an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

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!

an ArtsJournal blog