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Cotter Fodder: The Met Museum’s Sober Plan for the Virus Crisis vs. A Critic’s Pandemic Polemic

At a moment when museums around the country are shattered, shuttered and bracing for hard times, what could be more shockingly tone-deaf than Holland Cotter‘s 3,000-word “manifesto,” published on the NY Times‘ website on Wednesday (and appearing in the Sunday hardcopy)?

In America’s Big Museums on the Hot Seat (aka, “How to Save America’s Biggest Museums: A Manifesto”—the hardcopy headline), the Time’s co-chief art critic inopportunely opined that the widespread closures of art institutions due to the coronavirus pandemic provide “an opportune [?!?] moment” for museums to “take stock of themselves, and for us to acknowledge their virtues but also to consider the reasons behind the present turbulent state of the art institutional soul.”

Holland Cotter

I can only surmise that he may be projecting onto hard-pressed art institutions the state of his own soul.

Cotter took it upon himself to bash museums for being “primarily monuments to their own values and tastes, showcases for what political power and private wealth could buy.” This, at a time when any drive for ambitious reinvention must necessarily take a backseat to bare-bones survival (traumatic flashbacks to the Met’s fiscal 2017 cutbacks that impacted 106 staff members).

The new reality is exemplified by the Metropolitan Museum’s expectation (previously reported by the NY TimesRobin Pogrebin) of an overall operating shortfall approaching $100 million (which may be significantly reduced by emergency measures), as revealed in a letter (a copy of which I have obtained) by the museum’s president, Daniel Weiss, and its director, Max Hollein, which they recently sent to the staff.

At a May 2019 press briefing, Metropolitan Museum Director Max Hollein speaks; President Daniel Weiss listens
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In its terse Mar. 12 announcement of its plan to “close temporarily,” the Met reported that it had been “preparing for this possibility for several weeks, and has developed an operational plan that is now being put in place, which includes provisions to support salaried and hourly staff [emphasis added]”…

…or maybe not. In their letter to the Met’s staff, Weiss and Hollein revealed the “likelihood” that the museum would remain closed through June 30, during which the following three-phase restructuring plan (which could include staff cutbacks) may play out:

  • Phase 1: March 12-April 4. All staff, except those designated essential, will remain home and work there if possible. Everyone is to be paid during this period. We will evaluate the impact of various revised staffing plans, including furloughs, layoffs, voluntary retirements, and required use of vacation and sick leave.
  • Phase 2: April 5-June 30. In all likelihood, the Museum will remain closed to the public and may require all staff to continue to work from home. During this period, plans will be developed to address the new financial reality that this pandemic has created. We will be evaluating how to control our spending and reduce operating costs, including: (1) freezing discretionary expenditures; (2) a hiring freeze; and (3) reviewing all operating budgets and staffing levels across the institution.
  • Phase 3: July 1-October 1. Reopen with a reduced program and lower cost structure that anticipates lower attendance for at least the next year due to reduced global and domestic tourism and spending [emphases added].

Existing funds will be reallocated in an attempt “to create a $50+ million fund…[for] operating expenses. These discretionary resources are usually used for acquisitions, programming, and other areas,” according to the letter to staff. In response to my query, Kenneth Weine, the Met’s chief communications officer, told me that the projected shortfalls are comprised of “revenue decreases from this fiscal year (which ends June 30) and next fiscal year. Upon re-opening, we can expect dramatically reduced tourism.”

The Met’s financial misery has plenty of company: On Monday, I received a robocall from the NY Philharmonic (to which I’m a subscriber), saying that the rest of its season has been canceled. (Subscribers have the option of leaving our money on the table as a donation, or requesting refunds for our remaining tickets.)

My tickets for the NY Philharmonic’s aborted 2019-20 season
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In the same hemorrhaging vein, the Metropolitan Opera has not only canceled performances for the remainder of this season and launched an emergency fundraising campaign, but (as reported by NPR‘s Anastasia Tsioulcas) is laying off all of its union employees (effective Mar. 31) for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. The layoff (or “suspension of employment,” as the Met Opera prefers to call it) includes “the entire orchestra, chorus and stagehands.” Who knows what this well-honed group of musicians will consist of or sound like when the Met finally tried to resume performances?

But back to NYC’s other Met: In my previous post, I noted that the Metropolitan Museum’s temporary-shutdown press release, issued just one day after its invitation to the press preview for Making the Met, the museum’s 150th-anniversary signature exhibition, demonstrated “how rapidly plans have been unraveling” due to the health crisis. The press preview was to have occurred this past Monday. “When the museum reopens,” Weine told me, “we expect it [“Making the Met”] will open, with a revised schedule.”

Less certain is the future of the Met’s briefly opened Gerhard Richter: Painting After All, which was to have been the museum’s last show at the Met Breuer, the Whitney Museum’s former headquarters. Originally due to run Mar. 4-July 5, that show is “a particular heartbreak,” Weine said. “It had just opened [and] was quickly embraced by visitors and critics.”

