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Who Should Succeed Philippe at the Met? My Last Word (maybe)

Philippe will soon Exit. Who will hear the trustees say (above): “Welcome to the Met. Enter here”?

My next post on this subject will probably be “Who WILL Succeed Philippe at the Met.”

But before that fateful choice is made, let me give the trustees my unsolicited and probably undesired opinion.

I’ve been procrastinating on this post too long, but Kate Taylor, in today’s NY Sun forced my hand, by contacting and scrutinizing all the boldface names that I mentioned in my June 3 post, Succession Obsession: Scuttlebutt at the Met’s Press Lunch. Let me hasten to assure you that I don’t know for certain if those names are on the list that the Metropolitan Museum’s trustees are working with; they are names that Met staffers and/or other knowledgeable sources believe may be in play. Taylor has given my list more credence than it, perhaps, deserves.

Two other names are also in the air: James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Henri Loyrette, director of the Louvre. Loyrette rumors are particularly rampant in Paris, according to a source of mine there. On the other hand, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, has apparently convinced most people that he is REALLY not interested in moving to New York. Taylor adds one other name to the mix, previously unmentioned to me: Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the Met’s curator of American decorative arts.

I haven’t added any new names to my own shortlist, first published in November 2006, more than a year before Philippe’s retirement announcement. I’ve reluctantly removed my sole woman, Deborah Gribbon, former director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, mostly because she hasn’t been heard from since her 2004 resignation. MacGregor is off for the above-mentioned reason, as well as for making some irresponsibly insulting comments about the Greeks, in connection with the Acropolis marbles controversies.

The widely admired William Griswold is off my list because he looked me in the eye and swore to me over a recent lunch that, as a specialist in old master drawings, he has already landed his dream job as director of the Morgan Library & Museum, and intends to remain there for the rest of his professional life. I’m going to (sort of) take him at his word.

So I’m down to three: Two are dark horses, quite possibly not even on the Met’s shortlist. The third now seems to be on everyone’s list. As I mentioned in my last “Succession Obsession” post, my list is limited by my knowledge: There are some potential candidates whom I can’t consider because I know too little about them. I must also add that I don’t know if any of my choices actually want this job.

I can’t list my picks in order of preference, because each has pros and cons that, for me, preclude a clear frontrunner. So here, in alphabetical order, are CultureGrrl’s Best Bets for the Met:

Maxwell Anderson: Some may say that after running afoul of some of the Whitney Museum’s curators at the beginning of his directorship there, and running afoul of board president Leonard Lauder at the end, Max can’t have lunch in his native town any more. This makes him the darker of my two dark horses.

In my view, he’s fought his way back from the difficult times and made a success of his directorship at the Indianapolis Museum, while continuing to be a forceful national spokesperson for the field, unafraid to speak out on important but controversial issues.

Of my three picks, Max, because of his stint at the Whitney, is most closely associated with contemporary art—the Met’s most glaring weakness. He also had a history at the Whitney of collegial collection sharing. In other words, his record proves that he’s well equipped to make at least three of the five changes that I have previously stated should be undertaken by a new Met director seeing the institution with fresh eyes.

On the downside, his laudable ambitions sometimes have a way of outstripping practicality, as in the just-announced scaling back of Indianapolis’ plans for a new Art & Nature Park.

Michael Conforti: The director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, is a low-key titan in the field—collaborative, diplomatic, universally respected. He has recently stepped up to more national prominence, convening a high-level conference in Rome on ways to improve cooperation between Italy and the U.S. that would enhance intellectual and cultural exchange. If he gets the Met nod, the museum will have chosen this year’s president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. He is about to open the Clark’s new Tadao Ando-designed Stone Hill Center, with galleries and space for the Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

There are only two “bad” things I can say about Michael: He’s on the wrong side of 60, while the Met trustees are said to favor more youthful candidates. And whenever I run into him at the opening of a new museum facility that I’ll be writing about, he tries to spin me about how good the new building is. For his colleagues, that’s undoubtedly a plus; for me, it’s just annoying! The glorious Berkshires are a hard place to leave; at this stage in his life, Michael may be content to stay put.

Timothy Potts: Of my three candidates, he’s the one I know the least and the one who is discussed the most as a worthy successor to Philippe. There’s one big cloud over Potts, who is now director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge—his precipitous, unexplained resignation from the more prestigious and undoubtedly better paid directorship of the Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth. A falling-out with the board is widely thought to have motivated this flight. Clearly, the Met’s trustees will have to get the full story before reaching a decision.

An archaeologist by training, Potts is intellectually well equipped to deal with cultural-property conundrums, and he gets extra points for having not only a scholarly but also a business background. He recently spoke out on National Public Radio against rampant museum expansion, as part of NPR’s exploration of current museological issues, pegged to Philippe’s imminent departure. It’s a myth, Potts told NPR, “that museums are hoarding in their basements these thousands of masterpieces that no one ever gets to see. It’s a myth that they’re all masterpieces. The core mission of the institution…is to collect, is to preserve, is to educate in less spectacular ways than the much-hyped exhibitions.”

He expressed similar views in his October 2007 Washington Post opinion piece, Beware The Inexorable Drift Toward Populism. There he finessed the contradiction between his stated views and the Kimbell’s planned Renzo Piano expansion by saying, “In our case, it’s to solve a particular problem: For more than half the year, we have three-quarters or more of our wonderful permanent collection in storage, because the space has to be given to visiting exhibitions.”

One thing’s for sure: One of the first jobs for whoever gets the premier art museum post in this country should be to create a new “Director’s Choices” compilation for the website. The Euphronios krater, famously returned in January to Italy, is still listed as being in the museum’s galleries, “Lent by the Republic of Italy”!

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