I am who I am. I’m not going to adopt a grand-style persona (Interview with Thomas Campbell, director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Art Newspaper 205 (September 2009), p. 22-23.

“I am who I am. I’m not going to adopt a grand-style persona”

Thomas Campbell speaks for the first time in depth on his plans as the new director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Jason Edward Kaufman

New York. When Thomas Campbell was named director and chief executive of the Metropolitan Museum of Art a year ago this month, the British-born curator became leader of the most important art museum in the western hemisphere, an institution that holds two million objects and attracts more than 4.5 million visitors a year. His predecessor Philippe de Montebello became something of an eminence during 31 years as director, and it was expected that a well-known figure would be chosen to replace him. The selection of Campbell, 47, a tapestry specialist in the department of European sculpture and decorative arts, was a total surprise. Since joining the Met in 1995 he had organised international loan exhibitions-“Tapestry in the Renaissance” (2002) and “Tapestry in the Baroque” (2007)-that were widely praised for their scholarship and opulence, but he remains somewhat unknown even to many insiders. Since assuming the directorship on 1 January, Campbell has not spoken in depth about his plans for North America’s flagship art museum.

The Art Newspaper: How do you think your leadership of the Met may differ from Philippe de Montebello’s?

Thomas Campbell: I came to the museum because it was an incredibly exciting place to work as a scholar in my field. Philippe was a major contributor to the environment that made it such an exciting place and I have every intention of sustaining and developing the strengths of this institution: maintaining a dynamic exhibition programme, the award-winning publication programme, continuing to acquire masterpieces, but also to expand study collections where it’s appropriate, and continuing to place the emphasis on the encounter of our visitors with the objects, trying to really create the environment for that direct experience without bells and whistles. Will I be introducing change? I guess it’s evolution rather than revolution.

TAN: Will your leadership style be the same as his?

TC: Separate out manner and leadership style. Philippe has a grand manner. He is a very impressive presence, sonorous voiced, multilingual. I am who I am. I’m certainly not going to try and adopt a grand-style persona. That side of my presence I guess will evolve as I become more accustomed to being a spokesperson internally and externally. In terms of actual leadership style, this institution is quite feudal. We have 17 curatorial departments, many of which are equivalent to medium-size museums. One reason we are a place bursting with ideas and initiatives is that Philippe allowed and encouraged ideas to bubble up through the departments and he was very supportive of initiatives brought to him from his curatorial staff. Having experienced the benefits of that myself, I very much intend to maintain it. [But] there is a shift in that the economic circumstances have changed totally. Our endowment has dropped precipitously, around 25% [from $2.8bn in June 2008] and that is going to impact the funding we can draw for our operating budget. I’m going to have to be more discriminating in terms of the number of exhibitions we mount, the number of publications we produce. If I’m bringing a slight shift of focus at this moment it’s in two respects. The first is that we’ve been mounting around 30-35 exhibitions a year, putting huge creativity and resources into that side of our operations. I want to bring more of that back to our own collections. That’s something I would want to do irrespective of the economic circumstances, but they make that a necessity. We mount so many exhibitions even our most loyal visitors see only a portion of them. The danger is we are only competing with ourselves. What I want to do at the same time is bring more attention back to our own treasures. What does that actually mean? It means partly getting our curatorial body, who are so focused on exhibitions, to also put more of their energies into our collections. Of course this happens when we reopen a new wing-it’s all hands on deck to rebuild the American Wing or the Greek and Roman Galleries. But so much of the museum is not under construction, and there is a great deal more we can do to enliven, inform, invigorate the visitor experience to those parts of the museum. We’re talking about a range of issues from traditional signage, the quality of the information we deliver to them in the galleries-whether traditional label copy or audio guides or other media platforms.

TAN: How much do you anticipate reducing the programme?

TC: There must be ten or 12 big exhibitions, then maybe another ten medium-sized exhibitions along with smaller installations. I inherited a programme with exhibitions on the books through 2012 or early 2013. I’ve been working carefully with the curatorial departments to look at what we already have and what is sustainable. For the coming year I don’t want to cancel anything-we’ve pushed back a couple of exhibitions [see box, p23] into the following fiscal year, in both cases to their benefit. It’s hard to put figures on this, but I envisage perhaps 20%-25% fewer big shows, but trying to engage more with our own collections. But I’m absolutely committed to maintaining a programme that’s global in its reach and challenging.

