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Metropolitan Museum as Renegade: Reorganization Defies AAMD’s Professional Standards

The Metropolitan Museum has become a renegade. Its decision to rejigger its organizational chart—elevating the finance-oriented CEO (now President Daniel Weiss) above its (as yet unnamed) new art-centric director—runs contrary to common wisdom about the appropriate chain of command in art museums.

That said, I reluctantly concede that desperate times may call for desperate measures.

Notwithstanding outgoing director Tom Campbell‘s gracious endorsement on his Instagram feed of Weiss’ CEO designation, subordinating the director to the president runs contrary to the guidelines of the leading professional organization for American art museums—the Association Art Museum Directors.

Image of Met’s Dan Weiss & Tom Campbell from the latter’s Instagram feed
Behind them: the Met’s circular Vanderlyn panorama

The “Governance” section in AAMD’s Professional Practices in Art Museums unequivocally states the following (on P. 5):

The board should appoint the director—to whom it delegates responsibility for day-to-day operations—to be the chief executive officer of the museum [emphasis added]. The administration of an art museum requires connoisseurship, discernment, and knowledge in dealing with works of art, as well as the judgment and experience necessary for the operation of a complex organization. Achieving an appropriate balance among these requirements is essential. Without such a balance, problems that could undermine the museum’s professional performance and public service could arise.

AAMD’s guidelines have this to say (P. 6) about the role of a paid president:

In certain cases, a paid president or equivalent administrative post may also be appointed. Such an appointment may, however, result in ambiguity, especially if the positions are defined as equal by the board. A clear definition of the responsibilities of each position is essential [emphasis added], and the director should carry the ultimate responsibility for advancing the institution’s mission, including its artistic direction, collections, scholarship, and programs.

This unbylined (Calvin Tomkins?) 1999 New Yorker profile of then Met director Philippe de Montebello illustrates why this is such a sensitive topic:

One question that troubles de Montebello deeply is whether his successor will be strong enough to dominate the decision-making process, as he has done, in the event that the museum continues to employ a paid president. He is not alone in his concern. Both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Philadelphia Museum of Art have tried dividing the top job between a paid president and a director, and both have settled on a single, all-powerful director….

Once, when de Montebello was away on a trip, [previous president William] Macomber decided that the planned installation in the American Wing of a cast-iron staircase designed by Louis Sullivan was going to cost too much, and he issued an order for it to be replaced with a less expensive modern stairway. De Montebello sent him a stinging memo on his return, saying that Macomber’s job was not to do away with the Sullivan staircase but to find the money needed to install it, and that he was to reverse his decision immediately. Macomber reversed it.

My observation of how Weiss operates and my extensive conversations with him (four links), as well as Campbell’s endorsement of his “unique combination of management skills and art history background” that make Dan “a precise fit for the Museum,” lead me to believe that he deserves, at the very least, the benefit of the doubt. Campbell’s mismanagement left the museum’s finances in such disarray that strong corrective measures were imperative. Weiss rose to that challenge: He’s the remedial leader.

That said, de Montebello’s concern (as expressed in the New Yorker piece) about whether future directors would be “strong enough to dominate the decision-making process” is well founded. Unlike the Met’s past presidents, Weiss is himself an art historian of distinction: PhD from Johns Hopkins with concentrations in Western Medieval and Byzantine Art and a minor in Classical Greek Art and Architecture; professor and chair of Hopkins’ art history department; dean of Hopkins’ School of Arts and Sciences; president of Lafayette and Haverford colleges; author of scholarly books and articles.

That expertise could cut two ways: It will make him more sensitive to and understanding of curatorial priorities. But it may also increase his temptation to personally meddle in matters of exhibition planning, collection installations and acquisitions that are properly the director’s domain.

My own sense of Weiss is that he’s smart enough to understand and avoid the perils of blurring this essential division of responsibilities. But giving more power to the business-and-finance guy (Weiss holds a Yale MBA and worked at Booz, Allen & Hamilton, the consulting firm) sets a dangerous precedent for future Met presidents. They should eventually revert to the title that Dan held when he was appointed as president two years ago—chief operating officer, under a director who was chief executive officer.

Until responsible and effective financial policies and practices are firmly in place, the new organizational chart seems the right one. But the ultimate objective should be to restore the director’s supremacy.

Which brings us back to AAMD: How will it respond to the Met’s clear breach of its guidelines? My guess is: by ignoring it. I can’t imagine its blackballing the Met, as it did with the National Academy, after its breach of AAMD’s deaccession guidelines.

As it happens, the Met’s reorganization wouldn’t have run afoul of AAMD’s previous (2001) governance guidelines, which were leniently vague about the chain of command:

In certain cases, a paid president may also be appointed. Because such a double appointment can result in ambiguity—especially if the positions are defined as equal by the board—a clear definition of the responsibilities of each position is essential [emphasis added]. However these positions are defined, the director should carry the ultimate responsibility for the artistic direction, collections, scholarship and attendant programs.

Maybe the Met’s not renegade, just a bit retrograde.

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