In our wide-ranging phone conversation yesterday, Daniel Weiss demonstrated analytic acumen, unforced candor and fluid articulateness that should serve him well as the next president of the Metropolitan Museum.
The first thing that impressed me about Dan was his willingness to talk to me at all, in light of yesterday’s CultureGrrl post, in which I dredged up controversies that had erupted during his tenure as Haverford College’s president.
Not only did he tackle these issues head-on, but, as you’ll see below, he was the one who initiated our discussion of the first contretemps, involving student debt. I came away with the feeling that Weiss has a penchant for taking lemons and making lemonade—not a bad leadership skill.
More importantly, he discussed (in broad terms) what he hopes to achieve at the Met. Below is a lightly edited transcript of Part I of our conversation:
ROSENBAUM: The Met is poised on the brink of major transformations—capital projects, technological innovations, redefining itself as more focused than ever on modern and contemporary art, and probably some things you know about that I don’t. How and why do you feel that you have the right set of skills and knowledge to bring something important to these efforts?
WEISS: For me, in many ways, this is a culmination of a series of career moves that I’ve had, which are related to a longstanding interest. So it seemed kind of natural.
My entire career has been devoted to the nexus between administrative leadership and an interest in arts and culture. I’ve done that on both sides of the divide between the academic side of scholarly art history and the administrative side. I had an active interest in museums from the time I began my career: When I was in graduate school for business, getting my MBA, I actually did an independent study on museums. I went around the country and met with museum directors in the early ‘80s, because I was interested in that issue.
ROSENBAUM: What was the subject of the independent study, and what did you conclude from it?
WEISS: It was about the role of museum leadership and how it was changing at the time, in terms of the skill sets that were required: to what extent it was a business leadership job, to what extent it was a scholarly or cultural leadership job and how those issues were changing. This was in the age of the emergence of blockbusters. So [I examined] to what extent the finances and economics and markets of art museums were changing, and what did it mean for the institutions’ leadership and administration.
ROSENBAUM: How has it changed in the decades between then and now? How do you feel it has continued to evolve?
WEISS: “Evolve” is the right word. I think it has continued to become increasingly complicated. That’s true in higher education as well. We operate in an increasingly fast-paced commercial environment, where we have to maintain a commitment to the core mission and values of our institutions. But at the same time, we’ve got a difficult and demanding marketplace.
We have to balance our budgets. We have to face economic pressure. So running a large art museum today is a vastly more complicated enterprise than it was in 1984. I’ll bet you that the staff numbers at large museums like the Met have doubled in that time. That’s because of all these new things that have to be done.
Also, technology has changed the way people interact with art and how they think about objects, so museums have to keep up with all of that.
ROSENBAUM: Did you get your PhD in art history before or after the MBA?
WEISS: After. At college, I had an interest in art history, learned some languages [a useful skill for the Met’s presidency] and got an MA [in art history]. After the MA, I got an MBA with the thought that I’d have a museum career. After the MBA, I didn’t go into museums right away; I did business stuff [as consultant with Booz, Allen & Hamilton, 1985-89].
Then I thought what I’d really love to do is to have a substantive engagement with the history of art. So I got a PhD, had an academic career and wrote books [including “Art and Crusade in the Age of Saint Louis,” Cambridge University Press, 1998].
ROSENBAUM: How do you see the division of labor between you and [Met director] Tom Campbell? What do you see as the intersections and the divisions between your responsibilities?
WEISS: For it to work well, it really is a partnership. Tom is the director and the CEO and he sets the strategic vision for the institution. My job as president is to help advance that mission and serve as a partner in overseeing mostly the administrative and operational sides of the museum. So the curatorial division, education, conservation and the library report to Tom, and the other divisions report to me.
The goal is to make sure those are aligned—Tom’s vision and mine—in one museum that is a large, complicated but well integrated enterprise. For that to work, those areas I just defined, which report separately, also have to be connected to each other. That requires that Tom and I talk all the time and that we have a shared view of how to move forward.
ROSENBAUM: I take it that the chemistry was right, since you have to work so closely together.
WEISS: Indeed. I have enormous respect for him, I can learn from him and I think I can contribute something, because all of the things I’ve done relate to the ways in which one can develop and implement professional administrative standards in institutions that are mission-driven.
ROSENBAUM: What are some specific ways in which you think you can contribute?
WEISS: As I have done at the three institutions in which I have had an administrative role [Johns Hopkins, Lafayette and Haverford], I think there are always opportunities to develop new and innovative and best practices for financial management and operational support.
I consider myself a very good team builder, so one of the things I’d like to do is to find ways of connecting people in the different units of the Met, which has thousands of employees, so the financial people are working more closely with the curatorial people and the facilities people, to develop a greater shared sense of things.
In my career, I’ve done a lot of work around financial management, developing ways to deal with difficult, constrained budgets and doing deficit-reduction work. [The Met’s fiscal 2014 operating deficit was $3.5 million.]
You mentioned [in this CultureGrrl post] the issue of the no-loan policy. There’s more to that story. When I arrived at Haverford, that policy had been under discussion. That policy had been implemented right around the time of the downturn in 2008. Haverford’s losses during that period were material…
ROSENBAUM: …as they were for everyone.
WEISS: Yes, and even perhaps a bit more so. Sustaining that [no-loan] program was very difficult and, indeed, was seen by the board to be untenable before I arrived. The rate of increase of financial aid was several percentage points greater each year than the increase in revenues for the budget. So it was a doomed process.
I was brought in, in part, to build a financial model that is sustainable. We put together a 10-year financial model that was intended to take a comprehensive view of all of the things that we do, and make sure that we made the kinds of hard decisions that are required for that budget to be balanced every year.
We concluded that the no-loan policy that we had was not sustainable. So what did we do? We put in place the program you described [in my CultureGrrl post]. The average student loans at Haverford are among the lowest in the country: Total student debt for a graduate on average is about $12,000. But the students raised legitimate concerns [about the reduction in direct financial aid].
The epilogue is that we developed an idea to raise an endowed fund for student debt relief: For any student who graduates with debt and can’t pay it, because they want to work for an NGO or because they don’t have other ways of paying it, the endowed fund for debt relief will provide resources for 30 or 40 graduates. It is seen by the students as a wonderful way to address their concerns in a cost-effective manner. I’m very proud of that.
These are hard issues and finding ways forward is part of what I think administrators do: How do you take a problem and build a solution that actually enhances the institution?
Coming Next Week: Part II