In December 2008, anticipating the imminent eminence of Thomas Campbell as new head of the country’s premier art museum, I presumptuously posted a to-do list for the director-designate. The Met, I then felt, needed to be less insular, more outward-looking and more creative in conceiving exhibitions, notwithstanding the undeniably monumental achievements under Philippe de Montebello.
Here’s the Montebello Monument, which went on display five years ago near the main admissions desk:
Nine years after I posted my wishlist for Campbell, it bears an uncanny resemblance to what I would recommend today to the as-yet-undetermined new leader whose task it will be to help clean up The Met Mess and to run the place on a surer financial footing.
Below is the December 2008 post (edited for brevity)—Ten Suggestions for Tom Campbell, Incoming Director at the Met. I’ve added, in italics, my updates on how these bullet-points apply to the current moment:
—A willingness to speak out forcefully about important hot-button issues affecting the field. For the most part, Philippe made his views about standards and practices known through his actions, not through his words….I’m thinking, for example, of other museums’ growing exploitation of collections as cash cows—an issue on which he communicated more forcefully in French for Le Monde than on his own turf.
This is the part of the job that I fear Tom Campbell may be least suited for. From what I’ve seen so far, he lacks the facility of his predecessor as a public speaker. Philippe radiated authority and presence from the moment he occupied the director’s office. Campbell seems more diffident (even halting) as a speaker on anything but his scholarly specialty. But part of this may be the awkwardness of his position as director-in-waiting.
It seems to me that Campbell’s sense that he would soon be leaving the Met may have had a belated liberating effect on his willingness to speak out, as seen in his NY Times Op-Ed piece on The Folly of Abolishing the NEA and his post on the Met’s website, in which he expressed “steadfast opposition to any barriers, including these recent executive actions [by President Trump], that would unnecessarily inhibit” international scholarly exchange and collaboration.
—A drive to bring the Met’s formidable expertise down to the level of the general public. By this I don’t mean dumbing down….I mean giving the public more chances to meet and hear from the curators themselves….The director, despite the enormous demands on his time, should also find ways to meet and greet the public. Aloofness should give way to more openness. This is the part of the job that I feel Tom Campbell, the popularizer of tapestries, may be best suited to accomplish.
Campbell has been outstanding in sharing the Met’s expertise with international colleagues, through its annual Global Museum Leaders Colloquiums and other cooperative relationships. But I still feel that the Met’s curators and the director need dispel the impression of aloofness by engaging more directly with the public.
By contrast, the last time I visited the Cleveland Museum, director Bill Griswold (as I wrote here) was “a ubiquitous presence” in the galleries:
—A willingness to invite the public behind the scenes. Feed the fascination about how museums work by arranging guided tours of conservation labs, study rooms, storerooms. Mount yearly displays of new acquisitions (supplemented with related works already in the collection), to elucidate how the museum develops its holdings.
Speaking of acquisition exhibitions, I doubt we’ll see a Tom Campbell version of The Philippe de Montebello Years, a valedictory show that imparted fascinating insights (especially through its audio tour) into how the Met enriches its collections. With a shorter tenure and a tougher collecting climate, the current director didn’t have Philippe’s golden opportunity to acquire more than 84,000 works over a 31-year span.
—Less fear and loathing of the press. The Met gets a huge volume of press inquiries, ranging from those that are inane and ill-informed to those that deserve serious, responsive handling. Some filtering does have to occur. But the Met press office functions more like that of a big private corporation than that of an institution with a public purpose of scholarship and display.
The press should be given easier access to the sources who make the institution what it is—administrators and curators who are the best spokespersons for the institution. For the most part, they are willing and even eager to discuss their work, but are restricted or muzzled by an excessively defensive administrative policy.
This problem has worsened on Campbell’s watch. I’m hoping that the new regime may bring more openness. Certainly I’ve found the new president, Daniel Weiss, to be refreshingly forthcoming and informative.
—More emphasis on elucidating and supporting the art and artists of our own time. For better or worse, the Met is deeply involved—through its collections and exhibitions—with contemporary art. It ought to approach this field with the same passion for excellence and insight that it brings to the rest of art history. That probably means raiding a contemporary art museum for someone widely recognized for curatorial acumen in this field (as with the Museum of Modern Art’s hiring of LA MOCA’s curator, Connie Butler).
