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Fixing the Actual “Glass Ceiling” at the Metropolitan Museum: My Q&A with Keith Christiansen

With all the recent pushback against the supposed “glass ceiling” at the Metropolitan Museum (occasioned by the naming of an eminently qualified male, Max Hollein, to assume its directorship), let’s take a look at another glass-ceiling problem there, which is unambiguous and needs immediate remediation:

The Met’s skylight (at top)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Keith Christiansen, the Met’s chairman of European paintings, ended the museum’s December press breakfast with a preview of the sweeping changes that have begun this month in the galleries under his purview. In a $150-million project that he then said would take four years (a timeframe he now calls “optimistic”), the Met will install new skylights consisting of 30,000 square feet of glass and a louver system that will “disperse and diffuse the light.” According to James Barron‘s recent NY Times report, the project will also include “10,000 feet of new ducts, pipes and cables and 50,000 square feet of masonry repairs and repointing.”

In an unfortunate coincidence, the museum’s recent adoption of a compulsory (for many) admission-fee policy will mean that many visitors will have to pay a lot more to see a lot less for the next few years. Many old master paintings—the Met’s strong suit—will be rotating off view to accommodate the construction.

The eventual upside is that the “visitor experience will be extraordinarily transformed,” as Keith predicted at the press briefing.

Here’s hoping!

Keith Christiansen at the Met press breakfast
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

With my eyes usually glued to the paintings, I had been blissfully unaware of the disrepair of the skylights, dating from 1939, above the galleries where some of the Met’s most famous masterpieces are displayed.

After Keith’s heads-up, I lifted up my head (and my camera) and recoiled at the deplorably soiled, spotted, stained condition of what I saw:

Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Spotlights currently help compensate for the deficiencies of the skylights, with mixed results. Viewers must sometimes struggle with the glare that obscures paintings.

Here’s a particularly egregious example (which I discussed here):

Velázquez, “Portrait of Francesco I d’Este,” 1639, on temporary loan to the Met in 2013 from Galleria Estense, Modena
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

At the press breakfast, Keith went public about the Met’s dirty secret—the serious shortcomings of the skylights and inadequacy of the spotlights:

Daylight is the life and death of pictures. It cannot be complicated by artificial light. If you want to experience paintings in their fullness, you need natural light. Moreover, you want to experience paintings with the changing light of the seasons, the changing light of days. It’s that which transforms paintings into a more active, interactive experience.

Unmentioned in the discussions I’ve seen of the gallery overhaul is that a mere five years ago the Met completed a sweeping renovation and reinstallation (also overseen by Christiansen) of the galleries for European old masters. That new hang (about to be disassembled) was intended to “present the Museum’s collection in a more coherent and natural progression than ever before,” according to the May 2013 press release.

At that time, many of the galleries got new floors and moldings (but the old skylights remained):

Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi (called Scheggia), “The Triumph of Fame,” ca. 1449, the centerpiece of one of the renovated galleries, as seen in June 2013
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Below is my detailed, lightly edited Q&A (via email) with Christiansen about the upcoming gallery closures, reinstallations and upheavals being undertaken by the Met to allow us to see its European paintings “In a New Light.” (The locations of the galleries to which Keith refers by number can be seen on this map. My own comments appear in italics.)

ROSENBAUM: How will the process begin?

CHRISTIANSEN: We are now starting the reinstallation, more or less gallery by gallery, moving highlights from the northern galleries (dedicated to Italian, French and Spanish) and incorporating them into the southern galleries (those now dedicated to Netherlandish, Dutch, Flemish and British). [“Northern” and “southern” refer to the galleries’ location within the Met.]

We will attempt to close only one, two or three galleries at a time—those in which we are working. We will re-open them on a progressive schedule as we finish. Thus, at any given moment, I anticipate disruptions but no shut-down.

Currently [as of Apr. 10], we have installed six galleries and these will open soon—perhaps by the end of the week.

