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Ten Suggestions for Tom Campbell, Incoming Director at the Met

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here’s hoping that the Metropolitan Museum’s new director, Tom Campbell, will hit the ground running when he assumes his prestigious post one month from today. He’s been at the institution for 13 years, knows the players, and will have had the benefit of four months of intensive on-site training. There’s no reason for him to be tentative or indecisive in approaching the stepped-up challenges of this job in these economically troubled times.

With all due respect to Philippe de Montebello (and tremendous respect IS due), here’s what I’d like to see from the Met’s new leader. (I touched on some of these points previously here):

A willingness to speak out forcefully about important hot-button issues affecting the field. For the most part, Philippe made his views about standards and practices known through his actions, not through his words. He hesitated to speak out in ways that might be interpreted as implied criticism of his colleagues, even when correctives were urgently needed. I’m thinking, for example, of other museums’ growing exploitation of collections as cash cows—an issue on which he communicated more forcefully in French for Le Monde than on his own turf.

This is the part of the job that I fear Tom Campbell may be least suited for. From what I’ve seen so far, he lacks the facility of his predecessor as a public speaker. Philippe radiated authority and presence from the moment he occupied the director’s office. Campbell seems more diffident (even halting) as a speaker on anything but his scholarly specialty. But part of this may be the awkwardness of his position as director-in-waiting.

A drive to bring the Met’s formidable expertise down to the level of the general public. By this I don’t mean dumbing down in the manner of the new installation of 19th- and 20th-century European art. I mean giving the public more chances to meet and hear from the curators themselves. One of the great joys of attending press previews of exhibitions at the Met is the chance to hear the curators themselves expound upon their intentions and achievements. Maybe similar opportunities could be afforded to members of the general public (at low cost or no cost), through a lottery or online sign-up system. The Inside Look lectures should be continued and expanded.

The director, despite the enormous demands on his time, should also find ways to meet and greet the public. Aloofness should give way to more openness. This is the part of the job that I feel Tom Campbell, the popularizer of tapestries, may be best suited to accomplish. He should open that collar, both literally and figuratively.

A willingness to invite the public behind the scenes. Feed the fascination about how museums work by arranging guided tours of conservation labs, study rooms, storerooms. Mount yearly displays of new acquisitions (supplemented with related works already in the collection), to elucidate how the museum develops its holdings.

Less fear and loathing of the press. I always had the feeling that Philippe had a love-hate relationship to the press (or was it just to me?). The Met gets a huge volume of press inquiries, ranging from those that are inane and ill-informed to those that deserve serious, responsive handling. Some filtering does have to occur. But the Met press office functions more like that of a big private corporation than that of an institution with a public purpose of scholarship and display. The press should be given easier access to the sources who make the institution what it is—administrators and curators who are the best spokespersons for the institution. For the most part, they are willing and even eager to discuss their work, but are restricted or muzzled by an excessively defensive administrative policy.

More emphasis on elucidating and supporting the art and artists of our own time. For better or worse, the Met is deeply involved—through its collections and exhibitions—with contemporary art. It ought to approach this field with the same passion for excellence and insight that it brings to the rest of art history. That doesn’t mean handing off the responsibilities for contemporary to the same curator who oversees Impressionism (as, in fact, has happened). It probably means raiding a contemporary art museum for someone widely recognized for curatorial acumen in this field (as with the Museum of Modern Art’s hiring of LA MOCA’s curator, Connie Butler).

Generosity in sharing the wealth. Get museum-quality works out of the storeroom and into other museums that would love to show them. American museums argue that Italy and other antiquities-rich countries have many more important objects than they can display and that many of those objects should be sent out on long-term loan. The same reasoning should apply to the Met and other object-rich American museums. To be sure, the Met’s latest annual report includes a voluminous three-page list of loans. Expand and systematize this, by providing department-by-department clearinghouse lists of objects available to qualified institutional borrowers.

Collaborative posture towards other New York institutions. Too often, our city’s museums are locked in competitive mode. A purely accidental “collaboration” recently occurred between the Museum of Modern Art and the Morgan Library & Museum, which happened to mount Philip Guston displays at the same time. Such commonalities (with cross-references explicitly drawn through labeling and brochures in the institutions’ galleries) should be more commonly explored for the public’s and the institutions’ benefit.

Encouragement of more cross-cultural exhibitions. The proponents of the “universal museum” make a big fuss about how important it is to be able to compare art of different times and cultures in one institution. But they rarely mount exhibitions that explicitly illuminate such correspondences and influences. The Met’s recent Eternal Ancestors show of Central African reliquaries did open with a selection of objects from other world cultures, “thereby drawing upon related works from other parts of the Metropolitan’s encyclopedic collections.” That’s a start. More is needed.

Responsiveness to the current economic moment. People are hurting as they watch their dreams flame out in an economic firestorm. Cultural solace is needed, but not at $20-a-head. Instead of making people feel uncomfortable about exploiting the Met’s “pay what you want” policy, the Met should actively encourage visitors to take advantage of this bargain—not just on free days (which create intolerably crowded conditions at the Museum of Modern Art, for example), but always.

Another way to respond to the current economic moment is to be aggressive in acquiring strong art that’s now in weak hands (both private and corporate collections). One of the also-rans for the Met’s top spot, Max Hollein, recently turned the financial downturn into a collecting upturn by acquiring “more than 800 art works for the Staedel Museum as corporate gifts from Deutsche Bank AG and DZ Bank Group AG this year,” Bloomberg‘s Catherine Hickley reports. This can be a win-win for businesses (whose large collections are now seen as symbols of corporate excess) and museums (which can make these private troves more publicly accessible). Is it too much to ask these corporations for a cash gift to help support the maintenance of these collections?

Fundraising fearlessness: Campbell should be shameless in exploiting the new-kid advantage, especially since the Met’s just published 2007-08 annual report shows an operating deficit of $3.22 million, compared to a surplus of $2.63 million the previous year. (In June 2008, the end of the last fiscal year, the worst of the financial crisis hadn’t even hit yet.)

The trustees appointed him. Now they’ve got to support him, insuring that he succeeds in these financially challenging times. That means opening wide their own wallets and beating the bushes for other supporters of an institution that is more relevant today than ever, because of its role in providing relief and sustenance for the financially injured.

Like the new President of our country, the Met’s new director has got his work cut out for him. Best wishes to both for highly successful tenures.

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