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How to manage a museum

18 August 2023

From the March 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

book cover for why the museum mattersBy the time of his retirement this summer, Daniel Weiss will have served as president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for eight years (and president and CEO for six). Valedictories are often self-serving, but Weiss’s conscientious book Why the Museum Matters instead offers a public-spirited perspective about how a changing world will benefit from the constancy and adaptability of large institutions.

Weiss is earnest in his acceptance that the authority and role of museums is being questioned as never before, in the aftermath of closures during the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and staff disgruntlement about salaries and sources of donors’ wealth. His candour is refreshing; this is no simple encomium to a great museum, but instead a serious attempt to grapple with the major issues of the field. He does not shrink from reliving fumbles, although from time to time there is some elision in his account when he minimises the fractiousness that comes with making consequential choices. The complications of corralling millions of objects and people are in evidence throughout, with rueful anecdotes from Weiss about the recent professional demise of well-intentioned curators for using tone-deaf language. (The Met’s chair of European paintings, Keith Christiansen, retired soon after what was widely seen as an insensitive Instagram post that appeared critical of protests about Confederate monuments.)

The first half of the book is a sweeping recap of the history of museums from antiquity to the present day. It is natural for a historian of Weiss’s impeccable credentials to provide what he calls a ‘selective history’. But in 1870 the founders of the Met, largely businessmen and civic leaders, had only a passing acquaintance with the precepts, protagonists and milestones recounted by Weiss, as he freely acknowledges; the new museum ‘mattered’ to them not because of any illustrious past, but because they wanted to make New York a world capital. And while many of his reflections may be relevant to museums at large, they are largely focused on the institution he knows best.

As a result I found myself eager to move past historical antecedents and learn why, in Weiss’s view, the museum actually matters. We get there in Chapter Five (‘A Forum for Ideas’). Weiss observes that curators have eschewed challenging exhibitions to avoid the wrong kind of attention on social media. He appeals for greater tolerance of apparent shortcomings and failures, urging ‘evidence-driven inquiry over personal experience’, an exhortation that could usefully extend to other sectors, from universities to the halls of Congress to the press.

Weiss tackles polarising modern and contemporary artworks by Balthus and by Dana Schutz, concluding that objects evoking strong feelings warrant sensitivity in contextualising them, but he abjures their removal from display: ‘We have an obligation to make clear […] why this controversial image is important enough to be in our collection and on our walls.’

Chapter Six begins with a rationale for the Met’s decision in 2018 to shed its popular ‘pay-as-you-wish’ admissions policy launched in 1971 in favour of a set fee for non-New Yorkers. His explanation rests in large part on the virtues of burden-sharing and ‘co-investment’, going so far as to posit that excessive reliance on the wealthy to pay the bills ‘makes our institutions less independent’. While all museums suffered shortfalls of earned income during the pandemic, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Met’s multi-billion endowment simultaneously grew by some $800 million. The museum draws a fluctuating, discretionary percentage of that endowment to pay for operating expenses, so if it were to choose to make pay-as-you-wish or paying only for special exhibitions a priority, it would not need to charge $30 per visit. This is also true of other well-endowed New York museums.

Weiss also cautions against the ‘excessive vetting of donors’ and urges museums to accept support from ‘sources that might be objectionable to some’, arguing that so doing does not undermine the ‘core values or programmatic mission of most museums’. He goes on to offer reassurances that ‘shared governance’ rather than a strict collections policy should be sufficient to curtail short-sighted deaccessioning of artworks to pay for operations, a sentiment with which most other museum leaders disagree.

Weiss extols the virtues of shared governance some 20 times, but the term is loosely defined, appears to blend governance (by the board) and management (by the staff), and seems to be largely aspirational. The Met has instead tried divided governance several times since the 1970s, with the director reporting to a paid president from 1977 to 1998, 2009 to 2015, and 2017 to 2023. Consolidated governance with the director reporting to the Board will resume for the third time upon Weiss’s departure this year. The whole chapter is anomalous, peppered as it is with explanations of past decisions that elicited protest. Rather than making a case for why museums matter, it has an arrière-garde tenor absent in the rest of Weiss’s frank assessment of the state of museums.

Weiss also grapples with topics such as the rightful ownership of cultural heritage in museum collections. He notes instances of the Met’s restitution of looted Greek and Egyptian objects and supports a collaborative approach to the return of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, not- ing the different circumstances of each of the more than 160 museums holding works looted by the British from Benin City in 1897.

The book concludes with a survey of the effects of the pandemic, challenges to institutional culture writ large, along with environmental and other concerns, and sets up a divide between activists and preservationists. Siding with the latter, he espouses the virtues of ‘thoughtful, incremental change’, and sums up his recipe for success as ‘credible and engaged leadership aligned with mission and connected to the various communities it serves’.

Weiss’s approach to thorny issues will not satisfy those impatient for visible and profound self-examination from institutions. Few cultural leaders, however, reveal as much as he does about the dilemmas facing museums and the sometimes imperfect solutions offered by those at the top.

From the March 2023 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.