Yesterday’s cascading announcement across the art media that Max Hollein had been selected to be the next director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art provoked a bit on unintentional comedy. Hyperventilating news outlets marked their Twitter links with “Breaking,” as if the release of Hollein’s name would somehow provoke subsequent reactions into an unravelling news cycle; one editor got so excited, he or she marked their story in a daily newsletter with the headline, “Exclusive,” blithely unaware that the same story was blanketed across every publication.
The jejune over-reaction was as non-comprehending as it was fitting. The Met’s decision to split the job of director into a role over-seeing the ‘content’ side of the museum—curators, exhibitions, etc.—and a CEO charged with stabilizing the museum’s finances and managing its business operations is an admission that role of museums—their reach, their influence and their prospects to anchor a local economy—has changed. The Met is the premier museum in a country that views museums as non-governmental organizations that must look after their own financial health.
That this directorship was also the focus of hopes and demands about diversity and representation within museums is only confirmation that the role of the museum in 21st Century society has changed dramatically. With that in mind, it is worth acknowledging that only the New York Times‘s Robin Pogrebin—who is perhaps singularly responsible for defenestrating the previous director of the Met—seems to have gotten to the heart of the appointment. Hollein is a talented and accomplished administrator. He’s no scholar even though the directorship he’s been appointed to is even more suited to an accomplished curator and art historian than ever. Here’s Pogrebin:
Unlike his recent predecessors Philippe de Montebello, who served for 31 years, and Thomas P. Campbell, who served for eight, Mr. Hollein did not ascend from the Met’s curatorial ranks. He was reportedly a runner-up when Mr. Campbell was chosen in 2008.
But he was an appealing candidate this time around for a museum seeking a stabilizing force after a period of financial turmoil. He is an aggressive fund-raiser with experience in contemporary art as well as a broader knowledge of art history, who has a track record of digital innovations.
Is that a bad thing?
No. Though one cannot help cocking an eyebrow at the paradox of Hollein, the administrator, taking the content role in partnership with Daniel Weiss, the CEO with bottom-line responsibilities, who is the only one of the pair with a Ph.D. in art history and has held an academic appointment as an art historian.
That’s not a slam on Hollein. Weiss got an MBA and worked as a consultant before getting his Ph.D. He has a career path running large academic organizations, including two colleges. The point is that the Met has hired two men with similar backgrounds who are 12 years apart in age. Some of the board’s thinking might be that they’re setting themselves up for longer-term continuity so that Hollein can grow into the job over five years when Weiss might be at retirement age.
Hollein, we are told, was the runner-up for the job ten years ago when he was 38. A slightly older Thomas Campbell got the job. Even at 46, Campbell seems to have suffered from immaturity in his new role. There’s good reason to believe that one of the board’s mistakes was not giving Campbell sufficient mentorship or oversight. After Philippe de Montebello’s stunning run in the role which began when he was 41, the Met seemed to believe they were hiring another extraordinary young man who would grow along with the museum. Instead, the museum got away from him as it might have gotten away from anyone.
Even the pared down directorship is still a big job. Though Hollein is not a scholar or noted curator, he gets high marks for opening up his previous museums to the world in different ways. Pogrebin points to his innovative use of ” Digital Stories, an in-depth look into the museum’s exhibitions, enhanced by multimedia experiences,” which will come in handy when attacking sheer volume of cultural material that the Met has stewardship over. Kelly Crow puts that into numbers:
The job—a mix of curator, lawyer and diplomat—entails producing around 40 exhibits a year, helping manage a staff of 2,200, and overseeing the museum’s collection of nearly two million objects spanning 5,000 years.
There’s also a lot of talk of Hollein’s skills as a fundraiser and dealmaker. But it may still come to pass that Hollein is going to focus on the content side where the Met has huge opportunities if it can overcome some internal political challenges and external creative ones.
Whether Hollein sticks to the curatorial side or is simply Weiss’s junior partner with rights of succession is less important than the fact that the Met finally feels comfortable without a curator/scholar in the lead role. This was probably inevitable considering the massive growth museums. After all, no other cultural institution or business requires the leader to be a former practitioner. Movie studios are not run by directors or actors (though Les Moonves was one.) The music business—we don’t even have anything we could call record companies anymore—isn’t run by singers or composers (though a few producers have made the apotheosis.) Publishing houses are not run by writers; NY’s other major cultural organizations have installed professional managers long ago. Art museums, especially a museum as big and diverse and bursting at the seams as the Met might flourish by allowing the curators be treated more like talent and less like power centers.
The Met Goes Beyond Its Doors to Pick a Leader Who Bridges Art and Technology (The New York Times)