In a wide-ranging interview, the chief curator of modern and contemporary art discusses collection sharing, acquisitions strategy, renovation of the Wallace Wing, negotiations to lease the Whitney’s Breuer building, and more.
GAPS IN THE COLLECTION
Lets talk about the contemporary art collection and the kind of display you envision in the Wallace Wing.
You know, the Wallace Wing wasn’t even conceived for modern art. First, under Tom Hoving’s directorship, it was going to be the Annenberg Media Center, then it was going to be used for European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, and finally Philippe de Montebello decided to designate it for modern art.
In the beginning we didn’t have enough material to fill the wing, but thanks largely to Bill Lieberman and his acquisitive friends we are now brimming with extraordinary art of the 20th century. But at the same time we have huge gaps. We have no work by Duchamp and very little Conceptual, Installation, Process art from the ‘70s and ‘80s forward. We don’t have works by Bruce Nauman, Brice Marden, only one major work each by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg…In the short term, I hope to be able to repair some of these gaps with pertinent loans, and in some notable instances, we already have.
We are trying to be methodical in the way we approach it, but in the end you can only buy what’s for sale. You can make all the lists you want but if the work isn’t for sale it’s not going to get you anywhere. And of course, when great works do appear on the market, the price can range from ten million dollars up to many multiples of that. We are actively cultivating collectors and donors, we are keeping our eye on the market, we have been very lucky recipients of very generous gifts. We are working on all fronts simultaneously. (Watch video about the Met’s collecting here.)
You have told me that the idea under Philippe was to acquire proven masterpieces. Because you don’t have unlimited space the idea was to fill in historical gaps, to look at work 50 years old or more. Is that persisting, or is the Met interested in acquiring more recent or emerging artists work as well?
We invite artists whom we admire at all different levels to engage with us. When it is appropriate we try to acquire works of art by these artists, and we have been successful with most of them.
But there are dozens of artists on our lists, artists we think are significant, artists who are making valuable contributions to our culture but whose work is not represented at the museum. I won’t single out any one or any ten of them. I am operating on all cylinders at all time trying to look for opportunities to bring more works into the collection.
Unlike, perhaps, Philippe de Montebello, I have no desire to establish a canon of proven artists. It’s true in time significant artists emerge. But the significances that we perceive are based on our own culture and experience. Because we are rich in postwar American art, does that mean we have made a decision that Latin America and Europe don’t have artists of comparable importance who have made works of art of equal interest? Of course those regions have produced many fine artists, and it’s a pity that they are not represented here at the Met, and I hope that in the future we can do more and do better.
But in terms of modern painting, starting with the bequest of Catherine Lorillard Wolfe in 1887, the Met’s collection is an amalgam reflecting the interests of New Yorkers. Thus if New Yorkers are interested in German painting of the 1970s and 80s there is going to be more of that here than there is of French painting of the 1970s and 80s. It is not so much a statement of our own set of standards or a canon, rather it is a reflection of what New Yorkers have acquired and of what they have given to their institutions.
You don’t have a budget that you devote to buying?
Traditionally the strategy here is that over time we have received collections by gift and bequest, and then we curators try to stitch the collections together with apt purchases. So for example we were given Tom Hess’s marvelous de Koonings and Muriel Newman’s magnificent de Koonings, Pollocks and Rothkos, and we try and fill in the gaps in between with pertinent purchases: Bill Lieberman bought works, for example, by Lee Krasner and Pollock that complement the gifts we received. Since we are weak in European sculpture I recently bought major works by Barbara Hepworth and Jean Tinguely (right).
Every once in a while we buy inexpensive works that are of interest to us and which we think are pertinent to our collections and the public, ranging from a Dada-ist self-portrait of the early 1920s by Ella Bergmann-Michel to sumi ink drawings made by Roland Flexner this year. But that is not a major aspect of our activity. Most of our energy in terms of contemporary art is going toward the exhibitions that we mount during the day. And then at night most of our energy is devoted to visiting collectors and artists and dealers and hoping that some of the works that we see will eventually wind up at the Met.
