I often write about the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Its shows are almost always superb. My only quibbles with them, or at least the ones I’ve seen and whose catalogues I’ve read, is that they’re often too big and rambling. The Met does too many shows as well. It drains attention from superb sleeper shows that don’t get the marketing push they deserve.
These problems, which are recent, probably have come from a leadership void. The Met has had no director, and the director often is the skunk in the garden party. Curators sometimes can’t or won’t pare their objects lists to a palatable size. The director then has to be the one who says “rein it in,” for budget reasons or to free a show from boring or remote tangents.
Looking at the Met’s new expansion and renovation plan, though, I’m wondering whether the place was better off rudderless. With Max Hollein, the new director, in place, and with Daniel Weiss continuing as the Met’s president, we learn of their first offspring. They seem to have produced twins, and they aren’t a pretty pair.
The Met proposes first to spend $70 million for a reinstallation of the Michael Rockefeller Wing, which displays the Met’s African, Oceania, and Latin American art. Having built an entire and much-adored 26,000-square-foot museum building for $22 million, I was naturally skeptical, once I recovered from shock. That’s a lot of money.
Helping me recover my bearings was the statement issued by the new boss team. It reads, in part:
By ushering artistic traditions of three-quarters of the globe into The Met, the building of the Rockefeller Wing helped define us as an encyclopedic fine arts museum. Its expansive diverse character uniquely resonates with our global city. Our Africa and Americas collections alone represent the heritage of a quarter of the U.S. population and half of New York City’s population.
I’m having a difficult time understanding their demographic math insofar as the country is concerned, and I’m pretty good at math. On the city’s demographics, I trust Hollein and Weiss are correct, as far as bean counting goes.
Are they saying we need to carve space commensurate to the ethnic composition of the population to meet the Met’s mission? I won’t say that’s quixotic — that would be an insult to Don Quixote. Diversity is a means, but they never tell us what end they desire. Intellectually, they’re giving us pretty wispy fare.
The Rockefeller Wing project, it seems to me, has two parts. There is a big infrastructure part. The wing’s massive glass wall needs replacing, as do the innards of the building. This is fine. It’s 40 years old. The Met has been, as far as I know, a good steward of its massive building. It’s spending, for instance, $122 million to renovate the 30,000 square feet of glass and louvered skylights in its European galleries. These date from 1952.
The Met does not need a boutique Los Angeles architectural firm to do infrastructure work in the Rockefeller Wing. It will add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the project simply to transport and house the Los Angeles team during its many trips to New York. Custom-made, one-of-a-kind systems, which the architect and his team will supply, will prove finicky and maddening, in addition to wildly expensive. A good local firm specializing in back-of-house museum needs would be sufficient and vastly more economically efficient. The Met might feel it needs a celebrity architect to market its project. Let’s try “good stewardship of a transformative wing” as a hook. Old-fashioned, I know, but even the super-rich know things get old and need to be updated and enhanced.
A second part, a rethinking of the intellectual content of the galleries, is assuredly needed. They’re dated, too, and the three geographical areas — Africa, Latin America, and Oceania — are too garbled. The Rockefeller Wing is profoundly important in American museum history. There is an immense amount of new thinking on what this magical art means. This work is best done by the Met’s curators themselves, the best in the world, augmented and advised by the Met’s talented and accomplished exhibition-design staff. I think the curators would prefer designing their own displays so that they’d have their own proven sensibilities on the look of cases. I know I did. The Met needs to show it pays close attention to costs. Frugality would be refreshing.
Hollein added in an interview with the New York Times that the Met struggles with how they can “present something that really adds to the understanding of modern and contemporary art,” asking, “What was happening in the 1950s in Egypt?” My quick and dirty response was, “Who cares?” My more nuanced — and diplomatic — take is, “This is why there are museums in Egypt.” This is why we have the very good Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, with which I did a show on Renoir and Algeria years ago. The world grows smaller. Scholarship at other places will come to our shores. Hollein thinks about Asian art in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s a bigger topic, surely, and the wonderful Asia Society is ten blocks away.
Answering questions like “What about Egypt in the 1950s?” is why the Met has a temporary exhibition program. By the way, I suspect a special Met show called “Art from Farouk to Nasser” would win prizes only for worst attendance of the year. No museum can or should offer all things to all people.
Last year, we heard that the Met had deficits. It pushed people out, cut its budget, and instituted a terrible $25 admission fee for tourists. I’m not given to amnesia, so I’m having a hard time squaring a need to reduce deficits, an unprecedented admission fee, a $70 million gallery redo, and that second baby behemoth, a $600 million new contemporary and modern wing.
The plan for a new wing flopped three years ago. I’m not sure what, if anything, the Met has changed, because the cost is the same, as is David Chipperfield, the architect. Well, the plan is back. It has neither a start nor a finish date, which means it will be with us for years and rise in cost. On balance, and there are good points on both sides, I think the Met’s deep dive into contemporary art is a case of misguided philanthropy, arguably even an abuse of philanthropy.
Modern and contemporary art are what the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim do well, among other places in the city. An ample, indeed abundant, supply of forums and venues is there, and I don’t detect unmet demand. Great, encyclopedic museums of what I call historic art exist in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Madrid, and Berlin, among many other great cities, with separate museums focused on contemporary art. There are reasons to banish divides. American art, for example, is a continuum with a more-or-less straight line flowing from, for example, John Singleton Copley to lots of art made in America today. An American collection that stops, say, at 1970 loses that intellectual and aesthetic thread.
But is collapsing this divide at the Met worth $600 million — and that’s for starters? The new wing will mean pressure for contemporary acquisitions and exhibitions. Does the Met need another hungry child at the table? My instinct says no. A few old-fashioned, weighty words come to mind. “Prudence” is one. “Restraint” is another. “Modesty” is always a losing argument in New York, so I won’t even try that. The opposite of “hubris” in Greek is “sophrosyne,” which I don’t think has an exact English counterpart, but it’s a good term. That seems right. To my friends running the Met, including the trustees, look it up.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the opportunity costs — unquantified, often hidden or unacknowledged sacrifices or losses — that come with a building project. For the Clark Art Institute, which spent $170 million on a so-so building expansion, that cost came in its big debt, a drastically cut program of art acquisition, a clobbered exhibitions budget, and a loss of creative spark inevitable after ten years as a construction site. The staff is understandably exhausted, even shell-shocked. Many donors are fatigued.
For New York, a $600 million Met expansion has a different opportunity cost. New Yorkers aren’t made out of money. A fundraising campaign of this size, and I would add the Rockefeller Wing’s $70 million to the tag, will affect all arts philanthropy in the city. With the Museum of Modern Art also seeking big bucks, there is a trickle-up effect as the big institutions take the air — and money — out of arts fundraising for everyone else. For hundreds of arts organizations — small museums, theater companies, focused music companies, art schools — the impact will be real.
It’s sobering for the Met’s leaders to remember that the $600 million modern and contemporary wing didn’t flop because of bad sequencing. It flopped because it was seen as a big frill, an unjustified vanity project, and as something the Met wanted mostly because it thought it could get it.
Not the best reasons, then or now. The Met is a not-for-profit. It’s a precious civic and cultural icon, but it’s also a charity. It needs to act like one. It’s also New York’s leading art citizen. Instead of living large, it should try living smart. Or make an adverb of “sophrosyne” and live like that.