I’m afraid that today’s post is going to involve a lot of links, but trust me – it’s a fascinating and important story, and one that I greet with a mixture of satisfaction in knowing that I was right to question what was going on, while simultaneously regretting that I was right to be worried.
Back in August, I wrote the following in The Federalist about the problems faced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:
Recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it is millions of dollars in the red, despite receiving more than 6 million paying guests annually. The Met plans to cut a total of 100 employees by the end of 2016, and has reduced the number of special exhibitions it will hold. Yet despite its financial woes and staff reductions, this year the Met has taken on a costly new lease to expand into the hideous, Brutalist former premises of the Whitney Museum of American Art, as part of an effort to make itself appear more up to date.
Then on February 28, 2017, Met Director Thomas Campbell suddenly announced that he was resigning his post. This took place three weeks after the publication of a rather damning article in the New York Times which asked, inter alia, why one of the wealthiest museums in the world couldn’t afford to pay its bills. At first, much blame seemed to be put squarely at the foot of the outgoing Director, as someone who could not seem to manage the behemoth institution.
Mr. Campbell, a tapestry curator at the Met, took over running America’s largest and most important art institution in 2009, following the retirement of Philippe de Montebello, who reigned over the Met from 1977 to 2008, and presided over the single largest period of expansion in the history of the institution. Naturally, his was going to be a hard act to follow, and as more and more press reports emerge about the internal culture at the Met over the past several years, it’s clear that America’s premiere artistic institution has become something of a floundering mess.
Yet it doesn’t appear that Mr. Campbell himself is entirely to blame for what went wrong. Last week, the New York Post published this eye-opening piece on the six- and seven- figure compensation received by Met leadership, including members of the board, even as the museum was financially sinking.
In follow up to this story a few days later, ArtNet published an internal email which seems to show the museum justifying the millions of dollars in payments by noting that that the payments were in line with those made to executives and board members at comparable institutions. Of course, the email does not make clear whether the comparable institutions were failing as well, with staff asked to resign, retire, take pay cuts, or suffer pension cuts.
In the April issue of Vanity Fair, now available online, reporter William D. Cohan takes a fascinating, deep dive into the culture of The Met under Mr. Campbell’s leadership. He begins with the aforementioned Times piece, which included an interview with former Met curator George Goldner, about what has gone wrong with the museum over the past several years. He also ends his piece with Mr. Goldner, and an interview in The Art Newspaper from the day after Mr. Campbell resigned. Among the cacophony of voices explaining why The Met went off the rails, Mr. Goldner’s rings the truest.
Mr. Goldner noted that when he started at The Met in 1993, it was “a very traditional institution, which focused mainly on exhibitions, acquisitions, scholarship and the galleries. It had a clear identity and a manageable agenda.” By the time he left, it was trying to be trendy and fashionable, in order to make even more money from donors and draw even more visitors to its halls and concession stands.
“There was an argument that all the new rich people collected contemporary art,” Mr. Goldner told The Art Newspaper, “and we weren’t going to get their donations otherwise. I don’t believe that’s what a cultural institution should base its programme on. I don’t think that the Harvard Law School decides what kind of law they teach based on future possible donations.”
Personally speaking, I suspect that Mr. Goldner is incorrect as regards the motivations of Harvard Law School. But be that as it may, he did hit the nail on the head when it comes to thinking about exactly what large museums like The Met are supposed to be doing, and what guidance their leadership should be providing. And the buck, as the NY Post and ArtNet seem to indicate, does not stop with Mr. Campbell.
Among the major problems which the art world faces is that of the art museum which tries to be all things to all people, but neglects to do its core job properly. Trying to turn The Met into MoMA or The Whitney is an example of this line of thinking. As Mr. Goldner commented, “[h]aving a big centre of Modern art at the Met is like having a centre of Italian paintings 20 blocks away from the Uffizi. Part of what has created the morale issue is that other departments have felt that their concerns have been relegated to a secondary position behind contemporary art and digital media.”
At some point, someone is going to have to come in and clean house at The Met. There needs to be a renewed focus on preserving and enhancing the core collection of the institution; improving visitor facilities and services; commitment to the training, retention, and good compensation of loyal, professional staff; and a rededication on the part of leadership – including at board level – to passing on the legacy of the institution to future generations. It is a privilege to serve on the board of America’s finest art museum, but it is also a significant duty, and ought to be treated as such by those fortunate enough to be in a position of leadership at a cultural institution which must exist outside of what is merely trendy.