2017-09-04 11:52:03
Critic's Notebook: The Fall’s Most Fascinating Art Show? The Met Trying to Fix Itself

There are many exciting museum shows to see across the country in coming months. But of particular interest to me will be the one unfolding in real time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as this august institution tries to right itself after several years of staff unrest, financial mismanagement and overreach. A lot has happened since Thomas P. Campbell, its director of eight years, resigned under pressure in late February, but it’s not over. The most obvious questions are: Who will be the next director, and when will he — or, better yet, she — be appointed?

Increasingly Mr. Campbell’s eight years, with their achievements and their stumbles, look like an inevitable interregnum. The 31-year tenure of the much-admired Philippe de Montebello — the longest-serving director in the Met’s history — was a hard act to follow, much less in an economy recovering from the 2008 crash. It seems likely that any successor was in for a very difficult time, excepting possibly a seasoned caretaker or a visionary.

Mr. Campbell was neither. While a widely respected scholar of European tapestries, he was tasked by the Met’s board with greatly increasing the museum’s involvement with modern and contemporary art — which interested Mr. de Montebello not at all — and with expanding its audience and its digital presence. He fulfilled the trustees’ desire for a director who came from inside the museum, as had several of his predecessors.

On his watch, attendance soared and he was able to get the Met Breuer open and running, if not exactly at full creative capacity. But in the end, he seemed the victim of both his own misjudgments and those of the trustees, who approved his decisions and deserve much more of the blame for the debacle than they have so far been allotted.

The Met, through Kenneth Weine, its spokesman, said a new director is expected to be named next year. For the moment the museum seems to be heading into smoother waters under the guidance of Daniel H. Weiss, 60, who became the museum’s president in 2015, and, after a restructuring in June, its chief executive — meaning that the new director will report to him.

This power shift has led many to assert that the best candidates won’t be interested in the Met job. Dividing the responsibilities of the director, who sets a museum’s curatorial mission, from those of the chief executive, who controls the purse strings, was a fashion in the 1980s and early ’90s. But nearly everywhere it was set up, the director ultimately managed to consolidate authority — including Mr. de Montebello at the Met. Tales of miserable museum directors and philistine presidents still echo through the profession, like war stories.

This is not the ’90s; Mr. Weiss has the advantage of being trained in art history, which is rare among museum presidents, and big museums have long had too many moving parts for the top job not to be shared. But the museum professionals I spoke with were unanimous in the view that directors should have ultimate control of both mission and budget.

The Met tale acquired some new twists and innuendos in early August when Mr. de Montebello gave an unusually frank interview to artnet News. Among other things, he said that his successor’s departure was “long overdue,” implying that the trustees should have acted earlier. But he also granted that they could not have foreseen that Mr. Campbell, whom Mr. de Montebello had initially supported, would become, in his words, “a totally different human being the day he was made director.”

While Mr. de Montebello viewed the splitting of the chief executive and director as generally “not right,” he praised Mr. Weiss; he said he was certain that he would work well with anyone the trustees anointed and would know when to step back — and also when to bow out and leave the Met. Mr. de Montebello framed the whole process as a dignified rite of passage for the incoming director, even though it took him two-thirds of his own directorship to secure the chief executive title.

But the Met is the Met. Maybe it will get lucky and attract some young, energetic visionary with some real curatorial experience in modern and contemporary art who is willing to take on the C.E.O. challenge, like wresting Excalibur from its rock. In the meantime, the museum trundles on, its exhibition program relatively unscathed. The 2017-18 slate includes such goodies as Michelangelo drawings, a David Hockney retrospective and goldworking in the ancient Americas.

Mr. Weiss seems to be restoring some financial sense to the Met, but he has helped hatch one really bad idea: a proposal that, if approved by the city, would allow the Met to charge out-of-state visitors a fixed $25 entrance fee instead of letting them pay what they wish, like everyone else.

This could be a logistical nightmare. Those who retain the privilege of paying what they wish will still have to have their papers to get in — which papers has not been worked out. The jobs of ticket sellers and others at the museum’s entrances will become more complicated and stressful; they will in all likelihood sometimes end up functioning a bit like border guards, adjudicating who has proper New York identification and who doesn’t.

The whole idea seems greedy and inappropriate. The museum already gets around $39 million a year from its gate — equal to the entire annual budget of the Brooklyn Museum — and tourists are one of the main bases of the city’s economy. At a time of flagrant income inequality, it is especially unseemly for museums to view their audiences merely as income streams, and it seems out of character for a sanctuary city during a national rise in xenophobia. Mayor Bill de Blasio said of the proposal: “I’m a big fan of Russian oligarchs paying more to get into the Met,” as if all tourists were megawealthy.

They are not. In 2015 the average overseas visitor to New York City had a household income of $82,400, according to NYC & Company, the city’s official destination marketing arm. The average American visitor to New York City was a bit better off, with a household income of $118,800 in 2016. (Billionaires, by the way, rarely pay to visit museums: They get private tours that begin with their being swept past the ticket desk by a curatorial assistant.)

Finally, it helps to remember that as an encyclopedic institution, the Met’s collections are stocked with art from around the globe. It is a world museum with a world audience. (Maybe the fixed fee should be waived for anyone from Egypt, given the enormous holdings that the museum excavated from its deserts in the 1910s and ’20s.)

Looking forward, it would be great if the Met could at last choose a woman as director. At one point the artnet News interviewer — its editor in chief, Andrew Goldstein — asked Mr. de Montebello about this. The former director answered with the old saw that the Met cannot set out to hire a woman. But, as if it made a difference, he mentioned in passing that his own successor would have been the great Anne d’Harnoncourt, then the celebrated director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, had she not died suddenly at 64 in June 2008, during the Met’s search year. Was an offer actually tendered and being seriously considered?

The Met declined to comment. Norman Keyes, a Philadelphia Museum spokesman and friend of Ms. d’Harnoncourt, said in an emailed statement: “It would come as no surprise that Anne d’Harnoncourt might have been considered for this position. However, we have had no knowledge that such an offer was actually made and would be surprised in any case if she would have taken it. She was deeply committed to Philadelphia, and proved this time and again over a period of many years.”

The larger point is that the Met could very well set out to appoint a woman and find a qualified one, just as, with Mr. Campbell, it seems to have set out to hire from within.

Manhattan’s four biggest, most prominent museums are due for a “sea change,” as one observer said to me. Women already head several of the city’s smaller institutions, including the New Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Queens Museum, the Bronx Museum of the Arts and the not-so-small Brooklyn Museum.

So now the Met’s director chair is empty. Over the next five or so years, those at the Modern, the Guggenheim and the Whitney will also be opening up as their current occupants approach retirement age.

If at least two of these four jobs do not go to a woman, this city will be shamed by its backwardness. The Modern, the Guggenheim and the Whitney, which were virtually willed into existence by women, have a chance to live up to their histories. The Met has a chance to lead the way.