The Artsy Podcast, No. 42: Former Met Director Thomas Campbell Defends His Legacy

Artsy Editorial
Jul 20, 2017 11:04PM

Artsy’s team of editors takes you behind the scenes of the best stories in art.

Subscribe to the Artsy Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Pocket Casts, or the podcasting app of your choice. Don’t forget to rate the show and leave us comments; we’d love to hear from you.

On February 4th, the New York Times published a front page story entitled “Is the Met Museum ‘a Great Institution in Decline’?” The article ignited a ferocious public backlash against New York City’s most-visited institution and its director and CEO, Thomas P. Campbell. By the end of that same month, Campbell had announced his resignation—making his tenure as director the shortest since the Met’s fourth, Herbert Eustis Winlock, who presided over the institution from 1932 to 1939.

Principal among the issues that led to Campbell’s resignation was a roughly $10 million budgetary deficit (public knowledge for a year or so prior to his resignation), which officials warned could swell to $40 million if immediate action was not taken.

In a conversation with Artsy, days after his July 14th departure from the Met, Campbell was candid about the issues that contributed to that deficit—including his own ambition as director. But he also painted a far more nuanced picture of the circumstances surrounding the major grievances levied against him and the museum: in particular, heavy investment in expanding the museum’s activities in modern and contemporary art and extensive resources put into digital infrastructure to help expand the reach of the United States’s largest museum.

You can read a transcript of the full episode below.

Alexander Forbes: Thank you, Tom, for joining me today at Artsy HQ.

Thomas Campbell: It’s a pleasure to be here.

AF: There’s so much I’d like to get through, so, if you don’t mind, I think we’ll just dive right in.

Looking back at some of the statements you’ve made leading up to your departure from the Met, you’ve said that various portions of the narrative that have played out have been accurate and not accurate to varying degrees and that you hope that, in some amount of time, a larger narrative could come out about your tenure there and the circumstances around your departure. There’s been no shortage of coverage around the Met’s trials and tribulations over the last six months. But, from your perspective: What were the less accurate portions of that coverage; why did you resign; and what is that larger narrative that you hope might emerge over time?

TC: We had a quite a turbulent year last year. Like many businesses, we were going through a financial restructuring just to make sure that our income was balanced with our expenditures and it generated quite a lot of agitation inside and outside the museum that was portrayed in some of the media as a major crisis. The reality is that the Met has a $3 billion endowment. It has a AAA rating. It has one of the most generous donor bases of any cultural institution in the world. So the work we were doing was being done from a position of great strength and the institution remains very strong in every sense. So I think that as the dust settles, people will be able to see again how amazing the Met is. On every metric, we’re in a very strong place. We’ve just broken an audience of seven million; we’ve grown our audience by 40 percent over the last eight years, which I think is faster than any peer institution anywhere in the world. The quality of our program is the envy of the world. We’re firing on all cylinders, and I think that is the story that will emerge.

AF: The Met was the most visited tourist attraction in all of New York last year. You’ve repeated in a number of interviews that the Met is on a pathway to financial stability and prosperity in the long term. Is there any detail to which you can get into the underpinnings of that claim and how you see that path emerging out of this tumultuous year?

TC: The Met is a big business. We’re a $350–360 million gross business, $320 million net. Our income comes from multiple sources. And our expenditures are considerable. One of the challenges we’ve been facing in recent years is that we have a high internal inflationary pressure because between about 65–70% of our budget goes on salaries and benefits and we have a constant, incremental 2–3% increase in that every year while at the same time some of our revenue streams were being impacted. For various reasons, our admissions stream was weakening. In order to deal with deferred maintenance we had to take out a bond issue for $250 million back in early 2015, so we had additional debt repayment. Another incremental factor was that, because the actuarial projections were changed, by law we had to start putting more money aside for pensions; many institutions across the country are facing similar circumstances. So we had a combination of factors that were increasing our expenditures while our revenues were weakening. And what we were doing was essentially good housekeeping. We were trimming our costs, trying to reduce the headcount to a certain extent, looking carefully at our priorities, but it’s business. And we’re well on track to having a comprehensive, balanced, sustainable budget over the next two to three years.

AF: One of the major public blows that, I think, a lot of people in New York noticed was the indefinite pushing off of building the $600 million contemporary wing. To what extent did the impact of the gaps between the mandate that you were given when coming in to vastly expand contemporary and modern art as part of the Met’s program and the realities of funding around that initiative impact this larger picture?

