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Unsettled at the Met: Breuer Building, Southwest Wing, Director’s Search

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that the Metropolitan Museum, under Tom Campbell‘s directorship, got way ahead of itself in making ambitious plans to undertake a $600,000 makeover of its Southwest Wing for modern and contemporary art and to assume (for at least eight years) the operation and programming of a large additional facility—the former home of the Whitney Museum (now “the Met Breuer”).

Tom Campbell (left) & Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg publicly discussing their Met Breuer agreement in April 2016
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The negative impact of these miscalculations could complicate the search for what the Met needs most of all—a highly accomplished new director who is willing to work as a subordinate to president and CEO, Daniel Weissan unorthodox organizational structure for an art museum, which could be a deal-killer for some top candidates. Under the current administrative set-up, Weiss is wearing too many hats. Given the Met’s pressing financial and administrative exigencies, he and the Met’s two deputy directors cannot possibly be as focused as an accomplished director would be on advancing the institution’s all-important programmatic and artistic initiatives.

As for the current status of plans for the Southwest Wing, Met chief communications officer Kenneth Weine told me: “We have no immediate timetable and feel no time pressure on this work, yet it is in progress.” That seems to mean: “Don’t hold your breath.”

Regarding the Met Breuer, which opened in March 2016, the jury is still out as to whether it’s a plus or a minus. It has apparently become a bigger financial burden than expected: Back in April 2016, president Daniel Weiss had assured me that “we’ve already got the Breuer philanthropically funded out for many years. We have virtually no concern that the direct costs will be funded.”

Entrance to the Met Breuer at the time of its opening
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

He then added that the satellite facility’s “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”…

…or maybe it is:

In her recent NY Times piece—With a Big Gift and Tighter Oversight, the Met Gains Solid GroundRobin Pogrebin quoted Weiss as saying that the Met Breuer is turning out to be “a bigger commitment to make it run than we’d thought. If we continue beyond eight years [the initial lease], we want to have a sustainable operating model and we haven’t done that yet” [emphasis added].

The strain of trying to program an entire additional museum space while sharply reducing the exhibition budget and the total number of shows may explain why some of the Met’s displays at the Breuer seem “Unfinished” (the title of the satellite facility’s disappointing inaugural show). The current Delirious (to Jan. 14) struck me as an uneven hodgepodge of works that have little to say to each other, notwithstanding their thematic groupings. In her lukewarm NY Times review, Roberta Smith suggested that theme shows like this “can seem both arbitrary and amorphous,” although she deemed this one to be “valuable, warts and all.” For me, “arbitrary and amorphous” were the operative words.

Far more compelling is the current Edvard Munch show, curated by one of the Museum of Modern Art’s regrettable losses—Gary Garrels, senior curator of painting and sculpture at the expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where he masterminded a thoughtful reinstallation of the permanent collection, interspersing lesser-knowns among the usual big names.

Gary Garrels in his office at SFMOMA
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

With extensive loans from the Munch Museum, Oslo, the Met Breuer version (to Feb. 4) of the paintings survey that closed in October at SFMOMA not only explores the Norwegian artist’s morbid ruminations on sex, illness and mortality, but also positions him as an Expressionist, feverishly deploying broad slashes of seething colors in his later works:

“The Artist and His Model,” 1919-21, Munch Museum, Oslo
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Viewing the show’s mournful procession of the painter’s dejected models creates a particularly eerie vibe in the context of recent revelations about the predations of men in positions of power—proving once again that great artists can sometimes be contemptible, guilt-ridden cads.

Although the art is well worth experiencing, the label texts at the Met, rewritten by its own curators, are substandard. Too often, they describe what we can easily see for ourselves, without providing the deeper interpretive context that was the great strength Jasper Johns and Edvard Munch (now closed), organized for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts by John Ravenal, now director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum (my review of which proved to be my swansong at the Wall Street Journal).

Compare the labels from the VMFA (below, on left) and the Met Breuer for this image:

Edvard Munch, “Starry Night,” 1922-24, Munch Museum, Oslo
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

VMFA’s label

Met Breuer’s Label

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The shows at both the VMFA and the Met included this heartbreaking work:

Munch, “Inheritance,” 1897-99, Munch Museum, Oslo
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But only VMFA’s label unflinchingly explained the significance of its title, “Inheritance”:

The title refers to the life-threatening transfer of syphilis from mother to child, visible in the deformed proportions and pale, spotted skin of the corpse-like infant. Munch’s interest in the subject was not just in drawing attention to a prevalent social scourge; it also addressed his fears about the physical and mental illness in his own family

The first-draft feel of some of the Met Breuer’s shows may be a function of the relative haste in which they were assembled. Christian Larsen, the Met’s associate curator of modern design and decorative arts, revealed at a press preview that his Ettore Sottsass show (now closed) was a mere nine months in the making—too tight a schedule to secure certain desirable loans.

Christian Larsen introducing the Met Breuer’s recent “Ettore Sottsass” show
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

When I asked Larsen why the show had been mounted in such haste, he candidly replied:

It was entirely due to scheduling and the availability of an empty floor in this building this summer. They said: “We have an empty floor. We need a show. Christian, you just arrived [in December 2015]. We need a design show. Do it!”

You can imagine that with all of the juggling that the Met has been doing around its finances lately, a lot of shows have been lengthened, deleted, moved from locations. Through that juggling, they wound up with an empty floor that had to be filled and I had an opportunity.

Normally, we would need two to three years to do it.

The Met (and especially its Madison Avenue outpost) has been knocked off-stride by financial and administrative obstacles. If a new director with a strong track record were to be appointed tomorrow, it would be none too soon.

an ArtsJournal blog