Boffo Senufo: Companion Images for My WSJ Piece on Cleveland Museum’s African Show

As I suggest in my Wall Street Journal review on tomorrow’s “Arts in Review” page (online now), the Cleveland Museum’s stunning installation of what Westerners (but not the creators themselves) call “Senufo” art produces an immediate “wow” effect.

But the museum’s African art curator, Constantine Petridis, had a didactic, as well as aesthetic, agenda in how he orchestrated this display.

Constantine Petridis Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Constantine Petridis
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Although he chose the objects for their beauty and power, Petridis kicked off the presentation in a way that struck me, at first, as wrongfooted—emphasizing the impact that these sculptures had on modern artists such as Picasso and Léger. As he later explained to me, he was interested not only in focusing on the objects themselves, but also in elucidating Westerners’ historic perceptions of this material.

At the beginning of my WSJ review, I note that it’s a small step from the African architectonic construction of the power couple (from a private collection) confronting visitors in the introductory gallery to the European Cubists’ deconstruction that objects like these helped to inspire.

Here are two views:




The show’s exploration of Senufo art’s historic reception in the U.S. carries into the second gallery, which reassembles selections from the first show of such works in the U.S.—a 1963 survey organized for New York’s now-defunct Museum of Primitive Art by its then director, Robert Goldwater, originally a modern-art specialist. (As I mention in my review, the art that has come to be known as “Senufo” is from the three-corner region of Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso.)

Catalogue cover from Museum of Primitive Art's 1963 "Senufo" show Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Catalogue cover from Museum of Primitive Art’s 1963 “Senufo” show

Below is the most striking ensemble in Cleveland’s recreated display from that landmark show. On the left is the female figure (from a private collection) adorned with red abrus seeds and white cowrie shells that Goldwater had described as one of the finest examples not just of Senufo art but of all African sculpture.

In the middle is a similar (less graceful) piece from the Dallas Museum of Art; at the right is a very familiar (to me) hornbill, with its phallic beak touching its pregnant belly—usually a highlight of the Metropolitan Museum’s African art collection, bequeathed to that museum by Nelson Rockefeller:


Below are images of other objects mentioned in my piece (with my related WSJ commentary in italics):

The exaggerated pendulousness of the breasts and the stolid expressionlessness of the maternity figures in the carved-wood Senufo examples bespeak their possible ritual function as “the image of the Ancient Mother, the central deity of the poro initiations cycle,” according to the label….

The Cleveland Museum’s own superb maternity figure, featured on the cover of the show’s catalog, was thought to have been carried on the head of a tyekpa member during funeral ceremonies. The glistening oil on the breast and baby is suggestive of mother’s milk, but was also applied to other wood figures as a spiritual offering and an agent of preservation.


Cleveland Museum of Art

Described in the exhibition as major “patrons of the arts,” these [poro] associations were the originators of many objects in the show, including the large assortment of “rhythm pounders,” whose peculiar form befits their ritual function. Mounted on round bases, these funerary figures feature improbably attenuated torsos (think Giacometti) and were held by their long, spindly arms, to be thumped on the ground during deceased poro members’ processions to the grave.


Simonis Collection, Germany

More frightful than beautiful, the show’s most haunting objects are wooden masks and figures that incorporate agglomerations of assorted objects and organic materials. The spookiest are the two “Tell the Truth” oracle figures, used in divination rituals to uncover misdeeds and punish wrongdoers. Their carved wooden bodies are concealed under shroudlike, encrusted cloth coverings, with porcupine quills and feathers jutting from the tops of their heads.

[As in aside: The Cleveland Museum’s director, William Griswold, told me these were this favorite pieces in the show.]


Left: private collection; Right: Collection of Holly and David Ross

Fearsome but fascinating is the centerpiece of the final gallery—an “accumulative helmet mask” in the form of a sharp-toothed, open-jawed animal head. Over time, it acquired additions of glass (including the base of a wine glass), antelope horns, a bird’s skull, fiber and mirrors. If you look closely, you’ll spot a small Senufo-style wood figurine, jutting forward like a ship’s figurehead from the center of this dense, chaotic assemblage.