TC: Again, I think that the story has been somewhat simplified in the press. And perhaps I’m also victim of some of my own overly optimistic projections from five or six years ago. The situation is that, back in 2012–2013, we undertook a feasibility study of the whole building. We looked at infrastructure needs, deferred maintenance, and we looked at future elective projects, transformative projects that would really enhance the Met’s offering to its public. And out of the study came a very realistic understanding of some very urgent needs: areas of roofs that needed to be replaced, in particular the need to re-roof the area over our European paintings galleries. That was one subject that then led into a deep-dive analysis that came to completion at the end of 2016.

At the same time, on the elective projects, the project that seemed to the leadership and to the board the highest priority back in 2013 was the opportunity of rebuilding the southwest corner of the museum which houses our modern and contemporary collections but also has a number of other functions; it’s where we have the roof garden, restaurants, boardroom, and so on. That too led into a deeper-dive analysis. We did an architectural competition. We ended up selecting the British architect David Chipperfield and we then worked with David on a very exciting year and a half, two year process as we developed a schematic design for that project. There’s no question that, if we embark on it, it will be very expensive.

Those two—the infrastructure project and the modern wing vision—both came to fruition at the end of last year. By the time that we had completed both of these analyses, it was clear that we couldn’t do both at the same time. Originally, i had thought that they might overlap or they might run in conjunction. But it was quite clear that the scale of the infrastructure project is so enormous that that would be standalone just as the southwest wing. So we had to make a call—which was the higher priority? And I think it was clear to all of us that ensuring the integrity of the existing building, protecting the existing collections has to be the priority, especially insofar as we had done a $250 million bond issue, so we had the money in hand to move forward with that project.

The decision to put the southwest wing project on pause, there has been a lot of speculation about what does this mean; I think we have a very exciting vision for what can happen with that southwest corner and my successor and the board will now have the time to really think carefully about what is the appetite and how much are they prepared to invest in that venture. There is no question that for the growth and the future health of the Metropolitan, that is a part of the museum that has to be redeveloped. But this all has to be looked at in the context of an institution that is 147–148 years old. We’ve been under almost permanent construction since the building was set up in Central Park in 1880, and you just have to take a longer-term perspective on this.

AF: It’s been exciting to see the activities in the Met Breuer in the meantime, and it’s my understanding that it's actually bringing in a larger audience than the Whitney was in the same location, especially given the backdrop of the issues getting funding around these things and clearly, the Kerry James Marshall show was one of the favorite exhibitions I’ve seen in the last five years. But one question that I’ve heard a lot was actually written in the Times in one of Robin Pogrebin’s early articles in a bit of a rhetorical way, but which I think warrants getting your perspective on is: “Why try to compete with the new Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art, some ask, instead of sticking to what the Met already does best?”

TC: It’s a really good question; it’s a very important question. I don’t think we were out to compete with the MoMA or the Whitney or the Guggenheim. You have to take a step back. When the Met was founded, it was founded as an encyclopedic museum to collect everything from antiquity through to the present day. And for the first 40 years of the Met’s existence, modern art was the Hudson River School and contemporary was Sargent and Whistler and William Merritt Chase. And the Met collected quite aggressively in those areas, and thank God it did, because those are now some of the strengths of our collection. But the Met famously pulled back from collecting contemporary in the early 20th century because the art that was coming out of europe—Cubism, Fauvism, and so on—was just too radical for the tastes of the board and the curators of the time. That despite the efforts of brave curators like Roger Fry, who felt we should be collecting.

There was a hiatus of 20–25 years in which time MoMA was created, the Whitney was created, the Guggenheim was created. But by the 1930s and early ’40s, it was becoming clear again to staff at the Met that many of them felt that we should be collecting contemporary, not to compete but because it was part of the longer narrative that the Metropolitan was charged with telling. If you look back, if you read authors like Calvin Tomkins’s Merchants and Masterpieces, you see the effort that the museum began to make in the 1950s and ‘60s to re-engage. Famously, Henry Geldzahler in the 1960s under Tom Hoving brought a whole new effort to collecting and displaying modern art at the Met. That continued, not turbocharged, but it continued under Philippe de Montebello and we built up a meaningful collection—but it’s patchy, it’s spotty—and by the time I became director I think it was very clear to the board and the leadership that our audience wanted to see a more consistent approach to modern and contemporary in the context of our global and historical collections.

AF: How did you start to shape that narrative?

