A New Dawn at the Met

Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao

With its $65 million facelift and ambitious new management, New York's Metropolitan Museum is finally ready to face the future. 

At the recent ceremony to unveil the Metropolitan Museum’s newly renovated plaza, museum director Thomas Campbell stood out amid a sea of white shirts with his cheerful blue-checked button-down, mop of longish brown hair and preternaturally youthful appearance. Often described as self-effacing, the former tapestry curator flashed a wry smile as he took to the microphone to thank benefactor David Koch for donating $65 million to pay for the “magnificent” renovation of “one of New York’s favorite theaters, the steps of the Met.” 


The Fifth Avenue landmark is indeed the daily stage of an impromptu outdoor play, and people-watching there has long been one of the city’s main attractions. But the quiet drama going on inside these hallowed halls has been equally riveting in recent years, as the museum experiences a historic generational change.

In the nearly six years since the British-born Campbell, now 52, was chosen to take over from long-serving director Philippe de Montebello, 78, there’s been a youthquake on the premises. The personnel has been turning over due to a mixture of recession-period attrition, layoffs and the retirements of 30-year career staffers. “We all came in together, we’re all leaving together,” observed one curator. The boardroom now sports new faces as the old guard ages out to emeritus status and is replaced by younger power players, such as 37-year-old billionaire society-page fixture Alejandro Santo Domingo. End-of-an-era headlines erupted in July when Emily Rafferty, the 65-year-old president of the museum and a 38-year veteran, announced her plans to retire.


Change usually comes slowly at major cultural institutions. But Campbell has moved rapidly in recent years to try to make the museum a more inviting destination, with mass and class appeal. He is also raising provocative questions about the Met’s identity. “With all due respect to Philippe, there’s a sense here now that the Met is not afraid of change,” said Max Berry, a Metropolitan Museum trustee and former chairman of the Smithsonian, standing on the steps of the Met during the opening ceremonies, watching the new fountains launch dancing spray into the air to a chorus of oohs and aahs. “They’re questioning the future. They’re not playing it safe.”


The new sensibility is evident this fall. Visitors will find pop-up theater and musical performances in the galleries, WiFi throughout the museum, apps that allow people to customize their tours and the triumphant exhibit of 78 Cubist paintings estimated to be worth more than $1 billion, which cosmetics heir Leonard A. Lauder has promised to give to the museum. 


There are changes on a smaller scale, too. Stroll the Met’s galleries and improved signage makes it easier to find your way around. The reconfigured and enlarged European painting area includes gems dug out of storage, plus new arrangements to convey how generations of artists were influenced by their predecessors. The iconic 1970s metal admission badges vanished a year ago, replaced by less expensive (and less distinctive) stickers, which allow for timed entry to popular shows.

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Next year, when the Whitney Museum vacates its 1966 Breuer building to move to a new building downtown, the Met will take over the Madison Avenue landmark as its own exhibit space, with an eight-year lease and the possibility of a longer run.


Not all the innovations have been welcomed by traditionalists. For patrons accustomed to the highbrow sounds of chamber music concerts, the museum’s new avant-garde approach to music has been jarring. In a tone of abject horror, one woman in her mid-50s complained to me, “The Met had its own DJ, DJ Spooky! What was that about?” Indeed, the experimental hip-hop artist (real name Paul D. Miller) was one of the museum’s artists in residence two years ago, an unexpected creative pairing aimed at luring a different audience. Michael Thomas—novelist, one-time Met curatorial assistant and current trustee of the Lehman Foundation, which gives $1.5 million each year to the Met—laments, “The music used to be classical, mostly. Now they have their own DJ, they’re rushing into the modern world. I’m 78; I’m not entirely comfortable with this new era.” That said, he praises Campbell, saying, “I’m impressed with him. But he is bringing change, and change is always going to upset some people.” 