Helmet mask, Dallas Museum of Art

Helmet mask, Dallas Museum of Art

If the show whets your appetite for more, head upstairs to Cleveland’s own African art holdings, among which I immediately recognized as Senufo this piece, which closely resembles the mask that the WSJ chose to illustrate my article:

Helmet Mask, early to mid-1900s, Ivory Coast Cleveland Museum of Art

Helmet Mask, early to mid-1900s, Ivory Coast
Cleveland Museum of Art

Its label says that this wood carving was “intended to impress and terrify” and its “fearsome aesthetic alludes to the mask’s power as an anti-sorcery device.”

You don’t have to believe in sorcery to appreciate its aesthetic and feel its power.

More Metropolitan Museum Good News: Elated Over Ellsworth, Chipper About Chipperfield

While Christie’s last week was triumphantly totaling up some $131.6 million in sales from the estate of the consummate Chinese art connoisseur, collector and dealer, Robert Ellsworth, the Metropolitan Museum’s Asian Art Department chairman, Maxwell “Mike” Hearn, was quietly anticipating some Ellsworth worth for his own institution.

Maxwell Hearn announcing exhibition plans for the Met’s Asian art department
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“It’s a new golden age,” Hearn told me excitedly during our brief chat last week in the museum’s Astor Court, just before the Met’s press announcement of the public phase of its $70-million fundraising campaign to enhance his department’s staff, programs, collections and facilities.

The Met has already raised some $31.5 million towards its goal, led by $15 million for new curatorial and conservations staff and programming from trustee emeritus Oscar Tang.

Met's Asian art curators, with Hearn at center, with director Tom Campbell and lead donor Oscar Tang to his left Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Met’s Asian art curators, with Hearn at center; director Tom Campbell and lead donor Oscar Tang to his left; John Guy, curator of South and Southeast Asian art, at photo’s far left
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Hearn compared the newly announced gifts of nearly 1,300 Asian works from Florence and Herbert Irving; and more than 300 Japanese and Korean masterworks bequeathed by Mary Griggs Burke (along with a $12.5 million endowment) with the windfalls from Gilded Age benefactors who had jump-started the Asian collection during the Met’s formative years.

When I asked him whether the new arrivals would also include some pieces from Robert Ellsworth‘s holdings, Hearn revealed a coup that had not yet been publicly announced: Several highly important paintings from the late dealer/collector’s residence, retained for his personal delectation, would soon have a new home at the Met (after lawyers had hammered out final details). They are, Hearn told me, “the cream of his collection.”

During his lifetime, Ellsworth had donated numerous works to the Met, including modern Chinese paintings, as well as this late Ming or early Qing three-drawer altar coffer and candlesticks, which was installed just behind the podium from which Hearn spoke…


Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and this Ming Dynasty “Qin” (seven-stringed zither):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The planned upgrade to the Asian department’s facilities was announced less than a week after the news of the Met’s most sweeping capital project since the 2011 opening of its new Islamic art galleries and the 2012 opening of its completed new American Wing—the redesign by British architect David Chipperfield of the Southwest Wing for modern and contemporary art.

According to the Met’s press release, the Chipperfield project will also “potentially” include the redesign of adjacent galleries for art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, as well as “additional operational spaces”

The Met said that its architectural selection was based on “three criteria: vision, experience, and compatibility. David Chipperfield’s global architectural experience and sensibility, along with his commitment to the collaborative aspect of creating architecture, make him a perfect partner on this milestone project.”

He was widely praised for his 2013 addition to the St. Louis Art Museum, which I got to see only from the outside, while its galleries were still undergoing installation.


Left: St. Louis Art Museum’s David Chipperfield expansion. Right: the museum’s 1904 Cass Gilbert-designed facility
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The exterior favorably impressed me, as I had stated in an interview during my St. Louis sojourn with Stefene Russell of St. Louis Magazine.

