In Profile

Ellen Harris

BY Sarah Schmerler, March 1, 2007

The Aperture Foundation has a mission statement that’s literally writ large on the wall at its West 27th Street location in Chelsea, and Ellen Harris, its executive director since 2003, recites it with a certain reverence. “The purpose of Aperture Foundation, a non-profit organization,” she intones, “is to advance photography in all its forms and to foster the exchange of ideas among audiences worldwide.” It soon becomes clear, however, that the luminaries who founded Aperture in 1952 (Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Minor White, et al) couldn’t possibly have forseen the tasks with which Harris has to wrangle in a single day. There is a staff of more than 30 to manage, a thriving book-publishing business, exhibitions (touring and in situ), a website, a magazine, and year-round educational programs to run—plus $1.5 million to raise every year. “Aperture [then a magazine] was founded to provide an opportunity for photo artists to communicate at a time when photography wasn’t accepted as a fine art,” Harris says. “The world has changed a lot in 55 years.” In truth, updating her founders’ 20th-century ideals for a 21st-century reality—without compromising them—is Harris’s real mission.

In her mid-fifties, with short brown hair and a self-described “hungry look in my eye,” Harris has developed a managerial approach from which other not-for-profits operating in today’s market-driven world could learn: delegate responsibility; consolidate jobs; trust in the skills of your employees. But, adds Harris, don’t rely on a subordinate to read you a financial statement. “It’s a science,” she says. “Our budget is something like $6 million, and we must have more than one hundred categories of expense. I think either you need years of experience or a business degree to put your arms around all aspects of a not-for-profit.”

Harris has both. She earned a masters degree in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in 1979 and an MBA from Yale in 1986. In between she ran the exhibition program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. It was a five-year stint she loved, but it convinced her that she’d have to prove her skills in administration and finance to move up in the field. After Yale came a series of banking jobs in strategic planning and marketing, and in 1990, the Museum of Modern Art offered her the post of deputy director of auxiliary activities. Then, in 1992 the Montclair Art Museum tapped her to be its director. During her eight-and-a-half-year tenure there, Harris put the museum on sound financial footing, broke ground on a new wing, and started a photography collection.

Harris herself is also, as she puts it, an obsessive collector of photographs, and her collection ranges from works by such luminaries as Eugene Atget to Jen Davis, a graduate student at Yale. “They cover every square inch of my house in New Jersey,” she says, adding. “I never tire of looking at them.” This particular passion surely contributed to her interest in Aperture. Harris had left the Montclair Art Museum to start a consulting business, when a friend told her that Aperture was looking for a director. “How could I resist?” says Harris. “I wouldn’t have done it for any place but Aperture, which has such an incredible history and reputation.” Harris is Aperture’s third director to date, and her own contributions include a move from the Flatiron district to Chelsea digs in 2005, changing book distributors to DAP and Thames & Hudson, creating a new fundraising department, and, generally speaking, keeping the flame alive.