Gary Tinterow and Modern Art at the Metropolitan

Gary Tinterow. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)
IN VIEW blog, Aug. 26, 2010.

August 26, 2010, 1:16 am

Gary Tinterow’s Contemporary Art Agenda for the Metropolitan Museum

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.


Gary Tinterow in his office at the Metropolitan Museum. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been steadily increasing its engagement with modern and contemporary art. In case you hadn’t noticed, the venerable institution that for decades had neglected the art of our time has in the last five or so years presented a string of exhibitions of the work of living artists. The upsurge has coincided with the appointment in 2004 of Gary Tinterow as head of the newly formed mega-department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art.

He has made modern and contemporary art a major part of the calendar at the Metropolitan, mounting solo shows of Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Santiago Calatrava and others, and presenting rooftop installations of artists including Jeff Koons, Roxy Paine, and the Starn brothers, whose Big Bambú (on view until Oct. 31) is the latest in a string of popular contemporary offerings at the museum. He also has bolstered acquisitions and landed a number of major loans of contemporary art.

In embracing contemporary art, the Met joins encyclopedic museums around the world that have followed a similar path. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has a new building sponsored by collector Eli Broad and devoted to contemporary art. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston will add galleries for contemporary art as part of an expansion, as will the Philadelphia Art Museum. The Art Institute of Chicago has long had an active program in contemporary art, and even the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and the Louvre in Paris have recently been exhibiting and even commissioning work by living artists.

The trend is not only a way that historical art museums can compete for audience with their more contemporary counterparts, but also strategic in terms of fundraising and collection development. Collectors today are involved predominantly with contemporary art. The supply of art from earlier periods is limited, and accordingly there are more opportunities to amass recent art, and more galleries and social events associated with it. Wealthy collectors are prospective trustees and patrons, and they are more likely to support institutions that share their interests. Moreover, they tend to donate art to museums that demonstrate a habit of showing their gifts. With so many other institutions specializing in contemporary art, encyclopedic museums neglect the field at their peril.

Tinterow landed a big contemporary art loan with Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991, from the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection. (Photo: Science, Ltd.)

But it is not only to attract money and art that encyclopedic museums increasingly show contemporary work. They recognize also that there is tremendous interest in the art of today. Audiences are attracted to work that speaks to issues of our time, created by our contemporaries. And the accompanying market — with galleries eager to advertise their artists — insures that the bulk of media attention accrues to living artists, many of whom tap into readers’ appetite for celebrity and fashion. In other words, fusty museums of older art can generate buzz by going contemporary. The challenge is to tap into the current without sacrificing the discrimination and scholarship that distinguish great encyclopedic museums.

The Met has held its own in this respect. If the museum has not revolutionized our understanding of contemporary art, it might be noted that even museums and galleries dedicated to the new very rarely succeed in breaking new ground.

But attention remains trained on traditional leaders in the field: The Museum of Modern Art with its unparalleled collections and brand, the Guggenheim with its magnetic Frank Lloyd Wright landmark, the New Museum in its intriguing new quarters on the Bowery, and the Whitney with its plan to uproot and relocate downtown. It seemed a good moment to discuss contemporary art at the Met with the man in charge.

A Curator Familiar with Much More than Contemporary Art

Tinterow, 55, joined the Met in 1983 as curator of 19th-century paintings and established a reputation as one of the stars in the field with a focus on French 19th-century art. Chances are you have seen some of his landmark exhibitions — “Degas” (1988), “Seurat” (1991), “The Havemeyer Collection” (1993), “Origins of Impressionism” (1994), “Corot” (1996), “The Private Collection of Edgar Degas” (1997), “Portraits by Ingres” (1999), “Manet/Velzáquez” (2002), “Picasso in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” (It closed on Aug. 15 but there is a  terrific video interview here.)

This record is unusual for a leader in the contemporary field, one in which most curators lack a solid grounding in art history. He has a graduate degree from Harvard University where his studies included work on Cy Twombly and Lucas Samaras before he decided to write his thesis on Picasso drawings. A related exhibition “Master Drawings by Picasso,” was held at Harvard, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Philadelphia Museum in 1981, and was the first retrospective of Picasso drawings ever held. Through that project he met the renowned collector Douglas Cooper which led to Tinterow’s co-curating an exhibition of his holdings, “The Essential Cubism,” held at the Tate in 1983.

When the Metropolitan’s European Painting chairman, John Pope Hennessy, invited him to become curator of the museum’s 19th-century French paintings, he shifted his focus to the earlier period, but continued his involvement with modern art, organizing in 1985 the first major Juan Gris exhibition in Spain at the Biblioteca Nacional, and in 1992 co-organizing with Carmen Gimenez “Picasso Classico,” the presentation of which in Malaga led to the opening of the Museo Picasso in the artist’s birthplace.