Here Campbell made progress, with the curatorial appointments of Sheena Wagstaff and Ian Alteveer and the controversial eight-year lease of the Whitney Museum’s Breuer building, largely dedicated to contemporary shows. (The results there have been mixed.)
Butler (whom I cited above) has since left MoMA for the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, but recently reappeared in New York as co-organizer of the Marisa Merz show, initiated by her and currently on view at the Met Breuer. Savoring that scintillating show and chatting with Connie reminded me of how much New York lost when she left us. Could the Met contrive to lure her back?
—Generosity in sharing the wealth. Get museum-quality works out of the storeroom and into other museums that would love to show them….To be sure, the Met’s latest annual report includes a voluminous three-page list of loans. Expand and systematize this, by providing department-by-department clearinghouse lists of objects available to qualified institutional borrowers.
The Met’s new open-access policy is a big step forward in sharing. And like the annual report for FY 2008, the fiscal ’16 report includes a three-page list of Institutions and Organizations Receiving Loans. But the art, not just images, should be more comprehensively and systematically disseminated.
—Collaborative posture towards other New York institutions. Too often, our city’s museums are locked in competitive mode. A purely accidental “collaboration” recently occurred between the Museum of Modern Art and the Morgan Library & Museum, which happened to mount Philip Guston displays at the same time. Such commonalities (with cross-references explicitly drawn through labeling and brochures in the institutions’ galleries) should be more commonly explored for the public’s and the institutions’ benefit.
Concurrent recent shows of Agnes Martin at the Guggenheim and Carmen Herrera at the Whitney, followed soon after by Merz, had many obvious affinities that the institutions didn’t explore. Some cross-institution synergies should be planned and elucidated.
—Encouragement of more cross-cultural exhibitions. The proponents of the “universal museum” make a big fuss about how important it is to be able to compare art of different times and cultures in one institution. But they rarely mount exhibitions that explicitly illuminate such correspondences and influences. The Met’s recent Eternal Ancestors show of Central African reliquaries did open with a selection of objects from other world cultures, “thereby drawing upon related works from other parts of the Metropolitan’s encyclopedic collections.” That’s a start. More is needed.
The Met Breuer was conceived as a place where contemporary art could be shown in the context of the Met’s far-ranging collections. But after the eclectic, much criticized “Unfinished” show, it seems to have retreated to safer, more conventionally monographic presentations (including future exhibitions).
—Responsiveness to the current economic moment. People are hurting as they watch their dreams flame out in an economic firestorm. Cultural solace is needed, but not at $20-a-head. Instead of making people feel uncomfortable about exploiting the Met’s “pay what you want” policy, the Met should actively encourage visitors to take advantage of this bargain—not just on free days (which create intolerably crowded conditions at the Museum of Modern Art, for example), but always.
The publicity from this court case has helped make the voluntary nature of the amount of Met’s admission fee more widely known and accepted. Meanwhile, the suggested adult tariff has risen to $25 from the $20 that I mentioned in 2008. Online ticket buyers and those who use the automated kiosks must cough up the “full suggested admission” (an oxymoron?).
—Fundraising fearlessness: Campbell should be shameless in exploiting the new-kid advantage, especially since the Met’s just published 2007-08 annual report shows an operating deficit of $3.22 million, compared to a surplus of $2.63 million the previous year. (In June 2008, the end of the last fiscal year, the worst of the financial crisis hadn’t even hit yet.)
The trustees appointed him. Now they’ve got to support him, insuring that he succeeds in these financially challenging times. That means opening wide their own wallets and beating the bushes for other supporters of an institution that is more relevant today than ever, because of its role in providing relief and sustenance for the financially injured.
With the exception of the $65-million benefaction from David Koch to re-do its front plaza and fountains, the Met under Campbell hasn’t seemed to have been able to rake in the megabucks donations it needs to bankroll its ambitions—most notably the stalled $600-million Southwest Wing for modern and contemporary art.
In another uncanny evocation of the current moment, I concluded my December 2008 post with this:
Like the new President of our country [then Barack Obama], the Met’s new director has got his work cut out for him. Best wishes to both for highly successful tenures.
Even with its shortcomings and its deficit-driven curtailment of exhibitions and staff, the Met is still great. But to riff on the overused rallying cry of this year’s new U.S. President:
Can Campbell’s successor make the Met solvent again?