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.
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.
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.
Whenthe 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.
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.
Part One of the interview is here.