INTEREST IN LATIN AMERICA AND BEYOND
The Met has not collected modern and contemporary work from Asia, say India or China, or from Latin America and Africa. Are you interested in collecting in those areas?
I wish we could and I hope we will.
Can you elaborate?
In fact, many departments at the Met are modestly collecting contemporary art – the Asian Department, Islamic, Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, for example. And as I said, I hope that we can begin to look seriously at twentieth-century Latin American art.
You have a large amount of relatively minor works from the early 20th century that will never be exhibited that you anticipated deaccessioning. Have you been selling?
No. We have not had any regular deaccessioning. We did about four years ago try to sell some cumbersome works because we had to vacate a large storage facility. Some of the works we put at auction, a sculpture by William Zorach, for example, did not even sell. Happily, the University of Texas at Austin has borrowed some thirty large sculptures for display at their campus. Lots of people see them, which pleases all of us. They were acquired at a time when the idea was to have a rotating display from the permanent collection at the Cantor Sculpture Garden on the roof. Now that we devoted that space to exhibitions of works by single, living artists, the sculptures that had been collected for display on the roof didn’t have a home because they were too large for our indoor galleries.
Is the market preventing you from disposing of some things?
No, it is not a question of the market; I don’t feel any urgent need to do it. A once acute storage problem has been solved by the loan to the University of Texas; the few things we sold didn’t make much money. It was about housekeeping rather than raising money.
One of the trustees wants to redo the fountains. Could that be coupled with excavating and finally adding more space underneath the plaza?
[Met director] Tom Campbell and [president] Emily Rafferty are eager to make the plaza as attractive and agreeable as possible and are exploring various options.
You created a Modern visiting committee, but not a contemporary one?
It’s one support group for our entire department. Some of our members are very interested in contemporary art. We have about thirty people. Several are trustees of the Metropolitan. There are two levels of membership, $10,000 and $8,000 a year. We raise between $250,000 and $300,000 a year for departmental purposes.
Have they been acquiring things for the department?
Sometimes it’s for the library, research and data entry of our collection for the website, sometimes to frame works of art and sometimes for acquisitions or exhibitions.
Can you cite a few specific recent acquisitions?
I did above.
In September I am on a panel at the 2010 01SJ Biennial in Silicon Valley about the challenges that digital art and new media pose for private collectors and institutions – where to show the work, the technology involved and its eventual obsolescence, conservation issues, how to display it with more traditional art. What do you see as the challenges, and is the Met planning to collect in this area?
We haven’t collected much new media, but obviously that will change in time. I hope that we can have at least one gallery, maybe more, for display. But for me, ownership is not essential; it is important in the long run because then you can control the display, but loans look just as good to the public as acquisitions.
In the short term borrowing or sharing agreements are just fine because I feel that my primary responsibility – and of course different curators have different points of view – is to work to improve the display of the area under my direction, by any means I can. So if the trustees of the Sonnabend collection are willing to lend us one of Rauschenberg’s greatest Combines, Canyon, I am so happy to be able to show that to the public. It’s a work that we worked hard to obtain for the Rauschenberg Combine show, and when they graciously agreed to lend it to us on long-term loan, I was thrilled. To be able to show it to the public in our galleries, adjacent to a great contemporaneous painting by Cy Twombly, another loan, is a marvelous thing.
Have you done any sharing of new media yet?
No, but I will. I feel that my mandate is to present the best possible, at times provocative and challenging, display of works of art made over the last 200 years. As inadequate as it is in many areas, it is constantly changing, growing and evolving. It could expand infinitely and obviously our resources are not infinite so we are constantly making decisions about allocation of resources. But I hope it’s never boring. Rather than trying to define and refine a canon of regions, cultures, periods, and artists, I would like to be as expansive as possible and show an unexpected variety of art and expression in our galleries.
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