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Buoyant about Met Breuer: My Q&A with Metropolitan Museum President Daniel Weiss–Part II

Part I is here.

The last of the Metropolitan Museum’s “Five-Year Strategic Goals,” listed in the Mission Statement of its latest annual report, is to “to enable greater transparency, efficiency, collaboration and communication” (emphases added):

MetStrGoalJudging from my inability to gain some basic information about the costs and provisions of the Met Breuer deal with the Whitney, there’s still some work to be done on the transparency front.

Last week, Daniel Weiss, the Met’s president, did share with me substantial information and insights about the operations and finances of the Met’s new outpost on Madison Avenue, which it is leasing from the Whitney for eight years (with possible renewal for five and a half years).

But here’s what we still don’t know, notwithstanding my queries to both the Met and the Whitney:

How much is the Met paying the Whitney for this arrangement? (Both museums refused to say.)

What are the detailed provisions in the Met’s “Collaborative Agreement” with the Whitney? (I was turned down in my request for a copy of this document.) What we do know is that the Met “plans to provide programming in the Breuer building, including exhibitions, lectures, and gallery tours that present and interpret both contemporary and historical art in a global context. The Met would also provide amenities for visitors including food services and retail operations. The Whitney would retain use of some space in the building for art storage, as well as for site-specific works of art [i.e., Charles Simonds’ “Dwellings,” 1981, located in a stairwell] that will remain there on a permanent basis.”

Charles Simonds, “Dwellings,” 1981, Whitney Museum

Charles Simonds, “Dwellings,” 1981, Whitney Museum

How much did the Met pay to restore, upgrade and enhance the Breuer building? (The Met’s latest annual report states on p. 114 that $2.5 million was spent on the “Breuer Building Preoccupancy Upgrade” in fiscal 2015, which ended June 30. Perhaps the next annual report will divulge what additional sums that were spent on the upgrade. For now, no one’s telling.)

The Met Breuer's lobby Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Met Breuer’s restored lobby (with new monumental digital signage, on right)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Like the works in its inaugural exhibition, the Met’s release of pertinent information about its Madison Avenue project should be characterized as “Unfinished.”

For now, let’s go with what we’ve got. Here’s the second part of my always cordial, often informative, but sometimes frustrating conversation with President Weiss. In the interest of clarity and structure, I’ve lightly edited our conversation [adding a few of my own italicized asides, in brackets]:

ROSENBAUM: Is it correct that Leonard Lauder [the Whitney Museum’s chairman emeritus] was the first to approach the Met about using the Breuer building?

WEISS: Yes. He’s a longtime fan and, of course, deeply connected to the Whitney. He talked to our board and to Tom [Campbell, the Met’s director] about wanting to see if there was some way, as he said, for us to “keep the lights on.”

ROSENBAUM: When did that happen?

WEISS: Maybe five years ago.

ROSENBAUM: Were these discussions going on at the same time as the discussions about the great Cubist paintings gift to the Met, and were those conversations connected?

Leonard Lauder, speaking about his Cubist collection last year at the Metropolitan Museum Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Leonard Lauder, speaking about his Cubist collection last year at the Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

WEISS: I don’t know that they were explicitly connected. I think he was looking for the right place to make this gift of his extraordinary collection. Leonard has good relationships with the leaders of every museum in New York and everywhere else. It’s kind of natural to imagine that if the Met is interested in modern and contemporary art in ways that Tom has articulated since he’s been director, we would be natural candidates to think about “keeping the lights on” at the old Whitney.

ROSENBAUM: Was there a sense of quid pro quo: “If you want my Cubist collection, I need you to step up for me regarding the Whitney”? That’s a crude way of putting it, but was there that kind of relationship?

WEISS: Not that I’m aware of. It may very well be that it was Leonard’s hope that we would be able to accomplish all these things, but I don’t think there was any quid pro quo discussion.

ROSENBAUM: Sheena Wagstaff [the Met’s chairman of modern and contemporary art] was quoted by Apollo magazine as saying that “we’re working on a different kind of program to launch into September, in which the Met will decide who today’s great artists are and work towards an appropriate deep representation of their work.” I was curious about what that meant. It sounds to me a little like the Tate’s Artist Rooms. [Wagstaff came to the Met from the Tate.] Can you explain to me what she was discussing there?

Sheena Wagstaff at Met Breuer press preview Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Sheena Wagstaff at Met Breuer press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

WEISS: I probably can’t. She’d have to do that more effectively than I can.