A Cai Guo-Qiang sculpture on the Metropolitan Museum roof in 2006. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

It is fair to say that no curator in charge of contemporary art at a major museum has the depth of art-historical knowledge and scholarship that Tinterow brings to the job. The department that he heads comprehends European paintings from 1800 to the present, as well as international 20th-century sculpture, drawings, prints, decorative arts, and design. The contemporary component, in which associate curator Anne L. Strauss and senior consultant Marla Prather play active roles, evolved from the Contemporary Art department established in 1970 by Henry Geldzahler, a curator of American art at the museum known for his social involvement with New York’s art scene. His 1969 survey, “New York Painting: 1940-1970″, was the Met’s first major incursion into the field of contemporary art.

He was replaced by Thomas Hess, who died after six months in office, then in 1979 William S. Lieberman was named chairman of the department which was renamed “Twentieth Century” then “Modern Art.” Lieberman, who died in 2005, set about expanding mainly the Modern art holdings from around 2,000 to 12,000 items to fill the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, built in the early 1980s and the first space at the Met dedicated to Modern art. The collection today is surprisingly deep and growing, but the museum got into the game late and there are gaps, particularly in contemporary.

In the interview that follows, Tinterow talks about his three-pronged approach to contemporary art at the Metropolitan, future exhibitions, and his approach to collecting in New York. He also emphsizes his desire for collection sharing among institutions, expresses his interest in acquiring art from Latin America and other regions, outlines the planned renovation of the Wallace Wing, and discusses ongoing negotiations to lease the Whitney Museum’s Breuer building as a way of addressing the Met’s need for more space to display contemporary art.

[Gary Tinterow. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)]

Jason Kaufman: Can you tell me about your approach to contemporary art at the Metropolitan?

Gary Tinterow: We have a three-pronged program to bring more modern and contemporary art to the museum, beginning with exhibitions of great modern masters – such as “Robert Rauschenberg: Combines,” “Jasper Johns: Gray” (video here), and the upcoming Richard Serra drawings and John Baldessari retrospectives.  A second program invites younger artists to engage with the collection in what we call our Projects space on the mezzanine. Tony Oursler was the first, then Kara Walker, Neo Rauch, Tara Donovan, Raquib Shaw, Pablo Bronstein, and, this fall, Katrin Sigurdardottir. These artists enliven our program by throwing a novel perspective on the collection or the museum and our public.

Then we have the series of exhibitions by living artists on the roof: from the explosive installation by Cai Guo-Qiang, to sculptures by Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella, Jeff Koons, Roxy Paine, and, this summer, the Starn brothers’ installation Big Bambú. We try to make the program varied and unpredictable.

“Robert Rauschenberg: Combines” at the Met, 2005-06.

Another aspect, which is in suspense for the moment, was a series of exhibitions on the interstices between art and architecture. We presented “Santiago Calatrava: Sculpture into Architecture” and “Frank Stella: Painting into Architecture.” I had dreamed of a project with Zaha Hadid but the Guggenheim show preempted that – and, by the way, with three hundred galleries and a dozen active museum venues in New York, competition for ideas, artists, and works of art is a real challenge. Nevertheless, I hope to be able to continue working in that vein because that to me is an interesting little field that is not given much attention elsewhere.

That’s the exhibition program. In terms of acquisitions, we rely primarily on donations.

“Neo Rauch at the Met”, 2007.

Unlike other museums of contemporary art in the city, the Met can allow visitors to see modern and contemporary art in the context of millennia of creativity. In 2006 you told me that you planned to exploit this by inviting artists to select “artist’s eye” exhibitions, perhaps integrating their work with objects from the collection. And also you were thinking of exhibitions about artists as collectors, for example, showing Baselitz’ collection of mannerist painting. Are you undertaking either of those initiatives, and are you talking with Baselitz and other artists about selecting shows or showing their collections?

Kara Walker made just that sort of exhibition.  And Neo Rauch and Pablo Bronstein, who both made new works of art specifically for their shows at the Met, interacted with the collection and the museum in equally engaging ways.

“Kara Walker at the Met: After the Deluge,” 2006. In response to Hurricane Katrina, the artist juxtposed objects from the collection with her own work to evoke themes about black figures and the sea in art.

Was the “Pictures Generation” show the first contemporary group show at the museum since Henry Geldzahler? What other contemporary group shows are planned?

The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984,” organized by Doug Eklund of the Department of Photographs, was a very important exhibition for the Met, one that established standards of scholarship and documentation rarely seen in projects dealing with artists at mid-career. Geldzahler’s epochal exhibition was very different:  there was no scholarly dimension; it was akin to a “house invasion” by the New York contemporary art world of an institution that was perceived to be stodgy and inflexible. It represented a coming of age of the New York School as well as the Met, and it reflected Henry’s particular point of view, but scholarship or even documentation was not at all the point.


