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Blame games at the Met

10 March 2017

The Metropolitan Museum has stumbled badly: there’s a structural deficit, the curators are angry, a major expansion has been put on hold, and now the director Thomas Campbell has resigned. This is a toxic mix by any standard, but it’s hardly unusual. Most art museums have stumbled at one time or another. But the Met is different. It is America’s greatest museum, so its current malaise is very public, and those of us who have long cared deeply about this great institution feel confused and anxious.

Two years into his tenure as director, Tom Campbell invited me, along with three museum leaders from Europe, to address a joint meeting of his curators, conservators, and educators. Tom’s intent was to expose his staff to other ways of running an art museum, with a view towards shaping the Met’s future. The issues we raised revolved mostly around audience engagement, through technology, interactive exhibitions, branding, and, in my case, collaborative decision-making.

In the Q&A session after our presentations, a senior Met staff member angrily shot a question my way: ‘Why, Dr Vikan, are you launching an assault on curators?’ She was offended by a slide I had shown wherein a Walters curator was exploring an exhibition idea with a small focus group that included two museum docents. ‘Why,’ she demanded, ‘would you ever invite docents to critique your curator’s exhibition idea?’ I gave the obvious answer: that I’d much rather hear what my docents had to say before we mount the show than after.

I now think that this curator’s rage was aimed as much at her own director, sitting there in the front row, as at me. Things were beginning to change at the Met, as they had to, after more than three decades under the strong hand of Philippe de Montebello. And change is hard. It would have been difficult enough for former curator Tom Campbell to tackle the challenge of bringing the Met’s tradition-bound staff and dated practices into the 21st century. But his mandate also included the serious engagement, for the first time, with contemporary art and an ambitious upgrade in the museum’s digital offerings.

Campbell could not have succeeded at this alone – and he did not fail alone. Years ago, museum trustees hired and, perhaps, eventually fired the director. They were also obliged to achieve the director’s vision with their wealth, a role distilled into the tired dictum: ‘Give, get, or get off.’

Thankfully, those times have passed. Nowadays, the relationship between museum trustees and the leader they have chosen is – or at least should be – closer to one of partnership. This is as it should be, since no director – no matter how brilliant – can alone handle the job requirements of museum leadership as they have evolved in complexity and multiplied over time. Trustees have skills and experience that are essential complements to those of the director. They typically know finance, business strategy, and the management of talent, and even those with no art background or collection will likely be familiar with institutional mission, values, and culture.

Everyone has an opinion about what’s going on at the Met. Newspaper articles, Op-Ed pieces, and blog postings offer grim retrospective diagnostics of what went wrong, and unsolicited directives on what must happen next. Usually, there is an accompanying photo of Tom Campbell. That’s wrong. What we should instead be seeing is the Met’s ousted director in the company of his sitting chairman, Daniel Brodsky, and the rest of his board. Only together could they have succeeded, and only together did they fail.

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One comment

  1. John Jenkins Mar 10 2017 at 1:59 pm

    The current RA exhibition on American painting of the 1930s
    has one rather strange ommission. If you had asked ten US
    citizens in the 1930s to name their favourite artist, nine would probably have said Norman Rockwell. Yet he does not rate
    a mention, and there are none of his works in the exhibition.
    I have rwice sent an email to the RA, asking for an explanation,
    but have not had the courtesy of a reply. One newspaper
    critic said, “Oh, he was ON!Y an illustrator”. I thought that
    such snobbishness was a thing of the past. Evidently I was
    wrong, and it is disappointing to see the RA perpetuating it.

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