TAN: Have you thought about mounting more collection-based special exhibitions? This could allow curators to interact across departments.

TC: I totally agree. Our departmental structure has evolved over the past 40 years or so partly in response to opportunities in the marketplace, partly to developments in scholarship, partly to the energies of individual curators or directorial interest. It’s a structure that has allowed the museum to respond to opportunities but at the same time it can be an impediment to the museum living up to its claims to being universal. This is definitely an area I want to encourage. The potential for such cross fertilisation is immense.

TAN: Will you institute structural changes?

TC: The museum has grown enormously over the past 40 years physically and in terms of number of staff, and 40 years ago senior curators were very involved in administrative functions of the museum. As the museum physically grew we employed more administrators and the curatorial departments grew, but perhaps became more isolated from administrative affairs. That allowed them to focus on scholarly activities, but in some respects there is a divide and I would like to reintegrate, to bring greater interaction and understanding in certain areas between the scholarly and administrative sides. One of the steps I will be taking this autumn is formulating a programmatic committee that will act as a forum of senior curatorial figures who will work with me and the associate director of exhibitions, and act as a forum to which exhibition and publication ideas are discussed, so that we can ensure that we are taking the full opportunity wherever we are putting our resources.

TAN: That will be a first for the museum?

TC: Yes. Up until this point the way exhibitions have been approved is that curators or department heads would bring a proposal to Philippe and he would say yes or no. I will still be the person who makes that decision, but at a time when we have got to make less go further, and I can’t green light everything, this is a forum in which the curatorial body itself-it will also have representatives from editorial, operations, education-will have to take a bit more responsibility for what is brought forward. But I see it as a constructive dialogue that I trust will make sure that projects that might be considered as cross-departmental have their possibility fully aired. Mahrukh Tarapor [the longtime associate director for exhibitions] has retired as of the end of the last fiscal year, and is now acting as a special advisor to me. But I am looking for a successor who will be based here-for the last four years she was based in Geneva. In light of the current economic circumstances, if we are going to reduce the number of big exhibitions, it’s a moment when we need the head of our exhibitions programme here and perhaps more involved in the nurturing and development.

TAN: Philippe de Montebello maintained a Director’s Council of Advisers.

TC: I disbanded that particular group, but I envisage this programmatic committee in some respects having an equal function. The other area in which it would take an advisory role is in regard to publications. So many of our publications are exhibition catalogues. As we go forward, if we have slighter resources I want to make sure we are supporting the most worthwhile projects. We have endowed funds for publications, but the books we produce are hugely expensive. We won’t be able to produce as many, as large, as beautifully illustrated. But we are absolutely committed to maintaining that publication programme. The economic circumstances will affect us profoundly. That said, compared with many smaller institutions we continue to be a very well funded institution with a huge support base and my goal is that, although we have got to scale back the number of exhibitions and publications, from the point of view of even our very regular visitors, there won’t be visible change. On the contrary, I hope that what people will gradually see is greater richness around the amount of information being provided around the collections, more thoughtfulness around their visit to the museum.

TAN: How do you plan to enrich that experience?

TC: One of the things I’ve been doing in the last six months is taking an overview of the way we deliver information around the museum. I’m making a number of changes that I think will help us get focused on this. One key factor is consolidating the different groups within the museum who process media content. I’m actually moving towards creating a new media department. In the autumn I will also be working with setting up a new task force to look at the whole visitor services side of the museum’s face-literally from what happens when people arrive in the Great Hall, the bits of paper they pick up, the map, how they get around the galleries. We have no coherent gallery numbering system.

TAN: You want to maintain the direct encounter with a work of art, but people demand information. Is there enough information in the galleries?

