MBAs on the Move

Museum Exec Combines Love of Art With Business Savvy

Claire Ruud

  • Director of Curatorial Strategy, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
  • Yale School of Management (MBA, 2012)
  • University of Texas at Austin (MA, Art History, 2008)
  • Swarthmore College (BA, Art History, 2004)

As an undergrad at Swarthmore, Claire Ruud studied classics and set her sights on becoming a professor. She later switched to art history and pursued a masters at the University of Texas, while managing a non-profit artists’ space in Austin. Realizing she could contribute more if she knew how to manage people and money, she applied to Yale School of Management because of its leadership in the social sector. Post-MBA, she worked as deputy director for the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and now Claire has a fulfilling role as director of curatorial strategy at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.


Tell me about your current role at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago.

I report to the chief curator, and all of the artistic departments report to me: visual art, performance and public practice, learning, and content. My job is 30 percent strategy – thinking through what projects and programs are going to help the museum achieve its goals; 30 percent is organizational dynamics – making sure the right people are sitting next to the right people at the right time; and 40 percent is coaching the creative team – whether they are producing exhibitions or stage performances or partnership programs or books we publish.

What do you love most about your job?

I love seeing team members with very different perspectives together come up with something better than anyone can on her own.

One of your goals is for the museum to positively impact the Chicago community. How do you do that?

Artists are change-agents in society. We try to place artists in places and situations where they can help us imagine a better future. One of our flagship programs is SPACE, School Partnership for Art and Civic Engagement. We support artists to move their studios into Chicago public high schools and co-develop curriculum with the civics teachers so that students learn to use artistic strategies to impact their communities. The arts have been defunded in public schools, and this program says something about our commitment to how art can contribute to public life and social cohesion.


Tell me about your career path, and how you became interested in art and eventually museum work?

My father was an economics professor at Berkeley so academics seemed like my best route, and I thought I would be a classics professor. During my sophomore year of college, I completely switched course in one day. I went to my Greek class in the morning, and everyone was talking about how many hours they had spent in the library. In the afternoon, I went to my art history class, and all the kids were talking about music shows, museum exhibitions, and great food. I asked myself, “Do I want to live in the library or do I want to live in the real world?”

I decided to major in art history at Swarthmore and then went to UT Austin for my master’s in art history, and I started running an art space and online contemporary art journal. Again, I realized I wanted to be working in the real world, not only in the world of ideas, but I also wanted to be hands-on and pragmatic in my work.

Why did you decide to get an MBA?

The financial crisis hit in 2007, I saw museums laying off staff and art spaces closing, and I realized I could help artists more if I could manage people and money. I applied only to Yale School of Management because of its strong leadership in the social sector. If I didn’t get in, I thought I’d try again the following year.

How has the MBA been valuable to you?

Capitalism has become so normalized, but at Yale, I was able to explore alternative belief systems among students who were from a host of non-profit, political, for-profit backgrounds and geographies.

At business school, I also got an understanding of how people develop influence and how organizational structures and interpersonal relationships impact decisions.

What was your post-MBA job search like?

I was one of the few students without a job when I left business school. I was not on a path to become a consultant or a banker, and non-profit and the arts have different job search process.


What has been a career “wow” moment?

Leading the strategic plan for 2020 to 2025 at the MCA has been an extended career wow moment.  In a mission-driven organization of very creative people, working to align everyone toward a transformative vision has been exciting.

What have been your personal keys to success?

I am interested in what I can learn from every single person in the room. I am also willing to be wrong.

Have you had any career blunders you care to share?

I stayed too long at a job where the culture was not a good fit and overestimated my ability to be exceptional in the face of dysfunction. The people you work with and an organization’s culture is “make or break” for your satisfaction and success.

What is it about Forté and its mission that made you want to participate in this campaign?

I’m really interested in projects that empower women to be in control of their lives and careers and, in particular, women who have intersectional identities. I was the only lesbian in my class at Yale, and I want to create higher visibility for people who are navigating multiple marginalized identities.

Volunteer work:
I recently joined the board of Threewalls, an organization that focuses on artists with intersectional identities. It is a way for me to stay involved in work that pushes the edges of culture in ways that a huge museum can’t.

Book recommendation:
Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg

Free time:
I spend time with my miniature pinscher, Mr. Boogers. We snuggle, walk, run, and eat. I like to cook–curry, lasagna, and lettuce cups are my go-to’s. I make a different smoothie every morning and you can see them all on Instagram.

Singer who makes her turn up the volume:
Jamila Woods. Next time you’re in Chicago, try driving down Lake Shore Drive (LSD) with her song, “LSD,” at full volume.

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