In his fifth-floor office with sweeping views of Central Park, the usually understated Campbell is in an ebullient mood when he welcomes me for an interview in mid-July, explaining that an hour earlier he had been sworn in as an American citizen. “I’m still beaming,” says Campbell, who joined the Met in 1995 as a tapestry scholar after studying at Oxford, taking a decorative arts course at Christie’s and attending London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. “My wife is American, my kids are American. I use American vocabulary. I’m proud of being in New York.”


He has also just gotten around to making another symbolic change: finally taking down the clubby bookcases favored by de Montebello and redecorating with freshly painted white walls and his own choice of artworks, including a 17th-century portrait of Princess Elizabeth and a colorful Stanley Spencer landscape of a British garden. Redecorating on day one of his tenure might have been perceived by the staff as too jarring, but now almost six years into the job, Campbell has claimed the space as his own.


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Replacing an icon is daunting. During his 31 years as the Met’s director, de Montebello, with his mellifluous French accent and aristocratic sensibility, transformed the museum with thousands of major acquisitions and ambitious new additions such as the reconstructed Greek and Roman galleries. He was a dominant, revered figure. But for all the huzzahs that accompanied his reign from the city’s near-bankrupt 1970s through the go-go golden years, de Montebello was often criticized as being imperious and too highbrow. 


He defended his attitude to The New Yorker in 1997 by saying, “When I’m asked, ‘Well, aren’t you an elitist institution?’ my only answer is, ‘That is exactly what we are.’ That is what art is, and that is what every visitor to the Met is—by crossing the threshold they are joining the elite.” (De Montebello, now teaching at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, declined a request for an interview, writing in an e-mail, “I have not commented on the Met since I left, at the end of 2008, and I feel that this is a good posture still.”)


Campbell was considered an unlikely choice as de Montebello’s successor. Well respected as a scholarly curator in the obscure area of tapestries, he was not a prominent figure in the museum world. The Met’s board reportedly offered the job to Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, who turned it down. Campbell won over the board, highlighting his plans to shake up the status quo, boost attendance and move the museum into the digital age. However, the timing of the hand-over was not fortuitous. Campbell took over in January 2009, right after the stock market collapse had seriously damaged the museum’s endowment, forcing cutbacks and layoffs (the staff was reduced by 300, to 2,200 people). Through that dark period, he began to plan for the future.


A key question: How to entice millions of people—philistines included—to cross the Met’s august threshold, appealing to an international audience as well as the next generation of museum-goers? Campbell says his priority has been to make the Met less monolithic and easier to navigate. “When I became involved with the search for a new director,” he explains, “I was conscious that we had this great tradition of scholarship but perhaps it was a moment when we needed to bring new energy to the way we engaged with our audience. Little things like numbering the galleries, having new maps and guidebooks in multiple languages, video tours in multiple languages.” Last year he decided to keep the museum open seven days a week, ending the 42-year tradition, brought on by hard times, of shutting down on Mondays.

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Attendance at the Met, which had dropped from 5.5 million in 1997 to 4.7 million by 2008, rebounded to 6.2 million in the past two years. (The museum did not get a bump in 2013 from the extra open day; officials blamed the fences and construction on the plaza.) The Museum of Modern Art also switched to a seven-day schedule at nearly the same time, and attendance surged 7 percent to 3.04 million—still less than half of the Met’s visitors. 


In the hope of wooing an even larger audience, Campbell has commissioned a national survey to learn what people find off-putting about the Met. “We hear a lot from the people who like us, but it was time to try to understand the people who don’t feel comfortable with us,” he says. “The people who would say, ‘The Met’s not for me.’ ” The museum’s deputy director, Carrie Rebora Barratt, a former curator of American art who joined the Met in 1984, added in a separate interview, “It’s a branding exercise: Who are we? We may want to be young and cool and hip and attract that constituency, but that constituency thinks we are old and elitist.”