I told her:

It contrasts. It doesn’t try to imitate the Cass Gilbert building, which I think is a good thing; you don’t want to slavishly imitate that. It’s very different, and yet I think it is respectful….

The architect did something that was clearly of today….Chipperfield is not doing a “look-at-me” kind of building….It’s trying to stay respectfully in the background, and yet provide something new….I like that approach.

Similarly, architecture critic James Russell recently described Chipperfield as “an architect with a strong but respectful esthetic—a rare combination these days.”

I also liked his more under-the-radar Figge Art Museum in Davenport, IA, which “was designed to be flooded,” as its then director, Sean O’Harrow, humorously but truthfully told me. “The parking garage is intended to contain the overflow,” of the Mississippi River, Sean explained.

Figge Art Museum

Figge Art Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Chipperfield also happens to belong to a group that seems to have had an inside track for several important appointments under Met director Tom Campbell—Brits or Americans transplanted to Great Britain. Also in that category was the late London-based, American-born architect, Rick Mather, whose 2010 expansion for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts I had favorably reviewed for the Wall Street Journal.

I wonder if Mather, before his untimely death, had been in the running for what is now the Chipperfield assignment. He had seemed to me overqualified for the lowly task of designing benches for the Met’s recently concluded re-do of its entrance plaza. But plans for a grander future role would help explain this modest Met debut.

Yesterday, I asked the museum if my hunch about Mather was right.

“We don’t comment on this kind of thing,” responded Harold Holzer, the Met’s senior vice president for public affairs. “We have made our selection and our announcement.”

Mysterious Disappearance: Michael Taylor’s Unceremonious Departure from Dartmouth’s Hood Museum UPDATED

UPDATE: Michael Taylor promptly replied to my post:

This is an ongoing situation and all I can say right now is that: “I have left my position as Director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College to pursue other career opportunities.”

Under mysterious circumstances, Michael Taylor has abruptly exited Dartmouth’s Hood Museum, which he directed since 2011, after having served as curator of modern art at the Philadelphia Museum.

So far, no one is saying why he’s left the building.

Michael Taylor and curator Sarah Powers, his wife, in happier days at Dartmouth Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Michael Taylor and “Men of Fire” curator Sarah Powers, his wife, in happier days at Dartmouth
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I have made no secret of my admiration for Taylor and was both baffled and dismayed by this news.

I have sent queries to several sources. All I know at this writing is what I read this morning in Trouble in the Hood, a post by Joseph Asch, picked up by the Boston Globe, which first appeared on Dartblog, a daily news publication produced by the college’s alumni and students. (Asch is Class of ’79.)

Dartblog reported:

Rumors are swirling about that Michael Taylor, the erstwhile director of the Hood Museum of Art, has been dismissed — just months before the start of the museum’s $50 million expansion and renovation. This terse, somewhat awkward e-mail was sent out by Provost Dever yesterday:

March 16, 2015

Dear One Dartmouth,

I write to tell you that Michael Taylor is no longer in the role of director of the Hood Museum of Art.

While we conduct a nationwide search for the next Hood director, I’m pleased to announce that, beginning immediately, Juliette Bianco ‘94, deputy director at the museum, will serve as its interim director.

Juliette has had an impressive tenure at the Hood, serving as assistant director from 2005 until 2013, when she was appointed deputy director. Before that, she served as exhibitions manager, a job she began in 1998. After graduating from Dartmouth, Juliette received a master’s degree in art history from the University of Chicago.

Carolyn Dever

When I requested further details, I got this non-response from Dartmouth spokesperson Justin Anderson:

You are correct. Michael Taylor is no longer in the role of director. Deputy director Juliette Bianco is serving as interim director while we conduct a national search to fill the role on a permanent basis.

As you know, Dartmouth is fortunate to have a museum of the Hood’s caliber as part of our institution. In addition to the important exhibits, such as “Men of Fire” that you reference [reviewed by me in 2012 for the Wall Street Journal and CultureGrrl], it adds a critical dimension to scholarship and research by students and faculty in the arts, and spurs creativity in the work of every department and discipline at Dartmouth.

