Cu­rat­ing a restora­tion of the Met

The pres­i­dent of the ven­er­a­ble art mu­seum talks about fees, IDs and re­cov­ery

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY SE­BAS­TIAN SMEE Q&A

new york —

Last year, the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art was in cri­sis. On June 28, it an­nounced that more peo­ple vis­ited the mu­seum, across its three cam­puses — the main build­ing on Fifth Av­enue, the Clois­ters and the Met Breuer — than ever be­fore.

So whether the Met is “a great in­sti­tu­tion in de­cline,” as one for­mer cu­ra­tor de­scribed it, or whether its prob­lems are merely tem­po­rary is de­bat­able. It’s true that the mu­seum was run­ning large and grow­ing deficits in a strong econ­omy and had tabled plans to build a $600 mil­lion wing for mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art. Three-quar­ters of the mu­seum’s cu­ra­to­rial lead­er­ship had de­parted or re­signed since Thomas Camp­bell be­came direc­tor in 2008, and many peo­ple crit­i­cized his costly ex­pan­sion of the mu­seum’s dig­i­tal op­er­a­tions.

In Fe­bru­ary 2017, Camp­bell re­signed amid re­ports about an in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­la­tion­ship with a staff mem­ber. His pre­de­ces­sor and one­time men­tor, Philippe de Mon­te­bello, later said there was “ab­so­lutely no way the trustees could fore­see that this man would ba­si­cally be­come a to­tally dif­fer­ent hu­man be­ing the day he was made direc­tor.”

Daniel Weiss, hired as pres­i­dent and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer in 2015, be­came in­terim direc­tor. In March, fac­ing bud­get short­falls and a de­creas­ing will­ing­ness among vis­i­tors to pay the vol­un­tary $25 ad­mis­sion fee, the mu­seum im­posed manda­tory fees on out-of-town vis­i­tors (ex­clud­ing stu­dents from New Jer­sey and Con­necti­cut).

Early this year, Camp­bell’s suc­ces­sor was an­nounced. Max Hollein, direc­tor and CEO of the Fine Arts Mu­se­ums of San Fran­cisco, will share with Weiss the re­spon­si­bil­ity for lead­ing the in­sti­tu­tion.

The Wash­ing­ton Post spoke to Weiss about the mu­seum; the fol­low­ing in­ter­view has been edited for clar­ity and length. Q: What’s sig­nif­i­cant about the new at­ten­dance fig­ures? A: This year we will clock in at about 7.4 mil­lion vis­i­tors across three in­sti­tu­tions. (Last year was about 7 mil­lion.) What’s sat­is­fy­ing about that num­ber is that it comes from all over the world. We are a New York City in­sti­tu­tion. We’re very well sup­ported by the cit­i­zens of New York. But we are also a tourist des­ti­na­tion for peo­ple from all over the United States and the world. Q: Did the Michelan­gelo show ar­ti­fi­cially boost the num­bers for this past year? A: Over the last five to 10 years, we have seen our at­ten­dance con­tinue to grow. If we didn’t have Michelan­gelo, one of the top ex­hi­bi­tions we’ve ever had, we would have had some­thing else, and in­stead of 700,000 we would have had 520,000, say, and our at­ten­dance num­bers would have been a lit­tle bet­ter than last year. Q: Has the de­ci­sion to im­pose manda­tory ad­mis­sion fees on outof-town vis­i­tors dis­cour­aged peo­ple from com­ing? A: We are see­ing no diminu­tion in at­ten­dance what­so­ever. None. Our num­bers, to the con­trary, con­tinue to go up. We’ll have a full year of ex­pe­ri­ence next year. But we’re al­ready four months into it, and it’s pretty clear what’s hap­pen­ing. Q: Are you wor­ried about the im­pli­ca­tions of ask­ing New York­ers to show ID cards to prove that they are New York­ers? A: We are not wor­ried. An in­sti­tu­tion of this im­por­tance in the world