I have been talking eagerly with colleagues about collection sharing. With contemporary art and certain new-media installations, there already is a model for collection sharing: museums on opposite sides of the country are buying works together. When a museum buys a video or media installation, it will not be shown permanently. Why not share the costs and also increase the number of times the work is seen by new audiences? I hope that sharing will become one aspect of our collecting strategy.

Particularly with new media?

In all media. It’s just a fact that whether you are at the Art Institute of Chicago, LACMA, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Met, or even MoMA, the more recent the art is, the greater the percentage of the collection that will be in storage. In other words, museums almost inevitably own more art of the recent past than of the great past, and most of it is in storage, yet there is an intense amount of interest on the part of the public and press in contemporary art.

It seems to me that sharing and cooperative agreements could become the most efficient use of our resources going forward. I am trying to pursue it in different ways with different colleagues. I believe that in the future, in a place like New York City, there will be money, there will be collectors, there will be a lot of art circulating in the city, but that the amount of museum space available for the display of that art will in fact become quite limited. Space is the most restricted resource.

Instead of having all museums in the area collecting the same artists or categories of work, competing with one another, perhaps needlessly, for works that are going to spend most of the time in storage, why not cooperate so that we can each complement each other’s displays with a loan policy that will make things in storage more readily available to sister institutions in the community?

Tom Krens’s model for the Guggenheim was to do that, but globally with franchise museums that the Guggenheim controlled. In contrast, I am suggesting that we simply do it with our sister institutions because it makes sense. Why should a work be in storage when it could be enjoyed by the public?

I have spoken to private collectors and colleagues at museums in New York and elsewhere and I have received encouraging responses.

The Wallace Wing from Central Park. The outer wall will be heightened to create more interior space. (The Starn bothers’ Big Bambu is visible on the roof.) (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)


That is the kind of thinking that private collectors such as Eli Broad have espoused. But how will you get more work on display?

I hope that we will in the future, and sooner than later, be able to renovate the Wallace Wing. There’s no firm date as of now.

Can you expand the space of the Wing?

We have received permissions from the landmarks authority to alter the Central Park wall, the western wall of the American Wing and of the Wallace Wing. That will enable us where we have our mezzanine to have two full floors. It will look only slightly different from the Park façade. This has already happened on the American side and we can do something similar on the South side of the building on the Wallace Wing. But we cannot extend our footprint and have no intention to.

So that internal change could create three full floors?

Possibly. And there is the garage underneath the Wallace Wing. With the American Wing we excavated under the Engelhard Court and captured space. We could excavate underneath the garage if we had the money and the desire to do so. Also, there is a lot of space in the Wallace Wing that is devoted to mechanicals. It would be good to get that on the roof or underground so as to free up the space on the floors for the display of works of art.


The Whitney Museum’s building by Marcel Breuer. (Photo (c) Ezra Stoller)

What about the possibility of working with the Whitney to acquire their Breuer Building when they move downtown?

The Whitney has no plans to sell their building: even after they open their new building on Gansevoort Street they are obliged to keep it by the terms of Leonard Lauder’s exceptional gift of more than $130 million.  Obviously we are not buying a building that isn’t for sale.

But you have been discussing leasing it.

Yes.  Needless to say that if there’s a vacant building nearby we will talk to them about it to determine whether there is a possible collaboration that makes sense for the two institutions. It’s a very handsome building, one of the great architectural landmarks of New York.

As you know, the trustees of the Met and of the Whitney have authorized continued discussions between our administrations.  We have thought a great deal about potential use of the building, the benefits and opportunities as well as the considerable costs.  At the minimum, it could be a very attractive swing space while we renovate the Wallace Wing at the Met.

Could the Met eventually operate another branch in the city, like MoMA does with PS1?

Or as the Met operates the Cloisters?  In the end, our administration and board will make a decision by weighing the benefits and costs.

Have you explored other spaces in the city? Have you talked about working with The Park Avenue Armory?

As far as I know there have not been any direct discussions with anyone at the Armory, but that is a great space, too, and I could imagine wonderful things there.


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.)

Inside the Wallace Wing. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

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.

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Yellow), 1994-2000, on the Met roof. (The Steven and Alexandra Cohen Collection © Jeff Koons)

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?


Jean Tinguely’s Narva, 1961, recently acquired by the Metropolitan.

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.


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.

Starn brothers, Big Bambú, 2010, on the roof. (Photo by Jason Edward Kaufman (c) 2010)

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.

Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon, 1959, on loan to the Met from the Sonnabend Collection, NY. (© Robert Rauschenberg/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY )

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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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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