think what I enjoy the most about my career is the diversity of the responsibility and the breadth and the opportunity to continue to learn,” she says. “Shipley instilled a sense of intellectual curiosity to see the world anew, and I appreciate the importance of continuity and change, continuing to build on the strong foundation of our predecessors.”
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.