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Consciousness Raised, Budgets Cut: Irreconcilable Imperatives at Metropolitan (& other museums)

I have to hand it to Holland Cotter: For better or worse, the NY Times‘ co-chief art critic was right. I was wrong.

In criticizing as “shockingly tone-deaf” Cotter’s 3,000-word think piece published almost five months ago, I had opined that his sweeping plan for reinventing museums during their pandemic-related closures was a non-starter at a time when “museums have to tighten their belts and regain their footing before taking on new risks.”

Wangechi Mutu, “The Seated III,” 2019, one of four sculptures by the female Kenyan artist commissioned by the Met. Two (including the one above) were purchased. All four are now displayed (to November) in the façade’s niches
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Fast-forward five months, and Cotter’s prescription for reopening museums seems less outlandish than prescient. Museums around the country are earnestly scrambling to address written demands for reform set forth by current and former staff members who seek a more equitable workplace with more diversity in staff, programs, exhibitions and collections. Finding themselves publicly accused of micro-aggressions, harassment and even abuse (mostly verbal, sometimes physical) the higher-ups are struggling to find ways to make amends in ways that seem meaningful, rather than merely lip service.

In other words, museums have been trying to do exactly what Cotter envisioned—making drastic expense reductions to address their financial crisis, through painful cutbacks in staff, exhibitions and programs, while trying to revamp exhibitions, installations, programs and, especially, the workforce, to address the imperatives of today‘s fraught sociopolitical moment (5 links).

Even the classic definition of “museum” is up for grabs, at a time when the very existence of some institutions has been jeopardized by the pandemic’s financial impact. You can see the International Council of Museum’s (ICOM’s) traditional and proposed new definitions of “museum” here. The more socially conscious, jargon-heavy delineation (“Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures….”) has triggered resignations from nine members of ICOM’S executive board and the committee that promulgated the controversial proposed changes.

Nowhere is the predicament of addressing expanded social expectations within a severely constricted budget more vexing than at the Metropolitan Museum, which has just announced its second sweeping round of staff cuts. (Here’s the first.)

Muddling through this crisis are a director and president who are both seasoned leaders of major institutions but relatively new to the Met:

L to R: Metropolitan Museum Director Max Hollein, who arrived at the Met two years ago; President Daniel Weiss, who arrived five years ago
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

On Aug. 5, just two days after announcing the Met’s laudable (but token) gesture towards furthering diversity among future museum employees—a commitment to paying its undergraduate and graduate interns, funded by a gift from attorney Adrienne Arsht—Dan and Max shared some dire news in a letter to staff (a copy of which I obtained):

We write today to update you on the museum’s latest actions in response to our financial challenges. Previous measures to combat our projected $150 million deficit include the creation of an emergency fund, significant cost-cutting in programmatic and project areas, a freeze on discretionary spending, salary cuts for executive staff, and a hiring freeze….

Unfortunately, with staff salaries comprising around 65% of our annual budget, we are confronted by the difficult reality that reducing the size of our workforce and furloughing additional staff is the responsible next step to address our urgent financial challenges.

This morning we notified 79 staff in various departments throughout the museum that we have made the difficult decision to eliminate their positions….Impacted staff will remain on payroll through Aug. 29, will be eligible for a separation payment, will be paid for any accrued and untaken vacation time, and, if they are currently on Museum benefits, will maintain health coverage through August 31. [Emphases added.]

In addition, the Met plans to furlough 45 non-union employees and 136 unionized employees, “effective August 30, until further notice. We expect these furloughs to last no longer than six months.”

Some 49 non-union staff members elected to take voluntary retirement packages offered to those who will be 60 years or older by the end of this year and have been employed by the Met for at least 15 years. In addition, 44 unionized employees who were due to retire with full pension at the end of this year accepted an offer for a slightly earlier retirement (effective Aug. 29) with full benefits.

“These actions and the 81 position reductions made in the spring to the Visitor Experience and Retail teams…impact approximately 20 percent of our staff,” according to the letter.

Who among the senior curatorial staff are taking early retirement? I’ve heard some rumors, but the press office, responding to my query, would only say it expected “to share the names of the voluntary retirements in the weeks ahead.”