Metropolitan Museum’s installation shot from its fleetingly opened Gerhard Richter show

Unless it reopens, I’ve missed it; I was away in California for the birth of my granddaughter during “Richter’s” brief display. If I were re-invited to see it privately, I’d decline: I’m part of a “vulnerable demographic”—seniors. Even though I have no “underlying conditions,” I’m prudently hunkering down at home (taking a walk each day for fresh air and exercise and blogging to keep my mind active).

At least I had gotten to see Robert Storr‘s comprehensive survey of Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting—his 2002 swansong as senior curator of the Museum of Modern Art. I suspected that Storr’s sudden departure from MoMA that same year may have had something to do with the publication in the Wall Street Journal of his shockingly inappropriate comments at his show’s press preview about the terrorist Baader-Meinhof Gang, at a time when the 9/11 attacks were fresh in everyone’s mind. (As it happened, Richter’s famous but controversial Baader-Meinhof series—October 18, 1977, owned by the Museum of Modern Art—was absent from the Met show, as curated by Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chair of modern and contemporary art.)

As for the Met’s plans going forward, Weine told me that “Max and his team are reviewing the entire exhibition schedule and there will be many changes in light of this multi-month closure….When we reopen, ‘Making the Met’ will get a full run, through the end of the year. About Time, the Costume Institute show that was to open in May, will now open in late October and run through February.”

Before their plans were derailed by the health crisis, major museums, including the Met, had made significant strides in broadening the “inflexible canon” that Cotter accuses “conservative” (his word) institutions of privileging. A timely corrective to his critique came in a published comment on his piece, posted by Kimerly Rorschach, the recently retired director of the Seattle Art Museum.

She began with a tactful, “Excellent article,” but then got down to the heart of the matter:

But more to the present moment of crisis: museums are under tremendous stress and few will emerge in current form. All will have to cut costs dramatically, and this will necessitate a complete rethinking of practices and operations [emphases added].

It’s safe to assume that the “complete rethinking” Rorschach envisions has to do with conservative spending, not radical reinvention. Museums have to tighten their belts and regain their footing before taking on new risks. With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that Max Hollein, who assumed the Met directorship two summers ago, may have come out of the starting gate trying to do too much too soon—the recently completed renovation and reinstallation of the British galleries, the planned extensive re-do of the galleries for European old masters (including much needed skylight replacement), the planned renovation and sweeping reinstallation of the wing for Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (AAOA), and revival of the much delayed project to renovate and expand the Southwest Wing for modern and contemporary art.

Of these far-reaching projects, Weine now says:

The skylight work will continue (when allowed—it’s currently suspended). Reinstallation of European paintings is not scheduled to happen until the skylight work is done. For the Modern Wing, we are still in the silent fundraising phase. And AAOA renovation timing will now be reviewed.

Stained, soiled skylight in the Met’s European Paintings gallery
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

We’ve come a long way from the Met’s press briefing last October, when President Weiss had confidently announced:

We have committed to putting our budget into balance by 2020 and that is going to happen. We have a very strong commitment to investing in this institution, into the facilities, into the collections, into the people, to make sure that the Metropolitan of the future is as strong, if not stronger, than it has been in the past.  

Due to the Pandemic Effect, which Weiss could never have foreseen, all bets are off, including the above-stated commitments to investing in staff, facilities and collections (not to mention the balanced budget). Just today, the Met made a different kind of “commitment,” putting its weight behind a #CongressSaveCulture campaign, as embodied in a petition on Change.org, which improbably implores Congress to dedicate “$4 billion for relief for nonprofit museums and cultural institutions and their workers,” as part of the proposed federal relief package of nearly $2 trillion.

It also urges Congress “to adopt a temporary ‘universal charitable deduction’ that will help incentivize more charitable giving at a time when we project a steep decline.”

Good luck with all that: I think these requests are a low-percentage play. They’ve already generated backlash on Twitter from those who predictably see museums as low on the priority list of enterprises meriting huge infusions of federal relief dollars.

Similar backlash has greeted a letter recently sent by 10 members of NYC’s Congressional delegation to the House leadership, which (like the Met’s petition) calls for $4 billion in federal relief for museums. (You can click the tweeted document below, and then click the arrow on the right twice to read the full text.)

A more likely source of stopgap support for museums (which I assume will be vigorously pursued) is an urgent appeal to the institutions’ existing networks of committed donors. Think of all those billions that museum mega-patron Mike Bloomberg has lying around, now that he’s ended his presidential run. His Bloomberg Philanthropies is one of 19 charitable funds and donors who have banded together to create the NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund, which will provide “grants and loans to NYC-based nonprofits. Priority will be given to nonprofits addressing essential healthcare and food insecurity, as well as arts and culture [emphasis added], because New York is the cultural capital of the nation.”

I’ll have more to say in subsequent posts on how museums are dealing with the Virus Crisis. But for now:

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