We look forward to a very bright future for the Hood.

In a subsequent email, which ignored the questions asked in my detailed follow-up, Anderson said only this:

Dartmouth is committed to the expansion and renewal of the Hood. In fact, earlier this month, the College’s Board of Trustees approved $8.5 million for completion of design and preconstruction activities for the project.

As it happens, the museum has been closed since Monday for “annual building maintenance, to reopen on Mar. 30. When approved by the college’s trustees in 2014, construction of the Hood’s expansion, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien, was expected to begin in April 2016, with completion in 2018 (as reported in the student newspaper). Dartblog reported that the capital project was to commence in “just months.” Anderson, the college’s spokesperson, declined to provide clarification about this discrepancy when I requested it.

When Taylor had first talked to me about the Hood’s expansion in 2012, he had said it would open in Spring 2015. (That would be now.)

Let’s join Michael in better days, at the Philadelphia Museum, where he was the star of one of my most popular CultureGrrl Videos ever. Here’s his elucidation of the Whitney Museum’s “The Artist and His Mother,” a highlight of the Philadelphia Museum’s majestic 2009 Gorky retrospective, which he brilliantly curated:

Weiss’ Wishes: Dan’s Plans for the Metropolitan Museum–Part II

Part I is here.

During our recent phone conversation, Daniel Weiss, soon-to-be president of the Metropolitan Museum, repeatedly (and understandably) deflected my persistent queries seeking specific details about what he hopes to accomplish at the Met.

“I’m not there yet!” he patiently reminded me.

Time to pack up again? Dan Weiss unpacking cartons in his then new Haverford office, July 2013

Time to pack up again?
Dan Weiss unpacking cartons in his Haverford office, upon his arrival in July 2013

What Weiss did convey to me was a deep, sympathetic understanding of the Met’s complex operations and activities, as well as a profound respect for what its professionals have accomplished. Although he’s “not there yet” physically, he seems already there in spirit.

In this lightly edited transcript of the second part of our conversation, Weiss shares some details about the Met’s five-year plan and discusses what he may bring to the task of realizing those goals. He also addresses the second major controversy of his brief tenure as president of Haverford College, which I spotlighted in my initial post about his Met appointment—the blow-up over the selection of Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, as an honorary degree recipient and speaker for last May’s commencement ceremony.

We’ll start there and move on to his hopes for his new life in the museum world:

ROSENBAUM: What’s your take on what happened with the commencement and how might you do things differently, if you had it to do over again?

WEISS: In the case of the Birgeneau matter, what troubled me the most from the outset was that although there were legitimate reasons [a clash between students and police that turned violent] to find the candidacy of Robert Birgeneau objectionable, we have at Haverford a process for vetting all candidates. They [the selection committee, composed of students, faculty, staff, and board members] all knew these things about Birgeneau and felt he was worthy.

So when this issue was raised, it was, in part, a question of: To what extent do we respect what shared governance means? We delegated that responsibility to colleagues who made this recommendation.

Two students came to me and said, “We don’t like this guy.” I said, “Why don’t you write a respectful letter to him, raising your concerns and inviting him to a substantive discussion on these issues?” They wrote a letter that was, in my view, completely inconsistent with the values of our institution….I shared it with Dr. Birgeneau, as I gave them my word I would do, and he bailed. The opportunity for a shared learning experience was lost.

ROSENBAUM: In what ways will your presidency differ from that of your predecessor, Emily Rafferty, perhaps drawing on your art history background?

WEISS: The major one, I think, is the vision of creating one museum. There are three great objectives to the museum in the next five years:

—To enhance access to the collections and to widen the audience, so that all people feel that this great and elite institution is their institution, whether they’re art historians or casual visitors.

—To make the collections as available as they can be to people.

—To create a professional standard at the museum that represents the best administration standards in the world. It may be that the Met’s already there, but that’s a goal to maintain and build upon. I will help Tom [Campbell, the Met’s director] create one museum, where people feel that they all work for one institution, not one that has curators on one side and administrators on the other.

