Museum Madness: Why I Was Right To Worry About The Met

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.

No Bull: Lost Goya Works Discovered In French Library

A complete series of the first edition of Goya’s “La Tauromaquia”, a series of engravings depicting the history and practice of bullfighting, has been discovered in a castle in France. 

The current owners of the Château de Montigny, located near Chartres, were taking an inventory of all the books in their library, when they came across what is described as a “pristine” set of the series of etchings, completed by Goya between 1815-16. The prints were bound into a ledger book, and it was only due to good fortune that someone decided to take more than just a casual glance through it before tossing it in the bin. The set will be auctioned at Sotheby’s in London on April 4th.

Goya produced a limited run of these prints, but they were not particularly popular during his lifetime. Later they became the inspiration for other artists, such as Picasso, to create their own series of engravings depicting scenes from or inspired by bullfighting. They even inspired the tourist tat that you can still pick up around bullfighting arenas and souvenir shops in Spain. 

Things have significantly changed in the 200 years since Goya struggled to find buyers for these images, however. As ArtNet reports, the last time a complete first edition of “La Tauromaquia” was sold at Christie’s back in 2013, it went for $1.9 million. Thus the current estimate of $610 million seems a trifle low.

Whatever you think of bullfighting, an activity which seems to be rapidly disappearing of late, these prints ought to serve as an inspiration. Go through those boxes and shelves when you Spring clean, and before you pitch anything, double-check to make sure you’re not tossing out something important. We may never know how many great works of art ended up in the recycling bin because someone couldn’t be bothered to take a closer look at what they were throwing away.

If Everybody Looked The Same: Small Businesses In Increasingly Boring Cities

Last evening I was listening to Episode #389 of “Catholic In A Small Town”, the long-running podcast by my friends Mac and Katherine Barron – which you should subscribe to even if you’re not Catholic, as they are terrific, and hilariously funny. During the show, they discussed the travails of trying to cancel their account with a national service chain, in order to sign up with a local business providing the same service. They talked about how supporting local businesses was important to them, and that they had made the choice to do so in other areas of their purchasing lives as well.

Then this morning I learned with sadness that the venerable Embassy café, bakery, and restaurant in Madrid will be closing its doors after 86 years. An institution with a storied history, which you can read a bit about in this article, Embassy is a casually elegant holdover from a more civilized time. It is also very conveniently located in the same block as “my” neighborhood parish in Madrid. I was at Embassy last a couple of months ago, but unfortunately it will be closed before I return to visit Madrid in June. Despite the fact that it has plenty of business, the business it does have cannot compensate for the increasing rents for their property, which includes a lovely terrace under the trees on the Paseo de la Castellana, a wonderful place to meet friends for a meal or a drink.

Embassy is succumbing to the increasing homogenization of city life, which has led to the centers of many cities becoming more same-y, even as they come back from the dead thanks to a greater interest in urban living. Previously, when you traveled to another city, you might expect to see some chains, but these were counterbalanced by an equal number of one-offs – the kind of mom-and-pop businesses that locals or travel books would tell you, “If you’re looking for X, you really need to go visit this unique place.” Now, when you go to almost any city nationally or internationally, you will see the same businesses over and over again, with little in the way of local flavor.

When I first moved to Georgetown in 1991 for example, the main commercial thoroughfares of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue had a number of well-known names: Ralph Lauren, The Gap, Burger King, etc. Existing alongside these big-brand businesses were smaller, local businesses, who only existed in the village: Au Pied du Cochon, Little Caledonia, Café Northwest, and many others. People find it unbelievable when I tell them that back then, tiny Georgetown had four movie theatres, showing a variety of films from major release to art house to old movies. Today there is only a multiplex chain venue – and a very nice one it is, too, but the selection is almost entirely of the mainstream variety, that you could see in any suburban shopping mall cinema.

For most cities, neighborhood holdovers from 20, 30, 40 years ago or more are falling under an increasingly shortened list called “still there”. There is some inevitability to this, as business owners retire or needs change. Yet in many cases, these businesses are being driven out not because they lack customers, but by higher ground rent. The end result is that the chains that replace small businesses seem to last for a few years at most, and are themselves quickly replaced by another chain with outlets in every major city and airport.

Admittedly this post is more of a whinging lament, rather than a prescription for how to solve the problem. I’m not in a position to recommend solutions, or suggest that economies of scale are always bad. In fact they can be quite beneficial, when they bring in goods or services to an area that would otherwise be unable to support them. A diversity of choice creates options that improve our lives as consumers.

That being said, perhaps we have gone too far in the effort to expand perceived choice at the expense of uniqueness and individuality. The stereotype of seeing a Starbucks on every corner exists for a reason. When a local business pits quality and customer service against mass production, it can only succeed if it can keep up with its larger competitor on price, and that effort is seriously undermined when commercial landlords value rents first and foremost.

Now, I would never argue that a landlord must take a hit in the wallet in order to keep a local business in bricks and mortar. A property owner is not running a charity, after all. They have to pay their taxes, account for inflation, and turn a profit, just as any other business owner does. But perhaps what is lacking is an ingrained appreciation for the intangible value of having something unique. If the business is doing fine, then shouldn’t there be a greater effort to keep that uniqueness intact if at all possible? Easy for me to question, I grant you, but if you’re bored when you travel, and settle for shopping or dining at some place that you could just as easily visit back home, then it’s a question worth asking.

When the Emperor Charles V came to the city of Granada in order to see the Alhambra Palace, where his architects were preparing a new residence for him to live in when he visited the city, he was horrified to see that part of the Moorish fortress had been demolished to build a fairly unremarkable Italian Renaissance-style building. “What you have built here can be seen in many places,” he is reported to have said, “but what you have destroyed was unique in all the world.” Perhaps the same could be said, on a smaller scale, for those unique local businesses that deserve our support.

[Correction: a smart reader has reminded me that Charles V said this about the alterations to the Mezquita (former mosque, now a cathedral) in Cordoba, not the alterations to the Alhambra Palace. Mea culpa.]

The author (l) at Embassy last summer