TC: When I came in as director, I had a number of briefs from the board—one of them was to expand our engagement with modern and contemporary. That involved expanding the department, finding a platform for more exhibitions, more activity. And my appointment and that charge coincided with the approach that we’d had from the Whitney to find out whether we would be interested in taking over their building when they moved downtown. It seemed like a very exciting opportunity: a custom-made modern art space, an exciting opportunity for us to expand our programming. So we thought hard about it. We took two or three years to really analyze the opportunities, the costs. But that was the exciting opportunity. And the Met Breuer is the exciting result of that.

AF: It was interesting, when you took over, the great excitement that a curator would take on this role at a time when museum directorships were evermore heading towards a more financier or manager type, and I wondered how it was stepping into such a complex institution, one with so many different—I’m sure, competing—interests. I’m sure everyone wants to put on a landmark show every year. What was your approach to making those tough decisions and managing such a vast staff of over 2,000 employees?

TC: The Met is quite a political place. And that’s not a bad thing. It keeps you on your toes. You have 17 curatorial departments all, to an extent, competing for a slice of the same resources. So I tried hard during my tenure to find the right balance. There might be a contemporary art show but there was also an exhibition about Ancient Greece or an exhibition about the Islamic world or an exhibition about the Middle Ages. So I’ve always been trying to find a balance.

That said, I had a clear mandate to expand the modern and contemporary program, so I was putting resources there. Under the leadership of Gary Tinterow, the previous department head, a number of initiatives had already been taken. For example: expanding the roof garden program or bringing in a number of high-profile exhibitions into the pipeline. When Gary went to Houston to run the museum there, I brought in Sheena Wagstaff, who had been number two to Nick Serota at the Tate. And with Sheena, we worked to envision a future program, to evolve a collective program, and to expand the staff of her department.

That sort of activity in a competitive institution like the Met breeds rivalry and a lot of chatter. But I believed and I continue to believe that that is an important investment both in the original vision of the Met and in its future vitality. I think if you stop collecting, you run the danger of becoming a dusty institution. In a sense, that’s what the Met was fighting against back in the 1950s and the 1960s.

AF: Was there any time when you sat down and said “Gosh, if I’d only gotten an MBA rather than studying tapestries, this might be a lot easier”?

TC: [Laughs] It’s a complex place and I was dependent on the advice and support that I had. And as the years have gone by I was learning rapidly on the job. I was fortunate to become the director when Emily Rafferty was the president; she had been at the museum for a long time, had great experience and a very experienced staff under her. So I had the opportunity to come up to speed under her. And then, as the years have gone by, I’ve done my best to bring in strong people who would give me good advice. Obviously, when Emily retired, I worked very closely with the board to choose her successor, Dan Weiss. And it was with Dan, in fact, that I worked very closely on the whole financial restructuring that we were talking about just now.

AF: One of the departments that you invested in heavily and tried to champion as a way forwards for the Met, but also which has drawn some of the greatest scrutiny in the past months, is the digital department. I was wondering if you could outline your high-level strategy and any particular initiatives that you thought were successful in the Met’s expansion into the digital realm.

TC: Sure. Again, when I was appointed director, I was given a very clear mandate by the board to expand the Met’s digital activity. It was clearly the zeitgeist. The iPhone was invented in 2007 and was just one manifestation of the many innovations that were being made in that sector. So I think I saw it as a very exciting moment for us to use the digital realm to expand our audiences and to reach out, not just locally, but nationally and internationally. I think we’ve had really a three-pronged strategy.

One has been to get the collections online. When I became director there were something like 23 different databases across the museum, some of which had been very inadequately populated with information. They didn’t speak to one another. In many respects they conflicted. So we amalgamated all of those resources into a single collections database and a huge amount of progress has been made in getting those collections online.

A second leg of the strategy was to create cross-department publications that would give different audiences different points of engagement with the collections. My predecessor had started something called the Timeline of Art History, which was a sort of history of art told through the lens of our collections, our precursor in a way to the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects except we were doing it with thousands of objects. That has always been a centerpiece to me in our cross-collection strategy and we’ve invested in it and relaunched it twice in the last eight years. But we’ve also created other points of contact. For example, the series called The Artist Project, where we got artists to talk about works that were meaningful to them, another series called Met Kids where we had kids interviewing members of staff, obviously aimed at an audience of teenagers.

The third leg of the strategy evolved under a head of the department called Sree Sreenivasan, who really brought fresh thinking to our social media engagement and got the Met and its staff really thinking about Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so on, again as ways of reaching out, finding new points of entry, new footholds for different audiences. What’s been amazing to me is that some of our crustiest curators are now busy blogging or are practically writing their next catalogues on Instagram. It’s been a very invigorating process for all of us.