Tom Campbell with trustee emeritus Oscar Tang yesterday at the Met, celebrating Tang's $15-million donation to the Asian Art Department Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Tom Campbell with trustee emeritus Oscar Tang yesterday at the Met, celebrating Tang’s $15-million donation to the Department of Asian Art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

ROSENBAUM: What are your specific ideas on enhancing access to the collection and widening the audience?

WEISS: I think it’s fair to say that the challenge the Met faces is that very often others don’t think of it as their museum. They think: “I don’t have any training in art history. Those stairs are huge. I don’t have enough money to go to that museum.” So they don’t go.

How do we make clear that this museum is a community resource? Already the museum is producing extraordinary digital features on the website including films and other ways of engaging kids and non-art historian types.

I think continuing to focus on market development and communication of what the museum represents for everyone is a comprehensive effort. It has to do with collections, exhibitions, marketing, way-finding, all of those things that make access comfortable and easy. That’s one thing that they are doing and that I will help them to do.

ROSENBAUM: Do you have any fresh ideas to bring to that?

WEISS: I don’t have any new ideas about how that should be done. I’m not brought in to substitute my judgment for theirs; it’s really to build on the work that they’re doing.

ROSENBAUM: Do you have any ideas of ways to reach out to the communities that you’re trying to attract?

WEISS: We’re doing some market segmentation work now to understand better who is coming, who isn’t coming, whether there are ways we can extend outreach to the other boroughs of New York. Are there obstacles we can address that might help to make it easier for them to come? All of that work is underway. My job is to get caught up and then try to contribute.

ROSENBAUM: What are your ideas for making the collection available to more people?

WEISS: I think the most obvious place where that work is unfolding is digitally. The Met has something like 40 million hits a year on its website. There are very innovative new ways of accessing the collection, combining it in different ways, and hopefully stimulating greater levels of interest in seeing the real thing.

The other [aspect of this] relates to the way things are installed and exhibited. Opening up the Breuer [the Whitney Museum’s Breuer-designed former flagship, being leased by the Met] and having a more visible presence in contemporary art are a part of that. We want to put contemporary art in a historical context where people can understand modernism as inevitably the consequence of what went before, even if as a reaction against it.

ROSENBAUM: You also said you wanted to improve professional standards. How?

WEISS: I have a track record, in 15 years of academic leadership at three institutions [Johns Hopkins, Lafayette, Haverford], of bringing discipline and an integrated approach to financial management, resource allocation and operation engineering. Once I have a better sense of how those operations work, I’ll do my best to contribute new and interesting ideas.

What effective leaders do is not walk in the door with ideas about change. They come with a skill set and a capacity to listen and a highly developed critical capability. I will listen carefully and help people advance their objectives more effectively than they have before.

ROSENBAUM: What are some of the things you did at Haverford that you feel might have some application to the Met?

WEISS: In [not quite] two years at Haverford, we have done a tremendous amount. We wrote a strategic plan that called together all the disparate aspects of the college and unified the community around a singular vision. Among other things, it consisted of four major capital projects: major renovations to the library and the biology building, a new center for technology, and a new building for music. Those have all been identified and largely funded in the time that I’ve been here.

That’s probably the most ambitious capital-project plan for the college in its history. And we wrote and developed financial models that allow the budget to be balanced over a sustained period of time. We’ve also replaced all of our technological infrastructure in the time that I’ve been here.

ROSENBAUM: How much did you raise for the capital campaign?

WEISS: The goal is $225 million and we are currently at $195 million. So we’re almost there. Before I leave [this summer], I’m hoping that we’re close to $200 million.

ROSENBAUM: When did this begin?

Several years ago, before I came.

ROSENBAUM: How much money would you say was brought to the college under your auspices?

WEISS: I don’t know. Quite a lot of that, including the largest gift in the history of the college [$25 million  from board chair Howard Lutnick]. I raised the largest gift in the history of Lafayette as well.

ROSENBAUM: At the Met, fundraising will be partly under your purview, but I understand they’ll also be hiring a senior vice president for institutional advancement.

