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.

The Iron Lady WAS For Turning – When It Came To Great Art

Recently released papers reveal that, during her tenure as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher became personally involved in the effort to obtain one of the world’s most important private art collections for Britain.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza collection was begun by the German industrialist Baron Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza back in the 1920’s. During the Great Depression, he began snapping up art from American and European collectors who had fallen on hard times. When his title and collection passed to his son Heinrich, the new Baron began to collect even more works of art, until eventually the collection was second in size only to that of Queen Elizabeth II.

It is difficult to fathom just how vast an array of paintings we are talking about, in terms of scope and quality. The collection includes works by Fra Angelico, Van Eyck, Holbein, Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and many, many others. If it were the national collection of a single country, it would be the pride of its citizens; as a private collection put together for the pleasure of one non-royal family, it is one of the greatest ever assembled, and unlikely ever to be duplicated in our time.

In the 1980’s, the Baron and his 5th wife Carmen Cervera, a former Miss Spain, realized that they did not have enough room to store and display all of the art in their collection. They began searching for a permanent home in which to house it, and a number of international cities were put on the couple’s short list. Countries fell over themselves trying to persuade the Thyssens to sell them their collection, and thanks to some significant, personal wooing by Baroness Thatcher, at one point Britain looked to be the front-runner.

British government documents show that, among other things, Baroness Thatcher sent personal notes to the Thyssens, to try to sweet-talk them into sending their collection to the UK. She invited them to visit her at Downing Street, when they were in London for the opening of an exhibition. Her cabinet appeared split over her desire to secure the collection for Britain, including future PM John Major (who was against it). Opinion was also split among the journalists, historians,  and curators whom Thatcher consulted privately, as to whether the country ought to purchase the art.

In the end, much to the disappointment of the Iron Lady, most of the collection went to Madrid. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, or “Thyssen” as it is called for short, opened in 1992, and is thus celebrating its 25th birthday this year. The Baron’s wife thwarted the Prime Minister’s plans, to benefit her home country. Interestingly enough however, the museum is currently having a bit of a problem with its patroness, as indeed Margaret Thatcher did 30 years ago.

After the Thyssen opened, Carmen began assembling her own great art collection, a skill which she learned about from her (3rd) husband. Her cache of nearly 500 paintings was subsequently lent to the Thyssen for a period of ten years. That period expired several years ago, but has been continuing on one-year renewals ever since. This might be coming to an end, unless the Spanish government and the widow can come to some sort of a more permanent arrangement.

The takeaway from this is that Baroness Thatcher clearly understood the power of truly great art. No, she was not a modern-day Isabella Stewart Gardner. Yet the fact that she realized the value of this collection so much as to become personally involved in the effort to bring it to her country, even when art critics and political partners advised her against it, ought to make people pause before repeating the old canard about conservatives having little regard for art.