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Instagram Slam: Don’t Cancel the Metropolitan Museum’s Embattled Keith Christiansen

The thought-police have come for Keith Christiansen, the Metropolitan Museum’s chairman of European paintings. I’m posting (a blog entry, not bond) to bail him out.

As reported in yesterday’s paper by the NY TimesRobin Pogrebin, Keith’s ill-advised (now removed) Juneteenth entry on his personal Instagram feed (also vanished) has ignited a firestorm of indignation for “making a dog whistle of an equation of #BLM [Black Lives Matter] activists with ‘revolutionary zealots,’” in the words of a tweet by Art & Museum Transparency—a group of activist (but unnamed) museum workers.

Here’s Keith’s controversial post, as reproduced on @AMTransparency’s Twitter feed:

What was Keith thinking?

From my many illuminating encounters with Christiansen at his deeply informative press previews over the years, I assume he was thinking like an objects-centric curator, siding with preservation of material culture but surely not with the politics of the losing side in the French Revolution. In doing so, he failed to consider the unfortunate effect that his words (not to mention the accompanying image—white defenders facing off against dark aggressors) would have at this contentious moment.

Keith Christiansen at the December 2017 Met press breakfast, where he announced plans to renovate and reinstall the museum’s dilapidated European paintings galleries
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I have a theory as to why Alexandre Lenoir, of all people, was the one Keith haplessly “pulled out of my image bank” (his words to Pogrebin). It has to do with this exhibition, of which he was undoubtedly aware, having worked with the Louvre in co-organizing his Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio show, which (like “Lenoir”) opened in 2016:

Screenshot by Lee Rosenbaum from the Louvre’s exhibitions website

The Times quoted this backpedaling missive from Christiansen to the Met staff:

I will make no excuses except to say that I had in mind one thing and lacked the awareness to self-reflect on how my post could go in a very different direction, on a very important day…and would cause further hurt to those experiencing so much pain right now.

I want to be clear on my view that monuments of those who promoted racist ideologies and systems should never be glorified or in a location where they can cause further harm.

Sensitivities have been inflamed not only by our nation’s political and civil rights conflicts but also by confrontations within museums themselves—between institutional leaders (trustees, directors, officers and department heads) and rank-and-file, many of whom have suffered furloughs or layoffs due to the Covid crisis.

Pogrebin’s sloppily copyedited account in the Times of this contretemps added insult to injury by reproducing the misspelling of Keith’s last name in a letter to Director Max Hollein and President Daniel Weiss from 15 members of the Met’s employee resources groups. (That gaffe may have been corrected by the time you read this.)

Here’s the Times’ passage about the employees’ letter:

Quote reproduced from the NY Times piece, which spelled “Christiansen” as “Christensen” (sic)
Screenshot by Lee Rosenbaum

To the best of my knowledge, Christiansen’s attackers haven’t come up with any concrete examples of deleterious deficiencies in his “decision-making…with regard to programming, staff hiring and institutional direction.” Their bullet is a blank.

In a conciliatory gesture to the protesters, Hollein, a relative newcomer at the Met, issued this head-scratching pronouncement in his statement to the Times, as quoted by Pogrebin:

There is no doubt that the Met and its development is also connected with a logic of what is defined as white supremacy.

Huh? What is the “logic of what is defined as white supremacy” and how exactly is the Met “connected” to it? Something has gotten lost in translation.

Max Hollein (left), observed by Dan Weiss (right) at a Met press briefing
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

At 73, Christiansen has outlasted most of his Met contemporaries. That had led me to ask him (at the press preview for the Valentin show) about his having declined to take the voluntary buyout that was offered, during an earlier round of fiscal belt-tightening, to those over 55 who had spent at least 15 years at the museum.

Here’s what he then told me:

The buyout period is over and I’m still here. I’m getting on [in years], but I love my work. When you’re able to do something like this, that’s the total reward.

Another round of voluntary retirements is currently in progress at the Met, for workers aged 60 and up with at least 15 years of service. In answer to my query about the number and names of those who took the offer, a Met spokesperson stated: “The program is still in process and we don’t discuss individual personnel matters.”

We can only hope that Christiansen’s detractors haven’t discouraged him from staying the course. At the Valentin preview, he had told me there were two Met exhibitions he still hoped to mount:

You start with pictures that you’ve gotten intrigued by and then you start asking: “What do we know about these? What do we know about the people who owned these? What do we know about how people thought about these?” And by that time, you’re completely hooked…

…and, if Keith gets to finish the job, so are we.

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