Gary Tinterow’s Agenda for Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum – Part One of Interview

IN VIEW blog, Aug. 26, 2010

In a wide-ranging interview, the chief curator of modern and contemporary art discusses collection sharing, acquisition strategy, renovation of the Wallace Wing, negotiations to lease the Whitney’s Breuer building, and more.

Part One of a two-part interview; the Introduction is here.

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.




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.

Part Two of the interview is here.


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

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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