2017-03-01 16:54:05
Critic's Notebook: How to Fix the Met: Connect Art to Life

The departure of Thomas P. Campbell as director and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art comes as no surprise.

But from the time he took over from Philippe de Montebello in 2009, there were doubts — not about his art expertise; his credentials are sterling — but about his managerial chops. Scholarship won’t get you far in leading an institution as complex, high maintenance and structurally antiquated as the one he inherited.

Trouble was already brewing when he took over. Cultural tides in America had turned, and the Met hadn’t turned with them. The audience for art, and for the traditional art museum, was changing. So the Met had to change, basically from a 19th-century analog museum to a 21st-century semi-digital institution. But nobody knew quite how.

Armies of selfie-takers-and-sharers were arriving, more interested in photogenic events, like the Fashion Institute’s theatrically installed “Manus x Machina” show last year, than in archival objects. They kept the attendance numbers high, but unevenly distributed. Some 750,000 visitors saw “Manus x Machina,” while worthy scholarly shows went all but unvisited. Such imbalances have to worry any institution, and will eventually start to determine what is put on the bill.

With the precipitous decrease in art and history education in schools, much of the museum’s encyclopedic collection now means little to younger viewers. It feels foreign and remote and unsociable in a way that contemporary art, with its familiar references, does not. The Met has its own strong education program, but its effects seem to be uncertain and selective. A generation or two ago, the museum’s Renaissance painting galleries were crowded places; today, even after a splendid refurbishment, they draw scant traffic.

A new emphasis on contemporary art was reinforced by people who ran the museum itself. Mr. de Montebello was hostile to new art; he disparaged it outright. But when he retired, the board of directors was hot for it. They made Mr. Campbell’s pursuit of the contemporary a condition of hiring. Did no one notice that any buying would be at the top of a bloated market? That a Jeff-Koons-whatever would cost more than Mr. de Montebello’s $45 million-plus Duccio, “Madonna and Child”?

In any case, contemporary was a field Mr. Campbell didn’t know much about — his specialty was European tapestry — so he was learning on the job, just as he was in his push to give the museum a digital presence, which entailed the hiring of a whole new staff.

All of this, of course, cost a bundle. The Met has been in economic straits before. (At times in the 1970s and ’80s, certain galleries were often closed because the museum couldn’t pay enough guards.) But on Mr. Campbell’s watch, finances took a steady plunge and the fallout has been embarrassingly messy, with personnel laid off and a promised expansion to accommodate Leonard Lauder’s gift of $1 billion of modern art “postponed.” Through everything, the exhibitions have been strong. Yet even those began to show signs of erosion. Planned loans for the recent “Jerusalem: 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” had to be pared back. The schedule of future shows has shrunk by a third.

Where has the money gone? To what some people see as crazy things: an absurdly costly rebranding campaign; dubious digital initiatives; and the leasing of the Whitney Museum’s Breuer Building, with the idea of making the Met a contemporary art contender. Again, purely in terms of art, the Breuer venture, after a rocky start, has been a success, though a hugely expensive one.

For a while now, the museum has been looking good, but not feeling that way. I’ve often picked up a sense that people were gunning for Mr. Campbell early on, ready to find that he could do no right. I’ve also sensed that the museum had increasingly entered a state of drift. Crowds herd through; curators do what they do. But the fizz generated by an institution really on the go is flat.

What could revive it? Solvency would help, although I, who can’t balance a checkbook, can say nothing useful on that subject.

What I can talk about is art, and how a museum can make people care about it. If historical art is now a hard sell, and it is, learn to sell it hard. That means, among other things, start telling the truth about it: about who made objects, and how they work in the world, and how they got to the museum, and what they mean, what values they advertise, good and bad. Go for truth (which, like the telling of history, is always changing), and connect art to life. Mix things up: periods, functions, cultures. (You can always unmix them.) Let audiences see that old is always new, if viewed through knowledge.

To present art this way — to pitch it, advocate it, make it snap to life — is to rethink the basic dynamic of a museum, turn it from passive to active, from archival to interactive, while letting it be all of these. This is the work of curators, and the Met has some fantastic ones. But to do their job boldly and radically, they need the attentive, encouraging permission of an alert director, probably meaning one who isn’t also saddled with being the company’s chief accountant.

Right now, America is in an emotionally and morally raw moment. Diversity everywhere is under attack; the culture wars are back. Our cultural institutions cannot not react. Mr. Campbell did so, mainstream, last month in a New York Times Op-Ed article on why art matters, demanding the preservation of the National Endowment for the Arts, which is now under threat. It was an important statement, a valedictory gesture, it turns out, and a worthy one. It set an example of public activism that his Met successor should heed and follow.

And about that successor, I’ll just say this to the Met’s board: Put women on your short list of potential hires as director. It’s time. And bring more African-Americans and Latino curators to your staff (and to your short list). It’s time. These are crucial steps to getting a cherished antique of an institution tuned up for 21st-century life. It’s time.