The goal is winning over this skeptical younger demographic along with the ever-growing international audience. “Is it through exhibition programming, is it different food, different flowers in the Great Hall?” asks Barratt. “How are we welcoming people? How do we get them engaged in our collections?”


Recognizing that the Met’s most public face these days is no longer its front steps but its website, Campbell has invested in revamping the Met’s digital identity. The Met’s website now features a timeline of 5,000 years of art history, along with photos and information about 400,000 paintings, sculptures and objects, a large part of the museum’s collection. In enhancing its site, the Met has taken a giant leap ahead of New York’s other preeminent museums: The Whitney Museum, which has only 21,000 works in its permanent collection, has put a mere 600 online, while the Museum of Modern Art, with 150,000 objects, is now ramping up the process of posting photographs of its works.


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The Met’s website cedes curatorial control to visitors, who are invited to virtually pair works from the collection and post their own commentary. Meanwhile, the museum’s previously invisible curators have become public figures on the web, appearing in short videos describing their favorite artwork and offering up new frames of reference through which to view paintings and sculptures, such as “bad hair” seen through the ages. These commentaries are often surprisingly personal and whimsical.


European Painting chairman Keith Christiansen does a lyrical job of contrasting his own striking photographs of clouds with the skies of El Greco and Courbet. “All of these are the director’s initiative to make the museum less intimidating,” says Christiansen, a 37-year museum veteran. “So you don’t know anything about the artists, not to worry. But you like clouds? Come have a look at the pictures; you might find something that you like.”


The Met’s website had 26 million visitors last year, compared with MoMA’s 21.5 million. Sree Sreenivasan, who joined the Met as its first chief digital officer in June 2013 after a career at the Columbia Journalism School, is experimenting with social media to expand the museum’s reach, releasing new apps this fall to alert visitors to events and lectures. “We want to give people a daily dose of the Met,” he says. “When parents are thinking about, ‘What do I do with the kids?’ we want to be one of the places they think of. If we can get into their smartphones, they’re likely to stay with us.” Sreenivasan keeps a display in his office labeled “Museum of Dead Technology”—a hefty 1991 cell phone, floppy discs, a Discman, a Rolodex—as a reminder of how quickly the digital world is changing and the need for institutions to adapt.


The Met’s image as a change-resistant bulwark made it initially difficult for Campbell to recruit two new hires—Limor Tomer, who had produced events and concerts at the Whitney and Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Sandra Jackson-Dumont, who had handled education and community outreach at the Seattle Art Museum. “They turned me down,” Campbell recalls with a laugh, although both women ultimately signed on. “The Met had a reputation for being a fusty, dusty conservative institution, and that’s what I’m trying to redefine. Limor has blown the dust off the cases, in some cases quite literally. After initial suspicion, her work has been embraced by the rest of the museum, bringing in life and energy.”


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Showing off her sea-green, windowless office, Tomer, who trained as a classical pianist at Juilliard, explains that she brought in a shaman to rid the space of bad vibes when she joined the Met three years ago. “I was delighted and confused when the Met came to me. I inhabit a world in which the outcome is not known when you come to it,” she says. “The Met had a venerable history of concerts, but you know how that Schubert is going to end because you’ve heard it before.” 


Tomer has commissioned composers, dancers, playwrights and performers (including the controversial DJ Spooky) to develop new works inspired by the Met’s permanent collection and special exhibitions. Events are staged everywhere from the Temple of Dendur to Astor Court to the Arms and Armor galleries. “This week I discovered the best new performance space in New York,” wrote critic Zachary Woolfe in The New York Times two Septembers ago about a concert at the museum by the brass-and-wind ensemble Dark Horse Consort. “It isn’t in a downtown basement or a converted factory by the Canal. It goes by a pretty banal name: Gallery 634.”