WEISS: Yes. That person will report to me. The idea is that Emily Rafferty had many great virtues and one of them was that she was extraordinarily successful as a fundraiser. Those are skills that are not replicable by anyone, including me. So we want to supplement the fundraising side with a senior person who can help Tom Campbell, myself and others, in the absence of Emily, who is arguably the greatest fundraiser in museum history.

ROSENBAUM: Do you have a learning curve in terms of managing an institution with as big a budget, staff and complexity as the Met?

WEISS: It is an order of magnitude greater than Haverford; Johns Hopkins [where he was dean of the School of Arts and Sciences] was larger; Lafayette [where he was president] was in between. I think that large, complicated organizations all operate on the same basic principles.

ROSENBAUM: How do you think that your art history credentials may help you and the Met?

WEISS: I think it creates a very high level of understanding of and sensitivity to the core mission of the institution. It will help us to build one Met, by bringing the administrative side into sync with the curatorial side, perhaps more than in the past. That’s my hope.

I love both sides and I have lived on both sides. So I’m hopeful that I can advance that objective.

So are we.

My own view is that university presidents, combining scholarly knowledge and managerial acumen, are especially well suited to lead major cultural institutions.

Just think of the president of my own alma mater!

Bridging the Scholarly/Administrative Divide: My Q&A with Daniel Weiss, Metropolitan Museum’s Next President—Part I

Part II is here.

In our wide-ranging phone conversation yesterday, Daniel Weiss demonstrated analytic acumen, unforced candor and fluid articulateness that should serve him well as the next president of the Metropolitan Museum.

Daniel Weiss, outside his office at Haverford College

Daniel Weiss, outside his office at Haverford College

The first thing that impressed me about Dan was his willingness to talk to me at all, in light of yesterday’s CultureGrrl post, in which I dredged up controversies that had erupted during his tenure as Haverford College’s president.

Not only did he tackle these issues head-on, but, as you’ll see below, he was the one who initiated our discussion of the first contretemps, involving student debt. I came away with the feeling that Weiss has a penchant for taking lemons and making lemonade—not a bad leadership skill.

More importantly, he discussed (in broad terms) what he hopes to achieve at the Met. Below is a lightly edited transcript of Part I of our conversation:

ROSENBAUM: The Met is poised on the brink of major transformations—capital projects, technological innovations, redefining itself as more focused than ever on modern and contemporary art, and probably some things you know about that I don’t. How and why do you feel that you have the right set of skills and knowledge to bring something important to these efforts?

WEISS: For me, in many ways, this is a culmination of a series of career moves that I’ve had, which are related to a longstanding interest. So it seemed kind of natural.

My entire career has been devoted to the nexus between administrative leadership and an interest in arts and culture. I’ve done that on both sides of the divide between the academic side of scholarly art history and the administrative side. I had an active interest in museums from the time I began my career: When I was in graduate school for business, getting my MBA, I actually did an independent study on museums. I went around the country and met with museum directors in the early ‘80s, because I was interested in that issue.

ROSENBAUM: What was the subject of the independent study, and what did you conclude from it?

WEISS: It was about the role of museum leadership and how it was changing at the time, in terms of the skill sets that were required: to what extent it was a business leadership job, to what extent it was a scholarly or cultural leadership job and how those issues were changing. This was in the age of the emergence of blockbusters. So [I examined] to what extent the finances and economics and markets of art museums were changing, and what did it mean for the institutions’ leadership and administration.

ROSENBAUM: How has it changed in the decades between then and now? How do you feel it has continued to evolve?

WEISS: “Evolve” is the right word. I think it has continued to become increasingly complicated. That’s true in higher education as well. We operate in an increasingly fast-paced commercial environment, where we have to maintain a commitment to the core mission and values of our institutions. But at the same time, we’ve got a difficult and demanding marketplace.

We have to balance our budgets. We have to face economic pressure. So running a large art museum today is a vastly more complicated enterprise than it was in 1984. I’ll bet you that the staff numbers at large museums like the Met have doubled in that time. That’s because of all these new things that have to be done.