ROSENBAUM: Can somebody facilitate my being able to ask her about that?

WEISS: What would be really helpful to me, if you don’t mind, is if you would send me an email with just the question you have for Sheena. I’m happy to run with it and see if I can help you. [I did so, and received this opaque reply from the Met’s PR office: “There is nothing more that she (Wagstaff) is prepared to add at this point.”]

ROSENBAUM: Is it correct that the projected cost for the complete makeover of the Southwest Wing for contemporary art is $600 million?

WEISS: It’s honestly too early to say. That’s a number that has been bandied about as an estimated cost for that project. But I would say that we’re in the stage of design development and thinking through the conceptual program. That number may be a little bit lower or higher. We still have a way to go before we can figure out what the cost of the project will be and what the actual timetable will be. The work’s gone well. We’re very excited about what we’re seeing and what we’re learning. But we have to triangulate program, materials and facility, and we’re just not there yet.

ROSENBAUM: Was the $250-million bond issue in 2015 [annual report, p. 127] related to the Southwest Wing?

WEISS: That was for investment in infrastructure—the kind of projects that the museum needs to invest in that are not things that lend themselves to donor support: new heating and air conditioning, climate control, electrical systems, skylights.

What we’re doing now is figuring out what we want to build. We’re working with David Chipperfield and Beyer Blinder Belle [which oversaw the Breuer restoration] to think about that.

The board went through the process of conducting a feasibility study for the whole building that looked at the future of the building for the next 50 years—what’s needed, what’s the sequence of projects—and they agreed that the next major area for us to focus on is some core infrastructure projects and thinking about modern and contemporary. And that’s where the Breuer decision came from.

ROSENBAUM: Is it possible for me to get a copy of the operating agreement with the Whitney? Shouldn’t that be a public document?

WEISS: I’m going to follow up with counsel on the background on that. If there is anything that can be disclosed, I will share it with you.

ROSENBAUM: Can I see the 50-year feasibility study?

WEISS: It’s an internal document, so I’m not sure how much can be disclosed, but I’m happy to follow up on that.

[The Met’s and Whitney’s PR offices later reaffirmed that they would not make public their joint operating agreement for the Breuer building. The Met said that it was “working on a more public version” of its strategic plan. “At such time as we make it public, we will let you know.”]

ROSENBAUM: How much are you paying the Whitney for your use of the Breuer building? I haven’t seen this and I don’t know why it isn’t being disclosed.

WEISS: It’s a very complicated agreement that is not being publicly disclosed. It has to do with cost-sharing in various ways, co-investments in certain aspects of infrastructure and so it’s related to a variety of factors that is not public information. I’m sorry.

ROSENBAUM: Wouldn’t this usually be something that would be disclosed on financial statements, or is it just buried in other line items?

WEISS: That’s a fair question. I actually don’t have an answer for you in terms of what we would legally want to make sure that we disclose, but I think the terms of the agreement are confidential. We certainly wouldn’t want to deny the public access to information they have a right to. I can follow up with that question. It’s a good one and I don’t know the answer.

ROSENBAUM: The latest annual report says that $2.517 million was spent on the upgrade of the Breuer in fiscal 2015. Can you say the total amount you spent on the upgrade?

WEISS: What we’re disclosing is that it was a light upgrade. That is to say, we have made no structural interventions. We haven’t changed any walls or anything like that. We fixed some mechanical equipment—elevators, those kinds of things—and we’ve polished and refreshed surfaces. The cost has been relatively modest as the things go, but it is not a number that we have disclosed. [As I wrote to the Met in a follow-up email, I’ve never seen a museum refuse to disclose the cost of a capital project.]

ROSENBAUM: A bonus question: Which is harder—being the president of a college [Haverford] or the president of the Metropolitan Museum?

WEISS: They’re both challenging—different kinds of challenges. I’m finding this new job to be refreshing, because I’m learning so much. I bring a lot of experience that’s useful and I’m learning about a lot of stuff that I never did.

So far, it’s still a great a great ride. A couple of years from now, I may say something different. But it’s really been great fun…

…except, perhaps, when you have to put up with journalists’ annoying questions. As he did during our last detailed conversation (here and here),which occurred before he arrived at the Met, Weiss impressed me with how he graciously fielded my queries and divulged what he was free to say.

Next time (if, for me, there is a next time), I hope he may have greater latitude to say more.

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