AF: Much of the art world can be a bit on the back foot about investing in going online, which can be expensive. Do you think some of the pushback that you received throughout that process, do you think any of that reticence is structural and generational or were there other factors at play?

TC: You put your finger on it. I think there is an element of generational reaction. A cultural institution like the Met has got to be online. So we had to invest in getting the collections online and exploring different ways to connect with the audiences. A certain amount has been said in the press implying gross over-investment. But, in fact, much of the funding for those projects came from the Bloomberg Foundation. And when people talk about the large numbers of people in the digital department, it's again somewhat misleading because these are collection data entry people, these are our video programmers, these are people who are running the systems in the galleries. Many of these people were existing staff, so I think there have been some misleading things said in the press. We invested hard. We created a significant presence. I think now, going forward, my successor will need to think carefully about priorities. But I think we have a real toehold in this area. And I think we did exactly what needed to happen.

AF: I recall one of your major initiatives in coming on as director was also to diversify the audience in terms of socio-economic status, race, regions which they were coming out of. Was the digital effort also aimed at that diversification effort or moreso for people visiting the museum?

TC: I think digitization is one of the factors that has contributed to our success in building audience, but I think there are others. We have a very active multi-cultural audience development initiative that organizes different kinds of activities to try and reach out to different demographics, different communities throughout the city. We have a very active education department, which is doing similar things with teenagers and school kids. We have a very successful program called Teens Take the Met where, literally, we bus teenagers in from schools right across the district. Last time we had something like 4,000 kids in the Met one Friday night. It’s a way for them to find that the Met is a safe, comfortable, happy place, to normalize it as an activity for them.

We’ve also done a lot of thinking just about audience needs because as we’ve grown our audience, the knowledge that that audience comes to the museum with is very varied. Some people know very little about history, very little about art, very little about museums like the Met. It’s not necessarily a comfortable experience for people. We did an audience engagement study back in 2013, really trying to dig down and understand what people like and what people find alienating. One of the most interesting things that actually came out of that study, and almost shocking to me, was that something like 40 percent of our first-time visitors left feeling somewhat uncomfortable with the Met experience.

AF: Were there specific initiatives that came out of that, then?

TC: Absolutely. We did a rebranding of the museum that launched back in spring 2016 and it was quite controversial at the time, but it came out of a lot of analysis and understanding that we had a lot of legacy systems—different fonts, different logos, different symbols—that for many people were very conflicting. Really, what we were trying to do in that rebranding was to get the Met out of the way between the visitor and the artwork. We wanted it to be as simple as possible. For example, the old icon was a stylized Renaissance “M,” which, for people who know the Met well, they loved it. But what we found was if you go five or six blocks down the street, many people literally didn’t know what it meant. And by the time you get out into the country at large: no brand recognition at all. That’s the reason we made the decision to go from that symbol to a word icon “the Met,” and that’s just one example among a larger branding process of how we were trying to simplify things.

AF: Looking back at your entire tenure both as a curator and then as director of the Met, if you had to name three things that you’re most proud of and then one you wish hadn’t happened, what would those be?

TC: Three things I’m most proud of: I went to the Met as a curator because I saw it as a place where I could do really ambitious things in my field, tapestries. And I will always look back with huge pride on the two very big tapestry exhibitions that I organized. I’m very proud that, when I became director, I retained an environment in which the curators could dream big. We’ve done some very ambitious loan shows. We’ve continued to invest in the scholarship of our curators. I’m proud of that.

I’m very proud of having expanded the audiences as significantly as we have done. It’s not just about numbers, it’s that I believe that everyone who comes to the Met, ideally, is having a meaningful experience. It’s not just metrics for metrics’ sake. I really believe that we have, both physically and online, we are reaching out with our mission and engaging people with art.

I’m proud of the way that I think we’ve gone back to the original vision of an encyclopedic museum and questioned that. There are areas of great strength, especially in the European collections, and we’ve built there. But we’ve also brought new focus to new areas that had been neglected, like Latin America—we have a number of new curators working in the Latin American sphere; we’ve started collecting there quite interestingly. Native American: I’m just thrilled that Chuck and Valerie Diker have made the decision to gift their very significant Native American collection to the Met. And, of course, in modern and contemporary. I really believe that an encyclopedic museum should have a full, meaningful engagement with the modern era. And I think that we’ve brought new energy there.

