Tom Campbell’s Downfall at the Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the fabled cultural institutions of the world. It has incredible collections of fine art. It has the support of New York’s patrician class. It has an amazing facility and location.  So what could go wrong?

Somehow things went seriously wrong for its director, Tom Campbell.  This is how the story starts off.

On February 4, The New York Times published an article by Robin Pogrebin that asked the startling question “Is the Met Museum ‘a Great Institution in Decline’?” In the piece Pogrebin quoted George Goldner, a longtime curator in the Met’s drawings and prints department, who had retired in 2015. “It’s a tragedy to see a great institution in decline,” Goldner told Pogrebin. “To have inherited a museum as strong as the Met was 10 years ago—with a great curatorial staff—and to have it be what it is today is unimaginable.” (Goldner now serves as an art adviser to billionaire buyout mogul Leon Black, whose wife is on the Met board.)

Three weeks later, Campbell was forced out. No doubt he had made some missteps that weakened his political support among the museum’s curators and then at the board level.. This missteps relate to Campbell’s embrace of modernity.

(Goldner) said that, while he was no lover of contemporary art, he understood why Campbell bet the Met’s future on it, even if it proved to be his undoing. “I acknowledge there is no escaping it,” he said in the interview with The Art Newspaper. “Still, how can one explain spending $600 [million] to renovate the Modern and contemporary art wing? When the Met did the renovation of the Islamic galleries [in 2011], the total bill was much less—$50 [million]—and it was done beautifully. We are competing hard in the one field where we can’t possibly be the best in New York [because of the extensive modern-art collections at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney]. Having a big center of modern art at the Met is like having a center of Italian paintings 20 blocks away from the Uffizi. Part of what has created the morale issue is that other departments have felt that their concerns have been relegated to a secondary position behind contemporary art and digital media.”

So what is the future of the MET? if it is not to be modern? Stay tuned!


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