TC: We need to find the right balance between creating a direct and meaningful encounter with a work of art without there being the impediment of an overly didactic contextualisation. At the same time, much of our audience is very sophisticated and wants a lot of information. How do you find the right balance? We are at an exciting time because new technology does give us the opportunity to deliver all sorts of different levels of information to different audiences in a very discreet way. I think handheld devices and audio tours have huge potential beyond where they are now? I don’t want to be overly typecast as being wonkish on technology, but I think it is one of the major frontiers at the moment because it has the potential to so enrich and transform the visitor experience. The Met has put a lot of effort into the audio guides it supplies to exhibitions, and we have a certain amount of audio guide information for our permanent collections, but that is an area that needs to be hugely expanded. Then we need to enrich the different levels that people can get to. We also have to think of different languages so that our large international audience is properly catered to. The National Gallery in London, the Tate, the Louvre are all experimenting with devices that besides delivering an audio tour will deliver visuals on a handheld device. The danger is that there’s something so compelling about a digital image that all too quickly the object in front of you becomes an illustration to the narrative you’re holding in your hand.

TAN: British Museum director Neil MacGregor and his counterpart at the Tate, Nicholas Serota, recently differentiated US museums, deemed in thrall to their moneyed boards, from European and particularly British museums, which they maintain serve the public more directly.

TC: I think the way they characterised it reflects one end of the spectrum. We’ve all heard about cases where especially influential trustees wield their personal agendas that become imposed upon an institution. That’s the negative end of the spectrum. But the positive end of it, and the case that pertains in so many of the large well run museums and cultural institutions in the US, is almost the opposite. The direct engagement of so many supporters is a very good discipline. I, my staff, our curators, are engaged on a daily basis with people who are passionate about subjects and whose enthusiasms help inform, and of course support, our initiatives. At the end of the day, the Met has bought more objects, has organised more exhibitions, has undertaken more scholarly publications than any other museum in the world as a result, simply because of the enthusiastic support of the donors and our trustees. There’s this caricaturish notion that people fall back on, but my experience of our board is that it is comprised of individuals who take their role extremely seriously in terms of both advice or financial support.

TAN: They are not interested solely in creating an elitist institution, but are aware also of the museum’s function in the public sphere?

TC: Absolutely. And I think it is a great disservice to them. This notion of some self-serving body that’s only interested in its own social advancement is so distorting and unfair. This is a great institution because of the farsighted support over so many years by individuals who are consciously contributing to build it and make it better. The impression they were giving was that there was some sort of constraint. We are not constrained. On the contrary we have got the ability to go out and fundraise and find support for different initiatives that allow us to do things that very few European institutions are able to.

TAN: Museums in London charge admission for exhibitions, but de Montebello often emphasised that it takes multiple visits to absorb a show and admission charges can be an impediment. Also he did not want the museum to be driven by the prospective revenues from successful special exhibitions, so he did not charge a fee. Will you maintain that policy?

TC: Our admission fee is a recommended fee. But the truth is that this year’s operating budget is some $220m of which we get around 15% from the city. The other 85% comes from either our operating endowment or funds we generate ourselves, including what we take from the recommended admission fee. We need every cent that we can get.

TAN: You may wind up charging for special shows?

TC: It’s one of a number of options I imagine we’ll look at in the coming months. But I’m not putting that out there as “Shock, horror! Met charges for exhibitions!” All I’m being is realistic about the fact that we’ve lost more than 25% of our endowment. But I’m fully committed to maintaining as full access to our collections as possible.

TAN: Many museums around the world are creating branches, either domestically or abroad. Do you envision the Met doing this?

TC: I don’t think that any initiatives should detract or take away focus from the fact that we are a universal museum here in New York. That has to be our core priority, albeit a museum that has universal outreach through its website, touring exhibitions and our ongoing scholarly engagement by curators and conservators with institutions and archaeological digs and programmes all over the world. There is this perception that we have a huge collection of which vast quantities are in storage. In fact, a large percentage of those stored collections are things like drawings and prints or textiles that can’t be on permanent display; most of our masterpieces that can be displayed long term are in the galleries. We don’t have the resources that the Louvre and the RMN [Réunion des musées nationaux] can draw upon for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It’s not really analogous. That said, we certainly have collections that on a temporary basis might be toured, displayed more widely. And I am very committed to maintaining a global face.

TAN: Has anyone from the Middle East or elsewhere approached the Met?

TC: At the moment there is much discuss

This article appeared in The Art Newspaper 205 (September 2009), p. 22-23.


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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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