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Quick About-Face: Metropolitan Museum Follows Drastic Staff Reductions with Strategic Additions

In previous posts, I suggested that the Metropolitan Museum’s radical downsizing of staff through layoffs and retirements (necessitated by the financial hit from the Virus Crisis) might give its current leaders an opportunity to install their own hand-picked team “sooner and less controversially than would have otherwise been possible” [emphasis added].

“Sooner” turns out to be immediately: As I previously stated (here and here), the museum urgently needed an in-house curator with expertise in Native American culture. It had relied on a veteran guest curator, Gaylord Torrence, for its 2018 (still ongoing) installation of Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection. In the more recent of those two blog posts, I also noted that “given the drive to diversify staff,” the Met might “feel some pressure to hire a Native American to oversee Native American art.”

What I had envisioned has now come to pass: The Met announced yesterday that Patricia Marroquin Norby, Purépecha (western Mexico), will be its inaugural associate curator of Native American Art, effective Sept. 14.

Patricia Marroquin Norby
Photo by Scott Rosenthal

But although the Met’s press release praises her as “an experienced museum professional,” her museum experience appears to be relatively scant: Since April 2019, she has been assistant director of the New York outpost of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Prior to that (beginning in fall 2013), she was assistant director and then director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies at The Newberry—an independent, humanities-focused research library in Chicago.

The Met’s above-linked announcement quotes Norby praising the Met’s current leadership for being “strongly committed to supporting meaningful systematic change. I look forward to being part of this critical shift in the presentation of Native American art” [emphasis added]. If the recent tendentious intervention in the American Wing (which I briefly criticized here) is any indication of what that this “systematic [did she mean “systemic”?] change” and “critical shift” may entail, I’m not convinced that this will be an improvement.

As it happens, a more seasoned, widely known Native American museum professional has just announced his plan to retire: W. Richard (Rick) West Jr. (Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho), intends to step down next June from his post as president and CEO of the Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles, to be succeeded by UCLA professor Stephen Aron.

Rick West
Photo: Autry Museum

In her recap yesterday of West’s accomplishments, Deborah Vankin of the LA Times praised him as “the man credited for transforming” the Autry and for “championing contemporary Native American artists.” He assumed his post at the LA museum on Jan. 1, 2013, after having served with some controversy (a compensation contretemps, unmentioned by Vankin) as the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington.

I favorably reviewed for the Wall Street Journal the NMAI’s 2004 opening under West’s leadership, and then revisited it for the WSJ in 2011 under its current director, Kevin Gover.

Although West, 77, told Vankin that he “made a vow to myself that I would not be directing a museum when I turned 80,” maybe he could be induced to become a consultant. The Met could use the advice of a wise elder as it rethinks its Native American displays.

In a second important curatorial hire for a newly created post, the Met has tapped Abraham Thomas to be curator of Modern Architecture, Design, and Decorative Arts in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art. His curatorship is named for Daniel Brodsky, the Met’s board chair.

Abraham Thomas
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I think of museums with outstanding architecture and design collections and programs, my thoughts don’t immediately turn to the Met, notwithstanding its fine period rooms (including the Frank Lloyd Wright Living Room). I think first of the Museum of Modern Art, which boasts “the world’s first curatorial department devoted to architecture and design…established in 1932.” That department has been headed since 2015 by Martino Stierli, after having been brilliantly led by Barry Bergdoll, now professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia.

My thoughts about outstanding architecture and design departments also turn to the Art Institute of Chicago, which three years ago opened its ongoing permanent-collection display in that field—Past Forward: Architecture and Design at the Art Institute, organized by Zoë Ryan, the museum’s chief architecture and design curator. (She has just been named to become director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, effective Nov. 5.)

For the past four years, Abraham Thomas has worked at the Smithsonian Institution, first as curator-in-charge of the Renwick Gallery, then as senior curator at the Arts & Industries Building. Previously, he had worked as Curator of Designs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2005 to 2013), and then as curator at a historic house in London—Sir John Soane‘s Museum (2013–2015).

His British roots may have resonated with Sheena Wagstaff, chair of the Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art and former chief curator at the Tate Modern, London, to whom Thomas will report.

Curiously, the Met’s announcement of his appointment reveals that Thomas is “co-curator of a forthcoming major exhibition project at the Arts & Industries Building, which is planned for the centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary celebrations in 2021,” but it says nothing about what that “major exhibition project” will consist of.

All that I could find on the Arts & Industries Building’s (AIB’s) website regarding its future plans was this:

Open for select special events since undergoing a partial renovation in 2015, AIB is poised to start the next chapter in its impressive story.

Whether this mystery project will compete with the Met’s pandemic-delayed 150th anniversary celebrations remains to be seen.

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