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Unfair at “Vanity Fair”: William Cohan Muddies the Met Mess

With the intense interest generated by Robin Pogrebin‘s shocking front-page revelations in yesterday’s NY Times about the Metropolitan Museum’s governance lapses, it’s likely that pundits will pile on with commentaries fueled more by indignation and sensationalism than by the deep knowledge of the Met’s policies, practices and personnel that informs Pogrebin’s latest piece.

Beating everyone to the sucker-punch was William Cohan with his hit job for Vanity FairInside a Met Director’s Shocking Exit and the Billion-Dollar Battle for the Museum’s Future—which preceded Robin’s deeply informed and extensively researched investigation.

William Cohan

Robin spent a month interviewing “more than two dozen people…, including Met trustees, senior executives, curators and former and current members of the digital staff,” several of whom she names in her piece. Cohan, a finance writer who occasionally ventures into art reporting, relied chiefly on comments from two anonymous sources—a former Met administrator and a board member—whom he cites repeatedly throughout the article.

It’s a slipshod job, beginning (as I explained at the end of this post) with the sensational but misleading headline (probably written by an editor, not Cohan). Because of its prominent placement in a national publication, Cohan’s “Billion-Dollar Battle” may get undue traction, notwithstanding the half-truths and mistakes that are jarring to Met-ologists.

A few examples:

—Cohan lost me at “hello” by repeating, in his first paragraph, an inflammatory but factually off-base comment by George Goldner, the Met’s respected former chairman of drawings and prints. In a Feb. 4 piece (which to me signaled that Tom Campbell‘s days as the Met’s director were numbered), Pogrebin had quoted Goldner stating this:

“It’s a tragedy to see a great institution in decline. To have inherited a museum as strong as the Met was 10 years ago—with a great curatorial staff—and to have it be what it is today is unimaginable.”

As I noted here in my criticism of Pogrebin’s Feb. 4 piece, Campbell had “inherited” the Met eight years ago, not “10 years ago” and it was far from “strong” when he took over: The Great Recession had hit, decimating the endowment and necessitating staff cuts—a fate suffered by museums around the country. None of that was the fault of Campbell or anyone else at the Met.

This era of “fake news” has reinforced the reportorial responsibility to reject or correct factually erroneous quotes, no matter how juicy they are or how highly placed the source. Goldner’s misconceived slur, which made it into the online headline of Pogrebin’s Feb. 4 piece, may have been the single most damaging blow to the Met’s shaky reputation.

—Cohan mentions that Met curators had initially celebrated the “ascension to the directorship” of “one of their own,” noting that de Montebello had been an associate curator at the Met. What he failed to mention was that before assuming the Met’s directorship, de Montebello had gained crucial experience as the director of another sizeable institution—the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

—In discussing the Met’s postponed plan for a $600-million, David Chipperfield-designed redo of its Southwest Wing for modern and contemporary art, Cohan says that the project would “demolish the existing Lila Acheson Wallace Wing.” The Met’s press release has described this plan as “renovation and redesign,” not demolition.

—Cohan says that the Met “agreed to lease the [Whitney’s Breuer] building for eight years—at a cost of $17 million per year.” The annual operating budget for the Met Breuer is $17 million, not the cost of the lease (which both the Met and the Whitney have declined to disclose).

Entrance to the Met Breuer
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

—The “former administrator” repeatedly cited by Cohan said that the current financial debacle stemmed from Campbell’s having “these extravagant plans that Philippe [de Montebello] didn’t have.” De Montebello’s numerous capital projects may not have come in at $600 million, but they were far-reaching: The Michael Rockefeller Wing for Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, the reconstructed galleries for Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, the revamped American Wing, and the new Greek and Roman Court all happened on his watch. (Have I left something out?)

—When I puzzled over Cohan’s ambiguous reference to a settled “legal action” related to Campbell’s “friskiness with certain women on the staff,” a possible sexual-harassment suit immediately came to mind. (I’ve been reading too much lately about Fox News.) Instead, as we learned from Pogrebin, it was a complaint that Campbell’s allegedly “close personal relationship” with a staffer had compromised her superior’s ability to “do her job effectively.” I doubt I was the only one who had received a different impression from Cohan’s inadequately explained innuendo.

While there’s more than a kernel of truth in Cohan’s piece, nothing undermines a journalist’s credibility more than flubbing the facts and muddling the interpretation.

In an amusing (to me) personal twist, a Vanity Fair photo editor contacted me almost a month ago, asking if she could pay me for use of two of my CultureGrrl photos to accompany Cohan’s Met article. I said “yes” without requesting more information about the article’s contents.

Here are the images they had tentatively requested:

L to R: Philippe de Montebello and Tom Campbell at the 2008 press conference where Campbell’s selection for the Met’s directorship was announced
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Leonard Lauder speaking to a Met audience about his promised gift of Cubist works to the museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

It had seemed pretty clear to me that my out-of-focus photos lacked magazine quality. Luckily for me, the editors ultimately decided not to use them. I learned a valuable lesson: Be careful about what you get yourself involved with (and maybe try to take better-quality photos).

All of the toxic publicity about the Met Mess (with more likely to come) argues for Campbell’s departure—not at the end of June (as planned), but yesterday. The museum’s most pressing priorities must be to rebuild the battered morale of what’s left of the staff (after the budget-driven layoffs and buyouts), and to redirect the public’s attention away from Campbell’s and the board’s failings, back to where it belongs—on the museum’s magnificent art and the brilliant curators who interpret and display it.

The only kind of directorial “friskiness” that I want to hear about is this:

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