We will also leave open the galleries from which works have been removed, so that until July visitors can still see most of the collection, with most of the most important paintings in the southern part. However, sometime in late May or June, the Dutch galleries will be entirely emptied to make way for the large 16th- and 17th- century paintings.

In October, the Dutch pictures will be shown in the lower galleries of the Robert Lehman Wing as a themed exhibition. [This will have the salutary, but temporary, effect of loosening the grip of certain deceased collectors’ on their fiefdoms at the Met, the negative effects of which I’ve previously criticized.]

Because we realize visitors will want to see, for example, Rembrandt’s “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer” and our Vermeers, we will retain one gallery—630—to show just a few Dutch highlights between June and September, when installation of the Dutch exhibition will begin.

Three of the Met’s Vermeers, as seen in the 2013 reinstallation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In July, all the galleries now dedicated to Italian, French and Spanish will be closed and will remain closed for the duration of work. The one gallery not affected during the skylight project is Tiepolo at the top of the stairs. It will remain the point of entry.

ROSENBAUM: Can you give some examples of how the collection will be reconfigured, within the more limited space?

CHRISTIANSEN: The first gallery will be Italian, 13th to early 15th century. Then, 15th-century Netherlandish combined with some early Italian. For example, our Antonello “Portrait of a Man” will be seen together with Memling.  The Memling “Sacra Conversazione” will be seen together with Carpaccio’s “Meditation on the Passion.”

In the next gallery (640), one wall will be dominated by Gerard David and other Netherlandish paintings of the second half of the 15th century. Opposite them will be a wall of Italian paintings of the second half of the 15th century. Goya will be shown in a European context. The British Gallery will be a Grand Tour gallery…and so on.

ROSENBAUM: About how many works are displayed in the fully open galleries, and about how many will be in the temporarily curtailed space?

CHRISTIANSEN: I hesitate to give precise numbers because it will change as we hang. Our aim is to show as many of the paintings we think people come to see as possible. To maximize what we show, we will be lending some things to the Lehman Collection—for example, our Simone Martini panel, which belongs to the same altarpiece as two panels there. Also, our El Grecos will go into the room with the Lehman El Grecos.

El Greco, “The Vision of Saint John,” ca. 1608–14
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Dutch pictures in that Lehman gallery will join the exhibition of Dutch paintings. The Raphael altarpiece will be installed (fairly soon) in Lehman—on the opposite side of the court from the Girolamo dai Libri and the Ghirlandaio fresco.

ROSENBAUM: What will be your criteria for selecting works that will stay on view? 

CHRISTIANSEN: Quality, importance, popularity.

ROSENBAUM: Will you eventually be reopening the 60% space and closing the 40% to renovate that? When do you anticipate that this “second phase” will begin?

CHRISTIANSEN: We anticipate it’s happening 2 to 2 1/2 years after work begins. It is difficult to be precise, because the complexity of the project will only become clear once work is underway.

ROSENBAUM: When do you anticipate the complete reopening of all the European painting galleries?

CHRISTIANSEN: Optimistically? Four years.  But we’ll have a clearer idea midway through the project.

ROSENBAUM: Is there anything else that you think we should know about this?

CHRISTIANSEN: I have tried to emphasize to the Education Department and the volunteers that we are trying to look at the upside: a reduced collection is also a more refined collection, and in this case one in which the components will be seen in new company. That offers opportunities to think about the works in a different way.

We are treating this rehang as a sort of mix-and-match, or, perhaps more appropriately, as an exhibition in which various themes and dialogues among works take place.

We have reviewed all the labels: I have personally rewritten those for the 14th- and 15th-century Italian paintings. We are looking at this as an occasion to put the collection forward. We are making every effort so that visitors wanting to see the Rembrandts, Goyas, Vermeers and El Grecos will not be disappointed.

Some may even discover that they prefer this “edited” installation!

If anyone can manage pull this off, Keith can.

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