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Smith Smites: Tom Campbell’s Precipitous Fall from Favor (plus, my I-told-you-so)

Now that we know what the Metropolitan Museum wants in its next director, I’m going to allow myself an I-told-you-so moment about its last director, responding to Roberta Smith‘s recent autopsy of Tom Campbell‘s trouble-plagued tenure. Her negative appraisal of his “financial mismanagement and overreach” and her recommendations for the Met’s future (a female director; no adoption of the mandatory admission charge that has been proposed) appeared in Sunday’s hardcopy of the NY Times (almost a week after being posted online).

Roberta Smith

As if she had long foreseen Campbell’s fall, Smith declared in her post mortem: “It seems likely that any successor [to Philippe de Montebello] was in for a very difficult time, excepting possibly a seasoned caretaker or a visionary. Mr. Campbell was neither.” She added that the relatively brief duration of his “interregnum” seemed “inevitable.”


Flash back nine years, to Roberta’s and my joint commentary on WNYC‘s Brian Lehrer show, taped moments before the Met formally announced its Campbell gamble at a Sept. 10, 2008 press conference that I attended.

Press conference introducing Tom Campbell as the Met’s director-designate
L to R: then president Emily Rafferty, chairman James Houghton, director Philippe de Montebello, curator Tom Campbell
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum, September 2008

Here’s what Smith and I said to Lehrer on that occasion:

ROBERTA—I’m very excited by this choice. They’ve got someone who’s really young, who’s really scholarly and who’s from inside the museum….He’s young enough to learn what he doesn’t know…and he has the deep experience and he has the long-time experience in the museum with the curators, who seem to like him.

BRIAN—Lee: Surprised? Delighted?

LEE—Surprised, delighted and a little worried. Everything Roberta says is true. But he’s lacking that one essential trait of being a museum director of the preeminent museum in the country, and that’s having been a museum director before—having the financial expertise, the administrative expertise. He’s going to have to be a quick study.

ROBERTA—It’s much easier to learn how to administrate than it is to learn to understand the curator’s role and the importance of art objects…

…or maybe not.

Roberta’s recent pan of Campbell was one of several examples of pundit-pivot in reviews of his eight-year performance. Her approving commentary on WNYC, four months before the start of his run, conformed with the critical consensus that Campbell’s art-centric priorities were praiseworthy and he was smart enough to learn what he needed to know about management. It should be remembered, though, that de Montebello had a four-year stint as director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts before returning to the Met as its vice director, then acting director, then permanent director. He had a solid track record as an administrator, not merely as a curator.

I doubled down on my misgivings about de Montebello’s successor-designate in my Campbell’s Soup post, published directly after the 2008 meet-the-press conference. I then fretted: “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.”

The most shocking about-face on Campbell came not from Smith but from de Montebello himself, who uncharacteristically violated professional protocol by publicly trashing his successor. On the day of Campbell’s introductory press conference, Philippe had suggested to me that he backed his successor’s selection.

But in a recent interview with artnet‘s Andrew Goldstein, he declared:

There is absolutely no way the trustees could foresee that this man [Campbell] would basically become a totally different human being [emphasis added] the day he was made director.

Really? It seems to me that Campbell remained fundamentally the same human being. That was the problem—his inability to rise to the demands of his office. Meanwhile, de Montebello, since leaving the Met, truly has morphed into a “totally different human being”—discourteously dissing a former colleague publicly and joining the exodus of museum professionals to auction houses or commercial galleries (in Philippe’s case: Acquavella).

Maybe de Montebello is as irritated as I’ve been by Campbell’s tone-deaf victory laps (here, here and here). He’s taken to boasting about his failed tenure, rather than demonstrating humility, let alone remorse. He should lower his public profile and take time out to reflect, while enjoying a cushy, temporary exile at the Getty Trust in LA and at Waddesdon Manor (the elegant 19th-century estate of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in Buckinghamshire, England, now managed by the Rothschild Foundation), where he’ll receive a stipend and housing from November to June as the second recipient of the Getty Rothschild Fellowship.

Waddesdon Manor

According to the Getty’s announcement, Tom plans to use his fellowship “to examine, first, the fundamental question of where the cultural sector is heading as it responds to various geopolitical, economic and digital challenges. And second, the related question of how we can use art and culture as a gateway to promote understanding in an ever-more connected but ever-more divided world.”

Perhaps he could be a good fit for the V&A’s open position of director of collections. (That job description is here.) The London museum boasts several galleries devoted to tapestries—Campbell’s specialty.

But enough about Campbell. Let’s reminisce about Philippe de Montebello: My proudest “told-you-so” moment involved the appointment of Campbell’s distinguished predecessor. When Philippe became the Met’s director, I broke with conventional wisdom by suggesting an affirmative answer to the question posed in ARTnews‘ headline for my September 1978 profile (not online, as far as I can tell) of Tom Hoving‘s successor:

It wasn’t generally accepted then, as it is now, that the young de Montebello was up to the demands of the job. As I wrote then:

Many have wondered whether de Montebello possesses the professional credentials and personal force to assure the primacy of the museum’s art-related mission in the face of administrative and financial pressures….

Far from being a pale copy of Hoving, the new director has very definite, carefully thought-out ideas about what the Met should be—ideas that differ greatly from those of his predecessor. These differences, coupled with the difference in de Montebello’s administrative style (less dramatic, more self-effacing), may augur major, though gradual, changes in the character of the country’s preeminent art institution—changes that one curator summed up approvingly as “a return to normalcy.”

My sense that de Montebello would “make it at the Met” proved to be more than justified, as was my fear that Campbell would fall short. Should the Met engage me to vet its next director? (Just kidding.)

I do have a few additional thoughts, though, about the Met’s job description for its next director, released yesterday: It doesn’t explicitly state whether the director will be second-in-command to President Dan Weiss on the organizational chart. What it does say is that the director will be “a strong and collaborative partner with the president…and establish credibility as the Museum’s artistic leader [emphasis added].

The previously announced plan makes Weiss the CEO, with the director reporting to him. If that’s still the case, the job description should say so. Being the president’s subordinate could be an immediate deal-killer for some top candidates.

Daniel Weiss

One thing seems certain: The promotion of a curator to the directorship, as occurred when Campbell rose to the top of the shortlist, is not in the cards this time. The section of the job description enumerating “Characteristics and Qualifications” now being sought in director candidates starts with this:

The director will be a tested executive [emphasis added]…

That (as I told Brian Lehrer nine years ago) was the “essential trait” that Campbell so conspicuously lacked.

an ArtsJournal blog