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The Met Mess in the NY Times: Are Tom Campbell’s Director Days Numbered?

More on this here.

Catching up on museum news after five days in California, blissfully cuddling my precociously two-weeks-early new grandson (CultureDaughter‘s first child), I did a double-take at the online headline for Robin Pogrebin‘s Page One piece in Sunday’s NY Times:

Is the Met Museum “a Great Institution in Decline”?

The print headline was only slightly less ominous than the digital one—“Ambitions for Met Museum Lead to Stumbles.” I was expecting to read an exposé, not what turned out to be a somewhat muddled rehash of what I’d previously seen in the Times and what I myself had elucidated in my own detailed reporting (here, here, here and here).

Pogrebin’s piece did provide what were, for me, three interesting new insights:

—“Curators and conservators recently wrote a letter protesting compensation cuts.” Huh? I knew about buyouts and layoffs, but what exactly were those “compensation cuts”? (I have a query pending on that.)

—There has been a “turnover of three-quarters of the curatorial leadership through departures and retirements.” I knew many experienced curators had left, but I hadn’t seen it so disturbingly quantified. Then again, Robin doesn’t make clear whether this turnover occurred because of the belt-tightening in recent months, or over the entire eight years of Campbell’s tenure.

—Also striking was Robin’s willingness to drop the usual discretion of reporters on the NYC museum beat. She strongly suggested (via quotes from mostly unnamed sources) that the blame for the Met’s travails could rest, in large measure, with director Tom Campbell. The Times’ giving such prominent voice to Campbell’s detractors could signal the beginning of the end of his directorship.

Thomas Campbell, speaking today at the Met’s Hercules Segers press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I have several times expressed my own serious reservations about Campbell, both when he was first named to the post and, more recently, in my “Met Mess” post of last July, in which I concluded that “seven years should be time enough for any director’s learning curve.”

I’ll continue to ramble on Campbell in a future post. For now, it’s important to address the surprisingly mistaken impressions left by the Times piece, which over-dramatized an already difficult situation:

In Pogrebin’s second paragraph, she alarmingly and misleadingly stated that “the Met’s deficit was approaching $40 million.” The fiscal 2016 deficit was, in fact, nowhere near that figure. Last April, it was projected to be $10 million, after which “a mid-year reforecast identified a potential operating deficit of $23 million,” as stated in the Report from the Director and President in the annual report for FY16 (ending June 30). Because of this predicted shortfall, “the museum implemented a soft hiring freeze and engaged departments across the institution to reduce expenses.”

The actual FY16 deficit came in at $8.3 million on an operating budget of $398 million, compared to the previous year’s $7.7 million on $368.9 million. But the LA Times, linking to Robin’s piece, has now promulgated the misconception that “the mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is facing a nearly $40 million deficit.”

Here’s what Met President Daniel Weiss had told me in our wide-ranging conversation last April, during which he explained the $40-million “structural deficit” that he dealt with proactively, to prevent the merely “structural” from becoming actual:

When a deficit grows from $4 million to $8 million, even though the absolute magnitude of $8 million is not an enormous amount, it’s double….There’s a kind of exponential quality to the way these deficits can grow under certain circumstances. And that’s what we saw. There is a kind of “cascading effect” that can happen….

The deficit we have now is not so substantial….But because of the divergence of these two lines [expenses and revenues], if we don’t take action, proactively, over the next 18 to 24 months, that deficit could be $40 million. So what we have to do is not just cutting. It’s thoughtful planning. It’s growth management. It’s a proactive management step, more than it is a crisis step.

It’s not so much cutting $40 million out of the budget as it is anticipating where the growth will take us and managing that growth. So when I say we have to cut costs and streamline, it’s looking out over this period over the next 24 months and seeing where it takes us….It’s not so much cutting to get $40 million out of the budget as it is managing so we’re $40 million more efficient in 24 months.

Daniel Weiss, the Metropolitan Museum’s president

George Goldner, the Met’s former chairman of drawings and prints (who retired more than two years ago to advise collector Leon Black) was the only Campbell critic whom Pogrebin identified by name. His damaging comments, as reported in the Times, were somewhat misleading:

“It’s a tragedy to see a great institution in decline,” said George R. Goldner, who in 2014 [actually, effective at the end of January 2015] retired after 21 years as the chairman of the Met’s drawings and prints department and has since served as a consultant to the museum. “To have inherited a museum as strong as the Met was 10 years ago [emphasis added]—with a great curatorial staff—and to have it be what it is today is unimaginable.”

When Campbell “inherited” the Met, effective January 2009 (not “10 years ago”), the museum was not nearly as “strong” as Goldner suggested: The Great Recession had arrived, and the Met, like most other museums, took a serious hit. As I wrote in my February 2010 Wall Street Journal profile of Campbell: “His most pressing task upon assuming his new job…was implementing a difficult phase of budget cuts and staff reductions necessitated by the financial crisis that caused a 26% drop in the museum’s total endowment funds for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009.”

Goldner’s comments and Pogrebin’s observation, near the end of her piece, that “the Met’s current retrenchment inevitably looks like a repudiation of much of Mr. Campbell’s original agenda” can only undermine donor confidence, further exacerbating the financial and managerial challenges that lie ahead.

To aid in damage control, the Met now has a new chief communications officer, Kenneth Weine, whom I met today. Our chat and follow-up emails were congenial, but everything was “off the record” or “not for attribution” (in other words, not usable). I’m hoping that reticence will change, once he gets the lay of the land. Thanks to Pogrebin’s incendiary piece, it’s likely to be trial-by-fire.

Ken Weine, Met’s incoming chief communications officer, with Elyse Topalian, outgoing vice president for communications, at today’s press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

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