The Met’s misery has plenty of company: Among the many museums around the country slashing staff via permanent terminations, hiring freezes and/or temporary furloughs are these Manhattan-based institutions: the Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum, The New Museum, Museum of the City of New York, Museum of Jewish Heritage, September 11 Memorial and Museum, American Museum of Natural History.

But back to the Metropolitan Museum: It hopes to reopen on Aug. 29 with these visitor guidelines, pending state and city approval. But it seems to me that in addition to a “chief diversity officer” (being recruited here), it could use a high-ranking, highly experienced administrator, with deep knowledge of the Met’s staff, operations and aspirations, to help restore our country’s preeminent art museum to eventual full health.

Enter Carrie Rebora Barratt, the Met’s 28-year veteran (American art curator, then deputy director for collections and administration). In a July 8 press release on the New York Botanical Gardens’ website (which seems to have fallen below the press’ radar), she announced that she would step down at the end of this summer from her two-year stint as CEO and president of that horticultural (and also cultural) oasis in the Bronx.

Her surprisingly early departure means that she won’t oversee the opening of a major show that she was bringing to fruition—KUSAMA; Cosmic Nature. Its planned May 9 opening was postponed to spring 2021, due to the virus crisis.

Carrie Rebora Barratt at the Jan. 15 press lunch announcing the Kusama show
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In response to my question as to why she was leaving so soon and whether her departure was voluntary, she replied:

My decision. The Garden is one of the most beautiful and extraordinary cultural institutions in NYC, which makes it even harder for me leave, but I know this is the right decision for me.

I am immensely proud of the work I’ve done with board and staff to position NYBG for success in the post-pandemic future: re-engaging our community, our schools, doing more through our programs to address issues of healing, wellness, and food security. The experience has moved me to give considerable thought to my professional path.

When I asked whether she might return to the Met, she dodged:

The Met will always be a huge part of my life, and my life experience as an art historian informs everything I do. Gosh, Lee, it doesn’t seem like 10 years ago that you filmed me in American Stories, my last big exhibition at The Met before becoming deputy director and broadening my knowledge exponentially and globally.

Carrie Rebora Barratt at the press preview for the Met’s 2009 “American Stories” show, which she co-curated
Screenshot from video by Lee Rosenbaum

It seems to me that Carrie’s poised presence, scholarly expertise and deep institutional memory (mostly lacking among the Met’s reconstituted, pared-down staff) could be an asset at her former professional home.

This period of belt-tightening and reinvention gives me flashbacks to another major downsizing of the Met’s staff, which occurred due to the 2008 Great Recession that was triggered by the Lehman Brothers collapse.

As I wrote in my Wall Street Journal profile of the Met’s previous director, Tom Campbell:

He acknowledged…that the crisis had given him the opportunity to appoint a hand-picked team much sooner and less controversially than would have otherwise been possible. That’s because several key senior staffers were among the 96 employees who jumped at the offer of voluntary-retirement packages….

He noted that the financial crisis has forced him “to look hard at priorities—a good exercise.” The museum, he says, “is a place with very creative, talented people, and it’s releasing a huge amount of creative energy [emphasis added].”

Some of Weiss’ own “creative energy” has been partially diverted to a project unrelated to the Met. Below is his publicity photo for his new book about the Vietnam War, which was published last November:

Publicity photo for Dan Weiss’ In That Time: Michael O’Donnell and the Tragic Era of Vietnam, published by PublicAffairs

Below is what Dan said in the author’s note for his “story of the American experience in Vietnam through the life of Michael O’Donnell, a bright young musician and poet who served as a soldier and helicopter pilot.”

His comments would seem to apply to our current political moment:

I was taken aback by what I perceived to be a dishonest government engaging in a pointless cause at the expense of real lives. The 1960s was a watershed era, with consequences that continue to resonate today. No longer do we assume that our government leaders are to be trusted, and no longer do we presume that they will do the right thing [emphasis added].

To the contrary, we expect little from them and are usually not disappointed.

While the intended targets of those incendiary comments were national government leaders, we can only hope that museums’ vociferous critics don’t turn Weiss’ anti-establishment words against him and his fellow museum leaders.

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