Members of the Brooklyn theater troupe The Civilians, this year’s artists in residence, will be interviewing curators and visitors this fall to develop new shows. “We’ve never worked with a museum before. It’s a wonderfully intimidating proposition to engage with the Met, since the Met engages the whole history of culture,” says Steve Cosson, the artistic director of The Civilians. In February 2015 the Attacca Quartet will perform a new piece called Obsession, commissioned and inspired by the Met’s Paul Cézanne show focusing on the artist’s relationship with his wife. A multimedia reality opera, The News, by composer Jacob ter Veldhuis, will premiere at the museum in April.


This fall’s exhibit of Leonard A. Lauder’s Cubist collection of paintings by Picasso, Braque, Gris and Léger is the end result of many years of negotiations with the cosmetics heir. “I remember moments I thought he would say no,” says Campbell. “It was so near and so far.” Lauder had been the chairman of the Whitney Museum, which is devoted to American art, so that was not an option. His discussions with the Met began under de Montebello, but Campbell closed the deal.


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The gift is noteworthy in light of the Metropolitan Museum’s tangled history of disdaining modern art. As author Calvin Tomkins recounts in his 1970 book, Merchants & Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum, department store merchant George Hearn gave the museum $150,000 in 1906 to buy works by living artists, but after Hearn’s death, the trustees craftily reinterpreted his wishes, restricting purchases to works by artists who had actually been alive in 1906, thus stopping the clock. In the late 1920s, Gertrude Whitney offered her collection of 600 works by modern artists to the Metropolitan, plus the money to build a new wing, but the Met’s then-director turned his nose up at the offer. 


Campbell used the museum’s past collecting blunders as a rationale to convince Lauder that his art would be especially meaningful to the Met. “What we were able to offer was an encyclopedic institution where we very much aspire to represent modernism and contemporary but where we actually have some very big gaps,” Campbell says. “He saw that his collection would be transformative to the way we tell the story of 20th-century art.” The Cubist works will be exhibited from October 20, 2014, through February 16, 2015, but 
after that the paintings return to their 81-year-old owner. Lauder has not yet set a date for when his art will become part of the museum’s permanent collection. 


Against the backdrop of the competition among New York’s museums, the Lauder gift is seen as a major boost for the Met and a thumbs-down for the Museum of Modern Art. “It’s a game-changer,” says art dealer Richard Feigen. “There are probably collectors out there who have major 20th-century objects who now think of the Met as a possible repository instead of just the Modern. That gift made the Modern not the only game in town.” Feigen also believes the Met’s new board members may be more willing to support contemporary acquisitions, adding, “The board is younger, less stodgy, more accessible.”


No museum director can hold the job for long without being embroiled in controversy, and last winter Campbell was in the hot seat over the museum’s exhibit of Joel Arthur Rosenthal’s JAR jewelry collection. Critics savaged the show. In The New York Times, Roberta Smith called it “one of the most superficial shows I have ever seen at the museum” and charged that the catalogue essay was “fawning” and that Rosenthal appeared to have had too much control over the display. The Economist called it “a sensational advertisement for JAR.” A follow-up Times story (“Jewelry Show at Met Raises Questions”) noted that critics had ethical concerns about whether the exhibit would unfairly raise the designer’s prices and whether the sale of his works in the Met’s gift shop was appropriate. Some questioned whether the jewelry should be considered art. “That was absolutely inexcusable,” says Michael Thomas. “I think it smacked of a step down in class.” Feigen agrees, saying, “You have to draw the line somewhere. I admire Joel’s work, but this exhibition fell outside the boundaries of decorative art and fine art.”


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The exhibit was approved before Campbell took over; he nonetheless brushes off the brouhaha and defends the show. “People get hot under the collar—‘Is the museum letting collectors, designers, manufacturers leverage us for their own benefit?’ Joel loves the Met, he feels the collection inspires his work, he designed a line of jewelry the profits of which were for the Met,” Campbell says. “I think there were misunderstandings around that.”


