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Campbell’s Soup: Met’s Director-Elect Serves Thin Broth at Press Conference

Defensive Postures: Philippe de Montebello (left) and Tom Campbell at today’s press conference

Let’s get this over with quickly, if not painlessly:

If you’re going to hold a press conference, you’ve got to be willing to say something substantive to the assembled writers.

I’m not going to bother listing all the questions that Thomas Campbell, chosen to succeed Philippe de Montebello as director of the Metropolitan Museum, deflected today at his first press conference since being picked from about “60 people proposed” (according to the Met’s board chairman James Houghton). I’ll give you just two examples. In both, I was the questioner:

Rosenbaum: Philippe [in his opening remarks] just spoke about the importance of “renewal” and James Houghton spoke about the importance of your “vision for the future.” Can you tell us what your ideas are for renewal and for the future?

Campbell: This a great institution doing many things right and I don’t believe in change for the sake of change. But of course I have been here for some time, I understand how things work here, and I do have ideas. But I think the next three and a half months are going to be a period for me of intense listening. This is the time for me to measure my ideas against all the realities on the ground and it would be premature to speak too directly about new developments. I think that’s the kind of question to ask me in January of next year.

Rosenbaum: To what extent can you explain to us your background in administration, managerial [matters] and fundraising? Can you give us a level of confidence that you have that side of the job covered?

Campbell: I’ve never been a director. Look, I think that the museum that Philippe will be leaving is a supremely well run, well established institution. We’re fiscally sound. We’re incredibly dynamic in terms of our programs. We have 17 curatorial departments, five conservation departments, and almost as many various administrative departments, and by and large they’re all extremely well managed.

What the museum didn’t need is another wonkish manager. What the museum needs is someone who can come in, as Philippe has done, and draw on the strengths of the staff and help encourage and bring forth the ideas and the creativity and the interaction that we need to maintain the dynamic acquisition program and exhibition program, to enrich the visitor experience in our permanent galleries. It’s a question of vision and human chemistry. You’ll have to judge me by my performance in four or five years’ time.

And so it went throughout Tom’s meet-the-press missed opportunity: vague generalities and appeals for more time to come up with meaningful answers. It was, he told us, “way too early for me to comment on broad policy.”

Likeable but nervous, Campbell caught fire only when a writer from the London Times had the good sense to ask him a question related to tapestries—the curatorial specialty with which he is completely confortable and speaks with great knowledge and enthusiasm;

Q: Is there anything that you’ve learned from tapestries that can explain your success?

Campbell: There is, actually: Tapestries were a key component of the propaganda of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque and into the 18th century. They were a way for the rulers to project the ideas that they wanted to be associated with. And one of the constant themes that we find in rulers today, time and again, is the issue that good leadership depends on good advice. Even Henry VIII was kind of projecting himself as someone who listened to his advisers…before he cut off their heads. [Laughter.] Forget the cutting-off-heads bit!

Met staffers beware!

I may, through this exasperated post, have already managed to blow the goodwill of an important artworld luminary with whom I’ll surely want to talk in the future. Campbell did demonstrate his diplomatic skills after the press conference, when everyone was flocking around him, by walking over to me, extending his hand, and stating, “I’m a great admirer of your blog.” Not any more, I fear.

To be fair, he did repeatedly say that he’ll have much more to reveal about his ideas and plans after he takes over. I trust we will then begin to perceive all the impressive qualities that caused the trustees to select him and prompted de Montebello to list him, before the search had even started, as one of those whom he thought could do a good job running the place, if he himself were suddenly unable to. Philippe didn’t tell me directly that Tom had been one of his picks. But when I asked him if Campbell was on the little list of possible replacements that he had supplied to Houghton, he significantly, if obliquely, replied:

I said that I was delighted [with Campbell’s choice], not that I was surprised.

To most outsiders, however, it WAS a surprise. Let’s hope that it ultimately turns out to be a pleasant one.

Oh, wait a minute! Don’t go away yet! What about those multi-language audio tours?

“I’m not a linguist like Philippe,” he told me. He can read “most European languages,” but is verbally fluent only in French…

…which means that he speaks Philippe’s native language.

[Other CultureGrrl Campbell coverage: here, here and here.]

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