has to get fund­ing from some­where: 8.5 per­cent of our bud­get comes from the gov­ern­ment. Once we laid that out, we said to New York­ers: “We want you to feel wel­come. Bring ID so we know. But we’re not go­ing to press you. We’re not go­ing to give you a hard time. If you don’t bring ID we’re go­ing to let you in any­way, and we’re go­ing to let you pay what­ever you want.” And they have. It’s ac­tu­ally an ex­am­ple of some­thing about New York cul­ture that isn’t al­ways ob­vi­ous. Peo­ple here are gen­er­ous, they’re thought­ful. They get it. In the be­gin­ning there were a few peo­ple who tested us. One guy came in with a Yan­kees cap and he said, “There’s my ID.” And we said: “Great. Okay. Next time, if you’d like to bring some­thing more tan­gi­ble that’s fine.” Q: What’s the lat­est on the mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary wing? A: About five years ago, the mu­seum did a com­plete assess­ment and mas­ter plan for all its fa­cil­i­ties. The board and the lead­er­ship con­cluded that the high­est pri­or­ity for ma­jor projects would be to re­place the mod­ern wing. It’s still our high­est pri­or­ity. It was tabled two years ago be­cause of our other chal­lenges. We’ve ad­dressed those. We’re in a much dif­fer­ent place. We’re on a path to a bal­anced bud­get next year. We have a re­ally thought­ful long-term fi­nan­cial plan. And we’re now think­ing again about cap­i­tal projects. We’re look­ing at vari­a­tions on what we did two years ago, work­ing with the same ar­chi­tect. Q: Why is mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary your high­est pri­or­ity? New York al­ready has many great in­sti­tu­tions ded­i­cated to mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art. Why aren’t you re­do­ing, for in­stance, the Asian gal­leries, in the same spirit as the Is­lamic gal­leries, which were done so beau­ti­fully and in­ex­pen­sively a few years ago? A: We are not chas­ing the Guggen­heim or the Mod­ern or the Whit­ney and try­ing to be like them. But it’s very im­por­tant for the Met to col­lect, study and ex­hibit art from our own era, as we al­ways have. We were col­lect­ing im­pres­sion­ist art when it was con­tem­po­rary art. If we didn’t, we would be more like a mau­soleum than a liv­ing mu­seum. We don’t be­lieve it is our place to be a lead­ing edge, risk-tak­ing con­tem­po­rary art house. So how do we par­tic­i­pate in con­tem­po­rary art in a way that’s au­then­tic to who we are? We col­lect the work of artists who are of es­tab­lished rep­u­ta­tion, who are go­ing to be of en­dur­ing im­por­tance. But the gal­leries in which that art is dis­played are wholly in­ad­e­quate. The South West Wing project is, more than any­thing else, part of the on­go­ing project of the Met to build fa­cil­i­ties that are com­men­su­rate Daniel Weiss is the pres­i­dent and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art in New York. with the stan­dard we set. That’s true of all our col­lec­tions. It’s just their turn. Q: You’re un­der­tak­ing an­other big project be­fore that. A: The Euro­pean paint­ings gal­leries are about one city block worth of gal­leries that are sky lit. Those sky lights need to be re­placed. They were built in the 1930s and were due to be re­placed when Lyn­don John­son was pres­i­dent. They weren’t. It’s a $150 mil­lion project. We’re not do­ing the mod­ern wing un­til it’s taken care of. It’s less sexy, but it’s im­por­tant. Q: Why did the Met get into fi­nan­cial trou­ble? A: There were three fac­tors. One was that we were do­ing too much. We had a lot of am­bi­tious ac­tiv­ity, in­clud­ing dig­i­tal, and we didn’t pri­or­i­tize as we should have. The sec­ond was that we had not been at­tend­ing to our de­ferred main­te­nance and in­fras­truc­ture as we need to. The third was that we have all these rev­enue-gen­er­at­ing ac­tiv­i­ties at the Met — restau­rants, re­tail shops, ad­mis­sions pol­icy, mem­ber­ship — which were un­der­per­form­ing. We thought they could all be mak­ing more money for the mu­seum if we man­aged them a bit dif­fer­ently. So you put all those to­gether and you get a lit­tle bit of a per­fect storm. We thought we had to ad­dress it all head on. And we did. Q: How are you go­ing to make the new power-shar­ing ar­range­ment work with Max Hollein? A: We will in­ter­act with each other every day. Max over­sees all the pro­gram­matic ac­tiv­ity, the ac­qui­si­tions, col­lec­tions, schol­ar­ship, con­ser­va­tion. I over­see all the ad­min­is­tra­tive work and run the fa­cil­ity. But be­cause I’m an art his­to­rian with an in­ter­est in the con­tent side, and be­cause he’s a mu­seum direc­tor with an MBA and an in­ter­est in mar­ket­ing, bud­gets and dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, we have great points of in­ter­sec­tion. I have some­one whose of­fice I can walk into and say, “I have a prob­lem, help me fig­ure this out.” Where we can get into trou­ble is if we see our­selves as com­peti­tors. We spend a lot of time talk­ing about this. I would not have wanted to hire such a strong in­di­vid­ual if I was wor­ried about hav­ing a strong part­ner. Max is a strong part­ner. That’s what we were seek­ing.


An ad­mis­sion fee is still vol­un­tary for New York res­i­dents and stu­dents from Con­necti­cut and New Jer­sey at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art.


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