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Holistic Hollein: A Halting Conversation with the Metropolitan Museum’s New Director

Max Hollein, the Met’s new director, who spoke confidently and compellingly during our informal NYC lunches while he was directing three Frankfurt museums, twice surprised me in the space of one week with his uneasy, hesitant delivery during introductory remarks at two recent press previews (Jack Whitten last Wednesday; Delacroix today). He even seemed tense during a 25-minute, one-on-one with the not-very-formidable CultureGrrl this morning. (He was sequentially speed-dating a series of journalists: As I was walking in, MetMuseum-ologist Andrew Goldstein, editor-in-chief of artnet, was walking out.)

Part of the problem is this native Austrian’s awkwardness with the English language. He could benefit from speech coaching: His staffers should advise him to slow down his delivery and to eliminate the constant use of “kind of” from his vocal mannerisms.

I suspect that part of the difference between Frankfurt Max and New York Max has to do with his confidence and enthusiasm in touting his accomplishments at the Städel Museum, Schirn Kunsthalle and Sculpture Collection of the Liebieghaus vs. his steep learning curve at the Met, where he’s an outsider, still feeling his way after a mere six weeks.

Max Hollein gripping the podium at the press preview for “Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

My allotted time-slot was too brief to go into great depth about his plans and hopes. In the interest of covering a wide range of issues, I mostly refrained from lobbing follow-up questions. Some takeaways: his desire to treat the collection holistically, with dialogues created among works from different cultures; a feeling that, in the long run, contemporary art should be in the Fifth Avenue building, not in a “satellite facility” (the Met Breuer on Madison). Still unclear is the status of previous plans for a new Southwest Wing for modern and contemporary art.

Max supports the Met’s controversial new admission-fee policy as “an important decision for the financial stability of the museum. For me, it will always be a priority to sustain and enhance that, and not to retreat and scale back the ambitions or the outreach offerings.”

Here are more excerpts, edited for clarity:

I’m a strong believer in celebrating the art historical and the aesthetic identity of the artworks that we have here. We will continue to expand the readability of these objects by also focusing on their social, historical and economic contexts. For example, the British galleries, which are going to reopen in 2020, already have interwoven in them a very interesting agenda, which is how certain objects can represent not only the spirit of the time but also the complexity of living in a time: the trade influences, for example.

Other areas that would benefit from attention will be our galleries for Africa, Oceania and Americas. Another kind of gallery system to focus on is Ancient Near East. If you go through the galleries you will clearly see that there is room for improvement and I think our understanding of that area has so dramatically changed.

There will be other kinds of places where you will find a much stronger dialogue between all different cultures. In our case, it’s all kind of organized by department. I think there’s a strong dialogue that we are offering already in exhibitions. I think we can do it even more and it’s necessary and important to do so.

Contemporary art has been part of this institution, more or less from Day One. If you go through the galleries now, you would be surprised how many objects are of the 20th century, but you don’t perceive them as modern or contemporary. If you go through the African collection, there are a lot of objects from the 1920s or ’30s. So I think that contemporary art at the Met needs to almost reeducate you to look at 20th-century art not just with our Western or Eurocentric lens. There is contemporary art in many different areas of the museum, but sometimes we don’t perceive it as such.

As for the future of the Met Breuer, which I have been discussing with Dan Weiss [the Met’s president and CEO], there is a clear understanding that contemporary art needs to be part of the overall equation in the Fifth Avenue building [emphasis added]. That’s where the strength is. That’s where the logic is.

Red awning, in lieu of red carpet, at the March 2016 opening of the Met Breuer
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I would say the Met Breuer is a very important opportunity for the Met. It generates really powerful and very interesting programming, and I think it’s a laboratory and a window towards what can be done at the Met. But the clear perspective is that it makes no sense for the Met to have a permanent satellite for modern and contemporary somewhere else [emphasis added]. Modern and contemporary art need to be part of the overall narrative of the institution, as it is right now and as it will be further amplified in the future. The Met Breuer is a very important part of the programming of the Met but the goal is to make modern and contemporary art part of the overall logic of our collection.

I asked if the Met planned not to renew its eight-year lease with the Whitney for the use of its Breuer building.

Max replied:

This is my sixth week and that’s probably not even my decision [emphasis added]. That’s a big discussion that will happen at an appropriate moment. I’m just saying, for the longer term, that the answer to the question of what modern and contemporary art means at the Met and what kind of narrative the Met puts forward in modern and contemporary art will be done as part of the canon at Fifth Avenue.

I followed up: “You mention that what to do about the Met Breuer isn’t your decision. What about the whole problem of your not being the CEO—something that you did not accept in San Francisco? Dede Wilsey [president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco] is not Dan Weiss, but you would not have stood for that [being subordinate to a CEO] in most places. How is that going to work so that you can feel comfortable with it?

That’s something that I not only thought about: I also had several very good conversations with Dan Weiss about it during the search process, outside of my conversations with the board and the search committee.

Daniel Weiss, Met president and CEO
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

It’s clear that both of us have a very holistic view of the institution. We have certain areas of emphasis in regard to what we do for the Met. But we both look at the institution with a very informed and holistic view. For me, this is clearly a partnership and a way to work together—me in my role as director, he in his role as CEO and president. But we clearly looked at our joint values and what we saw as important as the institution moves forward. There was a great alignment.

We also looked at each other in regard to our personalities and to understand whether we could work well together. And I think the answer, on both sides, was: “Yes.” You’re right that I have been director and CEO of institutions much smaller at the beginning, then bigger and bigger, ever since I was 31 years old. I thought about it at the beginning, saying, “Is this something that I want?” With a decision as big as the Met and with all the opportunities at the institutions, it’s a relief not to have to focus first and foremost on the complexity of the facility.

We clearly share responsibility but I think that we complement each other very well. I have no sense that we might not be aligned, moving forward. Clearly, we will have different opinions, but in my last 17 years, I had these arguments happening just in my head. Every programmatic decision has an economic effect and vice versa. If you can gain from the involvement of that other person and a better understanding, because you cannot be everywhere all the time, then I think it’s very fruitful for yourself and for the institution.

Time will tell if this unorthodox marriage can last.

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