Also, technology has changed the way people interact with art and how they think about objects, so museums have to keep up with all of that.

ROSENBAUM: Did you get your PhD in art history before or after the MBA?

WEISS: After. At college, I had an interest in art history, learned some languages [a useful skill for the Met’s presidency] and got an MA [in art history]. After the MA, I got an MBA with the thought that I’d have a museum career. After the MBA, I didn’t go into museums right away; I did business stuff [as consultant with Booz, Allen & Hamilton, 1985-89].

Then I thought what I’d really love to do is to have a substantive engagement with the history of art. So I got a PhD, had an academic career and wrote books [including “Art and Crusade in the Age of Saint Louis,” Cambridge University Press, 1998].

ROSENBAUM: How do you see the division of labor between you and [Met director] Tom Campbell? What do you see as the intersections and the divisions between your responsibilities?

WEISS: For it to work well, it really is a partnership. Tom is the director and the CEO and he sets the strategic vision for the institution. My job as president is to help advance that mission and serve as a partner in overseeing mostly the administrative and operational sides of the museum. So the curatorial division, education, conservation and the library report to Tom, and the other divisions report to me.

The goal is to make sure those are aligned—Tom’s vision and mine—in one museum that is a large, complicated but well integrated enterprise. For that to work, those areas I just defined, which report separately, also have to be connected to each other. That requires that Tom and I talk all the time and that we have a shared view of how to move forward.

ROSENBAUM: I take it that the chemistry was right, since you have to work so closely together.

WEISS: Indeed. I have enormous respect for him, I can learn from him and I think I can contribute something, because all of the things I’ve done relate to the ways in which one can develop and implement professional administrative standards in institutions that are mission-driven.

ROSENBAUM: What are some specific ways in which you think you can contribute?

WEISS: As I have done at the three institutions in which I have had an administrative role [Johns Hopkins, Lafayette and Haverford], I think there are always opportunities to develop new and innovative and best practices for financial management and operational support.

I consider myself a very good team builder, so one of the things I’d like to do is to find ways of connecting people in the different units of the Met, which has thousands of employees, so the financial people are working more closely with the curatorial people and the facilities people, to develop a greater shared sense of things.

In my career, I’ve done a lot of work around financial management, developing ways to deal with difficult, constrained budgets and doing deficit-reduction work. [The Met’s fiscal 2014 operating deficit was $3.5 million.]

You mentioned [in this CultureGrrl post] the issue of the no-loan policy. There’s more to that story. When I arrived at Haverford, that policy had been under discussion. That policy had been implemented right around the time of the downturn in 2008. Haverford’s losses during that period were material…

ROSENBAUM: …as they were for everyone.

WEISS: Yes, and even perhaps a bit more so. Sustaining that [no-loan] program was very difficult and, indeed, was seen by the board to be untenable before I arrived. The rate of increase of financial aid was several percentage points greater each year than the increase in revenues for the budget. So it was a doomed process.

I was brought in, in part, to build a financial model that is sustainable. We put together a 10-year financial model that was intended to take a comprehensive view of all of the things that we do, and make sure that we made the kinds of hard decisions that are required for that budget to be balanced every year.

We concluded that the no-loan policy that we had was not sustainable. So what did we do? We put in place the program you described [in my CultureGrrl post]. The average student loans at Haverford are among the lowest in the country: Total student debt for a graduate on average is about $12,000. But the students raised legitimate concerns [about the reduction in direct financial aid].

The epilogue is that we developed an idea to raise an endowed fund for student debt relief: For any student who graduates with debt and can’t pay it, because they want to work for an NGO or because they don’t have other ways of paying it, the endowed fund for debt relief will provide resources for 30 or 40 graduates. It is seen by the students as a wonderful way to address their concerns in a cost-effective manner. I’m very proud of that.

These are hard issues and finding ways forward is part of what I think administrators do: How do you take a problem and build a solution that actually enhances the institution?

Coming Next Week: Part II