While implicitly faulting the Metropolitan Museum’s administration for not having managed its operations “in a way that’s financially sustainable,” Daniel Weiss, who has been the Met’s president since July, diplomatically avoided direct criticism during most of our wide-ranging conversation last week.
But in assessing the Met’s plans for the new Southwest Wing for modern and contemporary art, he briefly became uncharacteristically blunt.
In Part II of our Q&A, below, he asserted that the timeline previously being discussed for that ambitious, expensive undertaking “was not built on a deep understanding of all that’s involved in doing a project like this.” He noted that there had been “some discussion of having this done before the Breuer lease expired.” (According to the Met’s fiscal 2015 annual report [p. 129], the museum is leasing the former Whitney headquarters “for a term of 8 years with an option, at the museum’s discretion, to extend the term for an additional 5.5 years.”)
When hit by the Great Recession of 2008-9, many museums postponed expensive expansion plans, unless they had already broken ground. During the Met’s current economic downturn, prudence would dictate that it put its financial house in order before forging ahead. That seems to be its new plan.
As in my previous post, I have lightly edited Weiss’ comments for clarity. (The links and the italicized asides [in brackets] are mine, not his.)
ROSENBAUM: You’ve said to me and to others that the Met Breuer is being paid for by philanthropy. Is that a done deal or is that a hope? Do you have that money in hand, or know that you have it in hand?
WEISS: That was our plan and we are making excellent progress. We’ve already got the Breuer philanthropically funded out for many years. We have virtually no concern that the direct costs will be funded.
ROSENBAUM: Are the Met Breuer’s “direct costs” its $17-million operating budget?
ROSENBAUM: Can you at last disclose the cost of the renovation and the cost of the lease? Are those also philanthropically covered and how much does that amount to?
WEISS: As I said the last time we talked, the lease is a management agreement between two museums. That has not been disclosed and is more complicated than just a payment for use of the building. It’s really not a lease in the conventional sense. It has not been disclosed because of the nature of the agreement.
ROSENBAUM: But is that a big number, which could be causing part of the problem?
WEISS: No, it’s honestly not a big number. The Breuer’s operating costs and the capital costs [i.e., renovation] for the Breuer, which are also relatively modest, were all funded through gifts that did not come out of the operating budget. The only draw on our operating budget has been the indirect costs associated with staff helping to get the thing up and running. That’s a heavier draw on resources for the last six months than it will be prospectively, because now it’s open and running and the staff is there. So I honestly don’t believe that the Breuer is contributing in any meaningful way to these financial challenges.
ROSENBAUM: How much was that “indirect cost” to get it up and running?
WEISS: We don’t really have a figure because we didn’t measure it that way. It’s just people sitting in meetings and heading over to the Breuer, who work full time in the main building and are helping to get this satellite institution up and running. We never measured it and don’t have a number. We all joined in to make it work, and that has some cost.
ROSENBAUM: If the Breuer is, in fact, funded by philanthropy, is that money that might otherwise have gone to the core mission and the core programs that you spoke about as needing to be preserved, first and foremost?
WEISS: There’s always some tradeoff there. Many of the people who have supported the Breuer project would have been primarily focused on supporting modern and contemporary. There is a large number of people within our immediate community—board members and others—as well as people more broadly distributed, who really believe in the strategy of strengthening modern and contemporary. They rose to the challenge and offered resources there.
I wouldn’t say that nobody who gives to the Breuer would give to Greek and Roman. But most of them were really behind the strategy that the Met should enter modern and contemporary at a significant level. That was a decision taken by the board in the strategic plan.
ROSENBAUM: But being a supporter of modern and contemporary doesn’t mean that you can’t be a supporter of that in the core program of the original building. I suppose that’s an unanswerable question: “What would have happened if financial support weren’t needed for the Met Breuer?”
But tell me: What’s going to happen with the Southwest Wing [the plan to build a new David Chipperfield-designed facility for modern and contemporary art at the Met’s flagship building]?
WEISS: We have been in a schematic design phase for the Southwest Wing and that work is naturally coming to conclusion this summer. We will have a schematic design—basically, a program and an outline of what the building will look like, and a pretty good sense of what it will cost. All of that will be finished this summer.
The next step is for the administration to recommend to the board and for the board to approve the building we want to construct. Then we go into the next level of fundraising for that project. So no more design work needs to be done for now and no more internal management work has to be done. We just are out raising funds for the project. The activity level is paused, because we are raising funds.
We also have to be working with the city and various agencies to get approvals for this project, and that could take a year or two, or even longer. The Greek and Roman project took 15 years! I’m less concerned about the timing for this.
Here’s what we know: We will manage through the financial issues that we face and end up a very healthy, robust institution, as we always have been, because the Met has all the elements it takes to be successful. We’ll build this thing in due course. Will it happen in the next three years? The next five years? The next eight years? I don’t know.
ROSENBAUM: When was the original projected date for the opening of the new wing?
WEISS: There was some discussion of having this done before the Breuer lease expired. I think that was not built on a deep understanding of all that’s involved in doing a project like this. If we had all the money to build this project—right here, right now, in the bank—it could not be done in any less than probably seven or eight years, even if there was no financial challenge.
[As it happened, Chipperfield’s 2013 expansion for the St. Louis Art Museum had also been delayed for financial reasons—the 2008 recession.]
ROSENBAUM: What’s your best estimate of how much the new wing will cost?
WEISS: The number we’ve talked about, which is close to the right one, is about $600 million. [A month ago, he had told me that it was “too early to say” what the cost would be.]
ROSENBAUM: Is there a chance that the project might be scuttled?
ROSENBAUM: Is there anything else that you think is important to point out about this situation and the Met’s future?
WEISS: The only other thing I’d say is we’re a triple A-rated [by Standard & Poor’s] institution, with one of the largest endowments and great demand.
We’ll be fine. We have to do a better job of planning our financial management processes over time. We’ll get through this. And we’ll be in a very good place.