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Who Should Lead the Met? Tom Campbell Decamps UPDATED

More on this here and here.

Ever since he was named to the Metropolitan Museum’s directorship, I’ve had serious qualms about whether Tom Campbell embodied The Peter Principle—the notion that talented employees eventually rise to a level beyond their competence.

Robin Pogrebin today reported on the NY Times‘ website that Campbell is on his way out from the Met after 22 years, including eight in the top spot. He will leave on June 30, “in order to pursue the next phase of my career,” he told Pogrebin.

Whether he jumped or (as Robin suggests) was pushed is not important. Either way, he made it clear, in the museum’s press release, that his “next phase” won’t be at the Met:

It was not an easy choice to step away, especially at such a vital and exciting moment. That said, its current vitality is what makes this the right moment to do so. I have worked hard, and I believe my efforts have paid off. For the next stage of my career I look forward to new challenges beyond the Met [emphasis added], always in service of art, scholarship, and understanding.

Tom Campbell, introducing this month’s Hercules Segers exhibition
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The museum’s board chair, Daniel Brodsky, said this:

Tom has led The Met in precisely the right direction during his tenure, and we look forward to continuing to make progress in the areas he and his team have led in the years ahead.

Quietly intelligent and strongly principled, Campbell dragged the Met into the 21st century, as Philippe de Montebello would never have done: The former director physically recoiled from my smartphone when I recently offered to show him the Met’s app, which he had never tried (and, I guess, never will). Very recently, Campbell found his voice as a spokesperson for the field.

But for all his natural curatorial instincts, Campbell hasn’t proven to be a great manager or a confidence-inspiring leader. It took too long (and too much red ink) before the board, accustomed to giving a long leash to the preeminent museum director of our time, realized that this marriage wasn’t working.

I doesn’t surprise me that (as Robin reported) the board may be considering giving the top spot to Daniel Weiss, who has greatly impressed me ever since my first long conversation with him at the time when he was named to become the Met’s president. For now, he has been named “interim chief executive officer.” With a PhD in art history, Dan even has the art-history creds for the job.

But at a time when the Met is in organizational and financial turmoil (and keeping in mind the Peter Principle), I think the board should keep Weiss focused on what he does best—administration and financial planning. For the directorship, he lacks the same crucial experience that Campbell lacked: He’s never directed a museum, and the Met’s top spot is no starter directorship.

If the Met really needs an interim director, maybe it can to lure back Philippe for a brief stint (just as my alma mater, Cornell University, periodically recalls its former president, Hunter Rawlings, from the professorial ranks, whenever there’s a vacancy at the top).

Better yet, the Met should strive mightily to find a permanent replacement as soon as possible. I think that two of the names that Robin mentioned—Michael Govan of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Glenn Lowry of the Museum of Modern Art—are ensconced where they want to be. (In Glenn’s case, perhaps retirement and a university gig beckon, once he finishes overseeing MoMA’s latest expansion.) Another highly accomplished director, who was high on my 2006 list of Who Should Succeed Philippe at the Met?Timothy Potts—doesn’t strike me at likely to leave the Getty Museum.

My Number One candidate, if he’s willing to change cities once again, would be William Griswold. [UPDATE: He has since indicated to me that he’s not interested in leaving the Cleveland Museum at this time.] He’s already well-known to the Met’s board, because of its overlap with the board of the Morgan Library and Museum, which he ably directed before his current gig at the Cleveland Museum. But his past history (at Minneapolis, Cleveland and the Morgan) has been to take the top job after an expansion has been completed, not while it’s still on the drawing boards.

That said, Bill sure makes good pancakes.

“Griddle Griswold” at the Minneapolis Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Failing that, I think Michael Taylor, chief curator and deputy director at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, who was a great curator under a great director (the Philadelphia Museum’s Timothy Rub), and briefly directed Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum, would be worth a look.

A wild card for me, since I’ve never met him (despite trying to when I visited his museum), would be Brent Benjamin, who has ably led the Saint Louis Art Museum (even navigating through this antiquities-related minefield) and gets bonus points for having successfully concluded an expansion with the same architect that the Met has engaged for its now indefinitely delayed expansion—David Chipperfield.

If Weiss is smart (which he indisputably is), I think he’ll let it be known quickly that he doesn’t want to permanently expand his portfolio. The uncertainty of will-he-or-won’t-he would cripple any preliminary job search, keeping the Met in leadership-limbo for way too long. Then again, it’s possible that he’ll become the director/president and will be great at it.

In that case, I’d be pleased to eat my words.

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