What do I regret? You know, the museum is complex, the finances are complex, and I wish that, with hindsight, that we had started the financial restructuring at an earlier point. But then, of course, hindsight is always 20/20, and turning an institution like the Met around is very much like turning a tanker in the ocean. We got going. It took time. And the museum is now heading in a very positive direction. I feel that, as I step away, I’m leaving an institution that is in a very strong place, leading institutions across the world.

AF: Looking at that wider institutional landscape, what do you think the biggest challenges facing your colleagues leading major museums, whether encyclopedic museums or other foundational institutions to various regions’ cultural identities, are at the moment?

TC: Looking forward, clearly financing is a big factor. As we’ve all grown, as our ambitions have evolved, we’ve all become bigger and bigger businesses. The old funding sources that many of us have depended upon are in some cases falling away. Wealth is concentrated in new areas. So cultural institutions across the country are having to be quite creative in how they’re reaching out to new donors. But, with that comes new creativity. I think the other thing that’s very exciting is that, as we’re ever more connected and the world is shrinking in many respects, we’re all becoming part of a tighter network. In the past, the paradigm was that Western institutions just collected from the rest of the world. But with new cultural institutions developing in Latin America in Africa, across Europe, in Asia, the opportunities to collect on the scale that we used to collect are diminishing. But I think there are new opportunities to be part of an international partnership. One of the things I did at the Met was really push hard on developing relationships with international peers.

AF: And lastly, before we go, the Times published another article earlier this week looking at possible futures for the Met, talking to around 20 cultural influencers about what they hoped to see. And so, I thought we could go through four or five of those at relatively rapid place to get a reality check from the man who has had to make these calls for the past decade.

TC: Sure.

AF: Okay. First up from Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky, who writes that “The average person looks at a painting for six seconds.” He was recalling the Pokemon Go fad last summer where you had kids running around to try to catch ‘em all. He says, “They weren’t there for six seconds; they were there for minutes,” and is wondering what museums could do with augmented reality to keep people looking at the objects before them.

TC: Well, I love the idea of using digital to reach people, especially younger audiences. We’ve recently put all of our images of all of our collections out on open access. I’d love people to be creating video games, exploratory tours of the Met for themselves and for the audiences they’re engaging with. I’d love the Met to be an exploratory, innovative center in the digital realm.

AF: Simon Doonan writes, “If the Met could extend into Central Park with an outdoor sculpture garden, it could truly become a destination.”

TC: We’ve had discussions with the park over the years about the possibility of putting sculptures in the park. And I think the longstanding approach is that in fact the plants and the trees are the sculptures in the park. Maybe future generations will have a different take on that balance.

AF: The restaurateur Bill Telepan writes, “My first suggestion is: Get a good food program there, whether it’s a fancy, high-end place or not.” He’s even gone as far to say that he’d do it if the Met would ask him.

TC: [Laughs] Well, there’s a pretty good restaurant at the moment called the Members Dining Room, which is actually now open to all members of the public. We’re constantly looking at how we can improve the food offerings across the museum.

AF: The artist Judith Bernstein asks if there could be a more “conscious effort to feature more art by women and to take more chances.” She says, “They shouldn’t wait until someone has been around for 20 years.”

TC: All for future leadership. Sheena Wagstaff has brought in a very active program related to women artists. In the last year, we’ve had Cornelia Parker on the roof. We’ve Lygia Pape and Marisa Merz, Nasreen Mohamedi. So, I think that those who want to see more art by women are going to be well served by that program.

AF: And finally, from Hank Willis Thomas: Due to museums’ key role in setting a narrative around a particular region, he was wondering why Egypt is placed outside of the rest of the African collections. He says, “I think Egypt’s in Africa. If the Met’s trying to be objective, objectively Egypt should be closer to Africa.”

TC: [Laughs] Well, maybe you can do that in a virtual reality museum. The museum has evolved over the years in response to opportunities in the marketplace, to the leadership within the museum and to the generosity of different donors. And we’re always recalibrating in one way or another. But, physically, to take entire collections from one quarter of the museum to another would be hugely expensive. But, who knows, you know? One masterplan was completed under my watch. We’ve laid the foundations for a new masterplan. So it’s exciting to think what is going to happen in the next 50 years.

AF: Well, thank you so much for your time, Tom. We’ll look forward to hearing what you get up to next.

This podcast is hosted by Artsy Executive Editor Alexander Forbes, joined for this edition by Thomas P. Campbell. It was produced by Editorial Associate Abigail Cain.

Cover Image: Courtesy of Thomas P. Campbell.

Artsy Editorial