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Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Campbell Gamble: Tom & Max Hollein Improbably Trade Places

My first reaction when this press release from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco hit my inbox today at 6:51 p.m. was:

This has gotta be a hoax!

Reading the first sentence of FAMSF’s announcement made me even more incredulous:

The Board of Trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) and the Corporation of the Fine Arts Museums (COFAM) today appointed Thomas P. Campbell as the new director and CEO of the largest public arts institution in Northern California, effective November 1, 2018 [emphasis added].

A two-day turnaround? Normally it takes months, not days, for an appointment like this to take effect. That said, FAMSF, infamous for its revolving-door directorships, must have been pining for a new leader ever since Max Hollein announced last April that he’d be leaving his directorship there for the top spot at the Metropolitan Museum. And Campbell, having completed his stint as a Getty Rothschild Fellow after a troubled tenure as the Met’s director, was in need of a new job.

Tom Campbell, during his previous museum gig
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

FAMSF’s press release quotes Campbell as being “especially pleased to have the opportunity to continue the great work done by my friend and predecessor Max Hollein” [emphasis added].

Make that: “my friend, predecessor and successor.” It’s complicated…

Adding to the press release’s aura of unreality is Hollein’s comment that the Fine Arts Museums “are extraordinary institutions that I obviously care about deeply”…but not “deeply” enough, apparently, to keep him from jilting San Francisco after two years.

Although the release credits Campbell with having “achieved… major capital projects,” the most major one—the planned (but so far unrealized) $600-million makeover of its Southwest Wing for modern and contemporary art—was stalled for lack of adequate funds. The Met is now reengaging with architect David Chipperfield, who was chosen during Campbell’s tenure, to discuss revised plans for “expanded and improved modern and contemporary galleries.”

Charles Desmarais‘ analysis in the San Francisco Chronicle of this directorial musical-chairs shuffle dispelled my initial impression that this surprising announcement was parody, not reality. But even the estimable Desmarais seemed slightly hallucinatory in suggesting that Campbell’s “success” at the Met “included leasing the former Whitney Museum space to develop the so-called Met Breuer, which opened in 2016.” That overlooks the Met’s current eagerness to extricate itself from that costly “success,” through another musical-chairs maneuver.

From Desmarais I learned that Campbell expects to be on the job tomorrow (Wednesday), a day before the stated “effective date” of his appointment. Despite being “thrilled” to land an internationally known museum professional, FAMSF must be aware that Tom comes with considerable baggage.

Here’s hoping that both sides of this new relationship may benefit from a fresh start. They both could use one.

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