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What Obstacles Will Max Hollein Need to Surmount as Metropolitan Museum’s New Director?

Max Hollein will have two strikes against him—one insignificant, one potentially serious—when he walks in the door this summer as the Metropolitan Museum’s new director.

The first liability is irremediable, unless he’s planning a sex-change: He is not a woman.

Max Hollein
Photo by Drew Altizer Photography

In this identity-politics era, that’s a lamentable deficiency for some, notably Lisa Oliver, an assistant professor of art history at Wellesley College and former Met fellow (2014 to 2015). The NY Times saw fit to give this minor player a major platform, with two op-ed pieces—one before and one after the Met’s board made its selection. (Her sour-grapes postmortem went online today.)

Yes, there are women who would have been qualified, but none of those I’ve seen suggested possess the breadth and depth of Max’s experience, nor his long, diverse track record of successes. Yes, the Met could have taken a calculated risk to foster gender equality, but after Tom Campbell‘s troubled tenure, it can’t afford (reputationally or financially) to make a mistake.

Here’s part of what I wrote, more than a year ago, after Oliver’s first op-ed appeared:

Oliver asserts that she ‘can attest that there is no shortage of women who would be up for the task of director from both within and beyond the Met’s walls,’ but she never provides even one name.

The other more serious potential stumbling block for Max, to which I alluded at the end of my post about his appointment, is President Dan Weiss‘ power grab: Unlike former Met President Emily Rafferty, Weiss has also assumed the title of CEO and opted not to appoint any acting director while the year-long search was in progress. He essentially runs the show.

Although not nominally the director, Weiss took over some of the director’s accustomed roles, including ably introducing exhibitions at press previews:

Dan Weiss, addressing the press last spring at the Met’s Roof Garden
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Max is adroit in navigating minefields, and he and Dan (whom I also admire) will undoubtedly try to make their unorthodox partnership work. But Max’s his own power grab when he assumed his too-short directorship of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco demonstrates that he (rightly) believes that the CEO title belongs with the director. He promptly took over that position at FAMSF, where it had previously been held by the all-powerful Diane (“Dede”) Wilsey, a mega-donor and doyenne of San Francisco society, who was also president of FAMSF. When the president’s position was eliminated under Hollein, Wilsey became (and still is) board chair.

The Met’s president, Weiss, as quoted by Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal, says that Hollein is “a team player.” I see him as a strong, confident leader (as is Weiss). While they will try to govern by consensus, I shudder to think what may happen if an irresistible force meets in immovable object on some important issue. Perhaps after a trial period, the organizational chart will be restored to the proper hierarchy, in conformance with professional guidelines [p. 5] for art museum directors. The last time the Met had a president as the director’s (Philippe de Montebello‘s) superior, it went badly and was abandoned.

A better model would be having the director as CEO and the president as COO. If that doesn’t happen while Weiss, 60, is at the Met, it almost certainly will after he leaves, assuming that Hollein, 48, is in it for the long haul.

Speaking of division of labor, Hollein may have to resign himself to not having time to moonlight as a curator at the Met, as he has done for FAMSF’s Julian Schnabel show, billed as “the artist’s first exhibition at a West Coast institution in over 30 years” (opens Apr. 19).

Poor FAMSF has again been left in the lurch, with a too-small window for finding a successor before Hollein leaves. As I wrote when Hollein assumed his California post:

Having lost its previous director, Colin Bailey, after barely two years, FAMSF can ill afford to get a reputation for revolving-door directorships.

Oops.

an ArtsJournal blog