Teaching an old Met contemporary tricks: Museum director Thomas Campbell on launching Met Breuer

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New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art may be almost a century and a half old, but that doesn’t mean that one of the oldest art institutions in the United States isn’t intent on evolving.

In mid-March, the museum will open a branch devoted to Modern and contemporary art: The Met Breuer, which will inhabit the Marcel Breuer-designed building on Madison Avenue that once housed the Whitney Museum of American Art. (The Whitney has since decamped to a new location downtown designed by Renzo Piano.)

The Met is also at work on a plan to revamp its notoriously unwelcoming Modern wing at its Fifth Avenue location — a project that will be led by David Chipperfield, the award-winning British architect who designed the Museo Jumex in Mexico City and the rebuilt Neues Museum in Berlin.


For Met director Thomas P. Campbell these projects represent an opportunity to expand the museum’s collections and its reach. But they also mark a significant turnaround from when he first took over as director, in the immediate wake of the financial crisis of 2008.

“It was by no means a slam dunk,” he said during a meeting at The Times late last week. (Campbell was in Los Angeles for a meeting of the Assn. of Art Museum Directors.) “I spent the first six months of being director going through a contraction of the institution. We had to contract by 10%. And while we were doing that, we were trying to plan for the future.”

But the economy turned around and Campbell is now preparing to unveil the highly anticipated Met Breuer — the first new branch of the museum since the Cloisters opened to the public in upper Manhattan in 1938. As part of the plan, Breuer’s 1966 building has received needed architectural TLC, including a new roof and a fresh rewiring. The public opening on March 18 will kick off with a group exhibition on unfinished works as well as a one-woman show devoted to the late Indian abstractionist Nasreen Mohamedi.

“She was a thoughtful artist who had never had a monographic show in America,” Campbell said of the artist. “We have different strands of programming for the Breuer. One will be Modern and contemporary; one is looking beyond the familiar Western canon.”

The Met Breuer’s debut marks a moment in which Campbell is tweaking one of America’s most venerable institutions so that it might more broadly fulfill its mission of being an encyclopedic museum — and to be generally more accessible to the public physically, digitally and in the stories about art it chooses to tell.


“One of our priorities for our five-year strategy is accessibility and local communities,” said Campbell.

“Accessibility” is a word Campbell uses a lot.

The effort begins with the collections: Campbell is working to expand the museum’s holdings in several key areas. Naturally, Modern and contemporary art is among them. In 2012, Campbell brought Sheena Wagstaff from London’s Tate Modern to be the museum’s chief of Modern and contemporary art. She oversees a staff of 11 curators.

The trick for the museum will be setting its program apart from those of other New York institutions that exhibit Modern and contemporary works — among them, the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art. And it’s doing so with a Modern collection that isn’t exactly renowned for its strengths. (Though a recent gift of Cubist paintings from cosmetics mogul Leonard Lauder has helped make up for some of the shortfalls.)

“How does this differ from our peers?” Campbell asked. “Well, they show Modernist and contemporary art and they do it within the context of Modernism and the contemporary era — and what they do is brilliant. But our goal is to show this type of work within our art historical context and the context of our global collection.”

This means integrating historic works into contemporary exhibitions. One of the debut shows at the Met Breuer, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” for example, will include works dating back to the Renaissance — for a lineup that includes both Titian and Jackson Pollock.


The focus on contemporary also in a way takes the museum to its roots, said Campbell.

“When the Met was set up in the 1870s, it was set up to be encyclopedic, and there were living artists on board,” he said. “Much of the collection built up in the first 30 years was contemporary: [James McNeill] Whistler and [John Singer] Sargent. That was part of our founding mission. Famously, we pulled back from it.”

The museum is expanding the collection in other ways too. “We’re weak in Native American art, and we’re weak in Latin American art,” stated Campbell. “We have two new curators in Latin American.”

Much of the collection built up in the first 30 years was contemporary: Whistler and Sargent. That was part of our founding mission. Famously, we pulled back from it.

— Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But all of this diversifying is not without some weak spots. One of these is the makeup of the curatorial staff. A survey released last year by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the American Alliance of Museums and the AAMD showed that only 4% of museum curators, conservators, educators and leaders were African American. Latinos, in the meantime, accounted for even less: only 3% of these key positions, which have the power to shape the narrative of art both within and outside of the gallery.

The Met did not release staff diversity figures, but the museum says its demographics are on par with those stated in the Mellon report. Of the 11 curators who will work under Wagstaff in Modern and contemporary, Campbell said that one is Southeast Asian, another is South American. There are no African-Americans in the ranks.

“That is a problem in museums across the country,” said Campbell. “There is relatively little diversity in curatorial and conservation ranks. But this is part of our five-year strategy. The challenge is to figure out how we broaden the pipeline. We have great diversity in internships and fellowships, but it falls away after the catchment of post-graduation.”


In the meantime, the Met is at work on other initiatives that will broaden the museum’s audiences. A program that gave away free museum memberships to individuals who signed up for a New York City identification has brought in 35,000 new members from far-reaching parts of the city. Likewise, #MetKids, launched last year, has helped make the collection more accessible to children through online and video programming.

Campbell said he is always looking for ways to improve the online experience, all while retaining the Met’s reputation for scholarship. In March, the museum will re-launch its website so that it will read well on a variety of platforms, especially mobile — since more than 90% of visitors to the museum carry a mobile device of one kind or another. And the museum will continue to build the international audience it has cultivated online.

“We increased our footfall from 4.7 million visitors to 6.3 million from [fiscal year] 2009 to 2012, and so far that has held steady,” the director said. “But our online audience has grown tremendously. Visitors to the website stand at something like 32 million a year [in fiscal year 2015].”

The museum also continues to invest in important content-driven initiatives, such as the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, a research platform that places objects from the museum’s collection — from pre-Columbian rock carvings to Romantic paintings — on a chronological continuum. It also produces “82nd & Fifth,” a series in which museum curators talk about the objects that inspire their work.

All of this comes as the Met is reconsidering the physical accessibility of its Fifth Avenue headquarters — specifically the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing, which has historically held objects from the Met’s Modern and contemporary holdings. The wing, opened in 1987, is infamous for its general impenetrability and inhospitability.


The renovation project, in its earliest design stages, will not only provide an opportunity to rebuild a series of problematic galleries, it will provide the museum with a chance to rethink its relationship to Central Park. (Though it is within Central Park, the museum’s only entrances reside on Fifth Avenue.)

“We think there is something we can do to make for a more dynamic relationship to the park,” said Campbell. “We are looking at an entrance, at terraces, at the roof garden.”

The museum would be in a better position to take advantage of its location, he added, if it were simply more accessible.

“One of the great opportunities of the Met is its unique position,” he said. “There is no other museum in Central Park.”

The Met Breuer opens to the public on March 18. 945 Madison Ave., New York,

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.