Just as any homeowner will attest, fix up one room and suddenly everything else looks shabby. Now that the plaza has a sparkling-new appearance, Campbell has announced his next project: renovating the Modern wing in the back of the museum to add more gallery space. The museum cannot expand its footprint into Central Park, but a parking garage beneath that spot could be eliminated. This is a time-consuming endeavor that will require the approval of the Landmarks Commission and the city, and the raising of tens of millions of dollars. Perhaps a mega-rich trustee will step up, following the example of David Koch.

Four years ago, Koch was captivated by the sight of the new fountains at Lincoln Center and sought out museum president Emily Rafferty at a dinner. As she recalls, “He said the Met’s fountains were tired; were we thinking of doing anything? I said, ‘We think about it all the time, David. We could do something really well if we had the funding for it.’ ” At the ceremony in September dedicating the plaza in his name, Koch was clearly reveling in his ability to magnanimously wave his checkbook and remembered telling the museum’s board, “Why don’t I pay for everything, including the extras?” Koch grinned and added, “They accepted my offer with considerable gratitude.”


Visitors are drawn to a museum to see blockbuster shows and famous works of art, but Campbell sees himself as a champion of the museum’s less vaunted works. “As an art historian, I studied a field [tapestries] that was little known but of great beauty and interest,” he says. “My career was founded on the idea of bringing the beauty of this art form to a larger audience.” He adds, “What we try to do is have a portfolio of exhibitions that’s going to range from a broad public appeal to the more esoteric and scholarly. It’s like a juggling act, like seating at a party.” 


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In recent years the exhibits at the Met’s Costume Institute have proved to be consistent crowd-pleasers; 661,509 people turned up for the Alexander McQueen show in 2011. These events attract an atypically boisterous audience. “They’re much louder and more vocal,” says Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s curator. “They aren’t afraid to voice their reaction, the way they might be if they were standing in front of a painting.”


In May the space was renamed after Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who raised more than $125 million for the institute through ticket sales and sponsorships for the annual spring ball she has chaired since 1995. (Not everyone welcomed the name change. “I’ve been close to the museum for 50 years,” says Michael Thomas. “If you had told me at any time that I would one day be looking at the Anna Wintour Costume Center, I would have jumped into the East River. It’s unseemly.”) In the decades since iconic editor Diana Vreeland became a consultant to the Met in 1973, the annual ball has become a Vogue-branded event, a red-carpet scene for which a single ticket, which once went for a mere $50, now costs $25,000—and you have to be invited in order to buy one.


The Costume Institute’s Punk show of 2013—which led to some unfortunate clothing choices at the gala—was followed this year by the more elegant and upscale (and tamer) Charles James exhibit. The Institute is taking a scholarly approach with next May’s show, “Chinese Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film and Fashion.” Bolton recalls that two years ago, when he and Costume Institute director Harold Koda met with Campbell to propose the show, the director threw out a suggestion: “Why don’t you collaborate with the Asian art department?” Thus the exhibit will not only feature Chinese and Chinese-inspired designs but pair them with Chinese paintings, sculptures, jade and porcelain.


In the past the curatorial departments usually acted as separate fiefdoms, but Campbell is pursuing a conscious strategy of encouraging artistic pairings. In the newly reorganized European painting galleries, some rooms include decorative objects such as plates and vases that might well have served as inspirations for the artists of those eras. As Carrie Rebora Barrett explains, “Philippe had started that, but Tom has really hit the ground running, getting conservators and department heads and educators to work across boundaries.”


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Ask Thomas Campbell what he would like to change about the Met’s image and he replies, “The fundamental challenge is the sense that an institution like the Met is elitist, that it’s funded by rich people for rich people. Of course, both are totally incorrect assumptions.” He wants everyone to feel welcome when they walk in the door. He sounds positively messianic in his desire to expose newcomers to the transformative pleasures of art. “We’re not just about numbers,” he insists. “We want people to have a meaningful experience—and come back.”