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More on Met Directorship: My Takes on Puzzling Punditry by Cotter, Gibson, Dobrzynski, Oliver

I got an early jump on the culture pundits who are rushing to analyze Tom Campbell‘s planned departure from the directorship of the Metropolitan Museum. Commentary is now pouring in from people whose strong opinions are not always founded on a complete grasp of the facts.

Holland Cotter‘s prescription for curing the ailing Metropolitan Museum bore an uncanny resemblance to my recent adventures in car repair: Last week, I brought my glitchy vehicle to the local mechanic, who did six different things, at a cost of $770, none of which solved the problem. This week, when my recalcitrant car caused me to miss the O’Keeffe press preview at the Brooklyn Museum, I got it to the dealership, which immediately diagnosed what was wrong and ordered the needed part.

Fixing the Met won’t be as simple as replacing my torque converter. But none of what Cotter suggests in his NY Times piece will solve the museum’s serious problems, which are all about management and money, not about making art “snap to life.”

Holland Cotter

The Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic freely admits that he “can say nothing useful” on the subject of solvency (as I can say nothing useful on the subject of torque converters). But to riff on the slogan of Bill Clinton‘s successful presidential bid: It’s the financials, stupid! Notwithstanding the fact that the Met’s 6.7-million attendance last year set a new record, Cotter seems to feel that its salvation will come from becoming more appealing to visitors.

Here’s his key paragraph on how that should be done:

If historical art is now a hard sell, and it is, learn to sell it hard. That means, among other things, start telling the truth about it: about who made objects, and how they work in the world, and how they got to the museum, and what they mean, what values they advertise, good and bad. Go for truth (which, like the telling of history, is always changing), and connect art to life. Mix things up: periods, functions, cultures. (You can always unmix them.) Let audiences see that old is always new, if viewed through knowledge.

I would argue that the Met is already doing most of those things in exemplary fashion (but could use more and better cross-cultural shows), thanks to its distinguished curators whose erudition and enthusiasm are conveyed in the galleries, labels, wall texts and audio tours. Does Cotter really feel that the Met’s displays don’t “tell the truth” about art, including “what they mean” and the values they convey? That’s not been my experience. Perhaps he should have elaborated on the nature of the “truth” that he believes is lacking.

I was also bemused by Cotter’s assertion that from the time when Campbell assumed his post in 2009 “there were doubts—not about his art expertise; his credentials are sterling—but about his managerial chops.” My recollection of that time was that I was an outlier in publicly raising those concerns from the get-go: There seemed to be not “doubts” but universal enthusiasm about a well liked internal candidate who would privilege curatorial priorities.

Eric Gibson, the Wall Street Journal‘s “Arts in Review” editor, posted insightful online commentary about this, but muffed some of the numbers, saying that the Met’s deficit “for fiscal year 2017 [which won’t end until this coming June]…came in at $15 million.” (According to the Met’s FY 2016 annual report, last year’s operating deficit was $8.3 million.) He’s kind to Campbell, saying that “the Met’s trustees own this debacle 100%.” That there should have been better trustee oversight is undeniable. But Campbell’s deficiencies (which I detailed here) as an effective administrator and compelling leader were a big part of the problem.

Eric issues this urgent warning:

What’s especially troubling here is that this isn’t an isolated incident. Rather, it’s one more example of governance failures in major cultural institutions. [I can think of a number of others that he doesn’t mention.]….When an institution like the Met can stumble this badly, everyone should be worried.

Perhaps the most puzzling punditry came from my fellow ArtsJournal blogger, Judith Dobrzynski, who wrote that Campbell had “applied for and did not get the directorship of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London” [my link, not hers].

It’s in the second paragraph in this screenshot from her post:

In response to my fact-checking query, a Met spokesperson told me that the V&A information on Dobrzynski’s Real Clear Arts blog was “not accurate. He did not apply.” I’m guessing that he may have had informal contacts with the V&A or that his name may have come up during its director search. I made a similar gaffe (see bottom of this post), when I reported on the supposed candidacy of Max Hollein for the post that Campbell eventually won. (I was not alone in reporting that Max, now head of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, was then on the Met’s shortlist. Maybe other writers had the same “informed source.”)

Finally, let’s tackle the thorny question of diversity: Like art history assistant professor Liza Oliver, who decries what she sees as the “bias against female leadership” in her NY Times opinion piece—Why the Met Should Appoint a Female Director, several CultureGrrl readers have chided me for not including any women on my three-person list of Who Should Lead the Met. Throwing the problem back at my critics, I asked them for the names they’d suggest. No response.

Similarly, Oliver asserts that she “can attest that there is no shortage of women who would be up for the task of director from both within and beyond the Met’s walls,” but she never provides even one name.

Setting myself that task, I came up with two potential candidates—Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirshhorn (and formerly of the Asia Society Museum) and Rebecca Rabinow of the Menil (and formerly a Met curator). But both assumed their current posts recently, so the timing doesn’t seem right.

While I was ruminating about diversity, a Latino candidate came to mind—Mexican-born Julián Zugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum since 2010 (and formerly of El Museo del Barrio). Like the Los Angeles County Museum’s Michael Govan, he had been a Tom Krens protégé at the Guggenheim early in his career. Like de Montebello, he’s multilingual—six languages—an excellent attribute for a leader who deals with international art, sister institutions, lenders, visitors and donors.

Ripe and ready, Julián should have been on my “A” list.

Julián Zugazagoitia

an ArtsJournal blog