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The Met Mess: Parsing the Organizational Upheavals at the Metropolitan Museum

What do the disarray of the Metropolitan Museum’s finances and the shakeup of its senior staff say about Tom Campbell‘s performance as director of this country’s preeminent art museum? It could be that directing the Met is too complicated and challenging a task for someone who assumed the post with scant administrative experience.

In September 2008, at Campbell’s meet-the-press moment upon being named to succeed the formidable Philippe de Montebello, I had questioned the respected tapestry specialist about his paucity of administrative experience.

L to R: Philippe de Montebello and Tom Campbell at September 2008 press conference Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

L to R: Philippe de Montebello and Tom Campbell at Met’s September 2008 press conference
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s what Tom then told me:

I’ve never been a director. Look, I think that the museum that Philippe will be leaving is a supremely well run, well established institution. We’re fiscally sound. We’re incredibly dynamic in terms of our programs. We have 17 curatorial departments, five conservation departments, and almost as many various administrative departments, and by and large they’re all extremely well managed.

What the museum didn’t need is another wonkish manager. What the museum needs is someone who can come in, as Philippe has done, and draw on the strengths of the staff and help encourage and bring forth the ideas and the creativity and the interaction that we need to maintain the dynamic acquisition program and exhibition program, to enrich the visitor experience in our permanent galleries.

It’s a question of vision and human chemistry. You’ll have to judge me by my performance in four or five years’ time. [Emphasis added.]

He’s now had more than seven years at the helm, and a “wonkish manager” has been called in to right the ship. President Daniel Weiss, a year into his job, has the thankless task of cutting the $300-million fiscal 2017 budget (ending next June 30) by some $30 million, partly through staff reductions.

“All departments will be under consideration for budget reductions in the months ahead,” a Met spokesperson told me. Economy measures will also include “reduc[ing] the large number of exhibitions and installations that we currently schedule,” in Campbell’s words.

The Met last week told the Wall Street Journal that about 56 staffers had accepted offers of voluntary buyouts—”about 35% of those eligible,” according to reporter Jennifer Smith. Weiss told her that “between 40% to 50% of the vacated positions would likely be refilled ‘because they’re essential.’” (At this writing, there is still no announcement about these developments on the Metropolitan Museum’s press website.)

During my detailed conversation with Weiss in April (here and here), when the museum’s serious difficulties were publicly disclosed, Dan had faulted the Met for inadequate “long-term financial-planning discipline.” He added that a soft hiring freeze and a voluntary buyout program would probably obviate the need “to do significant involuntary staff reductions.”

That depends on how you define “significant.” An undisclosed number of staffers is now expected to be fired in the months ahead, as part of the cost-reduction plan. The WSJ reported that the Met “may ultimately shed more than 100 of its 2,300 staff positions” through voluntary and involuntary departures.

When I spoke to Weiss in April, the expected fiscal 2016 budget deficit had been estimated at a whopping $10 million. That was reduced to about $8 million, thanks to “cost-cutting measures [that were] undertaken,” a Met spokesperson told me.

Several highly placed Campbell-hired officials have headed for the exits. Among them: Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer; Susan Sellers, Head of Design; Cynthia Round, senior vice president, marketing and external relations (including press relations).

Cynthia Round

Cynthia Round

I’ve commented on Sreenivasan’s departure here. Three years ago, when Round was appointed, I noted that nothing in the bio of this specialist in “brand management” indicated that she had “any experience in journalism or cultural affairs.”

I added:

My hope is that she’ll focus more on communicating, less on “branding.” My own recent experience suggests that the Met needs to be more timely and expansive in answering serious journalistic queries.

The luster of the Met’s “brand” is best burnished by highlighting its unparalleled collection and the consummate professionalism of its curatorial staff, not by dreaming up slick (sometimes foolish) branding gambits. [Emphasis added.]

And then, Round doubled down

Also baffling was the appointment last year of Clyde B. Jones III as senior vice president for institutional advancement (i.e., fundraiser-in-chief). His professional background, while distinguished, appears to have nothing to do with visual arts institutions, everything to do with medical institutions, most recently in Pittsburgh (as described in the Met’s press release). Nina Diefenbach, a 34-year Met veteran who served as its vice president for institutional advancement (without Jones’ title of “senior”), decamped for the Barnes Foundation less than a year after Jones was named.

Two key curatorial officials appointed by Campbell early in his tenure are leaving the building: Jennifer Russell, associate director for exhibitions (who had announced her planned retirement considerably before the staff shakeup was announced); Carrie Rebora Barratt, deputy director for collections and administration, who took the voluntary buyout offer. [UPDATE: I and others who reported on Barratt’s supposed buyout later learned that she decided to stay.]

Carrie Rebora Barratt at the press preview for the Met's 2009 "American Stories" show, which she co-curated Screenshot from video by Lee Rosenbaum

Carrie Rebora Barratt at press preview for the Met’s 2009 “American Stories” show, which she co-curated
Screenshot from CultureGrrl Video by Lee Rosenbaum

Quincy Houghton was named three months ago to take Russell’s place.

In his interview with the NY TimesRobin Pogrebin about the current turmoil, Campbell conceded that “the Met is ‘still learning.’”

It seems to me that seven years should be time enough for any director’s learning curve.

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